University of Oregon student Nathan Reynaga bends down to lace up his blue Nike basketball shoes, quickly synching them tight. He pops up and grabs his basketball, jogging over to the hoop across the street from his apartment at Ducks Village near Autzen stadium, where his lanky 6-foot-2 frame glides across the court.
He stops quickly, his legs flex and he hoists the ball in preparation for a jump shot. He shoots a three-pointer from the corner. As the ball goes through the hoop, it snaps the net over the far side of the rim.
“I just get that itch,” Reynaga said, smiling. “It doesn’t go away until I play.”
For the last 15 months, this basketball court has been Reynaga’s safe haven. Many people have struggled to stay active during the pandemic, and in turn, struggled to maintain mental health. The UO Rec Center basketball courts, which were formerly teeming with pickup basketball players of all levels, remain closed to students and faculty. During the COVID-19 pandemic, students like Reynaga have adapted to new routines in order to keep playing a game essential to their physical, social and mental well-being.
Reynaga, 24, is a first generation American. His father emigrated from Mexico and his mother from El Salvador. When his parents met, his father asked his mother out on a date – to play basketball. Today, his parent’s faces are tattooed on his left calf.
As a kid, his backyard court was his sanctuary.
“I remember being in the backyard of my house, and for no reason, just wanting to be as good as I can,” Reynaga said.
Growing up he was surrounded by a family with a passion for the game, even though none of them had played organized basketball.
“On my dad's side of the family, all my uncles are 40, 50, 60, and they all play with, you know, bad knees and backs,” Reynaga said. “It's just kind of a lifestyle.”
When he arrived in Eugene in the fall of 2020 and enrolled in UO’s MBA program, he knew no one. As he settled into his apartment at Ducks Village, he began to engage with his peers the only way he knew how.
“One of the only ways I love to socialize and make friends is through basketball, because I find so much in common with people through the sport,” Reynaga said.
Reynaga meshed with the other pickup players at Ducks Village, some of them playing together every afternoon. Meanwhile, other players from around Eugene were looking to scratch their own basketball itch. The University removed rims from other hoops around campus to discourage potentially unsafe gatherings. Word quickly spread through the UO pickup community as players started going to Ducks Village to play.
Reynaga said people came from all around the city, the UO dorms and even from Portland. Reynaga soon became a pickup league commissioner of sorts, organizing game times and communicating with the players.
Since he arrived at UO, Reynaga has used outdoor basketball as an outlet for socialization and exercise. But he doesn’t take it for granted.
Reynaga graduated from California State University, Long Beach last spring. He was substitute-teaching and preparing for graduate school in the fall. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, Reynaga was still optimistic about his future.
“At first I was like ‘okay this is great,’ I’ll just play Xbox, take some time to relax and hang out with my family,” Reynaga said.
He went without basketball for weeks, and his drop in physical activity was emblematic of a worldwide trend. Researchers at the University of California San Franciscoreviewed over 19 million daily step count measurements taken by smartphones worldwide. Within 30 days of the March 11 global pandemic declaration, daily step counts decreased by 27.3 percent. In the United States, the biggest drops occurred in New York, San Jose and Reynaga’s hometown, Los Angeles.
But, after three weeks of quarantine, Reynaga started to experience panic attacks. Over the course of the summer he was hospitalized four times, despite never dealing with anxiety before in his life.
A study from PLOS ONE found that people who were less physically active during the pandemic experienced more symptoms of mental health conditions. This created a paradox: mental health was both a motivator for, and a barrier to, physical activity.
Still, Reynaga attended UO in the fall, played pickup when the weather was nice, and things started to look up. Then, the winter rains washed away Reynaga’s pickup paradise, keeping him stuck inside. His anxiety crept back.
“It finally clicked in my mind – as human beings we need that social interaction, we are social creatures,” Reynaga said. “And for me, basketball was such a huge outlet for my social life. Having that taken away, I didn’t realize how much that affected me.
The basketball courts at the Rec Center will be closed for the foreseeable future, but a study from the Journal of Environmental physiology shows exercising at the outdoor court may be better for Reynaga’s health than the Rec Center. On average, students reported an increased level of vitality after exercising outdoors versus exercising indoors.
And in some ways, Reynaga has the pandemic to thank for his new basketball community. Plus, the warmer weather means Reynaga can play whenever he wants.
“I believe the most important things in basketball are the relationships, experiences and memories you create with other people,” Reynaga said. “In my opinion, that’s worth a lot more than anything else that comes with it.”