A Festival of Spectacles: Eye Wear in Basketball Cultures


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In this post I write about the different types of protective and corrective vision options available to pickup basketball players. I start with a scene from a recent pickup game that caused me to think about this topic enough to write a 6000 word post about it. Then I break the eye wear options into three categories, describing the pros and cons of each before listing who in NBA ranks popularized the look and how that look is generally received within pickup baller cultures. I conclude by theorizing about why so few people wear glasses and goggles on the court and what insight this gives us in terms of thinking about pickup ecologies in general. Finally I parse through the options ballers have in terms of eye wear and create an algorithm and matrix based on cost, time, safety, image, and effectiveness to help players (and myself) select the option that’s right for them.


It was a dark, -23 degree wind-chill afternoon in Champaign Illinois. I was about half-way through my second game of pickup at the ARC when I switched from guarding a wing player with no handle to guarding a guy who could almost dribble. Usually the ball is better at the ARC but I was on the JV court playing with a bunch of non-regulars. Anyway, it wasn’t one of those switches were we changed defensive assignments for the rest of the game, it was just a normal called switch due to a screen. I was down in a bit of a crouch slide-stepping across the lane as the guy I was now guarding dribbled around the top of the key and to a Kobe-jumper position on the left wing. I was playing off him by an extra half-step because (1) he was straddling the arc, and (2) he had taken a shot earlier in the game and had a stroke that made Marcus Camby’s motion look like Ray Allen. Anyway he picked up his dribble and looked toward the middle of the court. As he began his windup for an overhead two-handed pass I jumped, arms stretched upward in hopes of getting a steal or deflection.

Instead, the ball hit me in the face, my green Converse glasses with the lighter green racing stripe down the side flew off and spun to a stop near the free-throw line.

The down-but-not-out state of my corrective glasses after being hit by a pass from close rang.

The down-but-not-out state of my corrective glasses after being hit by a pass from close range.

Knock off a guy’s headband or inadvertently trip someone and pickup ballers will keep playing until a made basket or called foul, but somehow as soon as corrective lenses hit the hardwood people stop in their tracks like someone blew a whistle. As I picked up my glasses and tried to put them back on, the guy who threw the pass apologized, and three of my teammates who hadn’t said anything for the past game and a half asked if I was okay.

Yeah,” I said, “I’m fine, it’s not like I’m bleeding or anything.

Actually, you kinda are,” said the center with legit post moves we had cherry-picked from the losing team the game before.

I dabbed the side of my nose with my shirt but only got a little blood in return.

I’m fine,” I said, putting my glasses back on. They were in-tact but broken at the same time, sitting askew on my face in a way that was both visually distracting and comical, “They work pretty much. I’ll just aim for the spot between the two hoops I’m seeing.” A few guys laughed and play resumed.

I tried to bend them back into shape during stoppages in play over the next two possessions but couldn’t quite get the lenses to align. Seeing two of everything was surprisingly distracting so I decided to have a go at playing blob-ball. At the stoppage in play–a called travel on a freshman who took at least three steps before starting his dribble–I set them down behind the stanchion and endeavored to play sans gafas for the first time since I got glasses at age 6.

For those of you with 20/20 vision, I’ve recreated the experience both wearing my broken-but-wearable specs (middle), as well as going with my (un)natural(ly bad) eyesight (bottom).

My Court Vision: 20/20 vs Crooked Glasses vs No Glasses [original photo: Ali Hajipour]

Simulating My Court Vision: 20/20 vs Crooked Glasses vs No Glasses [original photo: Ali Hajipour]

After a few possessions I found that while seeing double added too much cognitive load to let me concentrate and be productive; playing blob-ball, while not optimal, wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. In JV-pickup-world, with a bunch of non-regular players who didn’t screen much or run multiple actions, half-court defense was about the same with or without the ability to see who was who. People on offense faced the basket and waited for their turn to have the ball. People on defense faced away from the basket and watched the people on offense wait for their turn to have the ball.

Once I managed to identify my guy in transition–one of only two guys wearing white tee-shirts on the other team–I found I could guard him and even call out screens for teammates in my vicinity. The tricky part was reigning in my inner Kevin Love–trying to figure out in a split second if the guy who looked open way down the court was on my team, was a defender running back on defense, or was someone standing on the sidelines. I ended up with four rebounds, three assists, no field goal attempts, and no turnovers for the rest of the game. I even stuck around to play another game which we also won. Again, I had mostly assists and rebounds, and I didn’t take any shots, but my statline wasn’t too far off from my averages.

As I left the court and headed down to the weight room, I started thinking about the role of corrective lenses in basketball cultures and what that role can tell us about basketball ecologies themselves. In the next sections I’ve broken the different types of vision-correction used by ballers at the pickup, NCAA, and NBA levels into three categories: not-glasses, glasses, and goggles. As mentioned above, I address each subcategory–exploring the on-court affordances and constraints associated with each of them, the notable NBA players who sport the look, as well as what each look says about the pickup ballers who use it. Then in the conclusion I theorize about what this says about cultures of basketball and describe my algorithm for deciding which eye wear option will be my next one given the demise of my Converse specs.

  1. Not Glasses
    • Lasik Eye Surgery:
    • Contact lenses:
    • The 3-Monocle:
    • Squinty:
  2. Ordinary Glasses
    • The Everydays
    • The Backups
    • Sports Strap
    • Google Glass-es
    • The Rambis
  3. Rec-Specs and Sports Goggles
    • The Racquetballer
    • The Jabar
    • The Horace
    • The Amar’e
    • Dribbling Goggles
    • Science Goggles
    • Beer Goggles
  4. Conclusions and Speculation

1. Not Glasses

Some people just have a thing against wearing glasses on the court.

Some people just have a thing against wearing glasses on the court.

While it might sound silly in an age in which many of the world’s most powerful and fashionable people wear glasses, there’s a tangible-if-implicit stigma against overtly corrected vision within basketball cultures. I’m not saying that players wearing glasses won’t get picked up or won’t make as much money in their next NBA contract as their 20/20-seeing peers, but rather that all other things being equal, there’s something uncool about glasses and goggles–thus leading many ballers to reject visible ways of correcting their vision.

Lasik Eye Surgery

Coming in at around $2100 per eye (source), this is clearly the most expensive option for vision correction. It is largely permanent and has few side effects. I’m using Lasik (laser in-situ keratomileusis) to stand for any type of medical procedure that corrects a person’s vision.

The Lasik procedure up close. [image: danache.com]

According to Kelly Scaletta, a growing number of NBA players have turned to surgery to correct their vision, including Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Rip Hamilton, Mario Chalmers, and Dan Dickau (The Bleacher Report, 2011).

Having Lasik surgery basically cures the need to wear any kind of eye wear. It’s only constraint is if they screw up and you end up with blurry vision or an infection. These outcomes are rare so the only drawback becomes money and the three days it takes to recover from the procedure. Lasik is outside of the price range of most pickup ballers so unless you’re a trust-fund baller or mommy is an eye surgeon you’re probably not getting your eyes ‘fixed’ despite this touching NBA All-Star’s testimonial for the procedure.

Chris Bosh explains how Lasik improved his game and helped him stop his incessant worrying if his trainer remembered to pack Bosh’s backup contacts.

Contact Lenses

I wore contacts from age 15-28 and in every game during my HS Varsity and undergraduate intramural college basketball career. At around a dollar per pair, contacts are not only affordable, they’re superior to glasses. They don’t restrict peripheral vision and don’t create optical aberrations (Wikipedia) like glasses do.

Unlike contacts, the non-spherical lenses in glasses and most goggles produce sub-optimal focal points and thus inferior vision, not to mention the distortion in proximity explained below [photo: cyperphysics.co.uk]

Some suggest that aberrations distort a player’s ability to gauge distance when shooting jumpers (Basketball Shooting Coach). This may have been what Larry Bird was talking about when he begrudgingly wore a pair of goggles during four NBA games after fracturing an orbital bone in his face. Though he shot 55% from the field in his goggle games he said he had no idea if the ball was going in or not (Anderle, 2011).

Before Chris Bosh got Lasik, he wore contacts–as does Dwight Howard, Grant Hill, Carl Landry, and Andrew Bogut (source, source). In the clip below Dwight tells us what contacts did for his game.

Between jump-shots and ground-bound layups Dwight tells us to talk to our parents about improving our game via contacts–just like he did…

The downside to wearing contacts on the court is two-fold. Firstly, they don’t protect you from getting scratched or poked in the eye, and secondly, when you do get poked in the eye there’s a chance that your contact will come out and instead of playing ball, you’ll be walking around stooped over looking for an impossible-to-see piece of clear plastic for the next 5 to 10 minutes.

While this scene is less common at organized basketball games these days, it still happens once and a while during pickup.

The Monocle

You’ve seen it in the NBA and college, a player gets hot from beyond the arc and the next time they score from deep they put up / wear the 3-Monocle or the double monocle aka 3-Goggle (for example) on their way back down the court.

Doron Lamb puts on his 3-Monocle [photo: Kentucky Sports Radio]

According to the Wall Street Journal and the Colombian Sports Reporter the move began in 2010 when Patty Mills of the Blazers would tease his teammate Rudy Fernandez about having poor vision that led to his sub-par 3-point shooting. After going 3 for 4 from behind the arc in a game Fernandez flashed double 3-monocles at Mills in a sort of how-do-you-like-my-vision-now sort of a gesture.

Of course there are other thoughts on the origin of the 3-Monocle including stories of how Ben Gordon started it in 2008 or that it’s a Bloods or Illuminati sign (Franklin, 2011). Whatever the origin, it is not a frequently seen gesture in pickup ball. The 3-Monocle / Goggle is a form of celebration that requires that you first make several 3s in a row before claiming that you’re seeing the world with perfect 20/20 vision. Based on my calculations of shooting percentage in an earlier post, statistically speaking, taking and making multiple shots from beyond the arc in pickup games is no small feat and not a common event.

KD offers up celebratory double 3-Monocles from the bench in support of Jeremy Lamb.


In the narrative above, I was forced to play without corrective lenses for a game and a half. Yet a surprising number of people go for years playing ball and living life through a Gaussian blur. A Grantland article of top ten things to avoid while playing pickup ball includes the wearing of any type of eye wear, the author suggesting that playing blurry-ball is preferred(Cavan, 2013).

The tipping point for correcting vision for better on-court performance is different for everyone.

The tipping point for correcting vision for better on-court performance is different for everyone.

Going without glasses is probably useful advice for those with only mild vision issues. Unfortunately for those of us with Mr Magoo-like vision it’s not really an option unless forced we’re forced into it like I was or like Grant Hill was during the 2000 NBA All-Star Game when his contact lens popped out before the game and he was left without a backup pair (AP, 2000).

The first 10 minutes of the 2000 NBA All Star Game during which Grant Hill appears somewhat tentative. The poor quality of the video simulates what Grant Hill may have seen himself.

Still others are psychologically unable to wear contacts due to mild to severe ommetaphobia–fear of touching or getting touched in the eye (source). In the Summer of 2013, after eight years of being in the league, NBA forward Rudy Gay finally overcame his ommetaphobia, got Lasik, and left the ranks of the squinters (source). Before the 2013-2014 season started, Gay called his pre-surgery vision ‘terrible’ and said he was looking forward to coupling his Max-Contract skills with 20/20 vision.

Would knowing of Rudy’s poor vision have made a difference in this discussion of Rudy’s play during the 2011-2012 playoffs?

While Rudy is shooting better in this his first post-Lasik year than he shot in 2012-2013, it’s difficult to tell if better vision has had anything to do with it given his Toronto-Sacramento splits.

Rudy Gay's Career Stats through 1/26/2014

Rudy Gay’s Career Stats through 1/26/2014 [image: NBA Stats]

It’s impossible to know just how many pickup ballers play with poor, uncorrected vision–though that would explain the general lack of shooting percentage from behind the arc and well as high turnover rate on full-court passes.

2. Mostly Ordinary Glasses

My bent-bloodied-and-broken Converse frames fall into this category of eye wear that can serve as both everyday glasses as well as on-court eye protection/correction. This is the least expensive option for correcting vision while playing as it doesn’t require the baller to invest in a pair of specialty lenses and frames. The issue with this is that probably not a lot of time went into thinking about how that pair of Versace frames would work when that Big Baby analogue backed you into the post. In fact one guide to pickup basketball for the uninitiated highly recommends wearing anything but glasses when trotting out onto the court (Camp, 2003).

The typical pair of glasses in 2014 aren’t exactly made for the court. [photo: Jewelry Fashion]

The Everyday

The nice thing about wearing your everyday glasses for ball is that you’ve already paid for them, you’ve already got them with you, and you’re already used to them. The issue with wearing them is that they were probably not meant to withstand the force of an elbow to the temple or the impact of the ball hurled from four feet away (and if they are able to withstand those things then you’re either in the Marines or taking an eye-wear-imposed break from the dating scene).

The best-case scenario is that upon impact your everyday glasses will perform like NASCAR technology, with the lenses popping out and maybe the bow coming off in a way that protects the wearer while also allowing the player to simply snap the lenses back into place and reinsert bow. The worst-case scenario is that they fly off maintaining their integrity but then slide right under someone’s foot. The sickening crunch means that not only will you have to squint through the rest of the game but you may have to ask your girlfriend, boyfriend, or roommate to drive you places until you’ve got a chance to get a new pair.

There’s no telling how many times George Mikan’s specs were knocked off his face during his playing days. The story goes that he was initially cut from his HS team because his coach felt basketball required good vision but couldn’t be played in glasses. Since Mikan wore glasses he was out (Star Tribune, 2005; tpakrak, 2010).

Side view of George Mikan’s Eye Wear [photo: LA Times ]

Not only are modern glasses fragile but often the lenses are rectangular–sharing an aspect ratio with your HDTV. If this doesn’t restrict your vertical peripheral vision enough, the bows on modern glasses are wide creating a horizontal blinder-like effect. Wearing your everyday glasses for pickup suggests that you don’t play much basketball or happened to not have your contacts or goggles handy.

A view of the court offered by today's fashion glasses.

A view of the court offered by today’s fashion glasses.

The Backup

If you’re using a backup pair of specs for pickup congratulations, you’re not only saving money but you’re also a full two eye wear incidents away from being unfit to drive. I rocked the Converse for a few years before my girlfriend at the time convinced me to get a new pair of everyday glasses (think KD but with lenses). The only issue, and this is common among those who use a beat up / older pair for basketball, is that the prescription strength may be different in one or both eyes from your current pair of glasses. Either you guessed wrong on a few more of the Eye Chart letters than last time, or your eyes are paying you back for all the time you spend staring at a screen two feet in front of your face, or your optometrist needed cash and adjusted your prescription slightly so he/she could sell you new lenses and frames. In any event playing with a backup pair of glasses means you need to transition from one prescription to the other while it only takes a couple of minutes, not doing so can leave you feeling that things on the court just don’t look right.

Google Glass-es: Imagine your glasses were non-corrective and had only half a lens, but came with a processor, cutting-edge display capabilities, built in video camera, voice activation, and wifi. Now picture wearing them on the court.

Google Glass-es make it onto the court for a game of 1-on-1.

I’m not saying that I’d try and take out someone’s Google Glass-es if they wore them during pickup but I might feel an urge to try out my best impersonation of Shaq vs Mutombo.

Shaq’s elbow-centric post game

Sports Strap

While accessorizing your everyday or your backup glasses with a sports strap saves them from the danger of getting stepped on, it also means that you’ll be sporting a band of blue or black neoprene around your head. There’s a reason no one this side of Professor Minerva McGonagall’s age wears a glasses strap in everyday life. I’ve come to the conclusion that wearing a sports strap is akin to wearing your jock on the outside of your shorts or your bra on the outside of your shirt. It’s like saying, not only do I have inferior vision but I’m fearful that my glasses might fly off my face at any moment and so have fused them to my face with a piece of unsightly elastic. The only people whose sports strap flies under the radar are those with long hair. When I was in London last May and didn’t have my backup glasses with me I had to wear my nose-pad-less Euro-specs held on my head with a piece of cloth I had torn off of my shirt when I played pickup. It being England and my solution being an improvised McGuiver-like move it didn’t negatively impact my cred (full post here).

In 1941 headgear that went way beyond the ‘sports strap’ was created to allow the glasses-wearing public to enjoy basketball whilst protecting their specs. Somehow it didn’t catch on [photo: Modern Mechanix]

The Rambis

Most pickup ballers on university campuses know Kurt Rambis as the former coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves and longtime assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers. Yet from 1981 to 1988 he was the antithesis of LA style-consciousness, gaining notoriety from being the lone blue-collar member on the LA Showtime Lakers (Wikipedia). His black glasses with and without heavy athletic tape around the bridge were iconic. Rambis was a role-player charged with the task of rebounding, defending, and intimidating. After just two years with the Lakers replicas of his glasses were available for sale at Laker games for $6 (Christian Science Monitor, 1983).

Rambis’ heavy-duty frames complete with a Laker gold sports strap between the bows put him in Evan Sporer’s top 11 glasses/goggles in US sports history. [image from sportsgrid.com Note also the way his mullet hides the sports strap.]

There is one guy who plays at the ARC who wears a pair similar to Rambis’ specs. He accessorizes them with head and wrist bands. His bold choices in terms of basketball accessories seem to imply a certain level of confidence.

3. Rec-Specs and Sports Goggles

According to the history section of the Persol website, an Italian named Giuseppi Ratti was the first to create protective goggle-like eyewear for sporting events. The 1917 goggles (below) were first used by race car drivers and aviators. The design tweaks over the last 100 years center on adding stability with a mono-frame and the use of less tint.

Ratti's Original Goggles, 1917 [image credit: Persol]

Ratti’s Original Goggles, 1917. [image credit: Persol]

If your life or livelihood depended on correcting your vision without touching your eyes you’d probably roll with some version of the goggle. Despite their advantages, very few pickup ballers actually don this type of eye wear. Players will recognize the latest in on-court footwear and apparel but when it comes to eye protection and correction, it’s a different story.

Wearing goggles suggests that (unless you’re a ball-playing etymologist with an ironic sense of humor) you might take your accessories a little too seriously. Though goggle wearers may have to endure being called ‘goggles’ what they won’t have to deal with are eye-related injuries.

The Racquetballer

These goggles were worn back in the day for basketball and various racquet sports. They afforded the user unobstructed, uncorrected peripheral vision and a limited vertical field of vision.

Old-school safety and prescription eye wear [photo: skinneygenes].

One guy at the ARC wears a pair of these. When I asked him about them he told me he paid $120 for them in 1998, he bought them specifically for basketball and that they were the only pair of prescription goggles in the store. He said they’re still working just fine and that he’s never been made fun of for them but that everywhere he plays ball people call him goggles on the court.

The Jabar: this type of goggle was popularized by the most prolific scorer the game of basketball has ever known. No one scored more points than Kareem and no one brought more visibility to the wearing of protective eye wear on the court than he did. He had his cornea scratched twice, once in college (1968) and once in the pros (1974). Protecting his eyes was the catalyst for his goggle wearing (Wikipedia).

Kareem and His Goggles [AP Photo/Lennox McLendon]

In his farewell game all his teammates wore tribute goggles in his honor (Johnson, 1993). Kareem also suffered from a chronic drying of the eyes though it is not clear if his goggle use helped him maintain ocular moisture (see Wikipedia link above).

Kareem protected his eyes even in the movies. In his battle with Bruce Lee in Game of Death, Jabar managed to keep his shades on despite getting fake punched in the temple and face at least a dozen times.

While the naming honors to this category go to Kareem, there were many others who wore the no-nonsense function-over-form goggles during large parts of their playing careers. Jabar’s teammate James Worthy, Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon, and Dallas’ Roy Tarpley all wore goggles of a similar utilitarian style.

The Temporaries

Basketball is a leading cause of sport-related eye injuries in 15-24 year olds (National Eye Institute). Over the course of long careers in the NBA and WNBA, players are gonna get scratched and gouged in the eyes.

During her time with the Mystics, All-Star forward DeLisha Milton-Jones sported goggles after getting scratched by Nicole Powell in the Spanish League Finals. [source]

In a study of injuries in the NBA, more than 5% of all incidents involved the eye. These occurred most often while the injured person was either in the act of rebounding or on offense (Zagelbaum, 1995). Thus a whole range of players, but especially post player, have been obliged to wear goggles for a period of time to protect their eyes, or in DWade’s case reduce the chances that bright lighting would trigger a migraine (NBA.com, 2011). Few if any of them loved the experience enough to continue wearing them past the point of having gotten over their issue.

Somewhat reluctant goggle wearers: Luis Scola, Tony Parker, Dwayne Wade, Larry Bird, Vladimir Radmanovic, and Reggie Miller

Somewhat reluctant goggle wearers: Luis Scola, Tony Parker, Dwayne Wade, Larry Bird, Vladimir Radmanovic, and Reggie Miller

The Horace

Though he wasn’t the most famous or most skilled player ever to wear goggles, his choice in eye wear was memorable for the in-your-face color schemes he favored on the court. Instead of goggles hiding his face from the world, Grant used his on-court eye wear to call attention to himself and strike fear in his opponents.

Horace Grant, NBA champion, skilled power forward, wearer of iconic goggles [photo: turnernbaallball]

As a goggle wearer, Moses Malone falls somewhere between the Horace and Jabar categories. Moses often wore a pair of nondescript run-of-the-mill goggles, but later in his career during his time with the Hawks he wore a bright red pair that matched his uniform. When he retired he held the record for made free throws at 8,531, each time he went to the line Moses would push his goggles up onto his forehead (NBA.com).

Malone’s bright red goggles [photo: Getty-NBA]

The issue with wearing Horace-like goggles on the pickup court is that you’ll be called ‘goggles’ for sure, the upside is that being bold is usually respected so you may actually get some cred out of the choice.

The Amar’e

While he had Lasik surgery to correct his vision, Amar’e Stoudemire had a series of serious eye injuries that required him to wear protective goggles during multiple seasons. His goggles get their own category as they represent an updated version of the Kareem but with a bit more flair.

Amar’e’s custom-designed specs [image source]

Amar’e’s goggles appear not to be an option for pickup ballers as they are only available to big men who can run the pick-and-roll and are playing on uninsured $100 million dollar contracts with the NY Knicks.

Amar’e dons his custom-made goggles. [photo: Bruce Bennett Getty Images]

The Dribbling Goggles

In my post A Taxonomy of the Turnover I highlight one type of turnover caused by tunnel vision. You’ve seen it happen, a guy looks like a player but then when he gets the ball he can’t seem to dribble without staring down at the ball. These goggles are meant to fix that. A few practice sessions with dribbling goggles are meant to reduce reliance on even lower peripheral vision when dribbling allowing the newly skilled ball handler to spend her/his time looking around the court for people who might be open. At $4.99 per pair I’m tempted to buy a few and pass them out around the ARC as needed (HoopsReview).

Dribble Master™ Basketball Goggles designed to promote better ball handling and abstinence [photo: framingphotography]

I’ve never seen anyone try and play pickup with dribbling goggles. There are at least three reasons for this. First, most ballers see playing pickup as the culminating performance not practice for organized basketball. Second, you just don’t wear things that make it harder to win, that’s not fair to your teammates. And third, unless you’ve taken a vow of celibacy you wouldn’t want to risk wearing these where your a potential (or current) significant other might happen to walk by and notice you for all the wrong reasons.

Science Goggles: Picking up on visual cues in the split seconds before shooting is an important part of playing efficient basketball. Specifically noticing wide open teammates, or lanky defenders lurking to block one’s shot improves one’s chances of making the right decision with the ball. An article in the Journal of Sports Sciences investigated the difference between low and high release jump shooters and how this relates to their window for correctly assessing the court.

Side-by-Side Comparison of High and Low-Release Shooting Styles [photo: daily post, wikihow]

Side-by-Side Comparison of High and Low-Release Shooting Styles [photo: dailymail, wikihow]

In the article, the researchers used a pair of goggles that can be set to completely block the wearer's vision at particular moments triggered by physical gestures. The goggles were used with a group of elite-level shooters, each of whom shot the ball with either a high or low release. They found that low release shooters preferred to focus on the basket just before the ball blocked their view of the hoop, where as high release shooters preferred to focus on the basket as they were beginning their shooting motion. The authors conclude that this gives high-release shooters a slight temporal advantage because they theoretically have more time to pick up on late-breaking changes in court dynamics than their low-release shooting peers (Oliviera, 2006).

Visual Occlusion Spectacles by Plato

Again, these wouldn't really be useful during a game unless you wanted to simulate what it would be like to play basketball with brief periods of temporary blindness. While the results might rise to Jack-Ass levels of hilarity the results might also rise to Jack-Ass levels of pointless injury.

Beer Goggles: No not 'that' kind of beer goggles but rather the range of goggles meant to simulate the impairment associated with intoxication. These devices are promoted as an effective way of helping high school students understand the effects alcohol can have on coordination and reflexes. Of course it was inevitable that people would try and play ball in them.

Two teachers go one-on-one wearing goggles meant to simulate cognitive impairment.

One time I played with a couple of guys who had just come from wining and dining their girlfriends on Valentines Day. While they said they were a little buzzed they were not even close to being in the useless state of the two goggled guys above.

Conclusions and Speculation:

Wear a pair of Jordans or stick out your tongue on the way to the hoop and people may associate you with Mike. Yet throw on a pair of Kareem-type goggles and you'll get no such implied transfer of transcendence. In pickup cultures, ballers get cred for wearing chest and rib padding but throw on a pair of rec-specs and you might as well have a note from your mom safety pinned to your sweater. Employing protective eye wear or a sports strap may imply that you're overly cautious and concerned for your safety or that you have a history of eye injuries. In both cases you put yourself at risk of losing a little cred with the other players.

These cultural features are perpetuated in the media as well, Sports Pickle, At the Buzzer, and GQ all list wearing goggles as part of the characteristics of their worst pickup team ever (Gallo, 2013), old-guy (Robinson, 2013), and stylin' poser archetypes (Barboza, 2013). Wearing goggles or Rambis-style glasses is nearly akin to wearing Patrick Ewing-style knee pads.

Wearing goggles on the court can be as risky to your credibility as wearing knee pads

My theory is that one of the reasons that more guys don't wear their glasses on the court is that they feel it may be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that if you wear goggles you won't get picked up. Yet we know from above that there's a whole host of players, even Max Contract NBA players who prefer to squint through a game rather than don a pair of glasses or goggles.

Not even the Pickup Baller-In-Chief plays in goggles

The ironic thing is that if having imperfect vision were a sign of inherent on-court weakness then the list of goggle-wearing, Lasik-getting, and contact-using players would include more guys like the flawed stereotypical pickup ballers mentioned in blog posts and fewer guys in or destined for the basketball hall of fame.

I imagine it takes a lot of confidence to put on a pair of goggles and go play ball that first time. Maybe you have to be an alpha baller or just not care what other people think in order to use eye wear on the court. Maybe you need a bunch of stat guys in your face telling you that they're gonna trade you unless you get over your phobia and get your vision corrected (and then maybe they trade you to Toronto or Sacramento anyway).

The other impediment to wearing made-for-balling eye wear is monetary. You won't really know how custom specs feel or how they'll work for you until you've spent $200 or more on them. Sure you can put them on in the store but you don't know how the curvature of the lenses will affect how you see the court, you won't know how well they'll stay on, if they'll fog up, or make it seem like you're looking out from inside a fish bowl. For most pickup ballers that's too much money to risk on eye wear that may only get one use.

Russel Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder doesn’t need glasses yet his use of lens-less glasses during post-game interviews suggests that he, KD, Lebron, Dwight Howard and others might be doing what they can to support the bespectacled among us while also appearing more fashionable in a geek-chic sort of a way.

Russel Westbrook makes lens-less glasses a part of his post-game look

What it comes down to is the way masculinity circulates and gets performed within ecologies of basketball (upcoming post). In a survival of the fittest environment we’re encouraged to cover our deficiencies. We’re implicitly encouraged to wear contacts instead of glasses, to shave our heads instead of admitting to encroaching baldness, to dye our beards instead of admitting to advancing age. Yet these fictions about being more of a man if you have 20/20 vision, have a full head of hair, or are young are potentially interrupted by the transcendent, all-world-level basketball players who wore goggles (Malone, Hakeem, Worthy), got Lasik (LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Amar’e), got old (Kareem, Jordan), or started balding (Jordan, LeBron) before they retired. Ironically it’s the covering up of these things by the NBA’s best players that reinforces ideas people have about poor vision and protective/corrective gear as a sign of on-court weakness.

The ultimate beauty of pickup basketball is that if you can play then you can play, and if they need one to run fives, then you can play no matter what. Yet given the culture of pickup basketball if the place is packed and you are there lone-wolf style looking to get picked up you might want to leave your goggles in you pocket when you ask who’s got next and if you can run.

Down one pair of glasses I ran through the options to figure out which made the most sense. I created an algorithm that equally valued cost, time, safety, image, and on-court effectiveness. Specifically the algorithm is: =ROUNDUP((10000-total cost)+((100-total time)*10)+(10000*Safety Rating)+(10000*Effectiveness)+(10000*Image), 0) and then I calculated the percentage of the total. In other words getting contact lenses is 64% of the way to an ideal solution though this post shows that there is no idea option. Of course if you were a trust-fund baller or had ommetaphobia you might weight the categories differently.

A matrix of options for determining which approach to on-court eye wear might be the best

A matrix of options for determining which approach to on-court eye wear might be the best

For the time being I’ll use my third-string glasses but the next chance I get look into getting contacts–I’ll be sure to follow Dwight’s advice and check with my parents first.

A Taxonomy of the Turnover


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The game was tied, the next team to score would win. It was the beginning of the semester and every court was packed with freshmen looking for something to do before coursework and keggers would push basketball off their schedule. My team was about to take possession at the top of the key after a called foul. I’d been trying to make eye contact with Sean who would throw the ball in play. I wanted it, my high-release step-back jumper out of the post had been falling all game. I established position as I heard someone say, ‘ball in.’

I put my right elbow into my defender and my left hand in the air–gesturing for the ball. Sean looked my way for a second and then threw a tentative pass toward a teammate on the wing. The pass never got there, the ball was rerouted mid-flight by a wing defender who was halfway to their basket before anyone, including Sean, reacted.

After the game I avoided making eye contact with him. We had a good chance of winning that game if only Sean had passed to someone on our team. Instead, I was faced with the dilemma of either waiting 90 minutes to play again or going downstairs to lift after a single game of pickup.

The above sequence took place at the University of Texas at Austin’s Gregory gym but it’s not unique to UT. Empty possessions are an inevitable part of the game and those who play with regularity know just how much they impact the outcome.

Pop knows what matters.

A few weeks ago in a post that used NBA and NCAA statistics to extrapolate stats for pickup basketball, I estimated a 0.28 turnover per possession rate for five-on-five full-court pickup ball. That’s about 1 lost opportunity every 3.6 possessions. As Pop suggests above, pickup ballers aren’t the only ones who commit these crimes against efficiency. Pro, college, and high school players also fall victim to carelessness, miscommunication, delusions of grandeur, and motor-skill deficiencies.

While game-to-game turnover rates fluctuate based on a laundry list of difficult-to-measure factors, most of the turnover archetypes are fairly recognizable. Since I’ve experienced, forced, and committed nearly every type of dead-ball, half-court, transition, and end-game turnover imaginable, I thought I’d unpack the different ways and reasons people ‘lose the ball’. Thus in the spirit of better understanding the culture of pickup basketball (and during-work entertainment) I’ve created a Taxonomy of the Turnover.

According to Wikipedia, a taxonomy is a way of categorizing things based on explicit organizational criteria. The sections that follow, are categorized groupings of the different ways players generate empty possessions.

A Taxonomy of Turnovers

A Taxonomy of Turnovers

As depicted in the diagram above, I’ve broken turnovers into 25 leaky but discernible archetypes and then organized them into four overlapping groups. We’ll start with turnover types precipitated by issues of Cognitive Demand and then make our way through the other groupings. Turnover types belonging to more than one category are presented in the category that represents them the best.

Cognitive Demand

Psychology tells us that humans can maintain 7 plus or minus 3 pieces, or 4 chunks of information in working memory at a given time (Wikipedia). Cognitive Load Theory was created based on observations of people struggling to grasp concepts or understand relationships. The theory goes something like this, just as people can lift a certain amount of physical weight, they also have unique capacities to handle psychological lifting (Wikipedia). People who have practiced particular skills within complex environments are able to process them in large chunks whereas those who haven’t, often feel like they’re drinking from a fire hose. Unsurprisingly, drinking from a fire hose often ends badly.

Peter demonstrates the downside of imbibing from a fire hose.

Attempting even simple actions like dribbling or passing within dynamic, novel situations like running full speed leading the fast break is a risky proposition unless a player has done it enough to level or ‘chunk up.’ Most players in organized environments go through different drills to build up their capacity to understand and perform well is such situations. Trying to do things a player has not practiced often leads to Cognitive Overload which, for pickup ballers (and JaVale McGee), can lead to turnovers. The presence of stress compounds cognitive load to create an effect called Cognitive Demand (Niculescu, et al., 2010) which can make even world-class athletes commit turnovers we would expect to only see on the JV pickup court.

Brain Lock
Stress in the form of pressure does weird things to people. For some it helps them concentrate, for others it diminishes their capacity to make good decisions. This diminished capacity can lead to messing up in the form of game-changing turnovers. Like nearly every type of turnover in this taxonomy, pickup ballers like Sean in the opening sequence aren’t the only ones who fall victim to Brain Lock. From a psychological standpoint it is understandable that Brain Lock or stress-induced tunnel vision happens on the biggest stage as these moments are impossible to simulate and infrequently encountered.

For instance, at the end of game five in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, all the Pistons had to do was get the ball in bounds and either let the clock run out or make a few free throws to take a 3-2 series lead. Instead, that in-bounds play became part of the legend of Larry Bird and a perfect example of two-player simultaneous Brain Lock.

In the clip below notice how Isiah Thomas floats a ‘lazy’ (Peter May, 2010) pass in Laimbeer’s direction despite: his position almost underneath the Celtic’s basket, his coach yelling for him to call timeout, and Bird running toward Laimbeer. Passer Brain Lock? Yep. Now watch the clip again keeping track of Laimbeer’s movement. While he initially moves to an open spot, instead of taking a step toward the pass he actually takes a step away from it, giving Bird room to steal the ball without fouling–which was his plan (Weinberg, espn.com).

‘There’s a steal by Bird’ sponsored by a Thomas-Laimbeer moment of dual Brain Lock

Eight years later Anthony Mason and Greg Anthony surpass Thomas and Laimbeer in Game One of the 1995 Eastern Conference finals between the Knicks and the Pacers. We know it as Reggie Miller’s 8 points in 9 seconds but watching it from with a turnover orientation shows it to be another simultaneous teammate Brain Lock episode that ended in a turnover. The end of that game was full of moments where stress seemed to degrade the play of otherwise capable players.

Reggie Miller does the impossible thanks in part to Mason-Anthony Brain Lock

More recently NBA MVP LeBron James fell victim to a little Brain Lock himself. In the closing minutes of game 2 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, James managed to give the ball back to the Pacers on two consecutive possessions. While his errors were forgotten in part because they won the series, it played out at a key point in the game where pressure may have led to indecision which led to some poor choices and tentative execution.

LeBron twice makes questionable passes leading to end-game turnovers

Sean’s turnover in the game I described at the beginning of this post is an example of Brain Lock brought on by cognitive demand. Given more of those situations and a little reflection Sean should fare better in the future.

Auto-Pilot Pass
Sometimes familiarity can lead to turnovers. Pickup ballers who develop a rhythm of picks, cuts, and passes can sometimes slip into a sort of system-driven hypnosis that leads to mechanistic, predictable passes that are easily picked off by defenders who have either played in or against the same type of system for a period of time.

Clearly these players have succumbed to the monotony of a system.

In the NBA, this is the type of turnover you see in the second quarter of a Tuesday night game in February–players start going through the motions and their team pays the price.

If an Auto-Pilot Pass can happen to the Big Fundamental it can happen to anyone

In a Galaxy Far Far Away
During games Larry Bird said he would sometimes daydream and wonder about what his grandpa was up to (still looking for this citation, BS Report interview?). In Larry’s case it was more a result of being that much better than everyone else afforded him some spare brain cycles. More than getting lulled into a sense of familiarity, this type of turnover suggests that the passer has momentarily lost his or her connection with the physical world and is off on a whole other plane of existence. While there is no drug testing policy for pickup ballers, I doubt that many of these Space Cadet type possessions are the result of consciousness-altering drugs (or point shaving) but rather a random mental disconnect from the present moment.

Corey Maggette is clearly beyond Auto Pilot and is in a Galaxy Far Far Away

The 6th Man is Open
Sometimes basketball players have to make decisions based on things they see out of the corner of their eye. Pickup ball is far from a spectator sport, however at certain times of the day, crowds of waiting players can occasionally leak out onto the court and make it hard for teams to keep track of who’s playing and who’s just waiting for the action to head to the other end so they can get some shots up before their game. Once and a while, in a moment of confusion and peripheral vision, someone’ll pass to an open-but-ineligible dude standing along the sideline or baseline.

A University of Miami player executes a skip pass to an open but ineligible teammate standing along the sidelines.

Dead Duck
If Bill Laimbeer would have only grown to be 5’8″ tall he probably would have been the master when came to causing this type of turnover. Driven into an excited state, some pickup ballers are prone to fall for the old ‘duck call.’ While the trick is beneath most self-respecting players, there are a few who practice the dark art of yelling for the ball as if they were on the other team. The duck call involves voice, body language, and positioning to adequately sell it and get the offensive player to pass them the ball. Despite the thespian-like requirements of the play, the Dead Duck turnover leverages presumable cognitive overload to override the offensive player’s ability to remember who’s on their team.

Like water fowl, forgetting who’s on your side in pickup ball can be dangerous.

Scared Stupid
Even if it’s manufactured, pickup ballers need to bring a little confidence and bravado with them when they play. Otherwise they can end up feeling overwhelmed by actual or perceived physical inferiority or a general unworthiness about being on the same court as players who are bigger, faster, better, or even just look the part. These feelings of relative inadequacy can lead ballers to play tentatively which can lead to turnovers. One of the prime examples of this is when a squad of football players descends onto the pickup courts to remind themselves of their superior physical attributes. Most of the time they don’t go full speed as, thanks to their freakish athleticism and size they can usually coast to win after win. But if the game gets close, or one of them is trying to show off, their intensity level can get turned up to gridiron game-day levels. This means that occasional pickup baller Larry, who’s trying to take his mind off his Chemistry exam tomorrow is now faced with something way more terrifying than the periodic table. Cognitive Demand hits Larry in the form of a 6′ 2″ Division I strong safety in a defensive crouch ready to unleash a one-man full court press as soon as the ball is in-bounded. Just the sight of someone with Earl Thomas-like size, speed, and intensity is enough to up the stress levels in most ballers–thereby increasing the chances that they’ll make a tentative, or panic driven pass. Additionally, cognitive load is often also higher in these situations due to the novelty of playing against people with world-class physical abilities.

For me, playing pickup ball against Earl Thomas at UT’s Gregory Gym always seemed to up my Cognitive Demand.

Tunnel Vision
Remember when you were in the 3rd grade and playing basketball at recess mostly meant kids taking turns dribbling around looking down at the ball while keeping track of ‘teammates’ and ‘defenders’ out of their peripheral vision before hoisting a shot that started at their waist? While most ballers eventually learn to do a passable job of dribbling, there are some who just never figure it out. So when they’re overcome with the urge show off their ‘handle,’ they revert back to their 3rd grade handle which not only embarrasses teammates but leads to a turnover given even the feeblest of steal attempts.

There’s a regular player at the ARC who still dribbles like this. The odd thing is that he also has an inexplicably unshakeable case of irrational confidence (Simmons, 2011). Teammates actually yell at him to stop dribbling. I admit, I’ve yelled at him myself–believing it was for the good of the team. The most frustrating thing is that not only does he not see a problem with his ‘handle’ but he wants the ball in his hands immediately after turning it over after one of his stare-at-the-ground, dribble-around-until-he-looses-it episodes.

The Tunnel Vision handle as demonstrated by a 3 year old

Whoa there big fella
In pickup basketball there are more opportunities for post players to lead the fast break than say in organized ball. Like I’ve mentioned before, doing things like dribbling and passing while running full speed creates high levels of cognitive demand. When players who haven’t practiced these skills in combination decide to take matters into their own hands and lead the break, a turnover is nearly as likely as a made basket. As I mention in my manifesto of pickup basketball, getting back in transition is one of the most impactful strategies one can employ. Part of the reason transition D is so important is that over 30% of the time a non-dribbler or fast-break-leading novice is spearheading the charge. All I usually need to do is watch Cleave Stash’s eyes and wait for him to start glancing at the person he’s planing on passing to. When he takes his first step into the lane I just put a hand into the passing lane and usually collect the ball. While I get the credit for the steal, much of the credit goes to cognitive overload.

At 1:40 Kendrick Perkins demonstrates why big men are encouraged to make an outlet pass to start the fast break instead of doing it themselves.

Running the Gauntlet
Besides hitting a game-winning shot, one of the most satisfying demonstrations of basketball prowess is the ability to successfully navigate past and between multiple defenders in a Barkely-esque one-man-fastbreak scenario. At least once per pickup game someone’ll scoop up a lose ball and charge down court in a spinning, twisting, barely under control display of ‘handle,’ dribbling between and around defenders presumably blind to the fact that most of his teammates aren’t even close to half court yet. Instead of slowing down or making the easy pass to a trailing teammate, he tries to slip himself and the ball between the two defenders converging on him at the half-court line. Running the Gauntlet used to be one of my favorite sequences, I’d feel a sense of mastery over the ball and a little incensed that anyone would try to steal it from me, a former varsity-level point guard (at the smallest high school you could possibly imagine). I felt they needed to be punished, and dribbling up the court through all five defenders on the way to scoring an easy layup was the perfect way to do it.

Sir Charles, master of the Coast to Coast Running of the Gauntlet (first 4 seconds)

A few years ago I realized that unless the other team was trying to reduce my usage rate, there was little upside to running the gauntlet as it left me winded, seldom resulted in easy baskets, and sometimes ended in a turnover. When I see a full-court trap coming now I just pass the ball over to someone else on my team and trot across half-court. Not everyone has come to this realization however and so Running the Gauntlet remains a popular pickup ball turnover archetype.

JaVale McGee demonstrates why running the gauntlet is a bad idea for most…

Motor Skills & Physical Ability
This second group of turnover types, while related to issues of cognitive demand, have fewer moving parts and more to do with physical limitations or a lack of coordination. Turnovers caused by deficits in motor skills and physical abilities are characterized by unsuccessful attempts to perform simple actions like catching (or catching up to) the basketball.

The Almost Tony Parker
Similar to Running the Guantlet, this type of turnover is comprised of one or more barely-under-control dribble-forays into the lane in an attempt to create a shot for the dribbler or teammates. Most of the time though it’s hard to tell what exactly they think they’re doing other than believing that if they head into the lane something good will happen. What usually happens is that three defenders converge to poke the ball away leading to a fast break basket. The only thing worse than a teammate losing the ball like this is them somehow managing to keep possession of the ball and getting a wildly off-balance shot to go in–as it usually leads to even more out-of-control probing and lots of turnovers.

9 out of 10 Tony Parker emulations end in a turnover.

Abandon Ship!
Studies have shown that losing a game or cheering for the losing team is both a blow to masculinity and testosterone (Bernhardt et. al, 1998). While there has been no study of in-game basketball events that cognitively or hormonally boost or reduce masculinity, getting dunked on and getting your shot stuffed back in your face have to be #1 and #2 in terms of testosterone reducing events. Naturally, players look to avoid these situations at all costs and so if a player shooting a jumper–usually at or inside of the free throw line–thinks he or she’s about to get rejected, they’ll often abandon their shooting motion in a desperate attempt to locate and pass to a teammate. Players with good court awareness and a decent vertical can sometimes pull this off.

Ricky Rubio demonstrates the athleticism and court vision required to successfully pull off an Abandon Ship! maneuver (0:12).

However, players with good court awareness and a decent vertical represent a minority of pickup ballers and rarely get their jumpers blocked. What makes this a turnover archetype is the preponderance of ballers with poor court awareness and 12″ verticals. When they ‘Abandon Ship’ they often end up passing right to a defender who starts a fast break in the other direction.

Rather than get blocked, some ballers try and pull out of the shooting motion in the middle of it… abandoning ship so to speak (photo credit: K Poldre Flickr)

Hands of Stone
There’s a reason most positions in football are described as ‘non-skill’ positions. It takes sure hands to be a tight end, receiver, or quarterback and not everyone has sure hands. As in football, so too on the pickup court players struggle to hold onto the ball. Some of these less-than-sure-handed ballers would have dominated had they played in the Oklahoma and Iowa Girls Basketball 6-on-6 (sexist) format wherein up until the early 1990s, players never crossed half court as teams played 3 on 3 with offensive and defensive specialists (Wikipedia). Few things are as frustrating as driving the lane to draw defenders only to have a wide-open-under the basket teammate fumble a pass out of bounds. The Hands of Stone turnover archetype combines lagging motor skills with a little over-excitement about the prospect of getting an easy layup.

Sometimes our gross motor skills abandon us

Hands of Clay a.k.a Butterfingers
Instead of having an issue with catching the ball, this type of turnover emanates from a failure to hold onto the ball when defenders attempt to strip it or as it’s flying (or rolling) toward a player. Sometimes this is due to a weak grip and other times it has more illusive quality.

An outbreak of butterfingers afflicts a Ukrainian pro league game

The Heater
Executing a nice crisp pass is one of the baseline skills every baller should be able to do. Part of passing is knowing how change the speed of the pass based on the context. One element of that context concerns the distance between the passer and the would-be recipient. For instance, throwing a bullet pass from one end of the court to the other is an appropriate combination of the proper distance and speed. That same bullet pass however thrown to a teammate standing 7′ away is likely to not only result in a turnover but also a rather pissed off teammate.

Cyclone Speed at 90′ might be okay but what about at 9′?

The Leap of Faith
This used to be one of my favorite plays. Dribble around and then jump into the air as if I was going to shoot only to pass to an open teammate who took advantage of the momentary lapse in his defender’s attention. While The Leap of Faith worked reasonably well with long-time teammates in high school, it is decidedly less effective when playing with a group of random guys you just met 10 minutes ago who see the offensive side of the floor as turn-taking and so just stand around the 3-point line while you ‘do your thing.’ It’s also less effective when you the people you’re playing against know to play you for that type of pass.

It’s usually an overly energetic guard-type who dribbles to the left or right of the lane, feels a double team and leaps up to attempt a pass to any of several presumably open teammate. With a 30-40″ vertical leap this can be an effective strategy, with a 6-12″ vertical it can, and often does, end badly. I’m usually torn on this type of maneuver because, while it often results in an empty possession, it does show an actual willingness to share the ball.

John Wall gives into the temptation to try the harder-than-it-looks jump pass…

The Not Tom Brady
With the possible exception of the alley-oop, no pass is as exciting as the full-court bomb that connects with a streaking teammate who catches the ball in-stride, takes one step and lays the ball in. What makes this so exciting is the degree of difficulty associated with this type of play. In the middle of December, when it’s too cold to go outside and play football, pickup basketball can become a sort of pigskin proxy with full-court passes adding to the borrowed experience.

Wade making football on the basketball court look easy

The problem is that there are several ways to ‘miss’ on this type of a pass. First, the passer in a moment of adrenalin, often ends up throwing the ball way over the backboard. Second, sometimes the passer tries to get too cute and ends up under-throwing it creating a sort of jump-ball scenario between the half-court and three-point arc. Third, the passer occasionally sprays the ball to the left or right of the target. I love throwing the touchdown-style fast-break pass. If I think my guy is out in front I’ll heave the ball without so much as a second thought–channeling my inner quarterback.

Tony Romo demonstrates the ‘Not Tom Brady’

The Not Usain Bolt
While the passer in the full-court touchdown scenario is usually blamed if the exchange results in a turnover, its not always his or her fault. My North Dakota-raised High School basketball coach Larry Hansen used to tell us to ‘pour on the cobs,’ which according to the North Dakota to English dictionary means ‘to shift into high gear.’ Until I started playing pickup ball I thought everyone had that extra gear. You know, the one you used when you were 9 years old and were being chased by your older sister, or when you were 15 and somehow found yourself returning punts during a friendly game of tackle football with the older neighborhood kids.

Bolt makes world-class competition look slow thanks to his extra gear

Playing pickup basketball has forced me to rethink my apparently generous perspective about human speed. For example, three weeks ago I was playing ball with a few newly minted college freshmen. They weren’t that great but the one in the futbol jersey seemed to have some skills that translated from the pitch to the court. Twice I threw full court passes that led him toward the basket and both times he kept running at exactly the same speed. He watched the ball bounce just in front of him and out of bounds. Oddly, he got upset when I said it was my bad for thinking that he had another gear the second time I threw it and again he trotted along at the same slower-than-it-took velocity.

If Vern can find an extra gear one would think everyone could

Pickup ball is especially prone to communication-related turnovers due to the ad hoc nature of the teams which are often chosen by: shooting for ‘it’, picking teams, friendship groups, and/or simple chronology. Playing with strangers makes winning more difficult as it takes some time to get familiar with teammate tendencies and settle into roles that give a team the best possible chance to win.

What’s your name?
Misunderstanding can happen even between teammates who’ve been playing together for years. Pickup ballers often find themselves teamed up with complete strangers which sets the stage for more turnovers especially when trying to play the right way by making passes and cuts. The challenge is that without practice and familiarity, the timing and direction of the passes and cuts may be off by quite a bit. Passing the ball to where a teammate would have been if she had zigged and not zagged can result in frustrating turnovers.

Until they learned each other’s names and tendencies, the members of 4Minute probably had some collisions and collaborative missteps too

Lost in Translation
Sometimes skills learned in one sport transfer to another. Rugby and American football seem to share a common subset of skills just like soccer and basketball players use similar principals when on the court/pitch. While this overlap is generally a good thing, there are some disconnects that lead to confused spacing, random teammate-on-teammate collisions, and missed opportunities. For example, one of the guys I played with during a run of pickup games in London this past summer seemed to have a natural sense of how to move without the ball. I remember one time he was part of the secondary fast break and had made a perfect streaking cut toward the lane from beyond the arc. My bounce pass met him at the free throw line where, at his speed, he took a wrong-footed leap into the air and clanged the ball off the backboard so hard it practically started the other team’s fast break for them. His soccer literacy and spacial skills had put him in the right position, but his lack of experience and practice with catching and finishing at full speed caused a rather spectacular turnover that was at least partially my fault for thinking he could handle the situation.

If I had made a similar cut to the goal on the futbol pitch, the result would only have looked good up until I tried to actually header the ball in…

The Boy who DIDN’T Cry Wolf
No matter how much court awareness a person has, it’s impossible keep track of all five defenders at the same time, especially if one is dribbling. It’s a teammate’s job to warn the ball handler when someone comes up from behind to tap the ball away. In the pickup games I played growing up in Minnesota we would yell some variation of ‘look out behind you‘. This works pretty well provided the defender pauses while you complete the five syllable utterance and your teammate processes it. It was a revelation to hear people playing pickup in Texas simply yelling ‘wolf‘ to warn of a rogue attempt to steal the ball. Not yelling wolf when a defender is coming up on a teammate who doesn’t or can’t see them approaching is a as much attributable to the person standing wide open as it is the fault of the dribbler.

If someone had cried wolf maybe Lin wouldn’t have lost the ball…

I had just turned the corner on the pick and roll, I saw the post defender take two steps toward me so I looked right and passed left to a wide-open teammate. Instead of getting an easy layup, the ball sailed out of bounds. He hadn’t been expecting the pass and seemed to be startled when it flew by him. A lack of familiarity with my game and a shoot-first pickup culture converged to turn an easy layup into an empty possession. Thus the Surprise! turnover is a common outcome between two ballers playing with each other for the first time.

Make this pass during a pickup game and there’s a good chance it’ll end up floating out of bounds

Irrationality and Outliers
This final grouping is a bit of a hodgepodge of turnover archetypes held together under the construct of stubbornness in the face of fate. Sometimes we’re put in positions that require us to try things we have no business doing. Other times we try things that are just pig-headed and short-sighted, in both cases I suggest that a separation from what is normally thought of as sound on-court strategy ensues–leading to the turnover types below.

The Ginobili
When playing pickup ball at the UIUC’s ARC gym, I adjust my role depending on what court I’m playing on and who I’m playing with. If I’m on court 1 I tend to focus on rebounding, defense, spot-up shooting, and quick passes. If I’m playing on court 2 a.k.a. the JV court I’m a bit more aggressive in looking for my shot, running pick and rolls, and probing with the basketball in my hands. If I’m on the scrub court (court 3) I break out my Manu and Andre Miller impersonations.

If I tried my court 3 antics on court 1 my pickup PER would rival that of Austin Rivers’ rookie season. It’s not that I’m afraid to fail or push my limits so much as I know who I can take advantage of and who won’t be fooled by my psudo-improvisational, set of five crafty moves. I also know what type of teammates will try and find the flow with me, and how much differential athleticism I can overcome and still pull the moves off. My court #3 antics are a sort of Deleuzian experiment in pickup basketball that’s useful but sometimes useful for the other team. A lot of pickup ballers lack the capacity or willingness to change their role, mode of address or style of play based on the on-court ecology, team needs, and the level of their opponent. When they get the ball they try their signature move no matter who is guarding them. While it shows confidence, doing so again and again in the face of failure smacks of delusion.

A few years ago I racked up quite a few Ginobilis when I played IM basketball with a pickup baller friend at UT. I got it in my head that I needed to do things for the team that I hadn’t practiced or done consistently since before I started grad school. The result was much like what we saw from Ginobili during the 2013 NBA Finals.

The above paragraphs should make it clear that I’m not anti Ginobili, I appreciate his Thelonious Monk-like melodies, his de-centered, bliss-following game (Colas, 2013) and recognize that he’s a valuable asset to the Spurs. From 2002 to 2008 his hybrid brand of basketball (Colas, 2011) was an asset on the court against anyone. By 2013 however, he was an asset most consistently as a 6th man going up against the reserves in regular season games and occasionally against starters. This resonates with his statistical dip in performance as well as his highlights. Looking at the most popular video of his most memorable moves during the 2012-2013 season reveals masterful passing, dribbling, and shot-making against reserves playing for the Raptors, Sixers, Pelicans, Suns, Kings, and Magic.

The best of Ginobili 2012-2013

When Ginobili was asked to do his thing against the Heat’s starting five in the context of a seven game series they keyed in and found patterns in his improvisations. They watched out for certain tricks and proclivities and enjoyed a formidable advantage in differential athleticism. Their calculating vigilance and his somewhat diminished physical capacity combined to expose the metaphorical distance between his 2013 self and his elite self of years gone by (bleacherreport.com). I don’t blame Manu for the Spurs losing the Finals, I think they needed him to try and do his alliterative prose poem point guard thing, especially with Tony Parker playing on a hamstring and a half. Nevertheless, his efforts resulted in what looked like sloppy play and easy transition baskets for the Heat. With Manu handling the ball there is rarely a centered or middle space. His possessions are either useful or they aren’t, they work or it don’t. And quite often, in 2013, they didn’t and they weren’t.

What you get when you ask 2013 Ginobili to try and be 2008 Manu…

Translated to the pickup court, this type of turnover is named The Ginobili because of the many ballers who to play ‘their game’ no matter who they’re up against, no matter what the result, and no matter how unorthodox their approach.

Terminal Masculinity
Masculinity is a necessary, tangible type of on-court cultural capital. While often implicit, ballers know they’re expected to bring it when they’re on the court. They’re told they need to come hard when driving the lane and in the face of any obstacle they’re told they need to man up (even and especially the female players).

Ballers know Manning Up will protect them from all obstacles.

Sometimes however this sort of performed masculinity is taken to the extreme and turnovers ensue. If you’ve played pickup for any length of time you’ve played with that dude who absolutely refuses to call a foul. They’re usually great guys to play with cause they go hard and have your back but occasionally their credo gets in the way of winning. I remember playing against this one team who was uber physical, they’d hack you before the ball was even checked in. This hyper-aggressive style is, in itself, a form of masculinity that claims it’s bringing a streetball flavor. Physicality is relative but most court cultures have an implicitly determined level of permissible contact beyond which most players either call a foul or start a shoving match. When players refuse to call fouls despite being battered during double teams or soundly beaten on drives to the basket the ‘man points’ they win come at the expense of getting a shot up.

If your teammate took hits like this and didn’t call fouls would you be more impressed with the manliness or more frustrated with the missed opportunities to score?

Character Turnover
A Character Turnover is when a possession is forfeited because it is the right thing to do. I have yet to see this type of turnover in a pickup game but if there ever was a more altruistic empty possession than the one in the clip below I’d like to know about it.

The heartwarming story of a turnover

You Shall Not Pass
A few years ago I played with this guy I’ll call Karl who, if you committed a single turnover, would demand that you not bring the ball up court or do much dribbling or passing for the rest of the game. In retrospect I think he was dealing with some serious Off-Court Stress Spillover. His approach however led to increased turnovers in that his teammates sometimes tried an extra-difficult pass or dribble drive just to prove to him that he wasn’t the team’s coach or supreme leader. This of course led to Karl fixating even more on turnovers and internal team conflict.

Karl, like this skateboarder, misused Gandalf’s Credo


At the end of this 6200+ word sortie into the pantheon of the turnover I’m left feeling better about empty possessions in general. I still don’t like em, but I see their macro-cultural value. Maybe we can’t all shoot like Kevin Durant, or dunk like LeBron James; maybe none of us can dominate in the paint like Hakeem, Dwight, or Shaq did; and we surely don’t have 17 years to build up a repertoire of impossible-to-block shots like Kobe, but we can turn the ball over in equally spectacular fashion.

Turnovers connect basketball players of all levels and ages in a way that other facets of the game can’t. In basketball, as in life, it’s our imperfections that anchor us to each other much more than our fleeting mastery. So the next time you want to berate a teammate or yourself for committing yet another turnover, remember that Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas led the league in turnovers per game averages (Wikipedia), so take half a second to smile and shake it off, then get your head back in the game, get your butt down the court, and play some D!

The T-Mac approach to dealing with turnovers

The Algebra of Scoring and The Calculus of Keeping Score


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One of the first things a pickup baller does when coming to a new court (after they’ve found out who’s got next and if they have five) is to find out what scoring system they use. Watch a few possessions and you know if the cats can play, watch a little while longer and you notice who can shoot, and who (if anyone) passes. You can tell if they prefer turn-taking, clear-out, iso-style pickup–the cognitive equivalent of tic-tac-toe and checkers or if their approach is more strategic–say like chess or go. Do they collectively treat pickup like a sprint, like a marathon, like a brawl, or more like a picnic? These are all things one can get a sense of after just a few minutes of observation, yet, scoring is a parameter of play that’s better asked about up front. Not only does knowing if games go to 11, 12, 15, 21, or 30 help you estimate if you’ve got enough time to go take a Bobby Hurley before your game starts, it ensures that you’ll avoid being seen as a total newbie on the court, and it enables the application of the correct end-game strategies.

While pickup is an activity that gives its participants a sense of ‘having fun,’ most regular pickup ballers equate fun with winning–thus the importance of keeping score. Knowing the scoring intervals: ones and twos (1sN2s) or twos and threes (2sN3s) combines with the score to impact the micro and macro elements of strategic late-game play that can mean the difference between winning or watching the next game from the sidelines.

Unlike Josh Waitzkin, who offers his opponent a draw, pickup ballers play to win.

Having played regular pickup ball in Austin, Boston, Champaign, Houston, Mankato, Mazatlan, and Quito I’ve experienced a number of different pickup cultures, each with its own system of scoring. With the exception of the ARC courts on the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign campus (where the winning team decides between two different scoring options), most places have a set scoring system. Over time, I’ve built up some theories about the pros, cons, and quirks of each system but I hadn’t explored these in any depth until this past week when I started adding formulas to an Excel spreadsheet and tinkering with some sort of comparative analysis (I thought about doing it in Python but Excel won out due to *prettier* screenshot potential). So in the name of better, more strategic basketball, I give you a math-based analysis of scoring systems with the end-goal of increasing your pickup knowledge and the frequency with which you stand victorious.

How pickup ballers feel after stringing together 6 or 7 wins in a row.

Personally, I find the social/qualitative aspects of pickup basketball are more interesting than trying to quantify those aspects in hopes of getting a paper accepted at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (this would be difficult because, as I explain later, the statistical data on pickup ball is practically non-existent). The social sciences are rife with well-meaning knuckleheads trying to turn things that are more complicated than categories or quantities–things like knowledge, feelings, and learning into numbers. This is a problem in many fields, yet sometimes containing or collapsing complexity into numeric forms in hopes of making sense of things on a grand scale appears to be the only way forward.

In the case of systems of scoring in pickup basketball it makes complete sense to apply mathematical thinking to factors that are by nature, already numerically based. So applying quantitative analysis to systems of scoring pickup basketball passes the knucklehead test.

In the sections below I explain how I came up with the frequencies and percentages I’ve used in the calculations so others can replicate, extend, and/or critique them. Depending on where you work and what you do being seen doing the math may position you as part of the Matherati who (a) should be avoided or (b) are going places and deserve admiration.

Don't panic but this post is computationally intensive

Don’t panic but this post is computationally intensive

We begin our journey with the one provable statistic we have in pickup basketball, namely the score. Pickup ball doesn’t have a stats department, it’s a culture with no administrative overhead and very little organizational reflection. People come and shoot around until it’s their turn to play, they might watch a few plays of the game before theirs to get a sense of the competition, they might ohh and ahh over an in-game dunk or no-look pass but that’s pretty much it. They’re not going to keep track of how many times the winning and losing teams shoot from inside or chuck it from beyond the arc. They aren’t gonna tally up the number of possessions or log  per-player turnovers.

What’s more, even if you found someone to keep stats for a game or two, pickup basketball is so varied that it would take data from hundreds if not thousands of games at dozens of locations to get any rigorous sense of anything. Given our surveillance-culture, this might become possible at some point when security cameras pointed at basketball courts are combined with automated stat-keeping applications by some pickup-baller who also works as a NSA analyst. Until then, pickup ballers and pickup culture chroniclers are left with intuition and accrued sensibilities about a range of basketball-related metrics.

Personally, when I play ball I’m in the moment. I’m not thinking about anything except the current play. That’s part of the beauty of pickup ball, it’s a way of resetting stress levels and clearing one’s mind. It helps block out the off-court world for a few minutes or hours. Cognitive psychology tells us that humans can keep 1-10 pieces of information or 1-4 chunks of knowledge in short-term memory at any given time (about.com). As pickup ballers we’re constantly thinking about so many dynamic in-game factors that even the score of the game we’re playing in can get pushed out of short-term memory. Most games have at least one in-game stoppage wherein teams try and remember who scored, which team is leading, and why the other team isn’t actually up by two like they say they are. This pretty much rules out keeping track of in-game shooting percentages, turnover rates, and shot distribution.

Forgetting the score is not limited to pickup basketball.

While each court may vary in terms of how many points are needed to win (11, 12, 15, 21, 30) and what scoring intervals are used to get there (1sN2s or 2sN3s), all courts do have an endpoint (either fixed or win-by-two). So let’s begin with the cold hard numeric facts of pickup basketball and see what, if anything, they tell us.

Part I: Scoring Intervals and Thresholds

What is the range, minimum, and maximum number of FGs needed to win at the different scoring levels?

In 2003, the NBA changed the first round of the playoffs from a best of five series to a best of seven (nba.com). While increased revenue was surely a factor in making the switch (random people on the Yahoo message boards insist that the unpublished per-game playoff revenue to be between 1.25 and 2.45 million), the NBA’s public rationale for going to a seven game series for the first round was because they felt the longer the series, the more likely the superior team would advance to the next round. The league stated that this change would ensure better basketball throughout the playoffs and not overly reward atypical hot shooting.

Who knows if the 1994 first round series between the 8-seed Nuggets and the 1-seed Supersonics would have ended with Dikembe celebrating if the series had been a best of seven instead of a best of five. [Photo: businessinsider.com]

More play being an advantage to the better team is also true within a single game. There’s a reason each successive level of competition plays longer games. Most high school games are played using 8 minute quarters resulting in 32 total minutes of play, college games use two 20 minute halves for 40 mintues of game play and NBA games employ 12 minute quarters–yielding 48 minute games. The progressively shorter shot clock is designed to create more possessions which increases watch-ability while the added time is meant to improve the chances that a team’s performance will have less to do with luck and regress or stay somewhere close to their mean or average ability level (Lowe, 2013).

Pickup ball not having a time limit, requires a reliance on reaching a certain score to determine a winner. Any 10 pickup ballers about to begin would happily play a competitive game to 45 by 1sN2s. This of course would make it impossible for anyone else to get on the court. Some games to 15 by 1sN2s can take up to 50 minutes to play as it is, imagine what it’d be like if each game took 2 to 3 hours to play? People would end up calling two down before going to the library to study for 4 hours before returning to play their game against a very tired opponent.

I don’t expect any of the findings in this post to influence on-court scoring systems but I do have some biases about what systems do the best job at preserving the general strategic elements of balanced competitive basketball. In the body of this post I’ll look at the different systems already in place to get a sense of how they compare to each other. Once all the comparisons have been made I’ll critique elements of different scoring systems in the conclusion. The comparison will include the following scoring systems:

  • Games to 11 (only 1s) -Outdoor courts: e.g. Parque Carolina Quito Ecuador
  • Games to 11 (1sN2s) -Outdoor: Parque Martiniano Carvajal Mazatlan Mexico
  • Games to 12 (1sN2s) -Outdoor: Root Memorial outside Houston’s Toyota Center
  • Games to 15 (1sN2s) -Indoor courts: Option 1 at the ARC Gym at UIUC
  • Games to 21 (2sN3s) -Indoor: Option 2 at the ARC Gym at UIUC + Noon Games
  • Games to 30 (2sN3s) -Indoor: Gregory Gym at UT Austin

Except for the single-interval purists who play to 11 and give 1 point for all made FGs, there’s a range of total made field goals that add up too a winning score. The table below shows this range organized by scoring system.

The range of made field goals required to win based on different pickup scoring systems

The range of made field goals required to win based on different pickup scoring systems

As one might expect, playing to 11 or 12 by 1sN2s requires the fewest FGs to win while playing to 30 by 2sN3s and 15 by 1sN2s requires the most.

The range suggests a greater variance in the number of FGs needed to win based on possible FGAs at different combinations of scoring intervals. Making FGs from beyond the arc as opposed to inside the arc matters more in games played with 1sN2s than in games played using 2sN3s as scoring intervals–this is especially so when the game is played to a higher number. Conversely, the fewer the points needed to win, the smaller the FG range (especially when the scoring intervals are closer together (2sN3s)).

As mentioned before, a rather curious quirk of the courts at the ARC gym at UIUC is that the winning team gets to choose if they want to play to 21 by 2sN3s or to 15 by 1sN2s. Previously, I would have thought most teams choosing to play to 21 by 2sN3s did so primarily because they felt they didn’t shoot as well from beyond the arc as the other team. After looking at the FG range, it seems like there are several different reasons a team might choose to play to 21 by 2sN3s.

  1. Everyone agrees to play shorter games because it’s the beginning of the semester and the courts are clogged with freshmen who have yet to fail their first exam.
  2. The alpha baller on the winning team has a girlfriend who is watching so he wants to rack up as many wins as possible.
  3. The winning team doesn’t think they’ll shoot as well from beyond the arc as the squad who has next.
  4. The winning team doesn’t think they’re as good as the challengers but may be able to win a shorter game before the other team settles into a rhythm or recovers from cold shooting due to a lack of warm-up time.
  5. The winners are old-school (they also keep suggesting teams play shirts vs skins)
  6. The winners usually play in a Noon Game and need to get back to work in exactly 50 minutes.

One more thing about scoring intervals and FGs made. Unless you shoot FGs from beyond the arc as well as you shoot from within the arc, whether the court plays by 1sN2s or 2sN3s there are times when shooting from beyond the arc doesn’t offer any advantage. For instance if a team has 17 points in a game to 21 by 2sN3s they’ll need two FGs no matter if they’re shooting layups or from way out by the drinking fountains.

While this isn’t exactly breaking news, it denotes a pattern. Making an odd number of FGs from beyond the arc when playing by 2sN3s to an odd winning score like 21 or making an even number of FGs from beyond the arc is optimal when playing to say 30 by 2sN3s is more efficient. Likewise, in games scored by 1sN2s, an optimal number of FGs from inside the arc coincides with the winning or target score being odd or even. In other words, it’s a simple pattern related to overage. Making 6 FGs from beyond the arc is more than you need in a game to 11 by 1sN2s as you waste the final points. Likewise making an odd number of FGs from beyond the arc in a game to 30 by 2sN3s or an even number of FGs from beyond the arc in a game to 21 by 2sN3s results in a wasted FG from a longer distance which often means a lower shooting percentage. .

Patterns are more easily spotted as the game progresses.

How can we use the above scoring system data to theorize about other statistical phenomena?

From this point on we shall be leaving the firm foundation of fact and journeying together through the murky marshes of memory into thickets of wildest guesswork. -Dumbledore in JK Rowling’s HBP

As the quote suggests, once we move beyond FGs needed to win, we find ourselves in a bit of a guessing game due to the volatile nature of pickup ball. I’m not talking about conflict or fighting but rather, the unpredictability of the play. While there are some ballers who play often enough and/or are just plain good enough to have consistently good games, the most consistent thing about pickup ballers is their inconsistent play. For instance, I’ll have a few games where I’m leading the fellas like an inspired, knows-what-he’s-doing Jackie Moon (see clip below starting at 1:48).

Jackie Moon at his basketball best.

But then, I’ll have a handful of games where I mostly rebound and play off the ball despite being a capable lead guard (imagine a less dirty Reggie Evans). I’ll follow that up with a few games where I play like Austin Rivers in his rookie NBA season or Manu during most of the 2013 Finals.

In 2012-2013 Austin Rivers had one of the worst seasons in the history of the league [mashed-up espn.com image]

In 2012-2013 Austin Rivers had one of the worst seasons statistically in the history of the league [mashed-up espn.com stats and image]

So until the Edward Snowden of pickup basketball comes along and gives us the secret data, we’re left with educated guesses about: beyond the arc tendencies, shooting %, shot distribution, turnover rate, number of possessions, not to mention True Shooting percentage, PER, WARP, and BPRs. But we do have a wealth of NBA and college basketball statistics. It might be useful to estimate and extrapolate based on years of observation and comparative values within these well-chronicled basketball cultures to see what such inquiry might uncover.

For this and other stats I’ll start with whatever Google returns, in some cases it’ll be league-wide averages at the NBA and NCAA levels for the past season. When I don’t have access to league-wide averages I’ll cherry pick a team. Once or twice, data from High School players is included. When nothing else comes up, I’ll quote random dudes on the Yahoo! message boards. The idea is to start with actual numbers so that the estimates that follow are based in something more than pure intuition.

Brian Fantana sums up the precision of estimated statistics.

What is a ballpark pickup basketball field goal shooting percentage?

In 2012-2013 the Love-less T-Wolves shot 44% from the field and 31% from behind the arc (nba.com) while the Big 10′s Cornhuskers shot 40% and 30% respectively (cbssportsline.com). While these teams represent some of the lowest levels of achievement in their respective leagues, we can only expect pickup ballers to collectively shoot at a still-lower level of proficiency.

In a test of two thousand HS athletes’ jump shot execution, only 9% of them were found to have the proper angle and depth of entry over the rim. This lack of optimal depth and angle (correctable for the low low price of $3999) is said to reduce shooting percentage. We can only assume that few pickup ballers are among the Chris Mullin-like 9% who have optimal arc and depth. Anticipating that pickup ballers will collectively shoot a lower percentage than NBA and NCAA players, we’ll use the disparity between the pro and college averages as a point of departure in calculating inside the arc and beyond the arc FG%.

The geometry of the jumpshot [photo: arcu.ca]

Ray Allen using the NOAH during practice.

So if we deprecate Nebraska’s FG% by the difference between it and the T-Pup’s FG% we get 36% on FGs inside the arc and 29% outside the arc. However this crude Pro-College adjustment is glaringly problematic in a minimum of two ways. First, comparing FG% beyond arcs set at different distances is questionable, and second, unless you’re the Bobcats or Andrew Bynum, pro and college teams and players work hard to ensure that only the best shooters take the more distant shots. In pickup ball, unless a team has played with each other several times or has an uncanny feel for their roles, everyone, including the guy in the neon tank top who just finished lifting weights, feels entitled to chuck a few from the cheap seats.

For example, a few days ago I was playing on a team that had a guy who was money from inside the paint (4 for 5) and yet he kept drifting outside to unapologetically heave set-shots from deep with a conviction that would have made Kobe proud.  He went something like 0 for 8 from behind the arc and we lost (I’m not saying that he alone cost us the game, but his terrible shot selection really hurt us as he was also our best rebounder).

NBA Guard Propensity to Shoot or Pass also Plotted by Usage Rate [Photo: sbnation.com 2011]

I tried to encourage him to keep posting up but after he bricked his 6th three I asked the guy he came with if he could get him to stop taking 3s. ‘He won’t listen, he just wants to shoot,’ he told me. When I suggested to Mr. Chitwood that maybe he wasn’t a three-point shooter he told me to, ‘shut the ***k up‘ and promptly clanked another pull-up from deep–simultaneously proving his right to shoot, his irrational confidence, and his utter lack of shooting prowess. It’s important to have confidence but it’s also a good idea to work together based on a winning strategy.

Confidence is important, especially when paired with actual skill.

While pickup ballers usually have a bit more of a conscience than the guy I described above, there’s less discipline in terms of who shoots when, from where, and under what conditions. If teammates are missing shots from 2-6′ I’m generally supportive as they at least managed to take higher percentage shots. But if they brick a bunch from deep I tend feel the game potentially slipping away, especially if there are other people on the team who are actually making shots.

In 2012-2013 NBA centers shot just 10 percentage points lower on three pointers than guards, yet they took less than 1% of all the FGs taken from beyond the arc (see table below based on data from nba.com).

Beyond the arc shooting data by position for the NBA 2012-2013 season

Beyond the arc shooting data by position for the NBA 2012-2013 season

Given the less-strategic, more-democratic distribution of shot taking; adjusting shooting percentages downward yeilds an indoor estimated inside the arc FG% of 34% and a beyond the arc FG% of 21% (I adjusted 10 percentage points downward by subtracting 2% points from inside the arc and 8% points from the beyond the arc).

What about outdoor shooting percentages?

Playing outdoors requires a whole range of coping strategies, from playing on oddly slippery surfaces, to extreme temperatures, to cockroach migrations, burned retinas, humidity, sea breezes, and gale-force winds.

In the history of pro and collegiate basketball there are very few outdoor games. The Suns have played in three preseason games in the past five years while college basketball has had two NCAA Men’s games played under the Carrier Classic monicker.

After beating #20 San Diego State University on a aircraft carrier Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said this of coaching his team in the Carrier Classic, “This was a tough day, this was a hard game. You had to get to the basket. That was the only way you were going to score. You weren’t going to make any jump shots.”

NBA preseason games played outdoors have averaged 41% from inside the arc and 26% from deep (wikipedia.com). Meanwhile, college athletes playing on the decks of ships have collectively shot 42% from inside the arc and 14.8% from beyond it (NBCsports.com, espn.com). Informed by these numbers let’s reduce the outdoor pickup FG% slightly from 34% to 31% for FGAs from inside the arc and more drastically from 21% to 13% from beyond the arc (again an overall 10 percentage point drop but just 1.8% below the collegiate percentage from deep).

To be sure, there are indoor and outdoor pickup games played with skill, strategy, and restraint by teams that employ set roles that include shooters who convert at levels well above these estimates, yet collectively indoor and outdoor pickup basketball is often a master class in rebounding.

What is the average number of field goal attempts needed to win from inside and beyond the arc?

Based on the shooting percentages established above and plugged into the table below, we see that shooting exclusively from inside the arc is 1 to 3.5 FGAs more efficient when scoring with 2s and 3s (to 21 and 30 respectively). Conversely, when scoring with 1s and 2s (to 15), shooting solely from beyond the arc is 6 FGAs more efficient than shooting only from inside the arc. Meanwhile, the outdoor penalty for shooting from deep is between 8-10 FGAs per game.

Average number of field goal attempts needed to win shooting exclusively from inside or beyond the arc based on a set team average field goal percentage of 34% or 31% inside and 21% or 13% outside depending if the game is indoors or outdoors.

Average number of field goal attempts needed to win shooting exclusively from inside or beyond the arc based on a set team average field goal percentage of 34% or 31% inside and 21% or 13% outside depending if the game is indoors or outdoors.

What is the ratio or distribution between shots taken from inside and beyond the arc?

Unless you play on a court where all field goals count as 1 point, you know that playing an varied game improves spacing and (theoretically) shooting efficiency. Based on the semi-informed estimate as to the FG% for FGAs inside and beyond the arc in the previous section, the next factor to estimate is FG distribution. To be sure, FG% and FG distribution fluctuate and co-influence each other between and within games but again I’ll attempt to base FG distribution on existing NBA and college level data, making educated guesses at how they might be adjusted.

League-wide averages for the NBA (2012-2013) report field goal attempt distributions at 75% inside the arc and 25% from outside the arc (hoopdata.com). Finding a dearth of aggregated college data, I used the University of Texas at Austin’s 2012-2013 statistics for field goal distribution. Last year the Longhorns attempted 69% of their FGs from inside the arc and 31% from deep (statsheet.com). Let’s assume that the NBA-UT disparity is due to higher levels of organization and restraint at the pro level, meaning that we might decrement the pickup averages by the difference between the NBA and Texas numbers. This gives us a split of 63% from inside the arc and 37% from deep for indoor games. Outdoor averages for the NBA (80% and 20%) and the NCAA (77% and 23 %) are understandably more conservative so recalibrating the distribution for pickup puts us at 68% from inside the arc and 32% from beyond it (5% adjustment toward inside the arc is both triple the difference in discrepancy between pro and college outdoor distribution and a 5% bump up in the indoor rate dove-tailing with the 5% bump in pro-indoor and pro-outdoor distribution).

Estimated number of field goals needed to win at given scoring systems

Estimated number of field goals needed to win at given scoring systems

At those splits, based on the percentages calculated earlier, one tier and two outliers emerge. The main tier, including playing to 11 (both ways), 12, and 15 average around 40 FGAs per team per game, while playing to 21 by 2sN3s and 30 by 2sN3s come in well below (32.7) and above (45.4) respectively.

How might we estimate the effect of the And-1 rule on the number of FGAs needed to win?

I’ve only ever played on two courts were And-1 continuation was allowed. But, as one of those places is the University of Texas at Austin’s Gregory Gym (30 by 2sN3s) where I played pickup for seven years, I calculated the And-1 effect. When adding in an And-1 adjustment one must consider both the foul rate and the probability that the basket will go in despite the contact (or claimed contact) at each scoring interval. The most easily-available data on this dates back to the 2005-2006 NBA season (82games.com) that shows Shaq getting awarded foul shots on 8.5% of his FGAs. Meanwhile Ray Allen was given foul shots on 5.9% of his attempts that same year.

Shaq converting despite getting fouled.

Beyond a dirty look or two, calling a foul while in the act of shooting in an And-1 scoring system has no downside. If the shot goes in the shooter’s team gets the points, if the shot misses the mark, the shooter’s team gets the ball again. This dynamic, and the undisciplined nature of pickup defense, leads me to set the inside the arc called foul rate in And-1 scoring systems at 17%, double that of Shaq’s called foul rate (Shaq attempted no shots from beyond the arc in 2005-2006 (basketball-reference.com)). Setting the foul rate for shots beyond the arc is a bit more difficult as no players listed shot solely from behind the arc. Ray Allen, still with Seattle at the time, took less than half of his FGAs from behind the arc (nba.com) and was probably fouled with greater frequency on his inside-the-arc FGAs than those he took from beyond the arc. I’m going to estimate/guess that he was fouled on 3% of his attempts from deep. In keeping with the formula above I’ll increment it to 6%.

Ray Allen, master of the four point play and corner three.

NBA players as a whole in 2005-2006 made the basket on shooting fouls 28% of the time (82games.com). I didn’t find data that broke this up by shot location so these calculations get extra flimsy. Based on lower overall pickup ball shooting percentages (and the fact that pickup ballers don’t practice shooting with contact) I’m going to reduce this number by 40% for shots inside the arc and by 70% for shots beyond the arc–giving us a basket-is-good conversion rate of 17% on shots inside the arc and 8% on shots from deep.

Based on those numbers, the FGAs to win on a court playing to 30 by 2sN3s allowing And-1s adjusts to 44.5 FGAs to win–thus reducing the number of FGAs to complete a game by about 1.

What is a reasonable turnovers per possession rate?

In making the jump from FGAs to possessions–possession being reset or incremented on every shot attempt–we’ve got to adjust for Ginobilis, I mean turnovers. If you’ve played enough pickup ball, you’ve witnessed or contributed to a game where the total number of turnovers (bad passes, stolen passes, traveling calls, double dribble calls, blocks…) exceeded the number of made FGs. I remember watching a game where more than two minutes went by without a FG attempt. As I mention in a post that develops a taxonomy of 25 different types of turnovers, empty possessions are natural within the course of game play, they are especially frequent when the players involved in a sequence are trying to do things above their capabilities.

During the 2013 Finals, the Spurs asked Ginobili to do more than he was able.

Since this feels like a time to be bearish on pickup ball, instead of taking the league averages I’ll pick teams performing near the bottom of their leagues. In the 2012-2013 season, the Houston Rockets turned the ball over on an NBA-worst 16% of their possessions (teamrankings.com) while Mississippi State University basketball ranked at the bottom of the NCAA–giving back more than 24% of their possessions in 2012-2013 (teamrankings.com). Incrementing the Bulldog’s figure by half the difference between it and the Rocket’s percentage gives us an average of one turnover per 3.5ish possessions or 28% of the time. Turnovers can be contagious and especially frequent in transition as players are in very different positions and moving at different speeds than they do when in half-court settings.

Transition play creates a-typical situations often resulting in turnovers.

What is the adjusted average number of total possessions to finish a game?

Based on these calculations of FG%, FG distribution, FGAs, and turnovers per possession the adjusted possessions for a single team to win is shown in the table below.

Adjusted number of possessions to win

Adjusted number of possessions to win

The only in-game event that creates separation between teams is offensive rebounds. In 2012-2013 the difference between the average offensive rebounding rate for the best offensive rebounding team in the NBA and the worst, was about 5 (teamrankings.com). What’s more, the Spurs and Heat were in the bottom three in offensive rebounding rate while Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, and New Orleans were in the top ten. According to calculations based on more than 20 years of NBA rebounding and possession data (wagesofwins.com) there is no significant correlation between offensive rebounds and winning unless you calculate shots per possession and winning percentage and even then it’s slight.

In my pickup basketball manifesto I mention how I used to go after offensive rebounds on a regular basis but felt that I could make more of a positive impact on my team by releasing right after a shot in an effort to get back on defense to limit fast-break and transition baskets. I pick my spots in terms of hitting the offensive glass now, only doing it when I trust my teammates to get back or when the feeling that we absolutely must score on a particular possession.

Since we’re counting an offensive rebound as a new possession even this weak correlation has no direct impact on our calculations (except for exposing how I’ve avoided calculating defensive and offensive rebounding rates). Given the lack of relevant correlations between winning and an advantage on the offensive boards, we’ll just multiply the per-team possession total by 2 to arrive at the per-game totals.

Estimated number of total possessions in a pickup game by scoring system.

Estimated number of total possessions in a pickup game by scoring system.

Part III: It’s about Time

What is the Average Possession and Game Length for a given game of pickup?

In 1954-1955 pro basketball’s governors instituted a shot clock (NBA.com). The shot clock ensured that weaker teams or teams with a lead couldn’t just stall game play to increase their chances of winning. Having a set amount of time to shoot also rewards good defenses by forcing teams into bad shots near the end of the shot clock instead of letting them just continue to probe.

The average NBA game in 2012-2013 had 191 possessions (teamrankings.com) and takes 48 minutes of timed play and about 2.5 hours of actual time to complete (yahoo message boards). After some digging and thinking about how one might calculate average possession length (APL) as well as average game length, the data seems useful even if the nature and culture of non-timed basketball games preempt concerns about stalling during pickup basketball.

Very few pickup players, much less teams, are willing to grind out a possession, patiently waiting for the best possible shot to come open via a pick and roll, off the ball screens, back cuts, post-re-post, or drive and kick, then reset and probe actions. Most pickup ballers want to push the ball up the court and attack as soon as possible (unless one of them happens to be trailing the play in which case he or she may call for everyone else to wait up). Most pickup ballers seem to be playing against an internal shot clock styled after the 2009 Phoenix Suns (if baseball would emulate the Suns’ pace of play it might actually be watchable).

Playing fast led to lots of easy baskets for the 2009 Suns.

The normal grammar of a possession in pickup ball goes something like these archetypal ‘plays’.

Rebounded Missed FG: Karl rebounds the ball. Karl passes to Larry who races up the court. Larry passes to a Chung-Kai who takes two dribbles and shoots a 5 footer.

  • Elapsed time: 3 seconds.

In-bounded after Made FG: Karl in-bounds the ball to Larry. Larry brings the ball across the half-court line and passes to Carlos who takes three dribbles and passes to Larry. Larry passes to Chung-Kai on the other wing who shoots a mid-range jumper.

  • Elapsed time: 11-15 seconds.

Offensive rebound: Karl gets the rebound two feet from the basket. Karl pump fakes twice and shoots from 2 feet away. Karl rebounds his own miss, pump fakes once and shoots from 2 feet away. Karl rebounds his own previously rebounded miss and shoots from 2 feet away.

  • Elapsed time: 5 seconds (3 possessions).

Backcourt turnover: Larry uses his freakishly long arms to poke the ball away from Team A’s point guard. Larry races down court and shoots a layup or pulls up for a shot from behind the arc while Team A’s point guard, too embarrassed to give chase, hangs his head and pouts.

  • Elapsed time: 3 seconds

Post-foul checked ball: Larry passes the ball to Carlos curling off a moving screen from Karl. Carlos immediately shoots an elbow jumper.

  • Elapsed time: 1 second

Defensive rebound: Raj grabs a rebound and throws the ball up-court ahead of what appears to be a sprinting Carlos. The ball sails over Carlos’ head and out of bounds.

  • Elapsed time: 2 seconds

After writing these out and thinking about personal experience. I wonder if the 2012 Clippers might be a better analogue than the 2009 Suns. These highlights (below) really capture the spirit of the pace and precision of pickup ball, plus Vinny del Negro has never looked better.

A more fitting analogue for fast-paced pickup ball.

In 2004, 82games.com broke down NBA teams’ usage of the 24 second shot clock into four categories titled Quick (a FGA within 10 seconds), Early (11-15 seconds), Structured (16-20 seconds) and Late (21-24 seconds). While long possessions can happen at the end of tight games in pickup ball, the possession archetypes below suggest that most games experience a change or increment in possession by the 15 second mark, thus the re-calibration and category renaming.

Attack! A FGA (or turnover) in 1-8 seconds (6 second average). Most pickup fastbreaks take place within this time frame, also offensive rebound put-backs, and many checked-ball plays.

Thrust A FGA (or turnover) in 9-15 seconds (13 second average). Most half-court sets off of made baskets take about this long, also possessions executed by teams that have built up some familiarity and trust, and teams playing in their 3rd or 4th consecutive game.

911 Emergency A FGA (or turnover) in 16-20 seconds (18 second average). By this time in a possession, players either start to feel nervous, like the shot clock is about to go off and they should shoot to avoid ridicule, or they convince themselves that the reason none of the other players on their team have shot yet is because they want them to shoot. A contested fade-away or an over-dribbling-induced turnover are common outcomes.

Hot Potato A FGA (or turnover) in 21 or more seconds (25 second average). It’s the end of the game, the score is tight and the defense is pressing up on ball handlers (many of which don’t really have what could be considered a ‘handle’). What follows is a series of stalled dribble hand-offs up near half-court until a turnover, a called foul, or blind drive to the hoop transpires.

Of course there are teams that deliberately take 20 or more seconds per possession to let things develop. Such teams are usually older and have played pickup with each other for years or they played HS ball together for some single ‘A’ school in a city you’ve never heard of and ended up at the same university meaning they could keep the team together and dominate the pickup courts in an effort to build a legendary collection of RecSports IM Championship tee-shirts. While such teams are usually successful in pickup, they are rare.

Behold, the coveted Championship Tee-Shirt! Team photo of ‘Nashed Potatos and McGravy’ with their wearable IM basketball ‘trophy’ [photo: coloradomesa.edu]

Despite the slightly different intervals, let’s use the 2004-2005 Suns shot clock usage distribution of 50%, 27%, 17%, and 6% (82games.com) to calculate the ATP for pickup basketball possessions for the respective Attack!, Thrust, 911 Emergency, and Hot Potato possession levels.

Estimated time (in minutes) needed to play each possession until a winner is declared

Estimated time (in minutes) needed to play each possession until a winner emerges

The final step in answering the question of time has to do with stoppage time. Not the futbol sense of stoppage time where they play extra time to make up for faked injuries and streakers. But rather the time it takes for teams to inbound the ball, track down an errant pass that has gone into the next court, or the time it takes when players argue over who scored last, which team is ahead, and whether or not the guy wearing the super-saggy shorts just executed a legal or illegal crab-step.

We’ll add 3 seconds for in-bounding the ball after made field goals. Five seconds for tracking the ball down after 25% of turnovers (the stoppage-of-play variety such as when ball soars out of bounds or someone calls a violation like traveling…), fifteen seconds per called foul–this gives time for some arguing about the legitimacy of the call as well as re-establishing the score. Finally, we’ll add 30 seconds per game for the inevitable impasse involving the only data points ballers care about. You know, the moment in the game when everyone has to count up how many times they scored and someone disagrees, or there’s some sort of Alpha Baller test of wills going on and neither side wants to back down.

Adjusted average time to finish a game of pickup

Adjusted average time to finish a game of pickup

Part IV: Scoring by 1s and 2s versus 2s and 3s

When I invited a few people who play a lot of pickup basketball to comment on an early version of this analysis I got the following response from Ben Shoemaker.

My biggest pet peeve with pickup [is] playing by 1′s and 2′s. It’s idiotic. Basically it just means that playing the right way and getting layups is dumb, and you should just jack up as many threes as possible. It is not basketball, it’s a game disguised as basketball

Ben’s perspective is shared by many and is borne out by the extrapolated analysis in this post when applied to indoor pickup ball. A post on the Basketbawful blog also points out the pitfalls of scoring by 1sN2s when playing indoors:

there are serious drawbacks to making the three-pointer worth double a normal basket. Players are much more likely to bomb away from downtown without regard to common sensibility. After all, hitting 25 percent of your twos is like hitting 50 percent of your ones, right? … This leads to many players shooting the three almost exclusively, and therefore not developing any other tangible on-court skill (like, say, passing the ball). It also creates circumstances under which a team can actually lose a game despite hitting almost twice as many field goals as the opposing team. Nothing is more frustrating than executing a precise and efficient offense and still losing to a bunch of selfish, one-trick gunners.

Recently, Ben Gaines wrote an extensive post about his issues with how scoring by 1s and 2s changes the game:

Let’s say I’m an NBA player who shoots 50% generally from inside the three-point arc and 40% outside of it. Some fans look at this and say, 40% * 10 three-point tries = 12 points and 50% * 10 two-point tries is = 10 points, so shouldn’t you always take the three? The answer is no, primarily because this faulty analysis ignores the fact that in organized basketball you are far more likely to get fouled and produce valuable free throws when shooting inside the three-point line, so your two-point tries are more valuable than they seem on the face of it. … you’re already more incentivized to play outside than you normally would be; why make things even worse by increasing the value of a three-pointer unnecessarily?

Personally, playing to 30 by 2s and 3s is my favorite scoring system. Games are long enough to have one or two swings in momentum and teams don’t overly benefit from shooting mostly long-range FGAs. In fact, according to the abbreviated table below, shooting mainly or only from inside the arc is more efficient than taking too many shots from deep.

Playing by 1s and 2s makes more sense on the playground where the absence of a bounded visual environment, an abundance of bright sunlight, and the presence of even a light breeze can combine to greatly reduce long-range shooting accuracy. The clip below shows relatively mild outdoor conditions and yet there are no jump shots made beyond 4′. Of course the players in the video are not exactly PUB-GOATs or Alpha Ballers but they resemble players I encounter all the time at the ARC on the UIUC campus. Attacks of poor shooting can happen in indoor pickup as well, but outdoor games just feel different. They don’t revolve around the three point line the way games tend to do indoors, especially when playing by 1s and 2s.

Outdoor conditions can wreak havoc on jump shooters.

My sense is that people score by 1s and 2s on indoor courts to feel closer to the street style of pickup ball, it connects them to playground basketball culture. The problem outlined by the Bens and Basketbawful is that shooting from behind the arc ends up being significantly more advantageous when playing indoors and thus has the potential to change the way the game is played. Based on extrapolated estimates of FG% (see table below), shooting exclusively from deep on an indoor court using the 15 by 1s and 2s scoring system makes for a 6 FGA advantage compared to shooting from inside the arc and a 4 FGA advantage when compared to the extrapolated FG distribution levels.

What scoring intervals tell us about shot distribution.

Games to 11 and 12 are typically outdoor scoring systems while playing to 15, 21, and 30 are usually indoor scoring systems.

The ARC gym at UIUC where I’ve played pickup basketball for the past 2 years at least allows the winning team to shift between the two systems, thereby offering teams the chance to negate the excessive advantage shooting from deep yields. Yet, when teams play 2s and 3s instead of 1s and 2s I haven’t noticed a tangible change in strategy based on scoring system. The game feels just as arc-centric when playing to 21 as it does when playing to 15. Still, based on the extrapolated data in this post, I’ve started to push the 21 by 2s and 3s whenever I can. If I regularly ran with a disciplined crew who understood the underlying advantages of playing the ‘right way’ it might have a bigger impact but when I play the role of primary ball handler I can influence the shots we take by looking to pass into the post more often. When I’m more of a role player on a team I try and adjust my own shot selection based on the scoring system. I’ve also worked to be more patient with chucker teammates when playing to 15 by 1s and 2s.

Part V: Coda

So what has this trek through different aspects of pickup ball given us? While most of the data used in the extrapolations have issues of validity and reliability, my goal was to offer a way of thinking through pickup basketball’s many scoring systems based on something more than (but still guided by) personal intuition. The result is a possible method or way forward for applying extrapolated data to the realm of pickup ball. Specifically it has added some strength to those who see scoring by 1s and 2s when playing indoors as problematic.

Overview of the estimated statistics for pickup basketball

Overview of the estimated statistics for pickup basketball (games to 11 and 12 played on outdoor courts, all others used for indoor pickup)

Like I said several thousand words ago, the journey through the world of extrapolated/estimated/invented pickup basketball statistics requires imagination, research, and observation. Hopefully you found it as entertaining to read as I found writing it to be. Also, consider yourself exempt from doing any further mathematics-related activities for the rest of the workday, maybe someday you can pay be back by picking me up when your team is running next, just tell the guy in the neon tank top that you forgot that you added me before you picked him up.

Jason Schwartzman’s math-class daydream.

Understanding ‘The Noon Game’


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The 'Noon Game'

The ‘Noon Game’

Two weeks ago I was stuck. Between late afternoon meetings and more than a few comments from my girlfriend about getting out of work and the gym at a decent hour I came to the realization that I was either going to have to go a week without playing ball or be forced to join the ‘Noon Game.’ Of course I played ball, but the decision was harder than you might think.

Now, I’m not talking about all games played at noon, I’m specifically writing about standing noon games, which, on university campuses, are sometimes called Fac-Staff games. Most Noon Gamers work full-time, are married, and have kids (if not grandkids). They play at noon to stay active, to network, to avoid the treadmill, to combine interaction with exercise, to add excitement to a life filled with afternoon meetings, and/or because their doctor told them they could either get busy liv’in or get busy dy’in.

One of the perks of working on or near a university campus is the presence of recreation facilities that offer basketball courts, massage, weights, showers, and rent-able lockers within one building. Since the mid 90s these behemoths have been going up across the country and are hubs of activity and a source of school pride. Students love them and prospective students and their parents love the idea of them even more.

With pools, climbing walls, and basketball courts, the highlight of the university campus tour is its student recreation center [photo: Illinois.edu]

The Noon Game on college campuses is usually populated with tenured professors and university staff who are established enough in their jobs to afford them the flexibility of a 60-90 minute lunch break. Rounding out the ranks of the Noon Game players are grad students who are either too early in their PhD programs to realize they don’t have time to play ball or Law students who have scheduled lunch-break exercise into their weekly routine.

In SAT/GRE test item terms, the Noon Game is to pickup basketball as Singapore is to Tokyo, Taipei, and Shanghai. Singapore has most of the things that make Tokyo, Taipei, and Shanghai world-class cities yet Singapore’s got some quirks you might not expect. Likewise the Noon Game has many of the attributes common to regular pickup basketball yet, it is its own unique version of pickup culture.

Interact with interesting people, eat great food, explore the beautiful city-state but don’t chew gum in Singapore, it’s forbidden.

I’ve played in the Noon Game at Gregory on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin several times and generally enjoyed it. It wasn’t until I changed Universities that I was able to look critically at the Noon Game. And even then, it took me a while to understand what it was about Fac-Staff pickup games that made them so unique and so ill suited to my pickup preferences. So in the spirit of basketball scholarship and during-work entertainment, here are 8 different quirks of the lunchtime version of pickup basketball. These aren’t flaws so much as unique facets that are enjoyed by some and endured by others.

1. A Well-Defined Insider/Outsider Status

In the Noon Game, insider-outsider divisions are more prominent [Photo: ben@casnocha.com]

In regular pickup basketball on university campuses, 3-6 players on a court will be regulars with the other 4-7 players made up of people who only play infrequently. They came with a friend who plays, they emerge from the weight room to get in some cardio (identified by the stretch marks around their shoulders and their ability to miss a free throw-line jumper by five feet to the left). In these environments, the on-court culture of pickup ball exists in a legible but semi-fluid state of flux and re-assembly. When around half the players balling on a particular court have never played with each other, there’s an opportunity, as well as a need, to negotiate how closely any particular game will follow the implicit conventions of a court/gym/university. For instance, on the courts at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign’s ARC gym, as soon as a player calls a foul, any basket made via continuation is negated. Whether you agree with that convention or not, no one argues that call because anyone who’s ever played a game at the ARC (or most any other pickup venue outside of Texas) has probably witnessed the application of this rule before. However, if a player says, ‘and 1‘ while in the act of shooting at the ARC, a game-halting debate usually ensues with some players (usually on defense) saying this is the same as calling ‘foul,’ while others (usually on offense) argue that it’s just a statement of confidence about the ball going in despite an (uncalled) foul. Whichever way the call goes the game is played that way from that point on.

For me, part of the fun of playing pickup is engaging in on-court discourse. I don’t do much trash talking but I like to communicate on defense, encourage teammates on offense (unless they are chuckers or pouters), crack a joke, and stand up against on-court tyranny. Much of this communication involves 5-20 seconds of dead-ball conversation. These play-stopping periods are not only necessary in ensuring both teams get a chance to argue their side of things but they also serve as an opportunity to get a little in-game rest.

While Noon Games usually accept new players, there are often very few of them. So when 7 to 9 players on the court are lunchtime regulars, they tend to have a shared sense as to how the game should be called–leaving little need for periods of play-stopping on-court negotiation. This makes sense as they feel they’re up against the clock. They can stand around and talk when they go back to work but they only have a fixed amount of time to get in a workout.

For me, a serial communicator and on-court break-taker, except for calling out screens, my normal comments during Noon Games don’t fit within the accepted interactional grammar and no-stopping/sub-out-if-you’re-tired pace of the game. There’s talking that goes on, but it’s more about how Bob has finally cooled off after a week of hot (50%) shooting or how Rodney’s limp after knee-replacement surgery four months ago is now nearly undetectable. These aren’t conversations that are easily joined by outsiders. If you don’t feel the need to communicate during games then you’re probably fine, but if you are like me and like to engage in some on-court banter then brace yourself for few openings and a low tolerance for stoppages in play.

2. The 1pm Deadline

Ride a winning streak or return to off-court life, for Noon Game players, the choice is clear

Ride a winning streak or return to off-court life, for Noon Game players, the choice is clear

That fixed amount of time Noon Gamers to play yields the second quirk. You know the feeling as a baller when you and the guys you’re running with start to click and you get on a roll. Winning not one, not two, not three, not four… games in a row? It’s the type of run that bonds you to your teammates, no matter their faults or yours. But chances are, if you only play noon ball, then you’ve never known a winning streak beyond two and a half games. The 50 minutes to an hour that Noon Gamers have to play just isn’t enough time to get on the sort of roll that would lead to grabbing some Korean barbeque afterward to celebrate winning 8 games in a row and owning the court.

Instead, at the Noon Game, you come back from getting water after winning two in a row to hear two players on your team announce that they have to go because they have a meeting. As a regular pickup baller, this smacks of basketball blasphemy. When’s the last time you heard a baller say that they had to cut a potential epic run short because of a date, a test, a class? Sure, they might say they have to go but with just a little peer pressure they stay and play. Lunchtime ball on the other hand begins by 12:10, is going strong around 12:25 (possibly on two courts), thins out around 1pm and dies promptly at 1:10. The Noon Gamers just leave, and once two take off to rejoin the world of work it breaks the spell over everyone else and suddenly it’s just you and the visiting scholar from Nepal who’s using basketball as a way to practice his English.

I mean imagine how debilitating it would be if every time someone said he had to stop playing because he had to meet his girlfriend at the library, not only did he follow through but his statement but suddenly, everyone else remembered that they too had girlfriends (or boyfriends) and decided to leave the court and go spend time with them. Of course, pickup ballers would need to be a lot more sensitive for this to be a threat.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not deriding Noon Gamers for being responsible, I take my job very seriously. It’s the reason I often plan on playing ball at 4:30pm but don’t actually there until 6 or 7. I love what I do, but I also know that when I’m playing ball I don’t want to have to think about anything except the next game especially if we’re on a winning streak. As a pickup baller, there are just a few plausible reasons for ducking out on an epic or potentially epic winning streak: (a) there was nobody left to beat (b) your team lost, (c) you tore your hamstring or sprained your ankle and can no longer run, (d) the gym is closing for the night and the Rec-Sports staff have turned out the lights, (e) it’s valentine’s day and you are supposed to pick up your date in 20 minutes. Given this mindset, it feels arbitrary and disingenuous to stop playing ball simply because the little hand on the clock happens to be pointing at the 1.

One of the reasons I enjoyed the Noon Game at UT Austin’s Gregory Gym so much was because one or two of the higher ranking Noon Gamers players would actually stick around beyond 1pm and keep playing pickup with the regular ballers who would start showing up by 1 or 1:30.

3. Silverbacks, the Noon Game’s version of Alpha-Ballers

In a blog-post about conflict and pickup basketball I unpacked my court culture = pack culture theory with ‘Alpha-Ballers’ at the top of the hierarchy. Alpha Baller status at the Noon Game depends much more on seniority and frequency than on skill or size, thus I call these players Silverbacks, not because they are the biggest and strongest but rather because they tend to be older men with more than a touch of silver in their hair, beards, and, sometimes, their backs.

Silverbacks are upbeat caretakers of the Noon Game culture who, along with a few more traditional alpha ballers (usually Law or masters students who play regularly).

The Silverback Baller, happy caretaker of the Noon Game [Photo: wikimedia commons]

Some of these Silverbacks have been hooping it up for years if not decades, they play 3-5 times per week, they know everyone, and they generally make sure they get to the court in time to play in the first game. You too can ascend to the rank of Silverback, just be ready to put in the time to get there, I played in a Noon Game once where the guy they called ‘Young-Buck’ was at least 40 years old.

4. Shirts vs Sweat

Not all lunchtime games involve the shirts and skins approach to team differentiation but many do. Going shirts vs skins is an old-school, somewhat sexist way of being clear about who is on which team, it is old school and if the Noon Game is anything it is that. I don’t mind tradition and while it also may be a way to perform masculinity and reconnect with playground basketball, the reality is that most indoor gyms are kept at 73 degrees or cooler year-round, meaning that when the Noon Game employs a shirts vs skins convention you end up with a lot of hardened nipples pointing out from salt-and-pepper haired chests. This visual, coupled with the inevitability of getting slimed at some point makes both being a skin and guarding a skin a lose-lose proposition.

And as for telling people apart, unless you have prosopagnosia; faces, court positioning, and clothes should be more than enough.

5. A Dearth of Dirty and an Absence of Edgy

The Noon Gamers I’ve played with are likable and unassuming. They’re not trying to make a name for themselves or be recognized as a PUB-GOAT (PickUp Ball’s Greatest Of All Time). They’re just using their lunch hour as an outlet for physical and social energy that is less alienating and mind-numbing than watching the midday farm report followed by the first half of the Young and the Restless on a 5″ screen on the elliptical machine. They’re secure in their profession and themselves and are generally just happy to get the chance to squeeze a workout into their All-American life complete with a 50 to 70 hour work week, two teen-age kids, a dog, an addiction to Breaking Bad, and a feigned interest in Mad Men.

This means that trying to join a Noon Game without toning down the typical I-got-game edge a regular pickup baller brings to the court will probably have you coming off more like the uber obnoxious guy in the video clip above than as the dedicated, legit pickup baller you are.

6. Reservations, Party of 10

There’s no waiting to play for the first 10 players to arrive for the Noon Game [Photo: janetm1000]

I’ve had a few lucky streaks during regular pickup where I show up, get picked up by the team who has next, and start playing within 10 minutes of arrival, however lunchtime basketball players can take this for granted, being able to go months without having to wait longer than 5 minutes to play.

As a regular pickup baller, unless you have a friend who gets to the court early to call next for both of you, playing pickup is often a crap shoot in terms of how how long you’ll have to wait to get on the court. I’ve had to wait as long as two hours just to play one game of pickup. The Noon Game however starts as soon as there are 10 people, in other words no walking into the gym not knowing if you’ll be waiting for 5 minutes or 90 minutes to play your first game. If you show up at 11:55 you are practically guaranteed to be playing basketball within five minutes.

7. Work Interrupted

Playing in the Noon Game can interrupt flow

If your job has you going from one meeting to the next with little need for prolonged periods of uninterrupted work, then lunchtime ball might be just the ticket to break up the monotony. I love playing basketball but I love my job just as much (okay, nearly as much). But it’s a job that requires prolonged periods of thinking, reflection, and productination (productive procrastination). Knowing that I need to stop what I’m doing early in the day (11:30am) to go do something else messes with my morning flow as well as my afternoon efforts to be productive. If you’re like me in that you do your best writing and thinking when you know you don’t need to stop writing or thinking until you leave for the day, then the Noon Game might not fit with your preferred work patterns.

8. It is Unavoidable, it is Your Destiny

Part of my unease with the Noon Game is the feeling that at some point I’ll be forced to only play ball over lunch. It’s a constellation of unspoken fears that at some point my pickup skills will deteriorate, my job will demand 60 hours a week instead of 50, and I’ll end up with too many kids, a yard, social obligations, and a commute that will make playing regular I’ll-leave-when-I’m-done pickup ball an impossibility.

I did however, meet a guy at the ARC last month who said he stopped playing in the Noon Game once he retired from his job and went back to playing regular pickup, so I guess I could try and convince myself that I could do that, but who knows what my joints will be like in 30 to 40 years or whether or not civilization in 2048 will still tolerate non-digital activities like pickup basketball.


So that’s it, again, my goal was not to ‘hate’ on the Noon Game or those who play over lunch, but rather to unpack some of its quirks in a possibly funny way. There are as many versions of lunch-time ball as their are courts (including one well-chronicled variety played in the suburbs of San Diego (lunchsketball)). Hopefully some of these observations resonated with your experience.

In some ways, being a part of the Noon Game is a way to reconnect with after-lunch recess from one’s grade school days–when you were 10 and you’d inhale your food and then slip outdoors, pick teams, and play ball right up until the moment Ms Youngerberg blew her whistle, or the bell rang, or someone got a concussion and everyone would line up for 5 seconds at the drinking fountain before pretending to pay attention during science or social studies class while you felt your sweat drying across your body and tried not to catch a whiff of Andy who had a reliable jumpshot but unreliable deodorant. The main difference between after-lunch recess and the Noon Game is that Noon Gamers have the option of showering afterward, they decide for themselves when to stop playing, and as adults they now pay attention during science or social studies class–mostly because they are the ones teaching some form of it. Maybe the joys of after-lunch basketball got associated with science and social studies–predisposing its participants to someday become scientists, social scientists, and Silverbacks.

Double Technicals, Cheap-Shots, and Brawls: Conflict on the Court


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From Basketball to Basketbrawl?

I was wondering if I could have your honest thoughts about something. Do i present any sort of aura/image/attitude that is negative on the courts? Do I look smug/condescending or anything like that?

I ask because the night before, Russel (friends with Dwight/Sam/etc.. semi old man crew) just shoved me during a game as I was guarding Dwight. Completely out of the blue as the game just started and I was not even trying (Craig had just convinced me to play one more). But anyway, my girlfriend’s opinion is that I do something, or have some attitude that instigates things with others. (otherwise why do I have incidents on the court?) So i was just wondering from your memory is there anything to it?

I got the above message last week from Dave (all names changed). I used to play ball with him at UT Austin before he graduated with an MBA and moved to Houston. Over the two years we played together I had heard of him getting into it with people on the court once and a while. I had even seen a guy go off on him for no apparent reason. I did, however, have hypotheses about possible reasons/factors. I say hypotheses, as in multiple, because people are complex, yes, even pickup ballers.

When I lived in Boston I didn’t play much basketball but I did audit a class taught by Marvin Minsky at MIT. He’s sort of a mad scientist/brilliant thinker about the brain and artificial intelligence. He would walk into class and ask us, “what are your thoughts?” We were supposed to ask him a question or have a theory for how something worked. He would swat down theories with more force and enjoyment than Dikembe Mutombo in that Geiko add.

Anyhow, Minsky would reject practically every theory we suggested, or rather he would poke at it and probe it for holes before saying,

If you have one or two ideas about how something works you probably haven’t done enough thinking. Only when you have 6 or 7 ideas about why a process or phenomenon works the way it does can you think that you might have the beginnings of understanding.

Don’t let the glasses, the shirt, the tie, and the smile fool ya, Marvin can throw down [photo credit: http://philip.greenspun.com/copyright/%5D

So in an effort to live up to Marvin’s standards and keep myself occupied now that the NBA Finals and the draft are over and the Dwight-Kobe divorce is final, I unpack a constellation of different factors that influence/provoke on-court conflict leading to menacing looks, mal de ojo, hard fouls, shouting, pushing, dirty play, basketball throwing, kicking, swinging, punching, and mama-trashing. The categories below are leaky and partial but represent a sort of understanding about how pickup basketball can devolve into something else.

1. Off-Court Stress Spillover

Normally playing pickup is a great outlet for off-court stress, for me it’s like hitting the reset button on any concerns or issues that have come up since the last time I played ball. The only thing more effective than playing ball to relieve stress is a 90 minute full-body deep-tissue massage. If massages were as inexpensive as pickup ball, this blog would be called Hands Across My Body and this post would be about the time Rikki misunderstood when I said, ‘Spend the first 30 minutes on my back and then do everything else‘.

But if you’ve played pickup basketball for any amount of time, you’ve probably witnessed, if not committed, Off-Court Stress Spillover. Think of the stress and angst as a massive dump. It feels really good to get rid of and it usually flushes right out and down, but sometimes things go wrong it gets clogged and, since it has to go somewhere, it ends up spilling over onto the floor.

Spillover usually starts with a dude with whom you’ve played peaceable ball before. You pick him up cause you’re one player short and he doesn’t suck. One minute you’re up 3-1 and it looks like your crew is gonna own the court and the next Anderson is yelling at a teammate, telling him to take care of the ball after just missing on a hail Mary fast break pass. Then next time up the court Anderson’s telling a teammate to give him the f-ing ball. By this point you know you need the pickup equivalent of a plunger but the problem is, unless you’re this dude’s off-court best friend, there’s no such thing as a third-party on-court plunger. This is pickup ball, we don’t have heart-to-heart conversations, there aren’t any no time outs, halftime, coaches, or substitutions. Instead you just try to win despite a lack of chemistry and hope he decides to drop after the game is over. It’s only later that you find out from someone else that his girlfriend broke up with him, he’s failing Organic Chemistry, someone keyed his car, or he’s about to graduate and doesn’t have a job lined up. But most of the time you never find out what happened to Anderson, you just hope that the next time you play with him, he keeps it together.

Sometimes a bad day, or month, spills out onto the court

I’ve had a few spillover moments myself. One time, right after a major break up that happened to coincide with a toothache, I found myself with the ball in the low-post. I proceeded to ram shoulder-first into the guy guarding me, a player I liked and respected. Needless to say, the spillover caught him off guard and he started ramming back, we ended up yelling at each other down and had to be separated.

The psycho-behavioral/Dr. Phil take on this might be something like, ‘the frustration of not being able to control off-court areas of your life may lead to rash, poorly executed attempts to feel a sense of total control over an on-court situations.

2. Court-Specific Cultural Blindspots

Sometimes a bad day can spill over onto the court, other times it’s more of a failure to pick up on the verbal and non-verbal warning signs being sent by other players. Each court and group of players create a particular ecology or court-culture with nuances in the overall culture of pickup ball. Sometimes when people aren’t familiar with the implicit way people on a specific court roll, things can get out of hand.

Out in nature, picking up on cultural cues can be a matter of life and death. A rattlesnake doesn’t shake it’s tail because it wants to fight, it makes that rattling sound so that it doesn’t have to fight. It lets animals and people know that it feels threatened, that it is prepared to strike even as it slowly retreats. Animals that live around rattlesnakes know how to interpret the rattle. But would you expect a polar bear to understand what the rattling sound means?

I used to play with this guy we’ll call Montel who was on the football team. Play ‘with‘ isn’t quite accurate, usually he was on a stacked team of other football players and world-class athletes and I was on a team made up of earth-bound pickup ballers. The D1 athletes usually won in part because they were stronger, faster, and bigger than we were but also because Montel’s skills as a wide receiver translated very well to the basketball court, meaning he was also more skilled than we were. The first time I played against Monty I was sure a fight would break out. He kept taking everything anyone said as a personal insult. Someone would call him for a foul or dispute a call he made and Monty would start yelling, he’d stop the game and work himself up into a lather, occasionally needing to be restrained by his teammates. Yet, nothing came of it, and after playing against him three or four times I realized that everyone knew that that was just Montel’s way of getting himself more into the game. People knew it was part of his game and understood that that was just his way.

As a side note, the few times I guarded him I found that the most effective way to keep him from going off for half of his teams points was to maintain a steady stream of jokes and praise–he’d play a very passive first 3/4ths of the game. I’m not one of those guys that looks admiringly up at D1 athletes as heroes or gets nervous around people who are over-aggressive, I just wanted to win and placating him increased our chances.

About a month or so later, Monty and this guy we’ll call Nathan got into it during a game. Montel had complained about a call and was going into one of his little motivational rants. Instead of ignoring him or shouting back and forth at a distance, Nate moved closer to him and began to match his intensity. Before you knew it they were pushing each other. I’m not saying that it was Nate’s fault, but he didn’t understand what Montel was doing. To be sure, Montel didn’t understand that Nate wasn’t actually looking for a fight, he had just been taught that it was polite to stand directly in front of people when you speak with them. But as Nate was new to the court, it was perhaps up to him to try and take cues from the other players and ease into the court culture.

3. Alpha-Baller Challenge

Sometimes it’s hard to spot and stop off-court spillover, other times conflict comes from gaps in understanding court-to-court differences. Yet in certain cases on-court conflict is a direct result of on-court culture.

On the Big 10 and Big 12 campuses where I’ve played there are between 5 and 9 courts available from noon to 1AM. Some of those courts tend to stay open with just a few random games of 1-on-1, on other courts the Korean Student Association or the physics department or the football team will come in and play against each other, but at least two courts have a recognizable group of regular and semi-regular players that shape and reshape the culture. That culture changes slowly throughout the day depending on who is playing and how frequently they play. The longer you play at a particular gym, on a certain court, and at a particular time the more you recognize that particular strain of pickup culture. You also learn to understand your place in the group. It’s not like there are elections for leadership positions in pickup basketball, it just happens, slowly, and all of a sudden, it’s implicit, but there are factors, three of the most important factors are ability, physical size, and familiarity.

Again, while most pickup ballers are higher functioning than say a pack of wolves, in many ways the on-court-culture parallels the law of the jungle. On-court disputes within and between teams about who should guard whom, who touched the ball last before it went out of bounds, or if a basket should count or be negated because of a Ginobili-esque Euro-Step are decided by decisiveness and consensus, but sometimes people can’t agree. In those cases the Rasheed Wallace Plan-B method is usually employed.

Whether or not you think the ball can ‘lie’, is not the point, rather shooting for it is the accepted way to peacefully break up an impasse. However, sometimes a player might refuse to ‘shoot for it,’ not in protest of the inherent advantage it gives teams with better shooters, but because they want to prove that they are one of the court’s Alpha-Ballers. An Alpha-Baller wields a certain level of overriding authority in such matters. In order to be treated like an Alpha-Baller one needs a combination of three things.

  1. Above average skill or ball IQ relative to the others playing on the court.
  2. Above average athleticism or size compared to the others.
  3. An established level of recognition/familiarity with the other players.

Theoretically, everyone can be an Alpha-Baller, provided they can find a court where the other players are bad enough, weak enough, and play regularly enough so that a hopeful Alpha-Baller can build up recognition amongst the other players. Likewise, every Alpha-Baller could presumably wander onto a court where he or she would cease to be considered above average in skill or physicality.

For two years the best court at the University of Texas at Austin was ruled by several Alpha-Ballers including an unlikely guy named Rick, a 5’9″ white guy with a scraggly beard and questionable athleticism. He was able to maintain his dominance via a high basketball IQ, a Spurs-like winning percentage, confidence, a lack of off-court obligations, and a willingness to punish anyone who challenged his Alpha-Baller status. As an Alpha-Baller Rick would change his team’s defensive match-ups during the game, retaliate if he felt someone was making unfair calls, and dirty/hard-foul a guy if didn’t like what he was doing.

Like the elk, attempts to grab pickup court power for an afternoon or a semester can get ugly. Alpha-Baller Challenges would happen much more frequently if the stakes were more elk-like.

Some people however, are just wired to act like Alpha-Ballers even if they haven’t earned it or don’t deserve it. On university pickup courts this tends to happen when a group of outside ballers try to own a court. This creates a situation that is a bit like elk fighting for ownership of the forest, except that instead of winning the exclusive right to have sex, they win the right to override the out-of-bounds call made by the skinny kid with glasses on the other team. When this happens the court’s acknowledged Alpha-Ballers step in and set things right which sometimes requires some pushing and mama-trashing. Looking more like Chris Rock than The Rock, Alpha-Baller Rick usually settled things by winning (dirty) but when he was pushed, he’d take on whoever was trying to dethrone him.

4. Dirty vs Dirty

Anyone can have a bad day / week and experience an episode of Off-Court Stress Spillover. However there are others who seem to be locked in a state of perpetual Spillover. Usually their disposition turns into dirty plays such as a push in the back on a rebound or throwing an elbow off of a pick. During a game with referees such moves are perfectly fine as it is up to the refs to establish what each team can get away with. However if the refs aren’t on top of things or, if one of them is sick, dirty play can even escalate within refereed games.

When players transition from refereed games to pickup ball they are supposed to police themselves in terms of violating the spirit of the game. Being dirty is more difficult to police and deal with within pickup ball culture because of implicit rules against calling offensive fouls or any foul away from the ball. Compounding the issue is that there is no fouling out and no free throws, meaning there is no deterrent for dirty play. The best you can hope for is that dirty ballers have to guard each other.

I’m much more of a peace lover than a fighter but I must admit that seeing two Dirty Ballers go at each other is nearly as satisfying as hitting a game winner. It’s like watching Zaza Pachulia and Reggie Evans take each other down. When it happens you might say something like, ‘come on now settle down‘ or ‘let’s just play ball‘ but it’s hollow, you revel in each elbow to the kidneys that they give each other because you’ve been on the receiving end from both of them and it feels good to see dirty ballers get a taste of their own medicine.

5. Accidents and Misinterpretations

Sometimes a play that seems dirty is just an accident. When the recipient misinterprets a push in the back as disrespect or a challenge, it can result in retaliation. While this kind of on-court conflict can happen to anyone, it is more likely to turn into something when the person on the receiving end of the inadvertent or accidental contact is known to be a little over-zealous. Here’s one example from game 5 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals.

In the clip above, Birdman Chris Anderson thinks Tyler Hansbrough pushed him in the back as he was going up for a rebound when in fact it was Paul George. The Birdman retaliates with elbows and pushing against the wrong player and gets suspended because of it. Would the Bird have elbowed Alpha-Baller George if he had know it was him and not bench-player Psycho-T?

6. On-Court Feud

Accidents and misinterpretations usually get sorted out and things are quashed during or after the game. Yet sometimes one wrong play, one skirmish, or one torn meniscus can lead to a full-blown on-court feud. Weeks or months of antagonism, physical play, and verbal skirmishes later, the original issue might not even be remembered but the residue of animosity is almost impossible to get rid of.

Maybe it’s a little like feuding neighbors. One wrong comment about someone’s yard, one call to the police, or one little love triangle and suddenly grown men are hurling insults and having water fights across the fence.

If there is only one court in your neighborhood or your friends play on a particular court and you get into a feud with someone who is also a regular it can turn pickup ball from something that helps you relax into a source of stress and conflict.Which pretty much takes the fun out of it.

There is one guy, Wilson, at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign that I don’t particularly like playing with or against. He’s one of the better pickup ballers at UIUC. We have strong opinions about the role of the point guard. He likes to dribble up and either shoot (60% of the time) or drive/dribble around and eventually pass to someone who is supposed to shoot. He’s a good shooter and able passer but it really kills ball movement and is not an especially fun way to win. One time after we had won the two of us got into it. He said that his way was the best because we won playing that way, I suggested that there were 8 different ways we could have won and his ball-dominating way was only the third best way to do it and the least fun for everyone who wasn’t him. We’re not feuding in the sense that it ever escalated to anything beyond basketball, but we do tend to take a little extra pleasure in beating the other or in critiquing each other’s game when we play together. Usually I can’t tell if he is not passing me the ball deliberately or if it’s just his D-Rose style of play.

The beauty of pickup ball in a university setting is that there are usually several games going at once so I can just go one court down and have my fun without dealing with Wilson.

7. The Cascade Effect

Sometimes the above 6 factors operate on their own to create conflict that turns a pickup basketball into a shoving match. Thankfully however, it usually takes a combination of the 6 to create anything beyond a little shouting. Serious, call-the-police type issues, are rare and usually require a bad day for one player, an outside team looking to rule the court, and an accidental elbow to the head.

My hope in writing this post is that you were not only entertained, but also that you might become more aware of the warning signs in yourself and in others so as to prevent future episodes of on-court-conflict. That is, unless the only players involved are dirty, then grab your water bottle and enjoy.

Who’s Afraid of an Open Shot?


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I love to pass, I try to hit guys when they are wide open so we as a team can take a higher percentage shot. I love the Chris Paul quote about his job being to make the other team think he’s going to shoot it, drawing an extra defender to him so he can make a pass leading to a dunk or an open jumper. I’ll post up just to hit a cutter with a no-look or someone out on the 3-point line once their defender comes to help (most pick-up perimeter defenders can’t help themselves, they feel they have to help no matter how many times I pass out of the post) yet it seems like for many pickup ballers, being completely open actually drags their shooting percentage down. A great pass leads to a wide open shot from 4′ or 14′ and you can almost see the tension ripple through them as they realize that they (a) just received a very nice pass, (b) therefore it is on them to make the shot otherwise the pass really doesn’t matter and (c) there is very little upside or personal glory in the shot (if they make it the passer gets credit for setting them up, if they miss it they it’s their fault for messing up the play). They shoot, the ball clanks off the front of the rim, or sometimes, the side of the backboard and not only does the opportunity go unrealized, but that player’s confidence may take a hit for the next shot he or she takes.

Sometimes an open shot is the hardest one of all [Photo: basketball.isport.com]

Sometimes I’ll make a pass and my teammate will actually wait until the defense takes a step or two toward them before they shoot, or worse yet they’ll wait, take one dribble and then shoot a semi-contested jumper. Part of this probably has to do with not being ready, not having practiced catch and shoot jumpers, and the other part is psychological, they are not used to the pressure of being expected to make a shot to turn a nice pass into a nice play. Having a defender on them makes them feel comfortable.

Obviously, part of the problem is that pickup basketball players often don’t practice a range of shots, and even if they do, 4 footers from the baseline are seldom in the drill rotation (most people I’ve played with at the University of Texas and the University of Illinois just shoot three pointers between games and while they are warming up (unless they can dunk, then they’ll alternate)). Some shots are hard to practice unless you have several people or you can visualize different situations (as in the clip below).

Last month I passed up shooting a potential game winner in the lane, I was covered but I could have gotten a shot off, when I think about it now there were two issues, (1) I don’t practice shooting in the lane, in traffic, and (2) I usually play pickup on the good court, meaning I’m usually not the guy who takes the last shot. Instead of shooting I passed out to the corner for a three that didn’t beat the buzzer -we lost in overtime.

In life we usually fail at things we do for the first time, things we don’t practice. Give me a few more experiences catching the ball in the lane, in traffic, time winding down and I’ll figure out how to get off a decent shot. Maybe if there was more of a passing culture here at the University of Illinois dudes would be more used to taking wide open shots.

Getting Coached: Pick-Up Basketball with The basketball Meet-Up group in London


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May 8th 2013

‘Do you think what I’m doing is unfair?’

‘I’m getting some aggressive looks from some of you and I don’t like it. Do you think what I’m doing is unfair?’

More silence, he didn’t look directly at me but we had made eye contact at the end of running two consecutive baseline to baseline sprints. I would have categorized my look as quizzical, it was the third time we had to run sprints due to a failure to collectively make fifteen left hand layups in a row before missing three times. All punishment, no teaching, maybe that was typical, I didn’t know. I hadn’t gotten there in time for the beginning of the session, so I didn’t know if they had gone over making a layup.

‘Do you think what I’m doing is unfair?’

‘No’ said a few voices.

‘I don’t think 15 left-handed layups in a row is too much to ask, we’ve been at it for,’ glancing at his watch, ‘eight minutes.’

‘Again,’ he says.

I get into the rebound line and notice that people are taking a little more time. By the time I’m in the shooting line we are up to 13. People are counting on each make. A guy in a blue shirt and shorts that hang off his lanky limbs dribbles toward the basket, before shooting an underhanded shot high off the glass that clanks off the front of the rim.

A minute of so later two more misses have us running more lines.

‘Ten in a row.’ He says, ‘and I don’t care if you arrange ten who can make it.’

We get to ten and do a shooting drill next. Teams of four, each player shoots a baseline jumper, runs to the other end of the court and attempts a layup, and then races down court to shoot a three pointer from the top of the key. First team to 31 points wins.

West London College Hammersmith Campus Basketball Courts

West London College Hammersmith Campus Basketball Courts

My team wins and we watch as the other three teams do 25 pushups. Everyone plays the game three times, we win twice. I’m having fun soaking up basketball culture in a different country but I’m still kind of thrown by the drills and the authority. No one has tried to coach me in over a decade, and what’s more, this is less like coaching and more like training. But I’m here to experience something different, plus I already paid my 5 pounds and the guy who took my money and is running things said there’d be 5 on 5 at some point.

‘Stand against the far sideline,’ he says. He’s wearing a tee-shirt that says COACH in block letters on the back and a whistle hangs from his neck.

‘I want you to run from sideline to sideline 17 times. That means that you will end up on my side of the court. You should be able to do this in one minute.’

He blows his whistle and I do the first two sideways, might as well work on lateral quickness. By 13 I’m tired and about a full sideline length behind the leaders who are calling out the count. I finish my 15 and grab my water bottle and take a drink before standing up and looking at him. Ever since I graduated from High School playing basketball has been about actually playing and not running drills and laps. I’m used to using my energy to play ball not run punishment laps.

Thirty seconds later we’re at it again, running another 17 laps. By the end I’m about a sideline and a half off the leader but I don’t care, I want to conserve some energy for the games. The guy next to me finishes at about the same time as I do. He doubles over and lets out a single dry heave and coach tells him and another guy to go upstairs to get a drink. We do ten minutes of defensive sliding and footwork drills before he tells us that we have five minutes to stretch before the games start.

I hate traveling with lots of gear so I didn’t bring a pair of basketball shoes with me. I’m wearing a pair of black on black Puma Drift Cat shoes with a driving heel. That’s sports car driving not driving-to-the-hoop driving and since there’s not much need for ankle support or cushion I feel a little exposed in the ankle stability department. The only cushion I have comes from two pair of golden-toe ankle socks. I ask the guy in the black ‘Coach’ tee-shirt if there is any athletic tape available,


I go into the equipment room looking for some string to at least keep my glasses from flying off my face and getting stepped on. I only brought one pair of them too.

‘Can I help you?’ asks a short guy in a bright yellow and green tee shirt.

‘I’m just looking for a piece of string,’ I say as I walk past him and back onto the court.

I sit down again and start to rip off the bottom strip of material of my undershirt. I make a crude glasses strap and tie it on just before Coach has us line up shortest to tallest against the far wall.

‘There are 16 of you,’ says Coach after we are in line. ‘I’ll give you the choice, do you want to play 4 on 4 or 5 on 5 with one group of 6?’

Several people speak up for the 5 on 5 option and he counts us off 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3… my team, (the 3’s) has five players. Games are to five, 1s and 2s or until time runs out. I start to wonder how fast that’ll go and then realize after watching a few possessions of team 1 and team 2 going at it that they’ll get to five turnovers before they score a single point. At eight minutes Coach calls out ’15 seconds’ and counts down from 5 seconds to 0–slowing down to allow a team to get up a shot. Team two scores at the ‘buzzer’ to tie the score at 1 each.

‘One free throw,’ says Coach. Someone shoots and misses the free throw and the other team ‘wins’.

Against the winning team we get out to a 2-0 lead, I’m guarding the point guard only to realize that some of my teammates don’t quite understand what it means to guard someone.

‘Who’s got right?’ I yell pointing to the guy running by me unchecked and toward the basket. Team 2 catches up before I take and make a Chauncey Billups style pull-up 2 pointer at the top of the key. 4-2. They score on their next trip down and then again at the buzzer making it 4-4. Our wing makes the free throw and it’s our turn to ‘win’.

We win the next two games without needing to resort to the basketball equivalent of penalty kicks. Our tallest guy has a soft touch around the basket and is a good passer. Elias, the second shortest guy on our team seems to understand angles and moving in space even if he can’t dribble. Our shortest guy may be playing basketball for the first time but he passes more than he shoots and with some reminding and encouragement now understands that there is a guy on the other team that he needs to guard on defense.

Before the start of our fourth game Coach goes over and tells the guy in the bright yellow and green shirt to guard me, to pressure me. We build a two point lead off of pick and rolls and fast break points but his defense starts to bother me somewhat and reduces my usage rate. They score twice while we experience a number of turnovers.

‘Fifteen seconds left: 4, 4,’ says coach looking down at his iPhone timer.

In the past, these fifteen seconds are more of a futbol-like stoppage time period than a true shot clock counting down fifteen seconds. In other games 6 seconds would be 16 if the score was tied or a team looked to be about to score.

With the game tied I kept the ball in my hands at the top of the key waiting for a count down.


I used a pick and passed to our big at the elbow for a pinch-post move, I cut to the hole and got a nice return pass from him.



I take a dribble, hesitate, and then pass out to the corner.


He shoots and scores.

‘It was too late,’ coach says, ‘free throw.’

Our wing steps up to the line again.

‘You got this?’ I ask, I wanted to shoot it but he made the last one so…

He nods not turning around.

‘Please miss,’ says tallest on our team doubled over.

‘Oh no’ wing-man says as it leaves his hand, clanking off the right side of the rim.

‘Last game,’ says coach.

Team 2 wins outright and we’re all called over to the side of the floor where coach is standing.

‘Just a few words,’ he says. ‘Now some of you I’ve only seen for the first time but I know how you play. As you play with each other you should start to get a sense of who can do what. If you are not the best dribbler then give the ball to someone who can dribble. If you are a shooter, shoot.’

‘You two,’ Coach says pointing, ‘know where to be on the floor. And you,’ he says pointing to team 2’s second tallest guy, you go for every rebound.’

‘You,’ he says pointing to me. ‘He’s the anchor, did you hear him communicating on defense? Telling people where to go? And how patient he was on offense, never panicking? Waiting, waiting, waiting and then making the pass?’

‘Where are your trainers?’ he asks me.

PUMA Future Cat M2 Weave

Not the ideal basketball shoes, the PUMA Drift Cat (not pictured but nearly identical)

‘Back in the US.’

‘How long are you here?’

‘Three weeks’

‘Go get em.’ Someone says.

‘I can probably only play tonight,’ I say.

He asks a few other guys questions and then says, ‘if you want to shower hurry up, otherwise leave the campus immediately.’

‘There’s a chance I could come in two weeks but it depends on work,’ I say.

‘You’ll hurt your ankles if you play, really play in those,’ coach said motioning at my shoes, ‘I could tell you were holding back.’

He tells me they often have 30 players. Not seeing more than one court I count myself lucky that we were only 16 tonight.

‘I really liked that pass you made on the fast break in the last game,’ I say as I walk up the stains with a guy in a Celtics Rondo jersey who played on team 1. He tells me he’s from Vietnam studying English and Business. We both take the Piccadilly line to Green Castle/Forest and talk basketball. We talk about his favorite team, the Celtics, as well as mine, the Thunder.

‘You dribble like Steve Nash,’ he says to me.

‘Maybe more like Vivian Nash, his sister,’ I say.

He laughs and says my floppy hair makes me look just like Steve Nash. I ask about good Vietnamese restaurants in London and he asks about playing pickup in the US.

Thirty minutes later I’m in my hotel room starting to feel stiff and sore, I know as soon as I lay down I won’t want to get up again.  I eat the pint of blueberries, and quinoa salad I bought in the tube station, pop a low dose ibuprofen and drift off to sleep thinking about how I should have just taken that final shot with the ‘clock’ counting down, or the free throw for that matter. But then considering how I feel now, maybe it’s better that we ‘lost’ and didn’t play a fifth game.

A Peak Pick-Up Experience


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They were 3 down on the best court –I could have 4 down if I wanted it, they said. Like all pickup ballers, I like playing way more than waiting so I moved down to what is usually the second best court at the ARC at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign (UIUC) and picked up with the team that had two down. I had played with three of them before. The guy whose game it was reminded me of some of the guys I played with at UT. He wasn’t huge but he looked like he could have played Rugby. I played with another one of them the week before, we formed one of those Sacramento Kings-like teams where everyone thinks they’re both a point guard, the best shooter, and the best player. Five minutes into the game everyone is yelling at each other about who’s to blame for the layup they just scored and shouts to ‘slow down’ when they are trailing in transition but goes 1-on-3 if they have the ball on the ‘break’. That team from chemistry hell also played with a Phoneix Suns cerca 2010 seven-seconds-or-less notion of how long to wait before we shot the ball.

You know, the sort of thing that snowballs and people start thinking that they need to get their shot in the next time the ball comes around or better yet the next time they dribble up the court (if you’ve watched the Sacramento Kings lately then you already know what I mean).

No matter, I was willing to put that behind me in order to play and get back to my non-basketball life before having to have the ‘no one works out for 4 hours’ argument again. We were two down and the game going on when I got there had just started. At the UIUC Athletic Recreation Center (ARC) they play the winning team’s choice of first team to 15 by 1s and 2s or first team to 21 by 2s and 3s. In the game on the court it didn’t really matter what they played because the only thing either team could manufacture was Ginóbili-esque amounts of turnovers.
Court one had played two games and these guys were still on the court, some of the people waiting for their game on court 2 started yelling ‘you suck’ after missed putbacks and groaning when possession after possession ended in turnovers.

The drop off in terms of wait time and talent from court 1 (foreground) to court 2 (background) can be substantial

The drop off in terms of wait time and talent from court 1 (foreground) to court 2 (background) can be substantial

I’d been wanting to get some shooting in for the past few weeks. Usually shooting is built into the grammar of pickup basketball. You show up and have to wait 20 minutes or so to play. Lately though, I’d been on a string of practically showing up at the gym and getting picked up immediately. So I tried not to mind so much that it seemed like the game would drag on past 40 minutes. I started getting some shots up, chatting up my teammates, watching how and where they shot. Three of them shot a sort of two handed over the head type of jumper. If you’re watching a college or even high school game one might scoff at anyone with imperfect form. However when you play pickup, you learn to respect results more than form, you definitely still feel better about passing to the guy with the Steph Curry-like form than you do passing to the guy doing the Marcus Camby impersonation, but still, you respect results -or at least you try to hope they can get hot.

An hour after picking up with the guys that were 2 down the first game finally ended. Half an hour later we were ready to play our game. In pickup, the shoot-around has rules of its own. If you make the shot you get to shoot again, if you miss you can cut to the basket and (in some places like the ARC) they’ll pass you the ball for a layup, after which you’re expected to pass the ball to the rebounder who is spotting up for his next three point try. If you make enough in a row people start to notice.

After an hour and 15 minutes of shooting I was really starting to stroke it, the guy who had the game after ours asked me if I wanted to play on his team if I lost my first game, sure I said. One of my teammates asked me why I didn’t shoot very much despite being so good at it, I told him I preferred to pass. Normally I shoot one maybe two times per game. Yet, I was feeling caught in a perfect storm of confidence. Maybe I would shoot a little more. Praise has always positively impacted my game. As a baller, I know that I need to get to a place where my confidence in my shot doesn’t come from other people and I’ve been working on that but tonight I just enjoyed all the support and recognition.

We took the floor and instead of going into my regular banter, I just shook my defender’s hand and exchanged names with him before starting the game. Usually I make a joke or say something complimentary, this time though, I just got ready to play. The ball swung around to me at the free throw line extended and I motioned for a left-side pick, used it, and went up for a wide open free throw line jumper.

‘All day’ was the shout from the guy who said I should shoot more as it went through the net. It felt good, really really good. I took another mid-range jumper that also went in, more of a catch and shoot affair. We had a few possessions of quick-trigger shooting so I went in the post and after wasting my dribble and finding no one to pass to I shot a turn-around jumper with very little lift but enough for it to go in.

Meanwhile on defense we minimized transition baskets and thus eliminated most of the layups our opponents had used to win their last game. I’ve noticed that when I’m having a good game on the offensive side of the ball, I’m less likely to play quite as hard on defense. On one play after I had hit my first three shots, I got picked leaving my man open for a three, instead of fighting through the screen or even going under it and then jumping out I just watched him tie the game at 5-5.

I got another pick going right to left this time and hit another jumper, a kind of duck-under shot that hit the front of the rim, the backboard, and the right side of the rim before dropping through. Two trips later I got a good look at an open three. It felt a little off but it had good arc and went in just glancing off the inside of the rim on the right side.

Two more trips down the floor and I had a rebound and put-back followed by another shot inside after a few dribbles and a right handed baby hook. By this point my teammates were looking for me on offense and I was moving toward the ball, I was getting multiple picks but my best stuff was off of plays that caught the defense off-guard. At game point after going right to left the whole game I took a left to right pick with the picker’s man playing way off of him, taking my time I hit the jumper, again it felt a bit off but tonight a little off seemed to mean that it hit the rim on its way to the basket. Did you even miss? Someone on the other team asked as we walked to the drinking fountains.

Game two featured competition that had a chance to scout us during our last game. They had upgrades at guard and all three forward spots (pickup games at the ARC rarely have back-to-the-basket centers) which meant more skill and an overall increase in average height. We started out with a lead we wouldn’t give up until they tied it on a three pointer for 11 all. I had more jumpers, a three, a pick-and-roll elbow jumper, even a curling midrange shot. The game stayed close and defenders who usually sag off of me weren’t anymore. My reward for playing so well was the need to figure out a new way to score.

We were playing 1s and 2s to 15 win by two, by the time we got to 18 all, the ARC had already announced that the gym would be closing in 30 minutes. As a team we went from trying to block a shot or get a steal to just making the offensive player shoot a contested shot. This was quite an achievement as one of our teammates, a mathematics PhD student, was new to the notion of defensive. He had a tendency to forget about his man, after some encouragement he was able to 1) locate his man while running, 2) stand between said man and the basket, 3) stand close enough to him to pass for defense. What he couldn’t quite do consistently was a) track his man while another player took more than 3 dribbles, or b) understand how to either recover to his man after he was picked or how to stay on the man who picked him.

Anyway, being more closely guarded led to some low percentage shots on my part, in thinking about it, I don’t really practice breaking my guy down off the dribble as I prefer a team game. I used to have a step-back baseline jumper off of a post-up, a hard dribble between the legs and then a step to the right into a jumper, and an up-and-under move from the free-throw line. We lost the game, I felt I should have been able to get by my guy but couldn’t seem to turn the corner. Walking back from the drinking fountain by court three a guy from the other team he said that someday he wanted to play with me instead of against me.

“You’re a really good shooter and the best passer I’ve ever played against, and while you’re not the most athletic guy you are effective.”

Not the most athletic guy? That hurt, others had said it too but they had at least used code words like:



Andre Miller

It was praise but it stung at the same time. He was saying that I was doing more with less. That I, like him, had overcome challenges.

Andre Miller comparisons, backhanded compliment?

Andre Miller comparisons, backhanded compliment?

My Relationship with Summer Pick-Up Basketball and a Baller named David


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I have a sort of love-hate relationship with summer-time pick-up basketball. Even though the weather is great in central IL during May, June, July, and August, I still play indoors. I love the wood floors, the convenience of being able to lift and sometimes swim right after I’m done playing, not to mention being able to take a shower when I’m through. Since I work at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign I use their semi-new mega-rec-center the ARC. It has 8+ basketball courts, a very nice weight room, and an outdoor pool with 50 meter long lanes.

 Activities Recreation Center at the University of Illinois

The Activities Recreation Center at the University of Illinois

I showed up to play last Saturday at about 6pm to find only one court going, this is typical of games in the summertime. What wasn’t so typical was that I only recognized having played with one of the guys on the court. I don’t have anything against strangers it’s just that it’s more fun to play with and against people I’ve played with before, I like the sense of community and rivalry that comes along with it.

Some of my fondest pick-up memories are of playing with the Korean Student Association [KSA] group on Saturday mornings at Gregory Gym at the University of Texas at Austin, over the four years they held weekly games while I was there I picked up some survival pick-up Korean and a deep respect for the KSA’s basketball culture.

An average afternoon of summer ball at the UIUC ARC

During the Fall and Spring semesters at UIUC or UT there are usually 3-5 courts going full court all week long, from 2pm to close. All those players mean that I don’t have to wonder if I’m going to find an empty gym and no chance of a game (a common occurrence during the summer). However all those players also means that sometimes the games on courts where I know people might be three or four down.

When there are games to be played I love summer ball because you usually don’t have to wait longer than one game to play and can usually reel off several games right after one another –either through getting on a winning streak or because there are only 2 guy waiting to play next and given the talent pool if you can shoot, pass, hustle, rebound, are tall OR can dribble you have a good chance of getting picked up.

Which brings up the second issue I have with summer ball. The diversity of talent is often pretty high. It goes something like this. Seven guys want to play and so they convince two weight lifters messing around after working on their chest and back to play. Then they talk the guy playing a second psudo-date game of one-on-one to do the guys a favor and play. As long as the weightlifters guard each other they have a good chance to canceling each other out but the guy on a date probably is going to want to a) show off a little bit and b) not get either embarrassed or sweaty but preferably both.

In the case of last Saturday’s games we didn’t need to break up any dates, in fact I had played against one of the guys before, he’s a high-motor type with a two-handed over-the-head-style jump shot. Somehow his team lost and I found myself guarding a guy who told me his name was David. I always wonder about how people from other countries who take on new names when studying abroad choose them. Anyway I started guarding David and we built a comfortable lead (1s and 2s to 15). In the last game I noticed that David scored most of their points and that he got many of them in transition. Sitting at 7-3 I felt pretty good with my defensive job, he had beaten me for one spinning banking fade-away secondary break 10 footer but I felt that I could live with that.

Until he hit another spinning fade-away banking 10 footer. And another, no glass. Meanwhile, our offense stalled out and the next time down the court David hits a three off a screen from the top of the key. We miss again and on the other end I call David for a push in the back on the rebound. I know, that’s a call only a white guy with a healthy sense of entitlement would even try to make. Which is why I tell them that I don’t want the ball just for them to check it and start the possession over (which makes things even more confusing -pick-up ball is built around bravado and not compromising so calling an offensive foul but not asking for the ball doubly violates the spirit of the game). David complains but we get going again. A little while later down 12-8 I box David out of a loose ball I cannot touch using a Garnet hip-checking move -you know, the one that’s perfectly legal in the regular season but then they call it on him sometimes in the playoffs (2:09). He calls a foul and I argue it and we keep the ball (in retrospect maybe that was going too far, usually when someone call something I might protest to get a breather but in the end i let it go -but I admit it, not being able to stop David and the way our offense had ground to a halt was frustrating me).

I’m not sure why but when I’m playing against someone who is getting the better of me and who is from a country like China that has those special sports boarding schools dedicated to the Javelin, or Swimming, or Basketball, I start to wonder if maybe the guy I’m guarding went to one of those state schools … while part of this thought might be to protect myself from a sense of failure, I think part of it is a curiosity about how I might have done in such a system, a life of drills and practice. Then I remember that I was pretty average in terms of adolescent athleticism and was not overly tall and so would have probably been passed over by those schools for other faster, taller peers.

David hits a pull up fade away jumper off of another pick, I note that he’s about 5’9″ tall and as the entire Chinese National Team is over 6’8″ he probably came by his fade-away jumper without the help of a state sports school.

One of our guys, a white dude wearing thick black rambis-type glasses takes Kobe-like two pointer, not Kobe’s form but rather court location. In terms of form this guy shoots with his feet 18 inches apart, one in front of the other, straddling the 3 point line. You guessed it, another miss.

Summer ball at the ARC, rarely a wait and a potpourri of ability

Summer ball at the ARC, rarely a wait and a potpourri of ability

We trade a few misses before David gets the ball about 5 feet beyond the top of the key, I had been noticing that he gets this look in his eyes a second before he shoots and I saw him get that look, like he was concentrating and gathering himself, I hesitated and could only watch the shot go through the net. After the game I told him that I wanted a rematch but they lost and our next team won easily.

The next time I face him my plan is to wait until he is going into his fade-away motion before stepping along side of him to go for the block. The release on a fade away is usually slower and maybe I can get to it. As for the 24′ threes it seemed like he was most comfortable taking those from the top of the key so maybe I’ll try and shade him over to the left side of the court (as he didn’t take any side or corner threes and took most of his shots from the right block (rt block from the position of facing the basket). Another thing I noticed that he did was he switched off onto some guy besides the guy that was guarding him. I think he was doing it to save himself for offense. Granted plenty of guys switch off of me on D because I don’t shoot enough and therefore don’t pose enough of a threat to merit their D, however in our game and in the next game David switched off onto two guys who shot even less than I do. In thinking about the next time we play I’m going to be more aggressive, especially off the pick and roll. I love hitting the guy setting the pick, especially if the pick has be going right to left, but after running that play a few times they start playing way off me and I need to take that jumper in rhythm or drive to the rim for a floater.


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