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Shirts and Skins

Pickup basketball flourishes at Nottoway Park.

They are always game. It could be early morning, or the hottest afternoon or 10 p.m. on a weeknight, but they are there, playing basketball at Nottoway Park outside of Vienna. The players are almost always men. There's no age limit, and they come from all over the area. Pickup games have a way of bringing people together.

"If it’s January and a 60-degree day, you can come up and see 100 people playing here," said Fritz Knoop, who is retired and lives in Great Falls. "It’s a magnet for guys who want to play ball."

One Saturday, Aug. 20, the sun was blazing, but a game was in full swing. Most of the players, who ranged in age from their early 20s to 70s, had just met that afternoon, but it was impossible to tell. The players passed praises and jibes back and forth with the ball.

Joe Phillips is 70 years old and has been playing pickup basketball at Nottoway Park every day for 30 years.

"I have no idea why I do it," he said. "I think I’m crazy." An artist who lives in Fairfax, Phillips is a member of the Fairfax Art League and has designed the city’s Spotlight on the Arts logo for the last several years.

"I just love the game," said Phillips. "It keeps me in shape."

Knoop has been playing ball for 45 years, and at Nottoway Park since the 1980s. "There are all kinds here," he said. "Little kids, old men." The courts could use more shade trees and benches, said Knoop.

"There’s a mix of different backgrounds, different nationalities, and they all play together," said John Hopkins, site manager for Nottoway Park.

ALTHOUGH THE AREA around the courts is self-supervised, Hopkins has heard no complaints about player behavior.

"So far, we’ve had the older players who have been coming here for years kind of passed on the word to the younger guys: ‘These are the rules,’" said Hopkins. "Up to this point, there have been no problems."

Parking can get to be an issue since the courts get so crowded, said Irish Grandfield, a senior planner with the Fairfax County Park Authority. The small parking lot that serves the basketball courts on the north side of Nottoway Park also serves owners of community garden plots nearby.

In December, said Grandfield, the Fairfax County Park Authority approved a master plan amendment for Nottoway Park, with one of the provisions being an expansion and improvement of the basketball court parking lot. The Park Authority has not yet identified funding for it, but it is in the works, he said.

The three courts were redone about two years ago, said Hopkins, entirely resurfaced and complete with anti-glare shields on the new light fixtures.

As crowded as the courts become, the games can become exclusive, said Marguerite Stephen, a student at Flint Hill High School who lives near the park.

On a rare night when the courts were free, Marguerite stood around with some friends, tossing a ball into the nets and talking. It is not something that is always possible to do on those courts.

"Usually, you can’t get in unless you’re really good," said Marguerite. During peak pickup hours, people who just want to toss the ball around generally have to wait, or just go to other parks, she said.

There is also a hierarchy of the courts, said Andre Jessee and Kevin Higgins, friends from George Mason University who play basketball at Nottoway Park two or three times a week. The court closest to the parking lot is for the best players, ones who "think they own (the court)," they said.

As far as professional players go, Grant Hill is rumored to have played at Nottoway Park during his days at South Lakes High School.

Lamar, who just wanted his first name used, is a professional mover. After a full day’s work, he still comes out to play basketball.

"People are like, ‘That’s sick,’" he said. "But I used to play football, and wrestle. I like to push myself to the limit."

Lamar liked Nottoway Park for the condition of the courts, and the atmosphere. "It’s a nice game. It’s clean. There’s a bicker or two, but it’s just part of the game."

Another factor in Nottoway Park’s charm, for Lamar, is the basketball nets. They are net, not chain-link.

"It’s my favorite part of the game," he said. "I’ve got to hear that ‘swish.’ That’s why I come here."