As my junior year of high school arrived, I was feeling pretty good about myself. After all, I was now about 65-ish pounds lighter than I had been, I had my driver's licence and -- most importantly -- I had a car. At my school, back in my day, probably only about one out of four students had car. It might have even been fewer than that. So having a car was a very big deal.
Kokomo High School required students to pick up their new books about a week before school actually started. I remember the day I picked up my books very clearly. Unfortunately, the Fury had gobbled up pretty much all of my excess cash. If I'd bothered to open my wallet, it might have screamed in agony. For this reason, I hadn't been able to buy a new wardrobe for school. In other words, I was still wearing my "fat clothes."
I may as well have wrapped myself up in a tarp. I had actually worn my favorite outfit from the year before -- a pair of gray, faded jeans and a white t-shirt with some logo that was popular at the time -- but it looked ridiculous now. And, despite my much-improved situation, I felt just as much of an idiot as I had the previous year.
You know how sometimes when you're out in public, you'll hear people laughing and talking, and paranoia causes you to assume that they're laughing and talking about you? Well, that's how I felt while waiting in that line. I started to sweat. Then I heard words that almost caused an involuntary urine spill: "What a fatass."
Despite the fact that I was now obviously thin -- in point of fact, I was a wee bit too thin and was trying to gain back a few pounds -- I was absolutely certain that "fatass" comment had been aimed at me. I wanted to turn around and scream, "I am not
fat anymore!" But somehow I kept myself under control.
Of course, my first thought was: I need to lose more weight. But wait, wasn't I trying to fill out a little more? Then it hit me. It must be the clothes. It had to be the clothes. I wasn't fat, but they made me look fat. That's why somebody had called me a fatass.
Yes, the notion that the "fatass" comment had been directed at someone else never even occurred to me. That's the kind of tunnel vision I was dealing with at the time.
My mom agreed to get me some new clothes. The only shirt I remember specifically was this long-sleeved, button down shirt made out of blue denim. They were extremely popular at the time, and putting it on made me feel like a Grade A beefcake. So much so that -- despite the fact that the temperature was still hovering around 80 degrees -- I wore it on the first day of school.
But that wasn't the only stupid decision I made that day. The previous year, I had developed a mad crush on this girl Maureen W. To this day, I still have no idea why. I had never even spoken to the girl. She had sat three rows in front of me in art class. To my knowledge, she had never uttered a single word in that class the entire year. But I thought she was adorable.
As it happened, Maureen lived down the street from my friend Greg. So, that summer, we had walked by her house countless times. We'd never actually caught a glimpse of this girl who had captured my imagination, but it wasn't due to a lack of stalking.
Anyway, I was so full of piss and vinegar that I was determined to ask Maureen out immediately. My transformation had been so dramatic, so complete, I really believed I had a chance. C'mon: I was not thin and (to my mind) athletic, I was a licensed driver with his own car, and damn it, I was rocking a kickass mullet. How could she say no?
I wasn't sure when I was even going to see her...like I said, we hadn't made an actual audible connection yet. But as pure dumb luck would have it, her locker ended up being in the same hallway as my first period class. So, as I was pacing the hall looking for my usual crew of friends, I passed her. I remember thinking, in these exact words: What tremendous good fortune!
I know. What a nerd, right?
Now, I hadn't planned any of this out in advance. Not that a script would have actually made a difference in the outcome, but I might have looked less silly. Or maybe not. At any rate, I didn't even bother to stop and think this decision through. I walked right up and tapped her on the shoulder.
She turned around without a single flicker of recognition. "Yeah?"
"Hey, Maureen," I muttered. "I was wondering if, uh, you'd like to go out sometime?"
She looked at me like I'd actually just said, "Here! Eat this kitten!" The look had equal parts fear and disgust.
"Uh, no, I don't think so," she replied.
And that, my friends, is what we call a crash and burn.
I went to first period, which happened to be German class. My friends Greg and Dave D. were already there. I slumped down in my seat, a broken, defeated young man.
"Well," I began, "I asked out Maureen."
"How'd it go?" Greg asked.
"Not good," I replied.
"Bummer," Greg said.
And then life went on.
In the long run, getting turned down by Maureen was fine. After all, I had a much bigger crush on my long-term prospect, Cindy. And anyway, at that moment I was more obsessed with playing basketball than dating. I could hardly concentrate on my school work. When I looked out the window into those sunny, late-summer days, the only place I wanted to be was on the court.
I was still spending countless hours shooting around at Boulevard school, but I knew it was time for me to start branching out, playing against actual human beings. That was the next logical step.
But I was afraid.
See, during those solitary hours at the Boulevard court, I could imagine all sorts of things: Taking over games, hitting buzzer-beaters, have one-on-one duels with other great players. In my own basketball fantasies, I would always be The Man. But to play against other people, I risked the humiliation of losing. Maybe even losing badly.
Remember, my weight problems had made me a pariah in gym class. At KHS, juniors and seniors didn't have to take gym anymore. Therefore, I couldn't use gym class as an opportunity to measure my new skills. I had to go out and find competition.
That wasn't hard to do. At the time, Kokomo had two main courts where games were always going on: Highland Park and Forest Park. They were (and, as far as I know, still are) the two biggest public parks in the city. But Kokomo had many other smaller parks, most of which were equipped with a basketball court. Remember, Indiana has long been a hotbed for amateur basketball. A park without a basketball court was considered blasphemy.
I wasn't ready for the big parks yet. The idea of full court five-on-five made me queasy. I needed to ease into this whole "competing against other living, breathing humans" thing. So I began driving around the city, trolling for mini-games to get into. And I was about to learn that there were countless variations of basketball to be played when there was a limited number of available players.
Naturally, shooting games like H-O-R-S-E
, Knock Out
and Around the Key
were popular, but they were considered warmups for real competition.
As far as "real competition" went, here are the two games I found myself playing most often:One-on-one
This is the most basic form of basketball. It was also the most gladiatorial in nature. Think Thunderdome
here: Two men enter, one man leaves.
The rules generally go like this: Scoring is by 1s (for a standard two-point shot) and 2s (for a three-pointer). Many games go to 11 or 15, although you can agree on any set score before the game begins. I have also played games to 9, 11, 17 and 21. Usually, you need to go ahead by at least two points to win a game, which can lead to "overtime" sessions.
Possessions typically alternate with each scored basket (this is called "loser's out"). A player usually has to dribble the ball back past the three-point line after rebounding an opponent's missed shot. Some people only require taking the ball past the free throw line, which provides for more "fast break" opportunities where you scramble over the charity stripe and then make a mad scramble for the hoop before your opponent can recover.
There's also a rule by which you don't have to take the ball back past the designated line if your opponent shoots an air ball. I tend to avoid that rule.
Players are expected to call their own fouls ("Got it" or "Got one" or "Jesus Christ! That's a foul!"), although opponents will sometimes admit they fouled you (but don't count on that). They'll be very quick to call you for traveling or over the back of course. In some circles, it's considered bad form to call certain types of fouls or violations (such as offensive fouls or palming).
After fouls, turnovers (like traveling), out-of-bounds violations or made baskets, you have to check the ball in at the top of the key. For some players, the checking process is a mind game. Good form dictates that you either hand the ball to the offensive player or pass it directly to his waiting hands. However, some people will either set the ball directly on the ground (so it won't bounce up to the offensive player) or they drop lightly so it won't bounce high, thus forcing the offensive player to bend over to pick it up. This is usually a sign of disrespect and/or an attempt to psyche the offensive player out.
It's a bush league move. But certain players will do it to you every time.
Some people play by "make it, take it" rules, which means that you get the ball back every time you score a basket. I don't particularly like this style, because alternating possessions is a standard part of organized basketball. Plus, it can result in very short and unsatisfying games.21
Here's the definition of 21 from Wikipedia
"Twenty-one" is a game that can be played with two or more players. Each player has their own score, with the winner being the first to reach 21 points. The game begins with one of the players "breaking", which is to shoot one free throw with the ball to determine if he or she starts the game. While all other players can attempt to stop the score, the player who missed the last shot is usually the one "responsible" for playing defense against the next offensive player. However, no player has any teammates at any time in the game. The player with the ball may shoot at any time, and may collect his own rebound and shoot again. On a defensive rebound, the rebounder takes possession and must clear the ball by dribbling it beyond the three-point line before taking a shot.
Whenever a basket is scored, that player receives two points and goes to the free throw line, where each made free throw tacks on another one point to their score. The player is allowed to shoot free throws until he misses, at which point another player must rebound the ball, and the sequence starts again. This game can be played with the concept of tipped shots, where a player tips the ball in the basket off of a rebound of an opposing player's missed shot, the original shooter's score is reset back to zero. The game can also be played with deductions, such as minus one point when a player air-balls a shot or commits a traveling violation. Twenty-one is nearly always played in a half court game.
Now I personally have never played this game where you could continue taking free throws until you missed one. The cap has always been three free throws, and if you make all three, you get to check the ball in and try to score again. I've also played where you can choose to take one three-pointer instead of the three free throws. Hit it, and you get all three points and the ball back.
Speaking of which, this game (unlike one-on-one) uses 2s and 3s. Furthermore, in my experience, you always have to hit 21 exactly. Like hitting a three-pointer when you're at 18 or nailing a free throw when you're at 20. If you go over 21, your score returned to 13, which can be a real bitch in a close game. This leads to lots of fun scenarios. For instance, let's say you hit a two-pointer to put your score to 19. Now imagine you hit the first free throw and now you're at 20. At this point, your opponent might say something like, "Uh oh, lotta pressure on this free throw..."
If you brick it, not only are you stuck at 20, but you're guaranteed to go back to 13 the very next time you score.
Additionally, the tipping rule has some variations. For instance, I used to play with a group of guys who had a "three tips and out" rule. In other words, if your shot was tipped in three times in a single game, you were knocked out and couldn't play again until the next game. These guys also played it so that if you had fewer than 13 points, your score returned to zero on a tip. If you had more than 13 points, your score returned to 13.
21 is a great game to play when you have an odd number of players. However, if you play with more than three or five guys, it can quickly descend into anarchy and chaos...as I will explain in a future installment.
So these were the games I was now playing. Since I wasn't going to the bigger parks, I wasn't facing off against the best competition. But still, it was the first competition I had ever faced.
Early on, I wasn't really keeping track of whether I won or lost. These were purely experimental ventures. And yet...I was winning my fair share of games. This was in part a reflection of the talent I was facing, in part due to my height an shot selection (primarily inside), and in part because of my discovery of...Pickup Rule #2: Rebound, rebound, rebound
You know that old saying possession is nine-tenths of the law
? Well, in pickup basketball, possession is ten-tenths of the law. Which is, uhm, 100 percent. Of the law. Okay, what I'm getting at is this:
You can't score without the basketball.
I know, I know. That's obvious. And just as obviously, your opponent cannot score without
the basketball. You may think it's idiotic to walk through this concept in your mind because it's so freaking "duh!" it hurts, but if you really embrace it, it'll change your game.
Just look at what Rajon Rondo did during the 2010 playoffs. He changed Boston's postseason destiny by going after the basketball
. Sure, the Celtics lost the title, but they wouldn't have even been competing for it without Rondo's rebounding.
As obvious as this is, it stunned me -- and, frankly, it still stuns me -- how often pickup ballers just stand and watch the basketball. If you can develop a mentality for aggressively pursuing every rebound, every loose ball, every "50-50" ball...you're going to end up with a lot of extra possessions. And, more than likely, a lot of easy shots.
One of my most successful "plays" was wildly crashing the board after attempting a short jumper. I usually knew where my shot was going and I could run right to the spot I expected it to end up. In a lot of cases, I would simply run past my defender, catch the rebound and lay it back in.
Just as important, if not moreso, is defensive rebounding. Let's face it, pickup ballers are not in the NBA for a reason. Well, they're not in the NBA for many reasons, but the point I'm trying to make is: Pickup shooting percentages tend to be pretty low. That means lots of misses and plenty of rebounding opportunities.
To be successful, you've got to box out. And it's actually pretty easy to do. You don't need to be stronger or taller than your opponent. For the most part, rebounding is about focus and determination. When your opponent goes up for a shot, you absolutely must stay between him and the basket. Stand wide -- legs apart, elbows out -- and try to make physical contact with your opponent so you can a) know where he is and b) keep him from pushing past you.
As the ball's coming back down, time your jump so you can catch the ball at the height of your jump. Mistiming your jump can and will lose you possession of the ball. Go up and grab the ball with both hands. Don't tip it or try to yank down a one-handed board. Yes, it looks impressive, but no matter how good you are, it's going to cost you possessions. Which brings me to the next pickup rule...Pickup Rule #3: Lost possessions lose games...and earned possessions win them
There are going to be games in which you're hopelessly overmatched. There will be games where you destroy your opponent. But many games -- if not most of them -- will probably be reasonably close. One or two possessions here or there decide the majority of games you'll play in (unless you're awesome...or awful).
For this reason, you can't fuck around. Unless you're working on new moves, taking bad shots or trying things you're not good at will cost you possessions. Taking even one bad shot can cost you a game. So don't do it. Being smarter and maintaining your focus will allow you to beat "better" players.
See, some people just don't go all-out or remain focused for an entire game...even short games to 9 or 11. This happens for various reasons. Sometimes they just don't have the necessary discipline, other times they may be too embarrassed to try so hard you'll realize they care about winning.
Use this against them.
You're not going to steal the ball every time you try to do it. You're not going to block every shot attempt. But you'll accomplish both here and there if you keep focused and work hard from start to finish. Trust me, effort can trump talent. It happens all the time, especially in pickup basketball.
So...I was out there, playing and learning, and becoming reasonably happy with where I was at as a basketball player. And now...now it was time for me to make some loftier goals.
Labels: pickup games, The Pickup Diaries, The Pickup Rules