Fighting is the ugly side of athletic competition. In most cases, fighting happens when there are (rare) real or (usually) imagined threats to to someone's personal safety and/or sense of masculinity. In these situations, the person or persons involved feel the only sane reaction is to burst out in explosive "self-defense."
Of course, fighting doesn't always mean fighting
. If you ask the average pickup basketball player, they will probably tell you they've almost been in a fight at least a few times if not many times. As someone who grew up in a neighborhood where fighting was the rule rather than the exception, let me tell you that fights don't "almost" happen. They either do or they don't. And when they do, they happen fast and end faster.
No, in pickup basketball, or pickup football, or even pickup hockey, people tend to threaten or even promise violence when the last thing they actually want or intend to do is actually fight. The important thing, it seems, is to appear willing
to fight. This can serve the dual purpose of a) potentially intimidating someone who was accidentally or intentionally causing actual physical harm and/or b) restoring the perceived manhood that was lost.
Why do I bring all this up? Because I almost got into a fight this weekend.
But let me back up. My philosophy as a basketball player is to never
go looking for trouble, but I also refuse to back down when trouble finds me. You can ask people like BadDave or Evil Ted about my various confrontations and near scuffles. Back in college, during an intramural game, somebody hooked me while I was boxing out on a free throw attempt. I swung him to the ground. He scrambled up and said, "After the game, you're dead, McHale!" (My last name was on the back of my jersey.) I told him, "Bring it. I'll be waiting right over there after the game," and I pointed toward the main exit. Oddly enough, he used another exit to leave the gym.
One time while playing ball at Lifetime Fitness, my defender kept grabbing my arm. Every play, he had a firm grip on my shooting arm...sometimes while I was shooting. Eventually, he did this while I was going up for a layup and I took a hard fall. On the other team's next possession, I let him drive past me then caught his arm and took him down. "That's what you've been doing to me every possession," I said standing over him. "Doesn't feel good does it?"
These are the things that happen during pickup basketball. They're ugly things that don't really have any place in the game. And yet, if you play often, they're almost impossible to escape.
My general approach has always been: If somebody screams at me, scream back at them even louder. If somebody gets rough with me, get rougher with them. Don't start problems, but never back down at any cost.
The problem with that philosophy is that you're flirting with danger every time you play.
To wit: Several years ago, I was again playing at Lifetime Fitness, I was engaged in a rather brutal series of pickup games. My team had won the previous game, and my offensive rebounding had been a big reason why. So as the next game was starting, this guy pointed at me and said, "I got this guy" in that pointed way that indicates he knows what I'm capable of and intends to shut me down.
He was an unusual sort of baller. On a very tall day, he might have been about 5'8". However, he was built like a power lifter. Although I'd never played against him, I'd seen this guy at Lifetime a few other times. He was always getting into "fights" -- by which I mean screaming matches -- with other players. Seriously, of the half dozen times I'd seen him around, there hadn't been a single time in which he hadn't
gotten into a very heated dispute. And you know what they say about how "the only common element in all your bad experiences is you..."
Sure enough, this guy was all over me from the first check in. I tend to be in constant motion on the court. To slow me down, this guy kept grabbing my shorts and jersey. When I tried to box him out, he would give me a two-handed push in the back to dislodge me. When he'd box me out, his elbows would come flying back at me. Twice he caught me in the face. Once he got me in the throat. And these weren't casual elbows. These were Laimbeer-esque man-killers.
He was trying
to hurt me.
Look, giving and receiving the occasional elbow is an unfortunate but unavoidable aspect of basketball. It has no place in the sport on any level, but it happens. My problem is when it happens repeatedly, intentionally, and without regard for other peoples' well-being. That's when the behavior becomes dangerous and irresponsible.
After his last elbow, I yelled at the guy, "What the fucking elbows!" He didn't respond. But a few possessions later, as I was finishing a fastbreak layup, he gave me another two-handed push while I was in the air. I managed to land without falling on my head or ass, but that was my snapping point. I swung my elbow with serious force into his chest to send the message that he needed to cut out the bullshit. Then I turned around and started sprinting downcourt because the action hadn't stopped and the other team was breaking the other way.
As I was approaching my top speed, two powerful hands grabbed me around the neck from behind. Because of the forward momentum, my feet slid out from under me. During the split second in which I had nothing underneath me, I was slammed hard to the ground by my neck.
What usually happens in cases like this is that adrenaline kicks in. Sure enough, I popped right back onto my feet, looking around and trying to figure out what in the hell had just happened. I saw my man glaring at me from about 10 feet away. I immediately realized he had jacked me from behind and sent me to the ground with the cheapest of cheap shots. I lunged at him but a small group of the other players had already surrounded me and held me back.
My attacker started screaming at me, "Come on! Come on! You know what you did! I will fucking kill you! I will kill you, man!"
I don't remember what I said in return, but I'm pretty sure that it was something similar. But five or six guys either holding me or standing between us. And, unbelievably, some of them were telling me
I needed to calm down. "Hey, he
," I yelled at somebody. Couldn't they see I was the wronged party here?
After the initial moment of rage had past, people started to wander back downcourt, and somebody said, "C'mon, let's finish the game."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" I said. "That fucker attacked me from behind. Fuck this shit." I pointed at my attacker. "This isn't over."
I stormed off the court and into the locker room to get my stuff. I was already forming a plan to wait for that guy in the parking lot when it hit me. The muscles in my neck tightened up so badly I had to sit down for a minute. The pain was suddenly so intense I felt light-headed and nauseous.
Obviously, I wasn't in any fit state to fight. Well, not fight and win at any rate.
But something about being hurt -- and realizing I might be seriously hurt -- turned my brain back on. The reality was, I'd been attacked from behind while trying to play basketball. And I'd been hurt. How badly I didn't know. I began to wonder whether I'd have to go to the doctor. Would insurance cover it? Would I miss work? Was the gym liable for anything that had happened?
This was important because at that time my health insurance was pretty shitty. The previous year, while playing pickup football, I had broken the ring finger on my left hand in two places and torn several ligaments, resulting in what is known as a Boutonniere deformity
. This is "a deformed position of the finger, in which the joint nearest the knuckle (PIP) is permanently bent toward the palm while the furthest joint (DIP) is bent back away."
My finger was seriously effed up, and it took months of occupational therapy to make it look vaguely human again. And that therapy had been expensive. I didn't want to take another huge hit to my bank account...and so I wanted to find out if Lifetime was responsible for any injuries that happened on the premises.
I went to the manager to ask some questions. Of course, asking questions meant explaining everything that had happened, the escalation of physical play, the way I had responded by elbowing my attacker in the chest, and the way he had thrown me down from behind.
The first course of action was to find my attacker and question him. But by the time we went to the basketball court, he was long gone.
The manager claimed he believed me, but for legal reasons he had to investigate further. As it turns out, Lifetime has security cameras placed around the basketball court (and throughout the gym) to protect the organization from frivolous claims. He said the video wouldn't be available until the next day. He suggested that I see my doctor and then come back the next day so we could review the film.
I ended up missing the next day of work. I went to the doctor and found out I had suffered severely strained muscles and probably had a case of whiplash as well. He prescribed anti-inflammatories and rest.
The next day, I returned to the scene of the crim. The manager had isolated the game in question based on the times I'd given him. The attack looked as brutal as it had felt. Maybe more so. It looked like something you'd see in a staged WWE match, only it wasn't staged.
The manager told me that, first of all, the gym's insurance would cover any medical bills related to my injury. (I'm not sure that was actually gym policy or if the offer was made to avoid any potential lawsuits.) Second, he was (in his words) disturbed by what had happened. While watching the footage, he had seen the elbows my attacker had thrown as well as my retaliatory elbow.
None of those were a problem, he said. But the attack was another matter. After all, he pointed out, the video showed a few moments passing between the elbow and the time at which he attacked me. This suggested at least a short amount of premeditation. In other words, he had chosen to attack me.
"We can't let somebody who would do that remain a member of this gym," tha manager said.
He asked if I knew the man's name. I did not. "Then I need you to do something for me," he said. "The next time you see him here, you need to find me or one of the other manager's and report him. Don't confront him. Just come to one of us. We'll keep the footage on hand and deal with it accordingly."
The manager also suggested I file a police report, but I didn't do that. I probably should have, but that felt like too much.
A week or two later, I saw him. The funny thing is, I wasn't there to play basketball. I was there for a workout. However, you have to walk past the basketball courts to get to the locker room. I heard the familiar screaming...and, sure enough, it was him, getting in somebody's face.
The manager I had spoken to wasn't there, but the manager on duty had been appraised of the situation. He followed me to the basketball court, where I pointed out my attacker. The manager went in, pulled him out of the game, and led him to an office. My attacker saw me standing there and, based on the look on his face, realized what was happening.
I never saw him again, but the first manager I had spoken to called me the next day to tell me my attacker's membership at Lifetime had been permenantly revoked.
And that was that.
The funny thing is, somewhere inside, I felt bad about the outcome. I mean, I would have felt perfectly fine with kicking his ass out in the parking lot. But I felt some small measure of guilt that he was forever banned from the best gym in the area.
It was a very, very small measure, though.
At any rate, that experience changed the way I deal with conflicts that happen during basketball games. Rule number one? Escalation never solved the problem, it only makes things worse. Rule number two? Talk. Not scream or yell or cuss. Talk.
So here's what happened this weekend. There's a pay-when-you-play pickup league near my house that plays on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. I've only ever gone once. It was a Wednesday night last fall. On that night, I got hit in the eye, my eye swelled up, and then I found out I had a tumor above the eye and had to have surgery. That's not why I never went back -- by the time I had recovered from surgery, my usual pickup league had started a new session -- but it didn't help.
Anyway, with my league out of session and my other basketball buddies unavailable, I decided to try the three-minutes-from-my-house league. I was the 10th guy -- and the only guy who wasn't a regular, by the way -- so we had five-on-five.
Here's the weird thing: Both teams played zone defense. Like, before the game, it was decided that both sides would play zone. I was, in fact, assigned my spot in the zone. I've played a little zone here and there, but zone defense is nearly nonexistent in pickup ball except in extreme circumstances (like if you're playing five-on-four or something).
Anyway, the opposing team had a fat guy at the base of their zone. They had him standing the the general area around the basket because (I presume) he wasn't very mobile.
Their zone was pretty soft and I was feeling pretty spry, so the first time I got the ball I drove hard to the rim. As I got there, the fat guy slid into me and I called the foul. Four or five possessions later, I drove once again, and the fat guy once again slid into me and committed the foul, only this time he screamed, "Goddamn it!" in irritation and kind of stomped around in a way that suggested he wasn't happy about the call.
Another half dozen or so possessions went by and I made another move to the cup. Only because I had been fouled on my previous two drives, I decided I should go a little stronger and try to finish through the contact I knew was going to come.
That fat guy and I collided pretty hard. He immediately yelled out "Foul!" by which he meant "offensive foul." He then adopted the age-old offensive-foul-calling strategy of stomping angrily in the other direction without pausing for debate.
Very calmly, I said, "Could you explain that call, please?"
Without turning around, he said, "Jesus Christ, you dropped the shoulder and rammed it right into my face!"
Again very calmly, I said, "You're my height. It would be impossible to drop my shoulder and hit your face."
Now he spun around, "Look, you put your shoulder into my face three times! This is a friendly pickup game and you're gonna hurt somebody! You know you did it, hell, you even called a foul on yourself last time!"
Still calm, I said, "No, I never called a foul on myself. I called it on you. That's why we retained possession."
"Fuck you," he said. "I'm telling you right now, you pull that shit again and I will fuck you up."
Now I walked right up to him. "Really?" I said. "You want to fight me?"
"Yeah, I fucking do," he yelled.
Very conversationally, I said, "Look, whatever you think happened, it happened by accident. I'm not a dirty player and I wasn't trying to hurt you. I think if you stop and think about it, you'll realize that. But you'd rather fight? You want to fight about it?"
"Yeah, I do," he said, "and I will fuck you up."
"Fine," I said, still in a conversational manner. "Then let's do that. I'm right here. I'm in perfect punching distance. If you want to fight, let's fight. You don't want to talk, so we won't talk. We'll fight."
The fat guy screamed, "You'd better get out of my face!"
"Why? You're the one threatening me. You're the one who wants to 'fuck me up.' You want to fight. Well, I'm giving you what you want. What are you going to do?"
Then he turned and walked away. Somebody else said, "C'mon guys, let's just play basketball."
On my team's next offensive possession, I lined up on the right side of the zone. The fat guy moved from the middle to my side. "I've got this side!" he screamed. I received the ball and drove right around him for an easy reverse layup (again, he was fat and slow). On the next possession, he gave me room and I drilled a three-pointer. I didn't score again, but my team went on to win the game. And winning goes a long way toward settling a lingering dispute.
Afterward, the fat guy was very quick to leave.
After he took off, I went up to the guys who were still there and said, "Hey, I hope everybody realizes I wasn't trying to hurt anybody."
"Yeah, yeah," one guy said, "we know that." Someone else spoke up and said, "I don't know what was wrong with [his name]. He's usually so chill."
Well, again, it all comes down to the perceived danger to self and sense of self. Not only was I challenging him physically, and challenging his masculinity, I was an outsider. Men are, by their nature, very territorial. This extends to pickup ball. Hey, when a new guy shows up to my regular league, I want to bust him. Not bust him up, but we like to give 'em their "rookie cookies," as my buddy Mister P says.
In the end, though, the fat guy didn't really want to fight me. I gave him every chance and he walked away. And that's how it usually goes, unless you run into a crazy psycho like the guy that attacked me at Lifetime Fitness (or unless you
are that crazy psycho).
Is my somewhat revised method the "right" way to handle a conflict? I don't know. But it works for me, because it straddles the fine line between talking things out and not backing down when somebody tries to threaten you. It works for me.
Now, if the fat guy had punched me...
Labels: pickup basketball, The Pickup Diaries