Identity Kits and the Discourse Community of Pickup Basketball or Why I Didn’t Fit In

Joel Wilson, Walters State Community College
Image by finessetaker ‘hoop crossover’CC 2.0 Generic

As I finished buttoning my shirt and started to thread my belt through my corduroys, my wife approached, and derisively she asked, “You’re going like that?” I nodded because I thought, being in graduate school and conducting my first foray into ethnography, corduroys, a polo shirt, and loafers would make for a perfectly fine fieldwork outfit. As I began the larger research project of exploring discourse communities and the intrinsic literacies, social strata, and unique identity they possessed, I thought to begin by exploring a community with which I had close ties growing up. (1) Being 6’7”, I have always been persistently asked whether I play basketball, and starting with the court discourse of pickup basketball players seemed a natural fit, especially since I had played a great deal of basketball at these same courts but never understood that what was taking place had far greater significance than a prosaic game of basketball. The truth is, in all my years of playing pickup basketball on the courts in Pembroke Pines, Florida, I had never fit in, and neither would I fit in tonight, what with my grad school garb, yellow legal pad, and narrow view of what was taking place on the court. I never understood its hierarchies, its interpersonal system, its rhetoric, its value systems—in short, I never understood the requisite court identity. Understanding all of these diffuse aspects of a culture foreign to academics constituted my larger personal objective, and sharing these is my aim in this essay. Prior to beginning this study, I simply believed that the court players were naturally more aggressive than the average person. I believed that literacy in this discourse and the court “identity kit” was predicated on a being a bombastic, aggressive player, irrespective of skill level. These preconceptions were lost as I began my observations.

Ironically, my clothing, which identified me as an outsider, also freed individuals to reveal their own outsider status. In effect, people with whom I spoke removed themselves, however briefly, from the power hierarchies, social discourse, and identity required by the court. Those who felt comfortable enough to reveal their primary discourse demonstrated a marked difference between their primary identity kit and that required by the court identity, thereby demonstrating that there were no natives speakers of pick-up basketball discourse.

Using James Paul Gee’s (1996) theoretical framework, which argues “that the focus of literacy studies … should not be language, or literacy, but social practices” (p. 525), and that bound to these social practices is the aforementioned notion of an “identity kit,” that is, “how to act and talk so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize” (p. 537), I approached the pick-up court in an attempt to understand its social structure. Best understood as “personality clothes,” identity kits are intrinsically connected to factors far beyond socialization and conformity, and as such, reflect both conscious and subconscious choices in speech, demeanor, and even superficial aspects such as clothing. Even the most cursory glance across the court confirmed there is an identity kit required for others to recognize one as a potential court insider. The wearing of the court identity kit is not a static state either. Gee’s notions of acquisition and learning come into play here. According to Gee (1996), acquisition is a “process of acquiring something subconsciously by exposure to models and a process of trial and error, without … formal teaching” whereas learning is a “process that involves conscious knowledge gained through teaching” (p. 539).

This theoretical framework was embodiment in the court and its discourses, as there was an organic hierarchy, unstated, unobtrusive, yet unmistakable, even to outsiders. The dominant members of the hierarchy distribute social literacy to the apprentices. One player, we’ll call him Shirtless, embodied court discourse and distributed its ideology, barking commands at teammates and opponents. Muscular and menacing, Shirtless’s rhetoric and physicality created a sense of intimidation on the court. On the other hand, his teammate and the principal scorer, for his part, we’ll call him Grey Shorts, scarcely spoke a word, yet his play and presence inherently directed his teammates, who wordlessly acknowledged their lower status on the court hierarchy.

The question then arises, who epitomized court identity—Shirtless or Grey Shorts? Well, every team of a serious group of pickup players possesses a “shouter” like Shirtless, the despot of his respective team. This player constantly directs teammates and denigrates opponents, yet he seldom shoots the ball; still, he possesses the fullest basketball “identity kit,” to which his bombastic discourse, full of profanity and provocation, attests. Their primary discourse most resembles court discourse, both of which are wrapped up with the vernacular. Despite how it may seem to those who have not gained court discourse, shouters’ cruel remarks paradoxically serve to motivate teammates through anger or humiliation, disseminate court ideologies, and generalize court discourse. Perhaps partly due to the influence of players like Shirtless, the court is “a complicated refuge from our dis-integrated culture” (Furman 2010, p. 201). To outsiders, this punitive habitat may not seem like much of a refuge. But to those acquiring the discourse, it facilitates a cognitive coping mechanism necessary for everyday problems, most of which cannot be as easily dismissed as the court’s trash talk. Vocal players like Shirtless, then, explicitly impart learning to lesser skilled players in the roles they must assume on a team. “Move yo ass,” “We don’t pay you to do that,” and “Strip that shit” among other taunts I heard during my evenings of observation, are not only meant as “artfully articulated obscenity … employed to undermine the thin-skinned,” but calls to action, impressing upon players the need to elevate their game so as to also improve their social standing in the court hierarchy (George 1992, p. xvi).

While shouters’ role cannot be understated, shooters are the ones who win games. This presents an identity/action dichotomy—one player acts the part while the other plays the part, but both are crucial to court ideology and literacy. While by no means eliminating the necessity of Shirtless, Grey Short’s prowess gained him the premier place within the existing structure of power. Once the game finished, the opposing team’s players only congratulated Grey Shorts. Grey Shorts’s unmatched skill on this court earned him the right to be himself—he did not have to accommodate to court discourse and its ubiquitous machismo and vulgarity. While court literacy requires players to acquire the abilities to defend against Grey Shorts and other shooters, it also requires them to respect those with greater skill. Thus, Grey Shorts is respected on the court, not only for his superior skills, but also for his higher status in the community of basketball players.

Indeed, basketball has done much good for many people, keeping them away from drugs, gangs, and violence. But more to the immediate tangible effects, pickup basketball encourages players to learn interpersonal and intrapersonal roles through a learned/acquired social literacy. It implicitly teaches players how to maneuver between competing social discourses and identities. True, basketball keeps students in school, young adults in shape, but pick-up basketball gives all players, regardless of race, education, or economic background, an activity that grants them social recognition through their attainment of a literacy that has absolutely nothing to do with traditional and limited understandings of literacy. All the players on the courts, black and white, insiders and apprentices, inherently possessed this awareness of the importance of basketball to our culture. Apparently it took me this study to recognize what was already common knowledge on the court. And perhaps that’s the real reason why I never fit in.

Furman, A 2010, My Los Angeles in Black & (almost) White, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY.
Gee, J P 1996, Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideologies in Discourses 2nd ed, Falmer, Bristol, PA.
George, N 1992, Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball. HarperCollins Publishers Inc., New York.

(1) This short essay was part of a series of articles that explored discourse communities. While not a full ethnography, I explore the discourse and identity required by pick-up basketball players on a court in South Florida. After several visits and protracted observations at the court, I composed this article. I did not require funding or an IRB for this research.

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