Basketball has become an obsession for actors like George Clooney and David Duchovny

Across Los Angeles these days, in celebrity backyards and on studio lots, directors are shooting, stars are setting screens, and writers whose projects are in turnaround are hitting turnaround jumpers. Hollywood’s got a basketball jones and the impact is being felt — on screen and off.

No matter that most recent basketball films — or films starring basketball players — have been as nightmarish as the New York Knicks’ postseason (Disney’s Air Bud took in a weak $4.7 million on its opening weekend, and Shaquille O’Neal’s Kazaam fouled out). Basketball is so prevalent in L.A. these days that if Nathanael West were still writing, he’d call his Hollywood novel The Day of the Low Post.

More important still, playing in one of the town’s high-profile pickup games has replaced a stint in the William Morris mail room as a launching pad for aspiring Hollywood players.

Take this story of how filmmaker Ross Marks, 30, wound up directing a movie for Showtime. With a Sundance indie film to his credit (1995’s Homage), Marks decided to court his film dreams after reading a magazine article about a writer whose performance in a weekly game hosted by director Garry Marshall led to a staff job on Happy Days. ”I figured that was the key to my whole career,” says Marks, tongue planted only partly in cheek.

Confident that if he could play like Magic Johnson’s ”show time” he might get a deal with a cable network like Showtime, Marks, a star guard in high school, wrangled an invitation to Marshall’s Saturday-morning B-ball fest. Three years and 100 layups later, he was asked by Marshall, who had seen and admired Homage, if he’d be interested in directing a script Marshall had just acquired called The Twilight of the Golds, about an expectant couple who learn their child will be gay. Another Saturday-morning player, Mark Harris, an agent-turned- producer, agreed to secure financing, and, next thing you know, the comedy drama aired on…Showtime.

Stories like that have helped make Marshall’s 25-year-old pickup game a magical event. Played every weekend in the San Fernando Valley, the game usually features a wide cast of friends and colleagues, including Chicago Hope‘s Hector Elizondo. Past participants have included Robin Williams, Ron Howard, and Rob Reiner.

Elsewhere in L.A., Garry Shandling holds court at his home, where David Duchovny has been known to dribble. In fact, it was during a hoops session that Duchovny pitched doing a stint on The Larry Sanders Show in which he would develop a crush on Larry. The X-Files star got an Emmy nomination for the episode.

And, whenever Chicago-based Hoop Dreams filmmakers Steve James and Peter Gilbert are in town for a meeting, ”an executive says, ‘We’ve got a game you’ve got to play in,”’ says James.

Not all pickup games, however, are a fast break to important schmoozing. At NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield’s Sunday-afternoon game in Santa Monica, business talk is out of bounds. That may be because the game started 15 years ago as a mix of people in the entertainment industry — like producer Joshua Brand (Northern Exposure) — and execs from the nearby Rand corporation, who, with top secret government clearance, can’t talk about their work. Littlefield recalls once asking a friend about a Rand player: ”’What does that guy do?’ He said, ‘It’s classified.’ I said, ‘Come on, what’s he do?’ He said, ‘He plots the bombing routes over Russia.”’