This is not a picture of the man who schooled me in the following story. He was much bigger and stronger. Much more impressive. Please believe me.
In pickup ball, as in life, experience is something you greatly underestimate...when you don't have it. That's why younger players tend to come across as arrogant cocksmiths on the court. I can't tell you how many times some strutting teenager has challenged me to one-on-one with that "I'm gonna kick the old guy's ass" look on his face only to get sent away with his tail between his legs.
But, once upon a time, I
was that arrogant kid. And here's how I learned my lesson.
I was a pretty good player in high school, although I never tried out for the varsity team. I got quite a bit better during my freshman year at college, owing mostly to the relatively high level of competition I was facing at the co-recreational gym and in the dorm intramural leagues. See, I went to a Big Ten university, and many of the ballers I played with and against were very good high school players who weren't quite good enough to get a scholarship at a Division I college. There's no better way to hone your skills than against people who are as good or better than you.
I returned to my hometown that summer full of piss and vinegar. I immediately joined a 24-hour health club where all the current and returning varsity players got their game on. Occasionally, there were full-court games, but the big thing at that time was to go at it one-on-one. That's how people wanted to prove themselves. That's how bragging rights were won.
And I never lost a single one-on-one game at that court that summer.
Boy oh boy
did I get cocky. I started talking some trash and doing little things to embarrass my opponents, like cleanly blocking a shot, recovering it, and then giving it back to the guy. There was an older black gentleman who used to sit on the bleachers, watching and heckling and handing out nicknames, and he used to call me "Disaster Master" or "Master of Disaster." He would howl and laugh at the guys I was playing against, and I loved it.
The highlight came when I beat one of the former varsity players I had graduated with -- a guy I really
didn't like -- in 14 straight games of 21. He was determined to keep playing until he won one, but I finally told him, "Forget it, you're never gonna beat me" and walked off the court.
So, yeah, I was pretty full of myself.
One night I was invited to dinner with my girlfriend's family and the subject of my basketball "prowess" came up. Her dad, George -- whom you may remember from this story
-- mentioned how he had been on the varsity team in his day and still played at the local union hall. I half-jokingly suggested we play some time, and he said, "Yeah, let's do it."
A week or so later, we met up at the union hall. The building housed a very nice and well-cared for court, and there was nobody there but us. George was taller than me, solidly built, and had huge, thick hands. And he was in great shape. But despite the obvious signs that he wasn't your average former athlete in decline, I sauntered into the situation with a thick-witted confidence. After all, he was in his mid-40s
. To my brazen 19-year-old self, that seemed positively ancient. And if there's anything that our American culture teaches us -- both consciously and subconsciously -- it's that the young always overcome the old. It was inevitable, right?
We started off with a series of odd shooting games I'd never heard of. There was one game in which you alternated freethrows and layups, and each successive layup had to be performed with a greater degree of difficulty than the last. Then there was a five-shot drill. Then we ran some full-court passing drills. And we finished up with HORSE.
George outperformed me in each and every game and drill we did. To a kid who had gotten used to always winning, it was embarrassing and more than a little irritating. I was anxious to get started so I could whup him in one-on-one...and I kept wondering what he was "waiting" for (at the time, the idea of warming up was completely foreign to me). Finally, it was time. He came up, handed me the ball, and said, "Okay. Full court one-on-one. Twos and threes to 24. Win by four."
Full court one-on-one? He had to be kidding...right?
Wrong. He was deadly serious. And, on my first possession, he was all over me. After a few unsuccessful drive attempts, I took a bad shot from the freethrow line. He rebounded it, sprinted downcourt, and launched a running, one-handed three-pointer that hit nothing but net.
He called out "3-0" and then sprinted back to the other end of the court and took up a defensive stance. I was a little surprised, but figured (stupidly) that it had been a lucky shot. I walked the ball back to my basket and tried to post him up. He was too strong to back down, and too tall for me to shoot over. He blocked my eventual shot attempt, sprinted back downcourt again, and hit another running one-hander from beyond the arc.
That was the very first moment where it occurred to me that I might be in trouble.
And I was. He clobbered me, something like 24-8. After the game, I was totally winded and even angrier than I had been during the warm up. I shook it off and figured that his age would soon be catching up to him, and that I would overtake him in the next game. But it didn't happen. He cleaned my clock again. And then again in a third game. By the end of that one, I was so out-of-breath that I couldn't even stand up straight. I was gasping and heaving like I'd just finished a marathon. At this point, I just wanted to quit, but he handed me the ball again and said, "Come on. Best of seven."
I lost that one too.
The defeat had been so humiliating that I became obsessed with the rematch. I decided the biggest problem had been my lack of conditioning. So I went at the cardio machines: Treadmill, bike, Stair Master, rowing machine. On some nights, I was doing about an hour and a half worth of cardio. About a month later, I challenged George to a rematch. I lost that series too, 0-4 once again.
This changed my basketball life. I now trained and practiced with only one goal in mind: Beating George in one-on-one. I would plan weekend trips home around facing him in one-on-one. (This greatly irritated my girlfriend, who felt as though she was competing against her own father for my attention.) But no matter what I did, I couldn't beat him. There was one game in which, I swear, I went 11-for-11 and still lost
. (He hit a couple threes, and I hit none.)
Then, on the day I thought I had finally beaten him, I learned another lesson. I sank a three-pointer from the corner to win my first ever game against him. Or so I believed. I screamed "Boom baby!" (which Slick Leonard had popularized during his Pacers broadcasts) and raised my arms to the sky. I danced a little jig. I was unreasonably elated. Meanwhile, George retrieved the ball, handed it back to me. "Don't disrespect your opponents," he said, referring to my somewhat excessive celebration. "Play that possession over." I was stunned, but I did what he said. I missed my next couple shots, he hit his, and I lost. Again.
On another weekend visit, George and I decided to get in one quick game before dinner at an outdoor court not far from his house. I won the game, fair and square, and was smart enough not to celebrate. But he grinned at me anyway and said, "Best out of three." And he won the next two.
This cycle went on for almost two years. All the while, I was developing new moves, learning to play defense, training my body to increase my strength and endurance. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we became more and more evenly matched. And, finally, one day I beat him in a best-of-seven series. I wish I could say it was some epic duel or that I won the seventh game on a final, dramatic shot. But it didn't go down that way. I simply won four of five games and that was that. Neither of us said anything, but we both knew. As he did after each and every game, George shook my hand and said, "Good game." Only this time, it was a little different.
George was (and still is) a great man. He taught me about playing the game, which also taught me about the game itself. Many of my outlooks on basketball and the men who play it developed during our relatively brief but intense rivalry. He taught me to respect the game, my opponents, and myself. He taught me to be gracious in victory and noble in defeat. And whether you agree or disagree, I think those are very important concepts for young men -- and even older men -- to learn. I'm still grateful.
Labels: experience, learning lessons, pickup basketball, youth