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.
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.
‘Back in the US.’
‘How long are you here?’
‘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.