Pickup basketball and defense: It's like a peanut butter and roadkill sandwich. Most people do their best to avoid the combination, and the ones who don't get some seriously funny looks.

In most cases, the defensive strategies used by the average pickup baller can be best explained by the following axiom: "Defense is just waiting to get back on offense." The intense focus and concentration that a player exerts while trying to create space for his "patented fallaway jumper" are almost completely absent on the defensive end. Pickup defenders usually display the droopy-eyed, slack-jawed, stiff-armed posture of a Romero-style movie zombie, except that at least a zombie is motivated to eat human brains. There is no "human brain equivalent" for a pickup defender. They're just killing time.

Another truism is that pickup ballers don't just avoid defense themselves, they want others to avoid it as well. Nothing annoys a pickup baller more than being tightly defended, denied the ball, or blocked out. I've received the kind of disgusted looks for playing sound, fundamental defense that are usually reserved for lawyers and child molesters. It's always important to remember that, in pickup basketball, offense is everything. I am often reminded that, "Hey, it's the first team to 11 points, not 11 steals."

The following list describes the various defensive strategies you're likely to encounter while playing pickup basketball. Remember: These strategies are not mutually exclusive, and many are actually used interchangeably depending on the dynamic circumstances of the game.

All-Star Defense: This style of defense focuses on gambling for cheap steals, leaping wildly into the air to deliver a spectacular blocked shot, and violently slapping the ball on an uncontested rebound. The flashy things, the showy things, the things that look really impressive until the player gives up several easy layups. This is what Red Auerbach liked to call "false hustle." However, it's a pretty sure bet that the all-star defender won't stay in front of his man, keep a hand in his face, or block out.

[Update!!] Anything Goes Defense: This is the pickup equivalent of the "Bad Boys" brand of basketball played by the Detroit Pistons in the late 80s. In other words: No blood, no foul. There are variations on this theme, of course. A high school buddy used to insist on playing by "bardyard rules," and as a result lost a chunk of ear cartilage during one of our after school one-on-one games. Anything Goes Defense works only if there is an agreement, be it spoken or unspoken, to abide by the "no rules" rule prior to the game. If you're the only player playing Anything Goes D, chances are you're going to become Pickup Enemy Number 1, and fast.

Dirty Bastard Defense: This is the style employed by the Bruce Bowens of your pickup league. They take defense very seriously, and even abide by some of the fundamental principles, but they also cheat. They cheat at every opportunity. They grab, they hold, they shove. Thanks to Bowen, they've even added the infamous "foot defense" to their repertoire. And it doesn't matter who they're guarding, because they do it to anybody and everybody. I used to be pretty good friends with a dirty bastard defender. We'd hang out before the game, do a little jogging, shoot around, laughing and joking the whole time. Then, right before the ball was inbounded, he'd step on my foot and grab my jersey.

Ego Defense: Some guys just automatically think they're better than everybody else. They're so good that they can play half speed on offense and zero speed on defense. In fact, they play with the kind of aloof disinterest that makes you wonder why they're playing at all. They will often make allusions to how they are accustomed to "better competition" to cover up their defensive inadequacies and general lack of effort. The ego defender will always let you shoot the jumper, then yell something like "off" or "short" to explain to his teammates why he didn't get a hand up (this will continue regardless of how many shots go in). When an offensive player drives, the ego defender will eschew moving his feet and choose instead to deliver a solid body bump or hack. Foul calls are usually met with a sarcastic look, loud complaint, or yelling.

Good Defense: It's true. Some pickup ballers actually play good defense. Many times, these players are a coach's son or someone who sat on the end of the bench for their high school basketball team. They always get into a proper defensive stance, move their feet, don't buy head fakes, and block out at every opportunity. They are tireless and never lose focus, which means they pursue you aggressively, limiting your touches and shot attempts. You know it's going to be a long, frustrating night when you get matched up against a good defender.

Hands-free Defense: There is a myth that all "Old Guy" players employ an aggressive, overly physical style of defense. This is not strictly true. While there are many old guys that cover their lost step(s) with well-timed pushing and shoving, some old guys harken back to a more civilized age, when even the most basic physical contact wasn't allowed. True, these old-schoolers probably call a lot of ticky-tack fouls, but they also tend to give up a lot of ground on defense. Most of the time, this goes unnoticed because some pickup ballers choose to go easy on the old guys. But pay close attention. If you end up matching up against a hands-free defender, you should post up or take it to the hole every time.

Helpless Defense: No matter how good or bad you are at defense, there are going to be times you lose your man and need a little help. Maybe you got picked, maybe you had to pick up somebody else's man on the fast break. Whatever the scenario, it is up to your teammates to make the proper rotations. However, you're more likely to see the Pope show up in short pants than to get proper defensive help. Pickup ballers usually have tunnel vision on defense; they see their own man and no one elses. Yelling "switch" sometimes improves the possibility of getting help, but not always. That's why it's always best to just fight through a pick. And don't bother trying to criticize a helpless defender. He'll just remind you that "He's not my man."

Matador Defense: This has been covered previously. This strategy is typically employed by players who don't pay attention. Then, when their man is about to score, they do a quick reach or wave their hand in the air to give the appearance of consistent defensive effort. This, of course, fools no one.

[UPDATE!!] Moviegoer Defense: These guys might as well show up with a box of popcorn and some contraband candy stuffed in their shorts, because all they do is stand around and watch. They watch as their teammates get posted up or beaten off the dribble, they watch as rebounds carom off the backboard, and they watch as their man streaks to the basket and/or hoists up shot after uncontested shot. These players provoke rage and even hatred in their teammates. Conversely, opposing players can almost always look forward to a "career night" (within the context of pickup league play) against them.

'Roid Defense: If you play pickup basketball at your local gym, you will sometimes encounter hugely muscular guys attempting to play basketball. These guys always point out that they're "just here to get in a little cardio." Translation: They are high on strength and low on skill. So, as you would expect, they try to use that Hulk-like strength to their advantage whenever possible, even if they must bend, break, or shatter the rules to do so. This is most apparent on rebounds, when they will use their giant arms to shove you, like a hapless rag doll, out from under the basket. When encountering a 'roid defender, be prepared for a high degree of physical contact, as they try to show off the fact that they can bench press your car.

Shame Defense: The shame defender uses various psychological tactics to convince you to either play light defense or, better yet, no defense at all. "Hey there big guy," they'll say, "take it easy on me, would ya? I'm old/injured/tired/hungover/depressed/etc." They might share a "private" story about a fight they just had with their wife, or explain how they just blew out their knee last week. The same person, when playing offense, might try to butter you up. "Uh oh," they'll tell you with a wink, "I have to play against the best defender in the league." Ultimately, they will say whatever it takes to make you feel a deep sense of shame for guarding them. You might ignore them at first and play your usual, hard-nosed defense. Then, they'll try to frown and pout until you back off. Sometimes, they'll stand far outside the three-point line and grouch that, "I might as well not even try, since you aren't gonna let me score." Don't be fooled, though. If you turn your back on them for a single second, they won't hesitate to streak in for an uncontested layup.

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Blogger Pete Fresh said...
You always have to get on the team with the "good defender", even if he is the guy who wears two knee braces, a sleeve, a facemask and mouth guard, so at least you don’t have to get stuck being guarded by him. In my experience it's the guy who can't play for his life so he just hustles. He'll call picks, help out in the lane and even keep his hands up the whole time. He chooses to not care about points because he can't score and has convinced himself that defense is remotely important in pickup. On offense he's usually the guy who sets picks, goes after every offensive board (unsuccessfully) and sprints back if the other team gets a fast break. He always wears the "annoying guy who actually tries on defense" title as a badge of honor. If you say something like “Dude, you really need to tone down the D”, he’ll respond with “Defensive wins games, my man” like he’s actually doing more than pissing the other team off.

Oh, and as a 16 year-old, I've always found the old guy winking at me while saying "uh-oh, looks like I'm being guarded by the scrappy young gun" to be extremely creepy.

Anonymous Sun Devil said...
Great post; I get real frustrated watching the general lack of defense in pick-up basketball. I'm one of those annoying guys that does his best to play good defense, but with that comes with a ton of responsibility. For instance: Since no one else will play defense, I inevitably get the task of taking on a guy usually twice my size. Keep in mind I'm a pretty lanky guy standing in at 6 feet, I'm by no means a guy that uses my strength to push to the hoop. This means I get stuck with either the wannabe-iversons on the court, or even worse and more common: 'roid monsters. ASU is full of them. I am in no way built to guard these beasts. I'd say 9 out of 10 times the offense usually looks like this: http://youtube.com/watch?v=4CiU9eWhLYs. But hey at least I'm trying to contest him, right?

Anonymous starang said...
I just take them all to the hole and hammer dunk on them.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Steve Francis has been playing a hybrid type of defense that combines the matador and all star defense with the ego defense for his entire career. What would you call that?

Anonymous Sun Devil said...

Blogger Basketbawful said...
pete -- The good defender is always great when he's on your team. They play all out, and they know their limitations. I'd much rather play with a good defender than a thoughtless shooter. Old guys can be creepy. I remember back when I was in college, I played some pickup hoops at the local YMCA. I had a date later and decided to grab a shower. One of the old guys came in, slapped me on my bare ass, and said, "Good game." Thanks, but, uh, creepy.

sun devil -- Dude, I'm right there with you. I'm the lock-down defender in my pickup league, which means I always get tasked (often by choice) to the best offensive player on the opposing teams, be they a speedy guard or a huge, bulky center. It can be exhausting. But I have to admit, I take some pride in it.

starang -- Well, that's definitely one way to do it. I'd do the same thing, but it'd have to be playing on an 8-foot hoop against 12-year-olds.

liston -- Hmm. Good question. The Egotastic Matadoric All-Starific Defense?

Anonymous starang said...
oh mighty and smart basketbawful - Is that not how you normally play? If not, I highly recommend it. I pretty much dominate the 12 year olds, and leave the gym happier and with less injury than when playing against people my own age. Its a good spirit booster, and a hell of a time.

Blogger MCBias said...
basketbawful, I love All-Star Defense for blocked shots in pickup games. I deliberately try to bait my man into taking shots that I can block hard; i.e. pretending to buy fakes, allowing my man to get past me for lay-up attempts if I know he can't protect the ball well, etc. Because I get burned a couple times, as you said, it looks like I'm giving the guy a fair chance and not playing too hard. But if I can get one or two good blocks, it will usually destroy most pickup players for the rest of the game. Anyway, great post; I had no idea you talked so much about pickup basketball.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
starang -- You know, one time me and some buddies ended up playing against a dad and a group of 10-year-olds he brought out for "practice." We were pretty much just pretending to play D and letting them score...until this one kid hit a shot on me, pointed, yelled "In yo face, mo-fo!" and did a shimmy dance back down court. So of course I made him eat his next shot. My friends bring this up at least every other week.

mcbias -- There's certainly an attraction to All-Star Defense. It just looks cool, which is why a lot of people end up playing it. Especially against lesser players. You know, like the "Hot Potato Passer Guy" and "Old Guy." It can provide a good psychological advantage against weaker teams, but against better, smarter players, it actually gives them a boost because they know they get the ball back anyway.

I've written a decent handful of pickup basketball posts, with more on the way, because it seems like that's one subject that doesn't get a lot of coverage.

Blogger MCBias said...
I forgot to mention, though, that I'm a weak-looking white boy with no hops who usually wears goggles when he plays. Thus, it does mess with people's heads pretty badly if I block them. You're right, though, that the best are used to it and shrug it off.

I'm actually considering some videos on pick-up basketball because I hadn't seen anyone talking about it elsewhere. Do you have an e-mail address? I couldn't find one on this page. I have an idea I want to share with you to see if you'd be interested. My email address is on my web-site. Later, MCBias.

Blogger Jeff said...
My least favorite defenders have always been the guys who don't understand the role of their arms when playing D. They think their arms are like the gates to the lane, and despite the fact that you've clearly gotten by them, they are not ready to let the gates down. They quite literally block you or impede your progress...sometimes nudging out with a shoulder too. When you explain that that is in fact a foul they are usually incredulous because, hey, you ran into them!

I just stumbled on here, I like the pickup b-ball stuff.