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

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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