NYC’s second most famous baller destination, the West Fourth Street Courts, is known as the Cage for its high, tightly enclosing chain-link fences and the very physical style of play it fosters. Its smaller-than-regulation size means you have to earn your keep in the paint and learn to be flexible on what constitutes a foul. Many future NBA stars (’90s-era Knick Anthony Mason, for one) cut their teeth here. Need more evidence of its legendary status? It’s a setting in the classic video game NBA Street.
Play or watch? If you’re good, play—keeping in mind that competition for pickup games is fierce, tourneys often take precedence (check out nycgovparks.org for times) and many people will be watching you. Free.
Central Park courts
The most popular b-ball spot in New York’s backyard is on the Great Lawn (midpark between 79th and 85th Sts) just north of the baseball fields. But at the North Meadow recreation center (midpark at 97th St), you’ll find twelve high-quality courts ripe for pickup play or a shootaround. Thanks to the high number of baskets, you shouldn’t have trouble getting in a quickie. Plus, you don’t even need to bring a ball: They’re loaned out for free if you present a photo ID.
Play or watch? Play. Comparatively, matches here are less intimidating. centralparknyc.org; free.
Crashing the boards at this Inwood institution isn’t for newbies. Come summertime, during its annual Dyckman Basketball Tournament, the park attracts a fair amount of college and even pro players. (Now-injured Knick Baron Davis dropped by last year.) The tourney (currently in its 23rd year) features almost 80 teams in six different divisions ranging from kiddies under ten to vets. Catch the big boys’ sure-to-be-fun championship bout on Friday 16 at 8:15pm.
Play or watch? Watch, unless you’re particularly brave and/or skilled. dyckmanpark.com; free.
If you know a little about the history of basketball, you’ve likely heard that this illustrious Harlem court is the birthplace of streetball. Today’s flashy, fast-paced game can be traced back to this spot. (Decades ago, when professional basketball consisted mainly of pasty dudes in short shorts failing to dribble down the court without staring at the ball the whole time, there were exciting games going on here.) Before they were NBA legends, hall of famers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving developed their skills in super-competitive pickup matches at Rucker. And all these years later, it’s still considered one of the basketball capitals of the world.
Play or watch? Unless you’ve got the talent to take on some of the best players around, you’d better avoid the embarrassment, take a seat in the bleachers and enjoy the action. ebcsports.com; free.