Video shot and created by Gage Hoffman
The brightly lit Elmen Center is quiet, except for the sound of two men shooting hoops on opposite sides of the main basketball court. It’s 11:50 on a Tuesday morning.
Jacob Marlay, an Augustana football defensive line coach and graduate assistant in yellow shorts, takes the left basket and Jeff Lambertz, a Sioux Falls resident with silver hair, a gray tank top and black striped shorts takes the right.
Five minutes pass. Ten minutes pass. They keep shooting, checking their form. The ball gets away from them a couple of times, and they hustle out of bounds to get it.
At 12:09 p.m., Maxx Hickey, a trust officer for a local trust management firm, joins them, dressed for a workout in a grey University of South Dakota Coyotes T-shirt and black shorts that match his hair.
A couple of minutes later, more guys trickle in: ceramics professor Gerry Punt, with shoulder length silver hair and a matching beard; Jeff Venekamp, the senior associate director of campus life, in a SKOL T-shirt and a blinding white headband tightly tied around his dark hair; history professor Matt Pehl in black Adidas shorts and a yellow shirt.
They all come ready to play noonball over their lunch breaks. It’s a tradition, although it’s not always scheduled or planned. It just happens organically, the same way it has for the last 20 years.
“It’s fun,” Punt said. “There’s laughter, and there’s competition, and there’s the friendships that you develop and there’s the peace of mind that you get after your workout. And then there’s the physical benefits, so it’s a combination.”
Punt has been the most regular of the players since 1990 when he first came to Augustana. The founding group originally played in the gym, which used to be where the Edith Mortenson Center theatre is now. Although Punt was not a member of that group and didn’t start playing until after the Elmen Center was built in 1989, he is the keeper of the tradition, one of the only links from the founding group to the present one.
Punt plays nearly every day, and his name has become the one most people associate with noonball. He does it to stay in shape for the summertime, when he heads to the West Coast to go windsurfing.
“I need the cardio, or I’m gonna go out there and drown,” he said. “I need some sort of a physical activity like this just to stay safe for my other life that I live in the summertime.”
The players shoot baskets for a little while, waiting for others to show up. Usually at least five people come, and some days as many as 15 appear.
“It’s a mixture of faculty, staff [and] students,” Punt said. “There’s some people from the community, some people from the seminary. There’s a pretty wide range of players that come. And it’s all levels of skills. There’s some old guys like me and there’s some young guys that are really athletic that play.”
More minutes pass. Finally, unsure that anyone else is coming, they divide into two teams.
It’s shirts versus skins. Punt, Pehl and Marlay all take their shirts off as they ready themselves for a half-court competition against Lambertz, Hickey and Venekamp.
“The first game we match up and we try to make as even of teams as we can,” Punt said. “Then after that, we shoot free throws to see who stays on the floor. We play two games in all, so whether you win or lose, you get two games in a row, and then if you shoot free throws, you can, a lot of times, keep going.”
The game begins. There’s no tip-off, no buzzer. Punt checks the ball with the player at the top of the key.
They begin to play. Punt passes it to Marlay for a shot. Marlay sinks it, and the other team takes the ball and checks it.
Two more players join. Sioux Falls community member Rick Rickard (or “Ricky Ricardo,” as he often goes by) joins the skins. He stands tall with a silver necklace and demeanor that makes the game seem more serious than just a recreational activity.
Johnny Reynolds, also a Sioux Falls citizen, is the other new arrival. Today he calls himself “Johnny Freedom” because of his blue USA T-shirt, star-spangled arm sleeve, blue shorts and neon green shoes that don’t seem to fit with the patriotic elements in the rest of the ensemble.
Now four against four, the game changes to full court, the diverse mix of players all unified by their love of the game and their desire to work out.
The players go full speed, setting screens and passing the ball with no game plan, instead making decisions based on the situation and their experience. After every basket, Punt calls the score.
Hickey nails a three-pointer for the shirts and gets high fives from his teammates, who are in the lead.
Rickard gets a rebound and goes for a fastbreak with Punt trailing on the other side. When he gets to the basket, he passes the ball and Punt makes a layup.
The game continues in a similar way, with shirts leading the entire time, though not by much.
The ball gets away from the group and Hickey runs headfirst into the blue divider hanging from the ceiling trying to reach the ball before it hits the ground.
“I knew it was coming, too,” he laughs.
A game like this doesn’t require referees. The calls are made democratically and everybody honors an unofficial code of trust. Though it can get competitive, Venekamp hasn’t experienced many hot-tempered or extremely physical games.
“Nobody wants anybody to get hurt and everybody realizes nobody’s going to be walking home with a trophy, so there isn’t a lot of pushing around and that kind of stuff,” he said.
Before long the game is over. They were playing to 21 points, but a last minute three-pointer by Reynolds gives the skins the 23-20 win.
“It’s all right, we’ll get it next time,” Rickard says.
Some of the guys head toward the water fountain or stoop to catch their breath. Then they all return to the court where they start anew with the same teams.
The games are a way for the participants to take their minds off of their daily burdens and form bonds with other people while doing so.
“It’s just a good stress reliever, and it’s just a good way to get a chance to meet everybody outside of work,” said football defensive line coach Robbie Rouse. Although he wasn’t playing that day, he often joins the games.
The guys are more tired now, but amid the exhaustion, you can hear the players chuckle at the friendly banter and the good-natured competition.
Rickard nails a jump shot and Venekamp yells out, “He’s either warmed up or he’s feeling it.”
“7-6, we need a stop,” Hickey says after the shirts make another basket.
Every so often a missed shot gets a yell, a grunt or sometimes an under-the-breath curse word. This happens often. In fact, the players have to go retrieve the ball just as much as they shoot it.
But many of the shots are good. Someone a sinks a three-pointer and Punt yells, “That’s a beauty, guys!”
The game ends just like the other, with the shirts — or the “bad guys” as Punt calls them — winning by three. Everybody exchanges high fives and “nice jobs.” Someone asks if the group is up for another, but the response is, “I better roll.”
Sweaty and exhausted, the guys trickle out of the gym, getting sips of water and chatting on the way. By 1:25 p.m., the Elmen Center is quiet.