Mykel Beygel slaps the wall in disgust after missing a layup during a pickup basketball game at SPAC. As beads of sweat fall from his brow, he sprints back across the court to help his teammates play defense– most of whom are total strangers. Beygel’s team ultimately lost the game, but a smile crept onto his face as he high-fived his teammates and foes walking off the court.
The Weinberg junior finds himself at SPAC playing pickup basketball around four times per week, and says his sole motivation is passion.
“Basketball is the greatest sport that has ever been, and I just really like playing,” he says.
And Beygel is not alone. Across the Northwestern campus, from the courts of SPAC to the grass of Deering Field, students congregate with friends and strangers alike to play the games they adore. These athletes have numerous avenues to pursue their lifelong love of sports. While the pickup system is not perfect, its accessibility and benefits are undeniable.
Students looking to continue the sports they played in high school can do so with relative ease. SPAC is crawling with those looking to play basketball and Long Field constantly has Ultimate Frisbee and football pickup games occupying its grass.
The pickup soccer community operates through an email list that was passed down to Weinberg junior Jeziel Jones by former students who have since graduated. Jones sends out weekly emails organizing times for groups of anywhere between 10 and 25 students to play together on the fields by the Lakefill. These groups meet about three times per week, Jones says. The constantly expanding list is comprised of students of all skill levels who are interested in soccer. He estimates that nearly 140 people get his weekly emails, and he is excited to be a connector.
“Soccer is supposed to unite people,” Jones says. “It’s the world’s sport, so at a school where every nation is represented, I think it’s good to get people to meet.”
But just because finding people to play with is easy does not mean there is always space to play. Northwestern has 19 Division I and 40 club sports teams which use the athletic facilities as well. Combine that with the intramurals scheduled year-round and there is very little time left over for pickup players.
Intramural director Ryan Coleman acknowledged that casual pickup players face an uphill battle when it comes to availability.
“We program quite a bit, whether it’s for intramurals, club sports or varsity athletics,” he says. “A lot of our gyms on campus are being used by those three departments, so it’s tough [for pickup players] to find times to play because [gym times] are being programmed out by us.”
Another challenge facing Northwestern’s pickup community is a lack of gender diversity: This casual, play-for-fun population is dominated by male students.
Weinberg junior Carol Li, one of the women’s Ultimate Frisbee club team captains and an experienced pickup player, said fear could be a reason for scarcity of girls.
“For pickup, because it’s usually people without much experience and want to just run around and have fun, maybe it’s a little intimidating,” Li says. “Because if you see 50 guys out on Deering, not many girls are going to want to play.”
But when it comes to practice perhaps that anxiety is misplaced.
Palak Patel, a Weinberg freshman who arrived at Northwestern a few months ago, says her nerves about being the only girl in a pickup soccer game disappeared once the game began.
“I was really cautious to play because there is a difference between girls and guys playing,” she says. “But it was very comfortable and fun.”
She didn’t even realize she was the only girl playing. “I definitely will continue doing that throughout the rest of my time here,” Patel says.
Across all sports, students have a unique opportunity to interact and build relationships with others who share their interests.
Minjae Park and Herman Gill, now Medill and Weinberg juniors respectively, became friends after playing pickup soccer together on Fridays. Gill said that like he and Park, other players develop friendships on the field.
“There’s a lot of guys that you can see are good friends,” Gill says. “And I think the camaraderie on the field is pretty cool.”
These on-field friendships and the pickup community itself are both continually growing. Pickup games, whether in Patten or on the battle-worn grass at Long Field, can be seen throughout the year in all conditions. And while access is sometimes limited, it cannot deter the players’ love of their games.