Durkheim on the basketball court

Princeton's nearly empty gym

Princeton’s nearly empty gym

I sometimes sit in Princeton’s steamy, ancient-feeling gym and watch as a handful of individuals organized from strangers scattered across the five full basketball courts in one large room, into two teams for one full court game in a matter of minutes. This is a phenomenon that has fascinated me since, as an undergrad at North Carolina, I would sit outside at picnic tables and watched as an empty basketball court would fill with a 5 on 5 game and a number of guys “waiting for next” on the sidelines in a matter of minutes. My  now-husband called it the “bat signal” — there were guys all over campus ready to play at a moment’s notice, and the echoing dribble of a basketball summoned them to the court.

Strangers, bound together only by the knowledge of a common game and the serendipity of being in the same place in the same moment, become teammates. They assess each others strengths and weaknesses, develop a system of nicknames and draw on a common language of the game that helps them adapt, organize, and generate order out of what appears to be chaos.

As I watch this process, I’m often in awe of how rapidly it unfolds. I have thought a lot about sociology as it relates to sports in the conventional ways: collective effervescence and mega events, the conspicuous leisure of country clubs, and the associated refinement of tastes.

But how do we make sense of the transition of strangers into a team and then back to strangers- a process  that lasts from thirty minutes to a few hours. I was reading Robert Bellah’s introduction to Durkheim on morality right before I got to the gym which offered me a specific set of lenses for my post-run observations on the basketball court.

First, for collectives to emerge, how important is a shared moral order? Durkheim discussed a shared moral order not necessarily as a normative phenomenon but rather as the underlying assumptions and orientations that make the social fabric of a society. Durkheim himself advocated a moral order based in discipline, commitment to social groups, and individualism. We can see through the lens of Durkheim how these concepts apply to the seemingly random coalescence of players into teams in pick-up-basketball.

Teammates playing basketball together

Teammates playing basketball together


The role of physical discipline in athletics is overt – success requires practice, which can be monotonous, the extending of one’s physical and mental limits. But what of social discipline? There exists a code: there are well known rules of the game, shared knowledge that allows the participants to respect and defer to the authority of the game. Even with no referees the players self regulate, immediately accepting blame for illegal plays by raising a single hand in the air, often placing the other hand over his chest (of course, what counts as an illegal play draws on the bank of shared knowledge and past experience and intimate familiarity with the rules.)

Those who call fouls too often though are also considered undisciplined, unable to concede to the intrinsically physically tough game or prioritize the good of the game — i.e., maintaining the flow of play  — over their own individual-level discomfort of being fouled.

Finally, as someone who didn’t play sports growing up, I had little appreciation for the level of discipline involved in team sports. This year, my first year of grad school, I played on an intramural flag football team, during which time I learned quickly how difficult it is to remain level headed in moments in which your physical and emotional senses are heightened. The amount of interdependence and cooperation required for team sports inevitably leads to conflict within teams or between them — during which individuals must self-censure and self-regulate in an especially conscious way to maintain the good of the team, the game, and the social group generally.

Players gather to begin forming teams

Players gather to begin forming teams

Commitment to social groups

This commitment to the social group is particularly interesting in a spontaneously-emerging team of pick-up basketball because the group usually has no ties to one another before or after the game. Here on the basketball court, the team is the salient group. The individuals who come together are undergrads, graduate students, spouses, faculty, staff, and spouses of any of those groups (and, rarely, members of the Princeton public or alumni). Often, friends in pairs of two will come to the gym in pairs and form the basis of the teams.

For teams to emerge, one person usually has to take charge. He’ll perhaps approach a player or pair of players “just shooting around” on another court and ask if they’re up to play. This is a pretty visible ritual in the open gym, and other individuals or pairs are usually on the lookout; if someone initiates this conversation, generally others will begin wandering — dribbling the basketball — toward the newly formed small group.

Once a quorum has been met — usually a minimum of four willing players — teams are generated. First, usually, pairs that came together are placed on the same team. Then, often teams are arbitrarily divided, sometimes based on some fortuitous coincidence of markers (for example: white shirts, team A, every other colored shirt, team B) but otherwise just more or less randomly assigned.

What is interesting is that, despite random or quasi-random assignment to teams, the individual begins to associate himself with that team; the in-group/out-group dynamic is immediately established and salient. The players demonstrate pride and excitement when they contribute positively to the team’s effort and frustration when performing poorly, hurting the team. However, when another player seems to struggle they are reassuring; gestures such as high-fives, pats on the back or butt are common, as are the “it’s all right, man” -type comments. Individuals fill themselves into niches based on the team’s needs, not their own preferences, because someone has to play the less-fun positions of defense if the team is going to be successful. The team success, rather than individual excellence, is the goal: performing otherwise leads to sanctions such as being thought of as a ball-hog or stats-padder.


While the team is the salient group, individual skill and player identity is important to the game. Players assess and diagnose each other individual — on their own team and the opposing team — for strengths and weaknesses. This has a predictive function; the players can strategize about which shots to “let” the other player take based on his odds of making it, determining which teammate to pass to for maximum likelihood of a basket, etc.

The individualism also creates a distance; there is the team (again, commitment to the team) or nothing. Players rarely bother learning each other’s names or details of each other’s lives. As an observer, this has always been striking to me. If I’m assigned to a group, my first instinct is to get to know my new group-mates: I’d want to know his or her name, department, how long they’ve been at this particular hobby, other hobbies, etc. This, I’ve been told, would be considered weird — even inappropriate — on the basketball court.

In the game I was observing, nicknames emerged such as “shorts,” “buckets,” “red,” and “blue.” Only one player’s name was routinely used — Sam — and he was easily the best player on the court; perhaps his name was known to all because of the frequency of his play or, because of his skill, the others made a point to recognize him by name.

This distance, while contributing to the group commitment by making it the more salient (indeed, the only relevant) identity, maintains an air of individualism. This isn’t, for example, a game of old friends or a time for generating new friendships. The space between the individuals is closed by participating on the same team, but returns to normal — a number of strangers who once shared the same court — once the game or series of games ends.

Over the course of the game, individual discipline enables the game to proceed smoothly, while commitment to the team encourages self-sacrifice, pride, and strategizing based on contextual experience and tacit knowledge. However it is the individualism — the anonymity of the team before and after the game — that is particularly interesting. The groups cooperate within teams and engage in explicit conflict against the other team, and then dissolve again into individuals as they leave the gym without expecting to ever play together again.


2 thoughts on “Durkheim on the basketball court

  1. Interesting post Sam. The nicknaming seems pretty pragmatic; how where those names used? It would be too hard anyways to remember all those new names in the heat of the game. I imagine other players yelling “blue” to help the player who has the ball to decide whom to pass it to. Did they also develop nicknames for the opposite team (i.e. you cover big guy, I cover the one with the funny pants)?

    • Thanks, Sharon! Yep, the nicknames go both ways — for players on their own team and the other team. Perhaps the nicknames for the players on the other team are most important. If you’re talking on the court, you’re basically always talking to your other teammates, so to indicate the other teammates they develop a system of shorthand about the opposite team — such as, as you suggest, “you cover the big guy, I cover the one with the funny pants”. When referring to themselves, or members of the same team, they’ll often use directional or spatial cues. So, for example, “I’m on your right” or, “he’s open on the corner.”

      Since they are so pragmatic — and near exclusively tied to clearly visible symbols — they require little mental energy to process and become a nearly indecipherable language to outsiders pretty quickly. A transcript of the game would make no sense without the context, nor would those nicknames give a clear indication of who fit to which nickname outside of that particular game.

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