Playing road

Most people who participate in pickup basketball regularly tend to play at the same place, whether it's an organized league, the local gym, a nearby park, or whatever. That place becomes your de facto home court. You know the floors, the rims, the rules of play. You've adjusted to any odd quirks in the lighting, the facilities, the people. You may even be on a first-name basis with the homeless man who likes to sleep under the bleachers. You become comfy there because -- regardless of whether the conditions and competition are good or bad -- it is familiar. And not to go all Noam Chomsky on you, but human beings crave what is familiar.

However, sometimes the league session ends, or the gym is letting fat people do aerobics on the basketball court, or nobody is at the park. And -- if you have a real basketball jones -- that's when you have to play on "the road." A couple nights ago, Evil Ted and I were forced to hit the road to get our pickup fix. We went to a pay-by-the-night league just outside Chicago, and it experience.

For starters, the rules were different. The place where we usually play, we score by 1s (for a conventional basket) and 2s (for three-pointers) up to 9 (if there are a lot of people waiting to play), 15 (if there are a few people waiting) or 21 (if there are only two teams per court with nobody waiting). This league scores by 2s and 3s up to 17. How that system -- which I have never before encountered -- was chosen, I have no idea. Maybe they came up with it to confuse strangers, or maybe they just like being irrationally different. Like guys who wear pink polos with baby blue shorts.

Secondly, the talent level was slightly lower than what we're used to. Sure, our regular league has its fair share of low-talent redshirts, but there are also several skilled players and a few guys who played college ball for a Division I college team.

I'm sure none of the guys we played with the other night ever did anything more than watch college ball.

But one thing that always seems to be true in pickup is that what people lack in talent, they tend to make up for with physical play (think Bruce Bowen, only with less subtlety). This means that the area around the basket becomes a butcher shop. Drive to the hoop, and you will be bumped, grabbed and fouled. There's even the feeling that, if given the chance, these men would reach into your stomach and, with a scream of primal rage, rip out your spine. So, naturally, I was bleeding from the mouth by the second game. Seriously.

That being said, Evil Ted and I were more or less having our way. It wasn't that we were doing anything particularly spectacular; we were just playing fundamental basketball. Passing, setting picks, moving without the ball, hustling...and it didn't hurt that I was hitting well from the outside. Speaking of which, there is no better way to impress your teammates and intimidate your opponents on the road than hitting a bunch of threes. I connected on my first three triples, and after that my teammates could not pass me the ball fast enough. The opposing team, on the other hand, was freaking out because, for all they knew, I shot like that all the time. They had never seen me cool off yet. So, once my shooting ability had been established, one or two guys would go flying past every time I juked or head-faked.

We won our first three games pretty handily and were up 8-2 in the fourth game when things fell apart. One of the league regulars, an older guy, was driving ponderously to the hoop against me on the fast break. As he shambled by, I rose up and lightly blocked his layup attempt. He immediately called a foul.

This is important to remember: New guys always have more fouls called against them. Just like rookies in the NBA have to earn respect, you have to earn respect on the road in pickup ball. Guys are much more willing to overlook a little contact from someone they know than from someone they don't. In fact, they might very well make bogus calls because they don't know you. After all, you're invading their turf, and they have to protect it. Oh, and the old guys are notorious for this behavior. Maybe it's because they're old school, or it could be that even a gentle breeze would file like brutal contact to their fragile bodies. Who knows?

I immediately spun around and said "Whaaaaaa...?" because it was a terrible call, even by "road" standards. One of the guys teammates came right up to me and slapped my palm and gave me a look that said, "Yes that was a clean block, and yes you got jobbed, just let it go, okay?" And I decided to do just that. But Evil Ted didn't.

Actually, he couldn't. Which is part of why we call him "Evil" Ted. To make matters worse, he and this guy had gotten into it during one of our previous forays to this league...while they were teammates, no less. So Evil Ted was a ticking time bomb waiting to go off on the old guy, and he said, loudly and pointedly, "If he's gonna call that shit, foul him really hard next time."

That was a mistake.

You see, anger cannot be created or destroyed. It simply exists based on its own unique rules of existence, like cosmic rays and Dick Cheney. The old guy got in Evil Ted's face, and the two started jawing at each other. Then, over the course of the next few plays, they were pushing and shoving at each other away from the ball. And then things got out of control.

See, here's yet another little factoid about playing on the road. As I mentioned, you are an invader. So no matter how nice and respectful you might be, you are The Enemy. The regulars want to beat you. I mean, they really want to beat you. Who doesn't want to protect their home court and knock the new guy or guys down a few pegs? My buddy Mister P calls it "feeding them their rookie cookies."

This means that the regulars will play a little harder, a little more aggressively against you. Or maybe a lot more. Normally, you can overcome this by keeping quiet and just playing good basketball. You can win guys over and earn respect in as little as one night of play. But -- and this is important -- do not rile up the regulars if you are a newbie or an occasional visitor. Mouthing off or committing hard fouls will unite the opposing team in a way that nothing else can. Even worse, it can cost you the trust of your teammates (assuming they are also regulars), because you're now bullying around the guys they play with on a weekly basis.

From that point on, we were outscored 15-2 and (obviously) lost. The other team was all over us like Jerome James on a box of Twinkies. They were playing great defense, and when that failed they'd just foul us. Our teammates stopped passing us the ball and were too intimidated themselves to do much on the offensive end. After scoring most of the points in the first three games, I got one shot the rest of the way. I'm not sure Evil Ted even got another shot.

Sadly, that was the last game of the night. And there's no worse feeling than losing that last game. (Well, unless you lose all the games.)

The next day, Evil Ted came up to me as soon as he arrived at work and said, "I'm sorry. I blew that game and ruined the whole night." (Yes, we have to talk about pickup first thing the next day. Hell, sometimes we have to discuss it the same night.) I, of course, agreed. And we vowed that, the next time we go to that league, we're going to remain (relatively) silent and play the game.

We go back in two weeks.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
Ahh the grasroots of the game, you spread them sir, and that is truly the way of the majestic game of champions. Playing not for money, but for the glory of the win, the thrill of the competition. What a wonderful occasion it is to travel down to the active courts, not of millionaires, but of the bus drivers, the everday joe, slugging it out on the court, giving it all they have, and my friends, the game always returns the favor.

I bet you thought that was Bill Walton. It wasn't.

Blogger Michael Hsu said...
It's true, in my experience playing park basketball people that generally do not play the game tend to be the bruisers. I think it is because they do not know the rules, but it also doesn't help that I'm like 5'4'' and 100 nothing pounds.

Blogger Cortez said...
This posting is almost 100% accurate.
the only part I disagree with, and this may be a strech, is that the post seems to condone this type of behavior.

People who play basketball this way are, in my experience, complete idiots and/or assholes in other areas of life.

I played (well I was on the team at least) on a Division 1 program and I could, and can, play relatively well although I was nothing special by any strech of the imagination.

I found that playing pick-up with guys who actually played basketball was a much better experience than playing with random guys and different courts. The real problem is that these guys have no honor or respect for themselves or the game.

I have almost completely given up playing pick-up ball because of the idiots who usually play on the courts around the city (Chicago).

I would kill myself if I had to resort to making phantom calls or hacking on purpose in pick-up games. It's called the "honor system" for a reason.

It has always perplexed me how these morons can feel good about winning after resorting to these sorts of tactics.

Blogger Truth About It said...
Like the most who play have lived it before.

That being said....I realize that the standard for pick-up-games seems to be the 1 point, 2 point scoring system...but why?

Has anyone ever questioned as to why a shot from long distance should count twice as much as a hard fought basket in the paint?

One day...for some odd reason....we switched to the 2-3 system at my gym...and from now on, I prefer it be that way.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I feel cortez on that. Although I didn't play D1 ball I have the same mentality he has. I played last night at the gym here (USF) and have been for a year. Last night may have been the last straw, one guy staged a sit in on the court until they re-played the winning possession during which his team lost on a 2pointer 16-15. They gave in and played and his team won 16-14, my team got on and crushed them but playing isn't really fun right now.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
A-men Cortez

This type of behavior is typical of all recreational team-sports athletes who never amounted to anything. They're hyper-competitive, usually out-of-control and often end up hurting themselves and others. Not to mention mostly very very very sore losers and even worse winners.

Like that guy in your co-ed rec league soccer league who slides cleats-out for a meaningless 50-50 ball at midfield or that other guy who plays flag football but thinks it's acceptable to pop a wide receiver who is looking at the ball and otherwise helpless. Douche bags.

That is why I switched to endurance sports. You aren't going to get some Joe-armchair douchenozzle show up for a Triathlon, talk shit, and cause an injury by way of dirty play and shenanigans. They get dusted by those who train and respect the sport and competition, and the clock favors no one.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
nick/buck -- Dude, are you absolutely sure you aren't really Bill Walton?

mike -- You're only 100 pounds?? God, I feel fat...

cortez -- Dude, I feel you. The league I typically play at has a high level of play, insofar as people at least try to play good, clean basketball. Not everybody is good, but there aren't any hackers, and if any show up, they get enough crap that they either change or leave.

As for how people can feel good about winning at any cost...well, that's the world we live in. We see it at the highest levels (the pros) and it trickles on down.

truth about it -- I belive the 1-point/2-point system probably originated because people struggle with basic math. It's just easier to keep score by 1s. But, as you point out, it makes three-pointers worth double a standard basket. This means that 1. three-point snipers are the most valuable players, even if they don't have any other tangible skills (and many of them don't), and 2. waaaaay too many people bomb away without regard to shot selection. To me, I'd rather get an easy layup than shoot an awkward, off-balance three.

tradebait -- A sit in? Seriously? Wow. I mean, wow. Yeah, people can suck the joy out of the game. And that sucks.

anonymous -- I agree to a point about the endurance sports. But I'm also a distance runner, and I've run in some competitive short races in which I've been elbowed or shoved or what not near the end, including one particular 5K in which I thought I was going to win until a guy barrelled into me from behind. And yes, he ended up winning the race.

Furthermore, I had a friend who was a high-level competitive marathoner, and she told me stories of girls tripping her and kicking her in the Achilles' tendon, stuff like that.

Blogger Cortez said...
Thw 1-2 scoring system favors unatheltic outside shooters.

I prefer all one point baskets to 7. This keeps the games moving fast and allows more people to play. Plus it tends to cut out the "I'm just getting warmed up" nonsense. Be ready to play, because 7 comes really quick, or prepare to sit out a few.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
cortez -- Now, see, I think the 1-2 scoring system is absolutely atrocious in short games (like to 7 or 9 points) because, as you pointed out, it favors the one-dimensional bombers.

However, I kind of like it in games to 21. For a few reasons. By the time you get the first 10(ish) points out of the way, guys get fatigued and three-point shooting becomes less of a factor. The longer the game goes, the more it favors players who are in shape and teams that can work the ball around for good shots.

Games to 7, by 1 or 1-2, to me are too short. It's not just that they end fast, it makes it hard for teams to really find a rhythm. Personally, I've always preferred long games (although they aren't always feasible). Back in high school, I would get my buddies to play 48-minute games, or games to 100 (by 2s and 3s)...even if it was just one-on-one (yes, I'm insane).

Blogger Cortez said...
That's true. Playing to 7 means you have to be ready to go right out of the gate, offensively and defensively.

When I played pick-up in college the guys I played with would be embarrassed to foul on purpose or called phantom calls. If we got beat we took it as a sign to work harder on our skill level.

Even if I got beat to the basket on the last shot it was "Good move. I'll see you again", not, Let me hack this guy so I won't get scored on. And, I have a rep for being a very tough defender.

Granted, that group of guys was limited.

Man, I miss playing good ball. I wish I hadn't read this posting!

By the way, you're not insane. games to 100 were a real bonus in high school.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
How much I enjoy pickup ball totally depends on who else is on my team and who I am playing against. I'll never forget a night I played a few years ago--I was on a winning team, but the two "best" players on my team were complete and total ballhogs. Winning was not fun at all. I pretty much walked away from ball for a couple years after a few more nights like that.

Thankfully, I've started to play again with a pretty good group. We generally play to 15 by ones and twos. I'd prefer 21, but usually there are one or two guys sitting. They do have a different rules than I'm used to--offense calls fouls.

It's always interesting to see how different people play. I think how a person plays says a lot about who that person really is.

I've never thought that hacking a team on purpose on game point was a cool thing to do. I've had a few teammates get upset with me when rather than a hack an opponent on game point, I "let" them score.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I have to respectfully disagree - I like the 1/2 pt scoring system over the 2/3.

That is, pickup 'ballers' don't usually shoot 50%+ from the 3 (or 2 in this case). It's not unbalanced because the majority of the 2 pt shots are bricks/turnovers. A team that rarly or never shoots them will usually beat the guy that jacks up outside shots all the time.

Moreso, when you're at the end of the game and your team needs 2 points to win, you do NOT shoot the 2. You go for two inside shots to finish the game off. I think almost everyone who isn't pretending he's kobe follows this rule.

Maybe I'm biased because I always play post, I can't shoot long consistantly, and I usually play smaller (3v3) half-court make it take it games. But my point stands.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Wait a second here... you play offense calls fouls? What nonsense is that? It's always the defense that calls fouls.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I disagree that people do not shoot the 2 to win. I can't even count the number of times that a game has extended into a completely different century while I watched would-be winners that aren't normally ballhogs try to be the hero with the winning 2. I fucking remember standing all alone in the post once while some dingus heaved up another brick.

That being said, I also think that there are times the 2 is the winner. But give it to the hot hand.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
anonymous 6:31, you bring up a good point. Besides the 1/2 v. 2/3 scoring rule -- how do people feel about make it/take it v. make it/give it?

Not that I want to hijack your post, Mr. Bawful. Just curious.

Blogger Victor said...
"I belive the 1-point/2-point system probably originated because people struggle with basic math."


I hate the 1/2 system because shooting .250 for 3's (2's) is equal to shooting .500 from in inside the arc. It's just silly, but everyone I know scores it that way.

Blogger KNEE JERK NBA said...
Great article. Anyone who plays a bit knows exactly what you're talking about. It's almost like visiting a different country at times.

It's called 21 in some cities, Crunch in others, buckets vs baskets, call your own fouls, etc.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
i like evil ted now.

Blogger Daniel said...
Can't wait to hear your telling of the next time y'all play again.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I'm from Bulgaria.We usually play 3v3 on halfcourt till 21(if there are "benchers" till 15)
And I really felt what you wrote.Here there aren't many people who can play.So it's very hard to go to play on an unknown court and actually play.But most irritating for me is when "the defender" stops me with HAND.I was trying to explain: THAT'S A FOUL many times to many people.Not much luck.So it is best to play with the same guys who can play.And if you go to play pickup.You go as a team and crush them.

Blogger Mart J said...
Yeah fuck the butcher shop guys but also fuck the guys who drive to the hoop with elbows all over the place and get annoyed they get bumped. If some jerk runs at me at full speed, someone is likely to get hurt and I don't really want to get hurt.

Blogger Evil Ted said...
The toughest aspect of the league where Bawful and I visited last week was that years ago, I used to be a consistent regular - the Cheers "Norm" of the place. I still know a few of the guys, so even though I only visit once every six months (if not less), I am still in the mind set of a regular (Hell, I'd still call people out, even as a first timer -it's just the way I am. If there's bad ball being played, people will hear about it - unless they are very large and clearly willing and able to kick my ass. I'm testy, but not stupid.).

My "previous foray" with the old dude was this: He and I were on the same team and he's going up for an offensive rebound. He blows it - repeatedly - and is just basically tapping the ball in the air to himself over and over. A guy from the other team is trying to fight him for the ball and it's looking like a stalemate. Standing two feet away, I had to get involved. I tried to get in on the rebound and essentially knocked the ball out of his hands. He proceeded to give me a two-handed push in the chest and scream "What are you DOING?" For the rest of the night (about 20 minutes worth of time), I was vibrating with fury - I was taunting him, like saying "you better win this game for us, f**ker" every time he handled the ball, and even talking to the dude guarding me, saying stuff like "Have you ever beaten the shit out of your own teammate?" As you can see, I have a tough time letting things go - which is why I made that needless comment this week about fouling him hard...and screwed up the rest of the game for my team. Sometimes anger backfires, and you have to accept it and try to learn from it.

There is something about conflict in sports that resembles "road rage" - on the road, you're just going at it with another driver, some anonymous shadow behind the wheel of a car whose humanity takes a back seat to your anger. Once you hit the court (especially if you don't "know" people as friends outside the court), the same lack of compassion can lock into place and families and jobs and life don't exist outside of it. You are all just basketball warriors out there - and war can be ugly. Just watch the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Reading this article actually gave me an adrenaline rush, and not the good kind. The angry kind. I've had so many similar experiences in so many courts.

I'm a stiff, mind you. I suck, but I love the game. I play defense, I hustle, and I rebound. Playing in a foreign court means being called for a foul because I dared to box out, play aggressive defense, block shots and just plain old move my feet and take charges rather than letting people drive past me at will. When I commit a foul, I´m the first to admit it, but when I get hosed, I tend to go Evil Teddish, to no one's benefit. Certanly not mine.

Of course, sometimes one HAS to pull an Evil Ted, and when that time comes it is usualy best if one is...ah....accompanied. Otherwise, things can get tricky.

I'm from the Dominican Republic, and down here we play to 21, 2s are worth 2s, 3s are worth 3s. It's pretty much standard. Unspoken rules however (how flexible or inflexible the 3 second rule is, physical play, carrying the ball) depend entirely on the court.

Blogger Cortez said...
"Maybe I'm biased because I always play post, I can't shoot long consistantly"

"Maybe I'm biased because I always play post, I can't shoot long consistantly"

The 1-2 scoring system puts you at a clear disadvantage.

It makes "3-point" baskets worth 200% of a "2-point" basket where with the regular (2-3) scoring system it's only %150 more.

Since there are no free throws to consider "3 point" shooters only have to shoot about 33% to match a 50% 2 point shooter.

Plus rebounds from 3 pointers usually come off long negating any natural rebounding advantage.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Yeah, I'd never heard of offense calls fouls either. The reason given was that the shooter should be able to choose whether to call a foul or just play it.

One thing that drives me crazy (being a guard) is when a guy who is bigger than me thinks he can post me up so he camps in the key for the entire possession. It's pickup ball, so I hate to call 3 seconds, but man alive sitting in there for the whole possession is ridiculous.

I now know how Evil Ted got his nickname---too funny.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
hmmmmmm......maybe me and keith should come with you to this league. we'll really give them their rookie cookies!!!!!

Anonymous Anonymous said...
offense calls fouls is the same as shooter calls foul

Blogger Cortez said...
"One thing that drives me crazy (being a guard) is when a guy who is bigger than me thinks he can post me up so he camps in the key for the entire possession. It's pickup ball, so I hate to call 3 seconds, but man alive sitting in there for the whole possession is ridiculous."

I hate that too. I just make a comment about there being a 3 second rule for a reason. After that I just front the post. Most pick-up guys can't throw accurate post passes to someone standing under that close to the basket anyway. But then they'll resort to pushing you in the back in which case it's a lost cause...


I HATE pick-up basketball!!!!!!

...and I win most of the time!

In fact, I hate people in general.

Blogger Unknown said...
my god, i think after reading Evil Ted's comments, i've found my twin. though i'm known to be calm and reasonable, it let it all out on the bball court and driving on the road. i have a very strong sense of right and wrong and even resort to vigilantism when i see something violate the laws of common decency.

i've gotten into my share of shouting matches from opposing players, regulars or strangers, teammates, guys waiting for the next game, etc. and the kicker is that i'm 5'8" and only weigh 135. against other guys i've called them out for playing dirty and calling cheap fouls. i once got up to a guy half a foot taller and about 60lbs heavier and barked at him for fouling my teammate and denying it. my friend said i had a superman complex after i told that big guy "what are you going to do, punch me? do it!" another time i've crossed the line after some said "you suck" when i missed a shot and i said "yo momma sucks" and we nearly got into a fight if not for guys separting us...not to mention this guy is also taller and a lot bigger than me. last example, one game i had teammates that blew 4-5 consecutive 2-1, 1-0, 3-1 fast breaks while i was busting my ass playing D on the other end and grabbing rebounds for the long pass. the only time i walked off the court because those guys were trying to do alley-oops and not hustling back on D.

i guess i might not be Evil Ted's twin since he said he's "testy but not stupid". my guys and i have actually gotten into fistfights when we had to protect out own guys or protect our "home court". "If he's gonna call that shit, foul him really hard next time."...our guys play pretty hard and let fouls slide so when someone new plays and calls phantom fouls, more than 1 person will say exactly that or a variation like "make your fouls worth it", "make them earn it", "next time he calls that, foul him harder" and this is loud enough for the guilty party to hear.

as for the 2-3 system, i've actually played in 2 venues where they use that scoring system. they play up to 16 on 2-and-out (regardless if win or lose your team only stays on for 2 games). i think one of the reasons for this is because there are so many bombers on the court. people jacking up 3s all the you remember how the NBA moved the 3 pt line in? everyone shot 3s because they thought it's the easier shot with bigger results. it works well for the people there because it keeps the games at a good pace. while we're at it, my usual Friday night guys used to play all 1s. brutal games because then no one shoots 3s and everyone collapses inside. we've somewhat altered that and play 2s and 1s up to whatever depending on how many are waiting