FOR THE ELITE FEW whom this magazine tends to cover, the American athletic experience is one of teams (Tigers or Phillies) or individual competition (Tiger and Phil). Yet for most of us beyond college age, strictly organized play is a thing of the past, and sport becomes something tribal. We go down to the park for pickup games of soccer, basketball or in-line hockey, or over to the racquetball courts, and very quickly become acquainted with a crew of regulars. Depending on how the sides are chosen, today's teammate will be tomorrow's opponent. But we are still part of the same tribe.
Tribes adhere to different rules than teams, which tend to ration playing time based on performance. Tribes reward locals, who often can get a spot on the court or in the set lineup, while a newcomer, even one with superior skills, might be denied. For tribes spring from geography: one specific park, one lefthanded jetty break, one boxing gym. And each spot has its own rules and code of behavior. At my pickup soccer games in lower Manhattan's Roosevelt Park there is no out-of-bounds on the east side of the field, but a path constitutes the west side boundary. Just across town in Tompkins Square Park, where I used to play on a concrete pitch, the wrought-iron fence on the north is out, while similar fences to the south are in play. (Pedestrians are in play at both pitches.) A newcomer at either of these tribal spots would have no way of knowing the boundaries. It would take watching quite a few games to figure them out.
Sometimes the appeal of the tribe is that it is a band of brothers, or sisters, existing outside the rules--or at the fringes--of mainstream society. "We help each other," says boxing trainer Willie Rush, 63, of the regular tribe at Philadelphia's Front Street Gym. "We're like family. We're all here 'cause we got nowhere else to train."
There is about this ganging together a whiff of the initiatory thrill of the outlaw experience, perhaps the last such sniff many of us will get. Think of the contrast between a tribal hero, say Tony Alva of Dogtown fame, and a team sports hero from the same era, such as Roger Staubach. Right there lies the difference between the tribe and the team. (Brett Favre, whose connection with Packers fans has made him a tribal leader in Green Bay, may be one of the few athletes to be the hero of both a tribe and a professional team.)
Many of today's teams--AC Milan, the New York Knickerbockers, the Chicago Bears--started out as tribes that, over the years, were professionalized into teams. Of course, even today some pro teams have tribal attributes: The Boston Red Sox come to mind for their suffering, which became a defining tribal attribute connecting millions of fans with the players and with each other. One might even argue that tribalism (familiarity, shared values, an outlaw edge) can sometimes make good teams great.
Over the last few months Sports Illustrated's photographers have tracked down tribes of basketball players, women football players, boxers, surfers and others. Think of these 15 pages as the great gathering of American sports tribes. Each of these tribes is as emblematic of the richness of the sporting experience as any Super Bowl winner. --Karl Taro Greenfeld
STREET BALL page 94
SOFTBALL page 96
FOOTBALL page 100
BOXING page 102
SURFING page 104
DOG SHOWS page 106COLOR PHOTOPABLO AGUILARB/W PHOTOAL TIELEMANSCOLOR PHOTOPETER READ MILLERB/W PHOTOMICHAEL O'NEILLTWO COLOR PHOTOSLYNN JOHNSON (2)COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY Pablo AguilarVenice Beach, Calif. Street BallersMore than a decade after White Men Can't Jump, aspiring Billy Hoyles and Sidney Deanes still converge on the Venice Beach courts for the 3 p.m. pickup games. Take Adam Sokoloff (shirtless, center), 25, a Missouri-- Kansas City student who has been "getting run," to use the Venice locution, for the past five summers. "Every guy out here intersects at at least one point," Sokoloff says, "and that's basketball." The courts might be framed by surf, sand, palm trees and a bike path, but don't be fooled by the "posh" surroundings. Defense is a prerequisite, a sweet jumper is the coin of the realm, and no-blood, no-foul has ossified into official policy. B/W PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY Lynn JohnsonChicago, Ill. Park League SoftballThree days a week, from May to September, softball takes on the dimensions of a secular religion for Annie Berg (standing, fourth from right) and the other women in the Chicago Park and Norridge Park leagues. Their bible is the Official Rules of Softball, and they've been known to read it over dinner and to argue about the interpretation of certain passages. How deep does their faith run? "Some of the women plan their pregnancies so they'll give birth in winter and be ready by the time the season starts," says Berg, a pitcher and infielder who doubles as the director of a continuing care at home program for senior citizens. "People try to figure out why we like softball so much and whether we'll grow out of it. We wonder too. But only when we lose." COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY Jason Wise ¬†Phoenix, Ariz. Wheelchair BasketballersNo member of the Golden State Road Warriors goes more than a few games without getting knocked to the asphalt or clipped by another 25-pound chair. And just maneuvering up and down the court throughout the 30-game National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) season exacts an even steeper physical price. "It's mostly our shoulders and elbows," says Chuck Gill (second from left), a San Francisco stereo salesman and de facto spokesman for the spokes men. "We get tossed around a lot." All of the injuries and ailments, however, have strengthened the connective tissue. "This has allowed us to fulfill a competitive urge," says Gill, 41. "We've really developed a common bond." COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY Lynn Johnson ¬†Pittsburgh, Pa. The PassionBecause girls don't tend to dream of becoming quarterbacks and linebackers, most of the 60 members of Pittsburgh's National Women's Football Association team discovered the game relatively late in life, and they share the convert's zeal. Take Kate Sullivan-Richardson (number 46, atop goalpost), a former college basketball player who tried triathlons before settling in at tight end. "It hurts a little when you get hit," she says, "but it's exhilarating because it means you caught the ball and you took one for your team." Not for nothing is the franchise called the Passion. B/W PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY Lynn Johnson ¬†Pittsburgh, Pa. The Angels "That first hit you make in a game is so addictive," says Kelly Greene (third from left, crouching), a winger for the Angels. "It's a major rush and release. The games make every muscle in your brain and body feel alive." Afterward, however, win or lose, the Angels face a Saturday night (and more) of pain. "There are bruises, scrapes, black eyes, broken fingers," says Greene, 34, an interior designer who's been in the Allegheny Rugby Union for a year. "Some girls aren't sure if that nose is badly bruised or actually fractured. It's the closest we ever come to feeling the bonds of going into battle." B/W PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY Al Tielemans ¬†Philadelphia, Pa.The Front Street GymFor Frank Kubach (seated center, white shirt), there's nothing oxymoronic about the term sparring partner. The proprietor of the Front Street Gym, a sweatbox in a rough-hewn Philly neighborhood, Kubach knows that fellowship can come from tasting your buddy's leather or cracking him with a jab to the solar plexus. "Fighters are tight," says Kubach, 65, "because they know what it's like in the ring." So pugilists of all shapes, sizes, shades and ages converge on Front Street every weekday afternoon. They endure the joint's distinct smell--at once pungent and sweet, fresh and stale--and they sweat and bleed and try to beat the snot out of one another. Then, invariably, they grab their gym bags and leave together, replaying their rounds over dinner and a few cold ones at the Crazy Leprechaun. COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY Peter Read Miller ¬†Carpinteria, Calif. Vibe TribeIt's their relationship with the waves that defines the group that calls itself the Vibe Tribe. Sure, this gathering of surfers, which first coalesced 30 years ago, communes in the Pacific--off Rincon Beach, an idyllic spot 15 miles south of Santa Barbara--at the first indication of dawn. But, ultimately, their clearest channels of communication, are not with each other but with the swells. "Surfers have no rule books, no regulations, no timeouts, no penalties; it's just you and the wave," says Matt Moore (standing, far right), who manufactures surfboards in Carpinteria when he's not Vibe Tribing. "You don't want to miss a wave because you're supposed to be somewhere else." He pauses. "Where else would you want to be?" COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY Clay Patrick McBride ¬†Potsdam, N.Y. Empire League Football "The only thing I've ever been able to do athletically is run into things very hard," says Bob Cowser (Panthers 99 jersey), a defensive end with the semipro St. Lawrence Valley Trailblazers of the Empire Football League. "Here, with that ability, I can find a sense of belonging, an idea of team that I don't have anywhere else. It's not about being a kid again; it's about bonding. I've made some of my closest friends through football, my son thinks I'm cool in a way that I'm not in my regular job, and even though my team is 7--28 since I joined four years ago, I'm confident again. The people who play with me and against me get that same confidence and understand that we give it to each other." COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY Michael O'Neill ¬†New York, N.Y. American Kennel ClubPeople who breed and show dogs may know each other for life. "You can start at nine in junior shows and judge into your 90s," says American Kennel Club president and CEO Dennis Sprung (far left). And the relationships you form simply can't be on again, off again. "In AKC events you take your partner home with you," says Sprung. "It's not a hat or a ball that you stick in the closet until the next time you need it. It's a living, breathing part of your family."