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.
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:
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.