Anthony Katz, founder of Hyperice, has been playing pickup basketball since he was a kid. He grew up in Laguna Beach, Calif., was a Magic Johnson fanatic in his youth, and regularly played on the iconic outdoor courts by the water, “literally right on the sand.”
Throughout high school, college, and beyond, Katz remained a very serious amateur player, soon becoming indoctrinated in the ways of pickup basketball. “The great thing about the game is you can go to a gym, get 10 guys, and get a run in. There’s a whole culture of how the game is played, unwritten rules, a code of ethics.” He came to play pickup at “open gyms” around Southern California, invitation-only communities of serious players who used college or high school facilities during off-hours. And even if he’s on vacation in a city he’s never been to before, he can usually suss out a pickup game quickly at the local court or gym.
Without knowing it, Katz–now in his mid-30s, but still a pickup enthusiast–was all the while preparing himself for a life as an entrepreneur and founder. Here are five lessons he says he’s learned from the scrappy, aggressive, and fun world of pickup basketball.
“The randomness of pickup is like the randomness of business,” says Katz. “Things change so quickly in business now.”
The successful player of pickup ball is nothing if not adaptable, because you may have little idea who your teammates are going to be until the minute the game begins. “You need to have the ability to go into a gym and figure out where you fit in amongst the other four guys on your team. You may say, ‘Okay, I’m the best player on the team, so I have to do a lot of scoring or else we’ll lose.’ Or it may be: ‘These three other guys score a lot, so my role here is to defend, rebound, and pass.’” You have to adapt yourself to the people around you. “I really feel that this is one thing all good entrepreneurs have in common, because when you’re growing a business you’re always understaffed,” having to wear multiple hats.
If you get serious enough about pickup basketball, you quickly eschew street games and try to find an “open gym” like the ones Katz has frequented. The wide cast of characters makes for good stories, but not always for the best games, he says. “I don’t want to deal with all the idiots. I don’t want to get some clown who doesn’t know what he’s doing and fouls a guy too hard.” Back when Katz coached high school ball, he had a core group of trusted fellow players, controlling the element of randomness prevalent in other environments. The CEO is similarly privileged, but needs to use his or her power to hire well: “With my staff, I put people around me who have skills I don’t have.”
“When you play pickup, it really tests your patience, because inevitably you play with someone who’s not on the same page as you,” says Katz. At Hyperice as at any business, Katz often has to cooperate with other offices, as varied as a sports agent or a supplier. “Sometimes you’re frustrated by the other company you’re working with, and you think, ‘That’s so stupid! Why do they do that?’ Well, you can’t control their culture. You have to be patient, and work with people who may not always share the same set of ideas you do.”
Katz says that he’s “only gotten into two fights” in decades of playing pickup ball. “I’m a pretty laid-back guy; I’m a from a beach town.” More often than not, he’s the one helping restrain a frenzied teammate. The ability to chill out has served him in business over the years, particularly in a few instances where he got in a heated argument with a coworker. He recalls butting heads with someone in a former job, but his opponent made the mistake of “making it more personal,” he says. Instead of returning with an attack of his own, Katz cooled off before responding. “I said, ‘Wait. What are the facts?’ And I presented a document about why I thought he was wrong. The people mediating saw that he was attacking me personally, but I was just presenting a case. My argument prevailed.”
Katz calls pickup ball “competitive cardio”; there’s no way he’d rather work out. And one thing that fascinates him about pickup ball is the way the game gets more or less competitive depending on how it’s structured. If 20 guys show up, you can have two five-on-five games running concurrently, meaning no one’s ever sidelined. But if 15 show up, that means one team always sits out. “That dynamic, with guys waiting to play, the games get more competitive–because no one wants to go off!’”
Though the social engineering of competition interests him, Katz has deliberately decided to structure his sales team in a less cutthroat way. He’d heard of other companies where employees fought intramurally in a zero-sum game over large accounts. Instead, Hyperice set up “team goals,” arguing that if you take care to hire ambitious people, they’ll always be driven to compete against themselves–and the team will remain cohesive. “Phil Jackson, one of the most iconic basketball coaches ever, said that team goals always had to come before any individual goal,” says Katz.