You would never guess it by looking at my Jew ass, but I play a fair amount of pickup basketball, and have for several years, even though I have the most limited skills and I'm neither in shape, nor athletic. Since moving to Atlanta, I have witnessed some very serious basketball played at pickup games. The game here is an exceedingly different one than the game played in L.A.
Defense is often an afterthought in pickup games, but in Atlanta, individuals and thrown-together teams play real defense and win by stopping the other team. It's rare that I've ever seen anyone dunk in a pickup game in L.A. In Atlanta, it's a common occurrence. There might be three different guys on one team who dunk in a game. I've seen some flashy dunks, off the backboard and such.
I wouldn't say the game is necessarily more competitive in Atlanta because even the crummiest pickup game can be competitive. But the games do resemble something you might actually want to watch as opposed to guys arguing with each other after every play, not that that doesn't happen in Atlanta too.
Pickup games in L.A. tend me to be more multiethnic, while in Atlanta, games are more multiethnic in the suburbs, where I can find games where I actually fit in skill-wise. (I'm a member of the LA Fitness gym which has 25 or more gyms in the Atlanta area, so I have plenty of choices as to where to play.) Naturally, I try not to insert my not-at-all athletic self into competitive games where just my presence on the court will help the other team win. But I do often find myself in games where everyone's ability level is way beyond mine and where I'm the only white guy.
It's often the case that here in the South, while playing in a gym, someone shouts something to me or at me and I have no idea what they are saying. It's a combination of a Southern accent and the acoustics of a gym that make their taunts or whatever undecipherable to me. However, I can usually understand "Play defense!" or "Guard yo' man!" One time this guy fell down kicking me slightly and asked "Are you straight?" I could only think that he was referring to the many gay guys that work out in this particular gym in Atlantic Station in Midtown. I replied "What?" He repeated, "Are you straight?" and taken aback I replied, "What do you mean by that?" He then explained, "I kicked you in the knee. Are you straight?" It was actually just Southern hospitality rearing its head at an odd moment. I said "Yes. I'm straight" and we resumed the game.
The biggest difference I've noticed in Atlanta from elsewhere is how the game 21 is played. I've played in Upstate New York too and have observed how the game can be played in many different variations. For those who don't know the game, 21 can be played by any number of players at one basket. The person with the ball can be guarded by one or more players and gets two points for each basket. In L.A., you shoot from the free throw line after each basket, making one point each, and can make up to three baskets in a row after which you take the ball out. In Atlanta, you shoot your free throws from the three point line. (This reminds me that another difference in pickup basketball is that three pointers count for two points in Atlanta, while in L.A. they usually count as regular one-point shots). Each person in 21 counts up their own points. When you get to 20, in L.A. you shoot from the three-point line to win; in Atlanta, you sometimes shoot from near half court, though not always. If you miss that final shot, you go back to 15. The half court shot, when the game is played that way, can drag the game on forever. In L.A., 21 is usually played by 3 to 5 players, while in Atlanta, it can be up to 9 guys playing. It's my Jew-ass opinion that playing 21 with 9 guys is a mess (especially because I never manage to grab a rebound and if I do the ball is immediately stolen from me), but it's a popular way to play here. In L.A., with that many people, you would likely play three on three or four on four, which is rare in Atlanta for whatever reason. Also, people slam dunk during games of 21 here, which I have never once seen in L.A.
I guess another main difference for me playing here is that I often feel out of place, but am determined to play anyways because it's fun and an excellent workout. When my hair is long, I wear a headband and look like Björn Borg if he had been really out of shape. One time a guy asked me if I was Spanish. I might as well be a lisping Spanish dude wearing pantaloons. Though, I guess it's sort of an American trait that even if you suck at something (though, I don't quite suck, I can play OK defense and occasionally shoot the three), no matter the glances others give you or the undecipherable taunts you receive, you keep at it stubbornly.