Where have all the Cayucos hoopers gone?

April 7, 2024


Editor’s Note: The following series, “Life in Radically Gentrifying Cayucos by the Sea,” to be posted biweekly includes the notes, thoughts, and opinions of an original American voice: author Dell Franklin. 

Franklin’s memoir, “The ballplayer’s Son” is currently on Amazon.

When I first moved to Cayucos on March 1, 1989, I would hear balls bouncing on pavement in the afternoons from my 14th Street one-bedroom cottage and always move to the window to see who was dribbling their basketball. It was usually a teenager with a swaggering walk indicating he was a player; though in those days it might be a group of kids with individual balls who were anywhere from 9 to 14 years old, often brothers, but mostly friends, all headed to the funky courts at the rear of the middle school that lent a bird’s eye view of the tennis courts below, where pickleball now prevails.

At this time, there was a large contingent of Cayucos players, many high school kids, like the Kelly brothers, John and Mike, both of whom played the game with determination, skill and a fearless competitive fervor that set the stage for half and full court games that were physical, and at times vicious.

Joining these young kids, whom, like the Kellys, starred at their high schools, were 46-year-olds like myself and Joe Silvera, who coached most of these kids in high school, and a different crew of relative grownups whom, like myself, tortured these young kids with trash talk and a grudging physicality that made them tougher than they already were.

There were never any fights. Instead, there was mentoring. A family of four boys came to the scratchy old court with their father, who’s dogged hustle and intelligence more than substituted for his lack of physical skills.

We all got to know each other between and after games. We encouraged the younger players coming up—the former 9 and 12 and 14 year olds—while schooling them, challenging them, roughing them up, making sure they knew what it took to be competitive in this tiny slice of a tiny beach town where somehow pick-up basketball ruled and was looked forward to like an addiction.

At this time, there were also adult leagues at nearby Morro Bay High School, and some of us bonded together and formed our own teams and went at it with kids and grownups at the high school gym. On Tuesday evenings, when the gym was open for pickup ball, we showed up together and played team ball and went at the players from Morro Bay and Los Osos and Cambria, and those who came down for the notorious tough competition from San Luis Obispo and even Paso Robles.

A time came when, in my mid-50s, I had to guard a kid who was around 13 when I moved to Cayucos, and now, at 18 or 19, he lit me up with a variety of moves and deep shots from 25 feet out. He, in the parlance, “wanted me bad!” I was the target who’d yelled at him to play smart, forced him to dribble to his week side, belted him around under the basket, blew by him for layups or shot jump shots in his face. But now he schooled me, and when the game was over I shook his hand and told him I was proud of him and to keep on working on his game, And he did, and became one of the best players in the county.

When I run into him these days, as an old man, he hugs me and thanks me for picking on him, trash talking him, and forcing him to be a better player than he ever thought he could be.

Because, you see, pickup basketball is the one sport keeping a male athlete in shape long after school competition. And the bonds and friendships it forms, become lifetime relationships, where, in your dotage, you meet with certain guys you played with for lunch, or else you meet them in a bar and blow-hard on how good you were when we all know we weren’t that good, though we were good enough to play pickup and in leagues until we were in our 60s and 70s, when injuries caused our demise—new hips, new knees, new shoulders, gimpy ankles, etc.

Sadly, today, in Cayucos, that old funky full court has for years been occupied by new buildings, and the outside courts out front are for its students, I guess, because on weekends the high fences are secured, and the indoor gym supposedly built exclusively for basketball is closed off to locals—ha ha—for insurance reasons.

Today, when I hear a ball smacking the pavement, it is usually no more than half a dozen times a year, and usually children with no firm handle of dribbling the ball, and inept shooting as they throw up bricks on driveway hoop baskets.

It’s not their fault. There’s nobody around to show them the way. The town has been hollowed out so there are fewer kids and more cell phones and, I suppose, local mothers and fathers surely not wanting their little kiddies treated like they’re not even close to special, and need to prove themselves on a basketball court to gain some respect.

Neighborhoods and communities are built on this kind of stuff. I grew up in Compton down south in the 1950s, and playing at our local junior high gym—where everybody played and expectations were big and treatment harsh—made it much easier for me to deal with army basic training in 1964.

Oh, poor Cayucos by the Sea, future home of prissy pickleball nirvana.


PS. This article is dedicated to Big John Donovan, a 7-footer who played professionally, was very likely the best player in the county when healthy, and was an even better person than a player, if you ask anybody who knew and played with or against him. John was only 63 years old when he passed away a couple weeks ago. R.I.P.


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Can I live in your bubble?

Another edition of “Old Man yells at sky”

Thank you for the dedication to Big John Donovan. This is the first I have heard of his passing. He was a very good man.

Grandpa relax Brah

Cayucos is alive and well when you stop and take a minute all the kids in the hood are living large shooting on blacktop hoop goals get off your million dollar roof top deck mingle with the common folk

Who loves ya