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On Venice Beach, sports subcultures thrive

This is where you’ll find a local pickup scene like no other.

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If Venice were a relative, it would be the chill uncle who always knows the next trend before it’s cool and is still surfing well into his fifties. For years, Venice Beach has been a hub of counterculture movements and fringe sports that ultimately spread to the mainstream. There’s something about the boardwalk energy, the Los Angeles sunshine, and the Venice neighborhood attitude that allows a colorful array of subcultures to thrive side by side.

For starters, Venice has been dubbed the “soul of skateboarding,” which, in a state with nearly 500 skate parks, is no small feat. That skateboarding legacy dates back to the 1970s, and the no frills, “anything goes” skater culture on Venice Beach still evokes an experimental, carefree era today. Beyond the skate park, where the sand meets the water, surfers line up along the beach looking for their next big wave. From newbies taking their first lessons to young champions training for competition to legendary pros who have lived in Venice for 50 years — there’s a common bond and a love of the sport that keeps people coming back to this particular shore. Meanwhile, along the boardwalk, people from all walks of life jog, rollerblade, and play bongo drums. Even if you’re just visiting, you get the sense that, if you can keep up with the fast pace of the neighborhood, you’ll be welcome here.

Left: Nick Ansom; Right: Dan Peterson

There is no better microcosm of that attitude than in Venice pickup basketball culture. Right on Venice Beach are the famous Venice basketball courts, which since the early ‘90s have been known as a hub of street basketball in popular culture, attracting people from all over Los Angeles, the United States, and other parts of the world to get in on the game.

Dan Peterson is the founder of Project Blackboard, an organization that artistically renovates public basketball courts in order to strengthen communities. He moved to LA three years ago with the intention of working on a court there, and he admits he was drawn in by LA’s basketball dominance in the movies and in sports legends. The Venice Basketball League (VBL) in particular had caught his attention.

Not long after arriving in the area, Peterson reached out to Nick Ansom, VBL’s founder, hoping to collaborate. VBL is one of the most famous pickup leagues out there — they dunk frequently, play intensely, sport colorful uniforms, and invite DJs to amp up the courtside energy. The timing was perfect for Ansom, who knew that the condition of the Venice courts didn’t match the quality of basketball being played there or the positive, active energy that characterizes the neighborhood. He and Peterson worked with an experienced court-building crew and local volunteers to bring a striking, bright blue wave motif to life on the court. That design perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Venice: welcoming and beachy, but also intense and unabashedly colorful. “It’s a real-life video game,” Ansom says. “There are constant highlights.”

Even though VBL games are a fun spectacle, there’s real talent and drive at the heart of it all. Last year, Ansom took a team to the Jump 10 World Hoops Challenge in Shanghai, and they won. What makes VBL players stand out on the international stage is rooted right there in their neighborhood court. “We come out with this grit and this fearless energy. We’ve already played at the beach all summer on concrete against the sunlight. If you can play at the beach, you can play anywhere,” Ansom explains.

Peterson agrees: “Playing out on the beach is really a unique thing. It’s a different style of play because you’re playing against the wind on a court that’s slanted for drainage. But you’re also playing in the number two tourist attraction in Southern California, so you get a really unique crowd.”

Peterson and Ansom are likely to join forces again to export the neighborhood flavor behind VBL’s home court. “We’ve done some more scheming and are planning to do more work in Venice, and then to bring that style of basketball and courts all over the world.”

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