Sickenger: Virus stops Journal's decades-long pickup game - Albuquerque Journal

Sickenger: Virus stops Journal’s decades-long pickup game

The Journal’s Ken Sickenger poses with his face and basketball masked up. Sickenger has played extensively in a Journal-rooted weekly pickup basketball game that began at least as early as 1989, but is off for now. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

In the swirl of March 2020’s pandemic-caused sports cancellations, one barely raised a ripple.

A weekly battle of wills and debatable skills waged on Albuquerque basketball courts for more than three decades went silent without so much as a note on the Sports agate page.

Journal basketball was no more.

Ken Sickenger of the Journal

In the grand scheme of athletic events, this weekday morning pick-up contest rates little consideration. It’s demise was never going to bump college hoops or even beer-league fantasy sports off the cover.

No, the venerable Journal hoops game will never be remembered for elite athleticism, textbook strategy or baseline-to-baseline action. Instead, picture middle-aged guys trying to play through while wayward rubber balls and screaming summer-camp dodgeball players invade from an adjacent court.

The latter description is accurate and, to an extent, makes the point. Our game was a survivor.

Here’s a photo following a weekly Journal basketball pickup game from early 2009. Top row (from left): Jeremy Steiner, Mark Ralkowski, Christian Wood, James Staley, James Coffey, Adam Drey, Jim Goodman, Jim Brown, Dennis Latta. Middle row: James Barron, Sean Sullivan, Will Webber. Bottom row: Adam Shadoff, Randy Harrison, Ken Sickenger. (Photo By Harold Smith)

Hundreds of local hoopsters rolled out of bed and laced up sneakers to test their alleged skills over the years. The first Journal hoops showdown tipped off somewhere around 1989 AD, and what started as a way for Journal employees to trade elbows with other media members became a tradition, one that evolved with the newspaper industry and the times.

As newsrooms got smaller, players ranging from ex-college standouts to guys who hadn’t directly seen their feet in years started filling out our roster. Nonetheless, the weekly hoops game chugged along.

Until COVID-19 showed up.

Because it qualifies as a gathering of more than five people – and because our participants are noted for profuse sweating and frequent gasping – Journal basketball went into mandated hiatus in mid-March. Remarkably, state government officials have not prioritized its return.

Hope remains, but with the future of Journal hoops uncertain, it seems fitting to record some of our game’s history. Apologies to those who may have preferred to keep their participation secret.

Tipping off

Pickup hoops historians estimate the Journal game got rolling at about the same time Dave Bliss took over as University of New Mexico’s men’s basketball coach. Media members gathered at the Old Town Boys Club for weekly battles, some waged late at night to accommodate sportswriters and TV broadcasters’ deadlines. Bliss is not believed to have recruited any of the participants.

That certainly includes one lanky, talent-challenged newbie who was then splitting work days between the Daily Lobo and the Journal. I showed up a few times and was promptly roughed up by the likes of former Journal editor Kent Walz and then-preps editor Bob Larkin.

I soon departed for a job in Arizona, but the basketball wars went on. During my absence, the pickup game relocated to Del Norte Sports and Wellness and became a morning affair. Arrangements were made to rent one of the facility’s courts, and players signed in under “Journal Basketball.”

The name fit as many players worked in the Journal newsroom. Some were more adept at stringing sentences together than knocking down jumpshots, but others could do both, including longtime Journal reporters Mike Hartranft, Aurelio “Arley” Sanchez and Mark Smith.

I rejoined the fray in 1999, getting schooled by more-legit players like Hartranft and then Journal city editor Charlie Moore. But participation began to dwindle, and it seemed Journal hoops might finally be winding down.

Enter Harold Smith.

Marching orders

A retired Marine colonel working as a Journal Sports correspondent, Smith refused to let the game die on his watch. He began a high-pressure recruiting campaign that effectively swelled our ranks.

“Harold pushed me so hard to come out,” said former Journal and current New Mexican sportswriter Will Webber. “Basketball is not an innate skill for me and I’ve still never owned a pair of basketball shoes, but I love our games. I’m glad Harold shamed me into coming.”

Webber started playing in 2002 and was joined in 2004 and ’06, respectively, by New Mexican sports editor James Barron and Journal sportswriter-turned-MMA expert ( Tristen Critchfield. All three Smith recruits were still playing when the pandemic shutdown hit.

“Harold didn’t want to hear excuses,” Barron recalled. “If you didn’t show up, he was on you.”

Smith also brought military precision to the group’s finances, keeping weekly a spread sheet detailing who showed up and how much they contributed toward court fees. Failure to pay meant being listed among the scofflaws on next week’s list. I once was reprimanded for being $1.17 short.

“I just wanted to play,” Smith said with a chuckle. “Some guys didn’t like the structure, but I wanted to make sure we had enough guys and everybody paid their fair share.”

Smith played from 1999-2009 and credits Journal hoops with helping him lose 40 pounds and delay triple-bypass surgery for several years.

“I was not much of a player but it was good for me,” he said. “I loved the camaraderie. I looked forward to those games.”

Comic relief

Much as we tried to divide our talented players and keep games competitive, our game was rarely pretty. Ex-UNM women’s coach Don Flanagan and a number of prep hoops coaches took comic-relief breaks from their workouts to watch and laugh over the years.

Legitimate or not, we employed the honor system (call your own fouls) and settled charge-block controversies with a simple edict: everything is a block. I recall a total of four offensive fouls being called during my tenure. Each involved bruised ribs or a standing-eight count.

Journal hoops also spawned the term “Latta Rebound,” named for longtime staffer Dennis Latta. It’s defined as a rebound collected after the ball hits the floor, and Latta was a proud master.

My most notable contribution was performing (hopefully) the lone medical procedure of my career. I successfully popped a teammate’s dislocated finger back into place after EMTs arrived and offered only to give him a ride to the hospital. Dr. Sick’s career was appropriately brief.

Far more impressive was Critchfield’s comeback after our game’s nastiest injury – a fractured and dislocated wrist suffered in a fall. Critchfield missed a few weeks of hoops after having a plate surgically inserted in his wrist, but he valiantly managed to work and type with his right hand and forearm in a cast.

Little wonder no one wanted to take a charge when Critchfield drove to the hoop. (It would have been called a block anyway.)

Big-time performers

Journal hoops attracted some local celebrities over the years. Actual basketball players AJ Bramlett (La Cueva/Arizona/NBA) and Daniel Faris (Eldorado/UNM/Lebanon professional) made cameos, and DeAndre Lansdowne (Sandia/Fort Lewis/European professional) imposed his will upon us for a few months.

Unfortunately, my 6-foot-6 frame earned me the task of “guarding” Bramlett and Faris, who both dunked on me but refrained from doing so on every possession. Good thing I never wrote anything too critical about those guys.

TV and radio folks joined in, too. ESPN reporter Jeremy Fowler was a regular during his Albuquerque Tribune days, and local sports anchors John Salazar, Adam Shadoff, Orlando Sanchez and Brandon Ortega held their own against modest print competition.

But as newsrooms and other media outlets across the country tightened their belts, the Journal hoops lineup changed.

“It shifted over the years,” Critchfield said. “When I first started it was mostly media, but after a while there weren’t as many media people who wanted to play – or even as many people in those jobs. We had to start inviting friends and people we knew, but we kept it going.”

Remarkably, a few stout-hearted women even jumped in – overcoming the sweaty T-shirt avoidance reflex that sent other prospective players running for the exits.

Through it all, neither evictions nor painfully early start times brought the game down. Sports and Wellness showed us the door (“Members only!”) in 2015, and Journal hoops promptly relocated to the Jewish Community Center for Thursday showdowns.

During the summers, JCC youth camps forced us out of our preferred 9:30 a.m. time slot, but Journal hoopsters (some us grudgingly) switched to 6:30 a.m. until school resumed.

“When we went to 6:30 a.m., I thought, ‘This will never fly,'” Barron said. “But once you dragged yourself out of bed, it was actually pretty fun. Who would’ve thought?”

Final buzzer?

Alas, there have been no crack-of-dawn starts this summer. COVID-19 has seen to that.

Ironically, our last Thursday game was March 12 – when several of us would normally have been covering prep state tournament games but couldn’t because of pandemic restrictions.

The coronavirus is a tough opponent. Gyms around the state have reopened on a limited basis but pickup hoops doesn’t lend itself to masks, social distancing or keeping perspiration to yourself.

The pandemic also has taken economic tolls on media outlets and the sports we cover. Filling lineups for a morning hoops game may be challenging when the current medical crisis fades.

Still, I’m not ready to write an obit for a game that survived 30-plus years. Participation varied, but our weekly battles remained competitive, friendly and brought people with widely different backgrounds and political outlooks together.

“I didn’t have kids when I started playing,” Webber said, “and now I have a daughter in college. That tells you something.”

Barron agreed.

“It’s not about who wins or loses,” he said. “No one will ever remember that. It’s about playing ball with a group of people who actually like each other. I sure hope they find a vaccine for this virus and we can play again. I’m not ready to be done.”

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