One was on a mission. The other was just along for the ride.
As my junior year ended and I transitioned into my final summer as a high school student, I was playing insane amounts of basketball.
The thing was, I needed a practice buddy. Somehow -- and I honestly don't remember how I managed to pull this off -- I convinced my friend Dave D. to become my practice partner. To the best of my knowledge, "Double D" never had any real interest in taking up basketball as an active sport. As a former almost-Clevelander, Dave followed the Cavaliers in a very casual way, but he rarely watched games unless we were hanging out and the Cavs happened to be on national TV.
You can guess how often that happened.
But the thing about Dave is that a) he enjoys physical challenges and b) he's a natural athlete. When focused -- and, to be honest, he's not always the most focused person -- Dave can pick up almost anything...and he can pick it up quickly. One summer break during college, my mom bought a badminton net, and within a few tries Dave had become a badass badminton player, diving around, spiking birdies, and winning every game. Football? He could catch, throw and tackle. Hard. After college, I went through a big running phase and began running half-marathons. I asked Dave to do it with me, and he'd jump in and run the 13.1 miles without training. These days, he trains for MMA-style fighting.
Dave's natural speed, strength and endurance helped him compete, and his hand-eye coordination allowed him to master difficult skills in short order. One of the first times he wandered out to watch me practice -- while wearing a heavy gray sweatshirt in 80-degree heat I might add -- he wanted to try his hand at a half court shot. He missed his first try and then hit the next three in a row. And he hadn't even touched a basketball since middle school.
Again, that's Dave.
So he started playing with me. Dave's only about 5'7", so I had a somewhat unfair (in terms of one-on-one) height advantage on him. To compensate for that, we agreed on a "three-point zone" on the Boulevard court (there was no three-point line). That way, good shooting could potentially overmatch my height. In almost no time, Dave was drilling threes at (what seemed to me) a crazy rate. I'd been practicing three-pointers for months and he cracked the code in a week.
That rat bastard.
Over the next two months, we played basketball five, six, sometimes seven hours a day. We probably would have played even longer if we hadn't had jobs (I worked at the Ponderosa, he worked at Little Caesar’s). Our games were epic in length and scope. We would stage best-of-seven series, but instead of games to 11 or 15, we'd play to 100. Instead of playing 21, we'd play 121. We'd play 48-minute games, complete with timeouts and a halftime break. And we'd use the breaks to run sprints or jump rope.
We did all this in the dog days of summer, and we never, ever brought water with us. We'd usually play to the point of complete dehydration before we'd wander down the street to the Village Pantry -- a convenience store that existed all over Indiana at the time -- and buy a couple 32-ounce Gatorades. Man, those things tasted better than anything I had ever tasted in my life. Dave figured our dehydration was what made them taste that good, so we decided to keep dehydrating ourselves before getting Gatorade.
One day, we were drinking our Gatorades when I noticed Dave's bottle claimed that the flavor inside was Michael Jordan's favorite flavor. I immediately brought this to Dave's attention because his Cavaliers had recently been eliminated from the NBA Playoffs by Jordan's Bulls. Dave blanched and chucked the almost-full bottle against the wall outside the Village Pantry. "Fucking Michael Jordan," Dave said. "It's like he exists to piss me off."
For the record, I developed my Gatorade Conspiracy theory this summer during one of our trips to the Pantry.
A month into the summer, my friends stopped calling my house because they knew I probably wouldn't be there. If they really wanted to get a hold of me, they would drive or ride their bikes to Boulevard school. (Nobody bothered to call Dave because either a) they knew he'd be with me and b) Dave rarely answered or returned phone calls. As a friend, Dave either appeared mysteriously or he didn't. Even now, all these years later, he's still like that.) Gauvin in particular would track us down and ride his bike in circles around the court while me and Dave squared off.
So I played and I played and I played. I also trained by doing basic weight-lifting exercises (although I wasn't consuming enough protein to bulk up properly), running, and various other gimmicky crap. For instance, I heard or read somewhere that jumping on a mini-trampoline could help increase your vertical leap. I told Dave, who somehow produced a mini-trampoline. To this day, I have no idea where it came from or where it went after we were done with it. But then, Dave also liked to steal beef jerky from the Village Pantry, so I didn't really want to ask.
Anyway, we spent a week or two jumping on that stupid trampoline. Of course, we were teenagers with no experience, guidance or perspective, so when we didn't see instantaneous results, we abandoned this trampoline experiment for -- of course -- playing more basketball. That was my last attempt at enhancing my leaping ability until the White Man Jump Challenge (more on that in a future installment).
Dave and I would occasionally venture forth to other parks in search of two-on-two battles. They were surprisingly hard to find. It was usually pretty easy to start a one-on-one game, or a game of 21, or, if you really wanted to, a full court game. But two-on-two is a strange number. It usually requires two friends to find another two friends who are willing to play.
But still, we managed to stage a decent number of two-on-two contests. The problem was, even though he had picked up the sport at an alarmingly fast rate, Dave lost his confidence against strangers and would always defer to me, to the point of barely shooting or even refusing to shoot. Once our opponents realized that, they would just double team the hell out of me. It was becoming a sticking point and I couldn't seem to get through to Dave that I needed him to shoot.
Then one day we went to Highland Park, which had the second-most popular court in Kokomo. There were two guys who were pretty good there, and they were mopping the floor with various would-be challengers. Dave and I were shooting around at one end of the court while they went two-on-three and won. I didn't want any part of those guys because a) they were good enough to seem a little intimidating and b) I didn't trust Dave to step up and take shots.
Then they challenged us. Dave didn't want to accept the challenge, but I couldn't say no. Saying no would have felt like backing down. My pride wouldn't allow it.
I don't remember much of what Dave and I did on defense. At the time, for me, defense was just waiting to get back on offense. That's not to say I didn't try my best to stop people, only that I didn't take note of what happened on defense the way I dissected what happened on offense.
On our first few offensive possessions, I posted up and hit a couple short hooks. I had a slight height advantage against my man, and I was going to keep using it until they double-teamed me, which happened pretty fast. When it did, I passed back out to Dave who would hold the ball and wait for his man to come back out. Only he didn't. Dave still wouldn't shoot. He tried to lob in a few passes that were intercepted.
Normally, I was very patient with Dave in these situations. Part of that was me trying to be a good friend, but most of it was fear. Like I said, Dave was always a little mysterious. He was impossible to get on the phone and he showed up for things and then disappeared for reasons unknown to anyone (maybe not even himself). I was seriously worried that if I ever got shitty with Dave, he'd stop playing basketball with me.
But this time, I snapped. These guys were good, and they were talking trash to us. I felt I could score on my man one-on-one, but I was basically helpless against their double-teams even if Dave did manage to get me the ball. So, finally, while he was standing on the perimeter just holding the ball, I screamed, "Goddamn it, Dave, fucking shoot it!"
And he did.
Dave drilled it. On the next possession, he drilled another. Then another. Then another. And then another. Dave's five-for-five streak had swung the game in our favor. Now our opponents' defense was all discombobulated. They didn't know who to defend, the big man inside or the little man outside. On game point, Dave knocked down another jumper in his defender's face. I lost my head, screaming "Dave!" and running over to give him a double high five. We were laughing and jumping around, which caused our opponents to mock us once again.
We didn't care. It was a big moment. Dave had finally found his confidence. This had been his breakout game. I was sure of it.
Unfortunately, I was wrong.
During the final month of the summer, our high school was putting on a pre-tryout basketball camp. Kids who wanted to make the Varsity or Junior Varsity teams were encouraged to sign up, because it was assumed that this camp would make or break you. It was the best possible opportunity to get some real coaching and play against Varsity-level competition. It was exactly what I needed. No, it was, I thought, exactly what we
See, I had become convinced that Dave loved playing basketball as much as I did. And after all the time we had spent playing, I was sure he'd want to try and make Varsity with me. It made sense. He had picked up the sport so quickly. He was a natural athlete, and trying to make the school team seemed just as natural.
But my enthusiasm had caused me to misjudge one of my closest friends. Dave was always the guy sitting at the back of the class. Usually, Dave didn't speak unless spoken too...and sometimes not even then. He was a high school ninja. If you didn't know Dave, you didn't know Dave. As in, you probably didn't even know he existed. A summer or two ago, I was hanging out with Dave and Gauvin in Indianapolis, and we ran into a woman who had graduated with us. She recognized Gauvin by his hair -- this is easy to do...Donald Trump has nothing on Gauvin -- and then recognized me despite my shaved head.
She had no idea who Dave was.
Dave said, "Uh, we sat next to each other in English class for, like, two years in a row."
“Weird,” she said. “I don’t remember you.”
Most people would have been insulted. Dave just shrugged. Even now, he was completely indifferent about whether people noticed him. In fact, he preferred that they didn’t. So even though I asked nicely, suggested strongly and eventually tried to force him to join me…he refused.
I was going to camp on my own.
Labels: pickup basketball, The Pickup Diaries