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 was...an 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
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.
Labels: pickup basketball, playing on the road