Basketball—and sports in general—has been known as a way to bridge ethnic and geographical divides. At Almansor Park, the basketball courts are a place where the diversity of Alhambra is put on full display. The courts are one of the most popular spots in the city, not just for Alhambra residents, but for residents from other areas of the San Gabriel Valley as well.
"I play here about one to two times a week,” said Nelson Mak, a 25 year-old tax accountant, “I always see a lot of different people playing here." The players come to the outdoor basketball courts to test their skills against stiff competition. The courts have six baskets lined up back-to-back, but the courts are so close together that games constantly interfere with each other. Basketballs regularly take an errant bounce and hit players on a different court—the players shrug off the annoyance because they are playing.
Because the courts are outdoors and have lighting, people are allowed to play until the lights go out at 11:00pm. To play pick-up, people form teams to square off against each other; often times the teams are comprised of total strangers. Pick-up basketball is a way for the players to unite under a common goal.
"I come by myself to play a lot, so it does not really matter which team I join because I always play with strangers,” said Mak, “I always have a good time regardless of who I play with because I enjoy the competition of basketball."
Mak is a foreign-born, naturalized US citizen. He lives in Rowland Heights and has been playing at Almansor Park for a few years ever since meeting his girlfriend, who lives in Alhambra.
Slightly more than half who live in Alhambra are foreign born, according to the US-Census Bureau five-year estimate (2005-2009). The diversity of Alhambra brings many different languages to the basketball courts: English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Spanish. Many Alhambra residents do not speak English fluently, and language barriers are prevalent. People, however, still find ways to communicate with each other while playing basketball, and they even make friends in the process. Basketball serves as a kind of interpreter. "If I did not play basketball with them. I probably would have never talked to them because I would think that their English is terrible,” said Al Ramirez, a 32 year-old car salesman.
The game, as much as it does to break through stereotypes, does have its limitations. As teammates and opponents, the players interact with each other through the game, but it doesn't mean the friendship will extend past the basketball courts. "There are some people I only talk to when I play basketball here,” said Ramirez. “I never interact with them outside of the park, but I can play, laugh, and talk to them when we're on the court."
The players, however, don’t seem to mind that the game doesn’t always lead to profound friendships. They’re content with living inside the context of basketball. “This is not out of fear, but because there is no need to [be friends outside of the courts]. We play basketball and we have fun. Our relationship exists in the sport," said Mak.
Still, the power of the game cannot be understated. In these times of racial, religious, and class upheaval, the sport acts as an equalizer. To Orson Cheong, a 40-year old who has lived in Monterey Park and Alhambra his whole life, “We are all equals in terms of our ability to play."
He adds that basketball is a "platform for a common goal, [you] put yourself in a team, formally or informally, to collaborate with your teammates to win a ball game.”
Pick-up basketball, ultimately, is a level playing field for the players at Almansor. It allows them to showcase their skills and create relationships while eliminating stereotypes. The sport has the ability to transcend the boundaries of race and language—this is on display every night at the Almansor courts, right up until the lights turn off.
Editor's note: This article is part of the Alhambra Source Sports Reporting Program, which trains USC students in applying critical approaches to sports and community news reporting. The students will learn about the impact that sports can have on communities such as Alhambra. The Program was made possible with the support of the USC Annenberg School, the Metamorphosis Project, the Alhambra Project, and COMM 383, a course at Annenberg that is titled "Sports, Communication, and Culture."
About the Author: Joshua Chang is a San Gabriel Valley-born, Los Angeles-based writer. He is an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California, where he is majoring in Business and minoring in Sports Media Studies.