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An Oral History of Adam Sandler, Pickup Basketball Legend

‘He was just out there drilling long threes in his shades and hitting cutters. It was really incredible.’

On a crisp Saturday morning at Reed Park in Santa Monica, Chris Collins was readying himself to play a couple games of pickup basketball when he heard an oddly familiar voice. “Yo, we need one! Blue, you’re with us!’” it rang out. 

The Buffalo, New York native, who was wearing a blue shirt on that fateful morning, looked up from tying his shoes, bewildered. “At first glance, I was like, ‘No… nooooo, this guy’s dressed like such a bum,” Collins recalls. “He really was dressed like such a bum; he was literally wearing these funky, blue gas-station sunglasses, these long, baggy, shiny nylon AND1 shorts from the 2000s, a baggy grey shirt, black Nikes… just a baggy-ass outfit all around.” 

But then, it dawned on him: Holy shit, this is Adam Sandler, he thought, I’ve heard about this — this is the moment.

Collins went on to play three consecutive games of basketball he’ll never forget with Sandler, who at 54, has spent the last three decades doing exactly what he did in Santa Monica that day: randomly showing up to play pickup games at playgrounds around the country. 

To be sure, Sandler’s affinity for hoops is no secret — particularly when it comes to playing pickup on the sets of his movies. “There hasn’t been a day where — no matter if we’re 3,000 miles away — he’s not like, ‘Do you want to hoop today? I’m playing hoop in half an hour. Come meet me,’” producer of Uncut Gems Sebastian Bear-McClard said in a 2019 interview with The Ringer’s Alan Siegel. For Sandler, the producer added, playing basketball is “his deepest catharsis […] somewhere in between his anger management and his meditation and his exercise.” 

But for all the coverage of Sandler balling on set, nothing quite captures the absolute legend Sandler’s become in pickup basketball circles. So what’s it like when a comedy legend asks if you’re down to play 21? 

To find out, I gathered firsthand accounts from Robert Whitehorn and Phoenix Ford, who both played with Sandler at Long Island’s Christopher Morley Park this past May; Joshua, a 27-year-old who played with Sandler at an Atlanta LA Fitness in December 2019; Kirk Henderson, who played with Sandler at L.A.’s Pepperdine University in the fall of 2002 and again in spring of 2005; and of course, Chris Collins, who played with Sandler that fateful morning in 2019. 

“Who’s Got Next?” 

No matter where you live, so long as there is a basketball game happening somewhere in the vicinity, there’s a nonzero chance that Adam Sandler will show up. And unlike other celebrities who might call ahead to reserve the courts for themselves or make a PR event out of the appearance, Sandler, by all accounts, respects the hallowed, universal rules of pickup basketball. He just shows up, hoops and dips. 

Henderson: Pepperdine looks like a very expensive high school, and they have this small concrete basketball court. He rolled up with the quarterback from The Waterboy [Peter Dante] and a number of those Happy Madison guys, and just casually asked if the 10 of us who were already there wanted to play with them. This was the early 2000s, so he was coming off of movies like Little Nicky and Punch Drunk Love. But if you didn’t know any better, you’d just think it was a normal group of guys, who were all pretty friendly — being in Malibu, most of the celebrities were not. 

Whitehorn: It was an average Sunday playing ball on Long Island. One of the guys I was playing with pointed over to the other end of the court and was like, “Yo, I think that’s Adam Sandler.” I was like, There’s no way that’s him, why would he be here? Why would Adam Sandler come play basketball out in the open with no security, nobody with him? 

Ford: He was on the other end of the court wearing big shorts, high socks, black Nikes and then a big XXL pink Polo — not the ideal basketball attire. He looked like a typical old person at the YMCA. 

Joshua: When he showed up to the LA Fitness in Atlanta, his fit was like… I couldn’t pay any attention to it. I was like, “Bro, for you to be so rich, you just humble me,” because he don’t give a shit about clothing. Literally, it looked like he had them clothes since the 1990s, like literally the 1990s. 

Ford: I didn’t know he did this kinda stuff at all, but it turned out it was actually Adam Sandler. So we asked if he wanted to play 5-on-5 with us, and he was immediately down. I was captain and got first pick — of course the first person I’m going with is Sandler. And to be honest, I’d pick him up on my team again

Sandler, The Floor General

For those who’ve played with Sandler, the only thing that sticks out more than his iconic style is his commanding presence on the court. This isn’t just about getting some exercise — the Sandman plays to win

Collins: Dude, he was so good. And he never took the shades off either. He never took them off; he was just out there drilling long threes in the shades and hitting cutters. It was really incredible. 

Henderson: Pickup basketball tends to be the sort of thing where a lot of people just don’t want to look stupid. But Sandler, who was probably in his 30s at the time, was running his ass off, mixing it up in the paint for rebounds and stuff. I mean, I’m in my mid-30s now and just the thought of being hit by somebody crashing the boards makes my back hurt. 

Joshua: What’s crazy is people were coming at him, trying to make an example of him. But he was locked in, he wasn’t just trying to stay out of the way and be the outlier on the team — that guy where you’re like, “Damn, bro!” He was hustling, grabbing rebounds, making the extra pass. 

Collins: He does these cross-court passes, these fast-break, baseball bounce-passes across the court. And he has handles, too — he’s not going to iso [take his defender one on one], but he’ll cross you up.

Henderson: You can tell with some of the passes and stuff — in order to do a lot of the things he’s doing, you have to play basketball all the time. Because if you’re not playing, you lose some of that court vision, some of that strategy-thinking. So watching him, it’s clear that he plays all the time.

Joshua: I’m not saying I wasn’t expecting [the pass that spurred the viral video above], but it was like… bro, that pass wasn’t a normal pass. That was some real skilled passing — and the dude who was guarding me, that dude is almost seven feet and played basketball overseas for years. I can’t not shoot that after he passed that dart. 

I’m going to be honest with you, even if he wouldn’t have passed me that ball, I still would’ve posted the video. Because that was honestly one of the best passes that I’ve ever personally received from anybody, and I’m talking like playing under a whistle or anything — that pass was amazing bro. 

Collins: He’s a force. He knows basketball, and he’s there to win. Plus, he knows he’s good, so he’s kinda flexing that muscle like, ‘Yo I’m a beast at basketball.’ He just loves playing, and no joke, he was probably the best player out there that day, maybe top three.  

Ford: I mean, I play D1 basketball so I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say he’s one of the best people I’ve played against, but he’s solid. His ball handling is good. He was mainly playing point guard just throwing dimes, calling people to cut. He was more of a floor general. 

Whitehorn: He’s definitely a floor general — he’s always looking to set up his teammates. He’s a great passer, too. He didn’t really shoot much, so I can’t critique his jump shot or his layups, but he was finding the open man. He’s a person who likes to make his teammates look better, that’s what I got from him. 

Collins: He’s settin’ picks. People are settin’ picks for him. He’s cutting. He’s making things happen.

Henderson: He’s 54, now. 54! And the guy’s still rolling up to pickup games and throwing one-handed no-look passes. It’s incredible. 

Collins: He hit me with a no-look pass under the basket, and I missed the layup. I was wide open. I was like, “Fuckkkk.” He was like [imitating Adam Sandler’s voice], ‘It’s alright Blue, it’s alright. Shake it off.’ 

On the second layup I missed, he was like, “You gotta have that,” and I was like, Oh no, I’ve pissed off Adam Sandler. He was trying to cheer me up, but after a while, I think people stopped passing to me because I was clearly not doing well. 

Ford: There were moments during the game where I had to stop and think, What is happening right now? Am I really playing with Adam Sandler, my childhood hero?   

Joshua: I’m a movie watcher, so I knew Uncut Gems was about to come out. But living in Atlanta, I’ve played basketball with so many different public figures and celebrities, you just gotta know how to adapt and deal with the fine line between doing the most and still appreciating the moment. You know he just wants to play basketball like a regular person, and so, we all pretty much played basketball like it was an everyday hoop session.  

Collins: He wants to get in two games, maybe three, and then get out. Like the last game, I’m not kidding, he hit a game-winner from deep and then just dipped hard

I remember because it was his ball. And he hit that shot and was like [Sandler voice again], “Alright dudes, I gotta bounce.” He took his ball, dapped a couple dudes up, got in a really regular looking car — that he street-parked — and just bounced. It was nuts. 

Heroes Get Remembered, But Legends Never Die

Long before the videos went viral on YouTube and Instagram, Sandler’s legend as a pickup powerhouse grew organically, passed among players at courts across the U.S. over the last three decades. And while any celebrity who dons a burlap sack and throws no-look passes to 33-year-old gaffers would certainly gain some basketball notoriety, Sandler’s legend endures because of the impression he leaves on everyday hoopers like Joshua, Henderson, Ford, Whitehorn and Collins. 

Whitehorn: I’d always seen videos of him playing basketball before and thought it was cool that he likes basketball, but I never thought it was anywhere around where I lived, or that it would ever happen to me or my friends. 

Henderson: Sandler’s legend is similar to how Kevin Durant shows up at various leagues, and everyone’s like, What is Kevin Durant doing here? But here it’s a 50-something, stubby-looking — and I say that based on the clothes he wears — white guy showing up to play basketball, and he’s just grinding and making no look passes.

Collins: When he left, everyone was like, “That was Sandler! That was him! That was the legend! That was crazy!” Also, I got inspired after those games because he picked me to run on his team, not anyone else, and I played like such shit that I could see he was disappointed, which was a bummer.

So after that, I got a membership at the Y and started hooping like three times a week. My friends helped me out and did some drills, and I got way better. Because dude, if I ever play with the Sandman again I’ve gotta be on my P’s and Q’s. 

Ford: After the game, when everyone was crowding him on the court, he told me, “Good game, you did good.” That was pretty nice and felt good. Playing with Sandler is definitely a top five moment in my life so far. 

Whitehorn: It was a wild experience seeing a legend there on an average Sunday, just playing ball on Long Island. He just wants to play basketball with the people, you know? He loves the game, and I don’t blame him because I love it, too. I get it. 

Joshua: That’s the beauty of pickup basketball, it puts you on the same level playing field with so many different walks of life. That’s why I think Sandler loves it as much as he does, and that’s what I remember most from playing with him: He just seemed happy out there.