After getting my ass handed to me for the first time, I decided it was time to diversify my offensive game. Under the circumstances, however, this was easier said than done. The reason being was that it was in the middle of a typically harsh Indiana winter. I continued playing on the Boulevard court through Christmas and New Year, but early January saw a heavy, unrelenting snowfall that officially (and indefinitely) ended my outdoor practices.
To make matters worse, there weren't any open gym times in Kokomo. At the time, I couldn't afford to join the YMCA (which, back then, was the only pay-for-use gym in town that had a basketball court). Just about every school in the area had a court, but you couldn't just walk in and use them.
The only way I could get any practice was to show up to the intramural league early to shoot around and then try to get in some extra shooting after the league ended...until the janitor kicked me out that is (which was usually pretty quickly). Unfortunately, I wasn't the only person to have this stroke of brilliance. If I showed up a half hour before intramurals -- which was the earliest that the doors would be unlocked -- there were already a dozen or so other people lined up and ready to go.
It's never easy shooting around in a scrum. When you have more than two or three people shooting at the same basket, it becomes chaos. You're always waiting for an opening to take a shot, but then, so is everybody else. You'll begin your shooting motion only to see somebody else doing the same thing out of the corner of your eye. Sometimes you'll pull back your shot and the other guy will do the same thing, which means you'll both miss the opening. Or maybe you chuck your shot up anyway and your ball collides with his ball in midair. Or, worst of all, you make some strange adjustment to your shot -- maybe a higher-than-normal arc, maybe a too-quick release, etc. -- so that there won't be a collision. However, shooting in an unusual fashion doesn't actually improve your shot at all because shooting is all about muscle memory, and you'll probably never shoot exactly like that ever again.
Another problem when shooting in a scrum is self-consciousness. Among males (and possibly females as far as I know), even shooting around can be a competition. If you're shooting around with other people, hitting shots makes you feel cool. On the flip side, missing shots can be embarrassing, especially if you miss four, five, six, seven, etc. in a row. Of course, missing several consecutive shots is a natural consequence of working on shots you're not yet good at. And yet missing shots around other people -- especially when you'll probably be playing against them in a few minutes -- can turn up the social pressure.
When this happens, a pickup baller will often find himself gravitating toward his pet shots or even shooting free throws. People will say they're doing this to "get into a rhythm," which is true to some extent. But it's also a way to show the world at large that, "See? I can hit shots. I have real basketball skills."
I sometimes fell victim to this social pressure. In particular, I avoided my weakest shooting areas, which were the left and right baselines. Baseline shots are the areas from which players are most likely to either a) shoot an airball (the most humiliating of missed shots) or b) have their miss careen away in the opposite direction, thereby ensuring maximum "chase your own ball down" potential. Scampering across the floor after a badly missed shot can feel almost as silly as missing the shot itself.
All that said, I showed up early to intramurals and I stayed late. The whole "first guy to get here, last guy to leave" mentality. I worked hard on extending my range -- which I had initially limited to 15 feet and in -- out to the three-point line. Even though various sources, including my hero, Larry Bird, decried the three-pointer as a low percentage shot, I had to admit that hitting one made me feel pretty cool. If you can't dunk -- and let's face it, most people can't -- hitting a triple is the next most impressive basketball accomplishment. Especially if you can do it well. Once I started hitting a few, I became increasingly interested in improving that aspect of my game.
That wasn't the only skill I was working on at that time. I don't remember where I read it, but some source -- possibly The Kokomo Tribute, which was the town paper -- had published an interview with the head coach of the Kokomo High School men's varsity basketball team. In that article, he encouraged specialization. I know that may sound strange, because today's NBA favors players who have diverse talents and wide-ranging skill sets. However, the coach said that not everybody could do everything, but most people could learn to do one thing really well. Doing that could provide young players with a "marketable" skill that could translate to success on a varsity level. In that article, the coach then described a player who had impressed with his ability to block shots in tryouts. Based on that one solid skill, the player had made the team and went on to have a solid high school career, which then led to a walk-on position with a Division I college team.
I decided to focus on rebounding. Since the level of play in the intramural league was terrible, I decided to use the games as rebounding practice. I stopped looking for passes that were never going to come anyway. Instead, I watched shots go up and then went after them with a vengeance. And you know what? It's amazing how many extra possessions I got for my team, how many garbage points I was able to score by doing nothing else on offense besides shagging for rebounds.
But hey, that was the secret of Dennis Rodman's success, right?
I did discover one other thing. Any time I didn't grab a defensive rebound, if I sprinted balls out and beat everybody down the floor, my teammates would occasionally pass me the ball
on the break. Doing this could (and often did) lead to two or three easy buckets every game. Which leads us to...Pickup Rule #5: Always run out hard on offense
Just like in the NBA, there are blowouts in pickup games. But the marjority of them tend to be close. This is especially true in weekly pickup leagues because the people involved try to make the teams reasonably even in terms of talent. This means that every point is of crucial importance, which further means that scoring an easy bucket makes the game, well, much easier.
Mind you, it's tough for people to maintain that kind of effort, because it's a high effort, low reward strategy. Let's say you play a game to 21 (which is what we do in our league) and your team has, say, 30-40 possessions. This means that, in addition to all the other energy you're expending, you could end up doing 40-ish all-out sprints...which isn't easy.
What makes it even harder is when you're being defended by someone who has sniffed out what you're doing and decides to run with you. When that happens, a lot of pickup ballers will stop running, because what's the point, right?
Well, like Yogi Berra once said of baseball, ninety percent of this game is half-mental. If you relentlessly give all-out effort on every possession, there's a very, very high liklihood that you'll either break your defender's will or wear him out trying. Either way, you gain the advantage. And every little advantage can mean the difference between a win and a loss.
While all this was going on, I was prepping for college entrance exams. They were still a few months away, which made it hard to concentrate on studying. Then I found out the S.A.T. would coincide with the second round of the NBA playoffs. Now I was able to associate studying with the NBA...which, oddly enough, helped motivate me.
Not so for my buddy Dave D. I convinced him to study with me one night, and 45 minutes of review just about did him in.
"Holy shit," he said, plopping his head down onto his prep book, "can't I just put your brain in a jar and use that during the test? I didn't read any rules against doing that? Could be a key loophole."
"Well," I said, "forgetting the fact that I actually need my brain, the technology necessary to remove it, keep it alive, and establish an interface between it and you're brain while..."
"Head hurting now," Dave said. "Please stop."
I stopped. Dave stopped. And we went out for pizza.
That was my life at that time. Hanging out, playing ball and studying. Don't even ask me about my dating life, because it didn't exist outside of my wildest (or, based on my limited romantic knowledge and experience, "mildest") fantasies.
But very soon I would be developing a whole new goal for myself...
Labels: pickup basketball, The Pickup Diaries