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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.

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