Wednesday, July 27, 2011

4 comments Basketball Pickup Diaries (Part 2)

As you may remember from last time, we left the court pretty self-satisfied – a 3-2 record with our last loss due to a we’re-in-better-shape-than-you thrashing. Armed with fresh legs and growing chemistry, we strutted into the gym ready to take it to the competition. Well all that came to a screeching halt when we had to watch the grandpa crew run the court at two miles per hour. Part of me couldn’t ignore my blood boiling – at this rate, we weren’t going to get on the court for another hour. They walked the ball up the floor (I’m not one to say that street ball needs a shot clock, but this was bordering on ridiculous. I’m talking Brook Lopez ambling up the court slow.), fouled incessantly and argued every call. But they won twice, and my other half clung to a sliver of respect for their performance. Even writing that sentence felt wrong – but their victories happened, and I still have no idea how. Kind of like the Mavs stealing the title from the Heat. It happened, but I’m struggling for the words to decipher the phenomenon.

So we stood on the sidelines, warming up on a side court and waiting our turn. But know that I’m using the term “warming up” lightly. Because, let’s be honest: No one warms up. After pretending to touch our toes and stretch our triceps, we grab a ball and start. At least that’s what I do. (I can’t remember the last time I actually stretched a muscle.) Most people put up some jumpers, dribble the ball around – nothing spectacular or noteworthy. Just something to get a feel. So here I was, in the middle of that monotonous routine, when another classic pickup figure graced us with his presence; the warm-up champ. I’m talking about the guy who abuses the defense with staggering crossovers, one-footed fadeaways and psychedelic dribbling. Okay fine, there’s no defender. But if there were, he’d have no chance.

I’d venture to say that Andrea Bargnani will average 10 boards per contest before the warm-up champ even attempts to use his warm-up skills on the court. The one I encountered had a specific knack for the annoying. After cruising through his array of absurdly difficult shots, he took his ball and walked right up to the bucket. And thus the lay-up bonanza ensued. Refusing to move to an empty hoop, his two-foot lay-ups deflected other shots left and right. If you want to take shots near the rim, knock yourself out. Just not on a hoop where five other people are shooting.

After thirty minutes, it was time. And to our surprise, the crew of tribal elders still stood strong. Well, they stood. Despite my desire to send them packing, I did preserve an ounce of pity for their one good player. It was clear that he just got stuck on the wrong team. As much as I detest players ganging up in pickup to form an unbeatable team, this was just an unfortunate consequence of the “who’s got next” line.

The game got off to a rocky start as their resident fat guy, straight out of Along Came Polly, (If you know what I’m talking about, it was that guy to a tee. If you don’t, just trust me. I wouldn’t be making a reference to Along Came Polly unless it was absolutely necessary.) kept backing down Mike (one of our crew) and shielding him with his enormous width. Not to mention that the dude was tall, nasty sweaty and fairly hairy – a terrible combination. Mike’s no pushover, but he was giving up four inches and 100 pounds. So despite our ease scoring at the other end, we found ourselves in the midst of a 4-4 tie thanks to Eddy Curry’s bastard brother. Fortunately their wheels fell off once we began to push the ball and use our superior athleticism (meaning we could run more than two steps without sucking down air like it was running out). 7 points later, we cruised to an 11-4 win.

Game number two came against a mixed squad that included two of the fairer sex. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think we’d win easily (which we did). But it wasn’t because of the girls. One could stroke it from deep and the other was lightning quick with good handles and vision. Although the latter was lacking height, so I did feel a twinge of sympathy when I threw a lob to Scott, who's 6-2, on a two-on-one fastbreak.

Game three brought a crew ready to ball and challenge us for real. Their equal skill and imposing physicality proved problematic on the defensive end. Even worse, however, was another staple of the pickup game: the referee. You’ve seen him a million times. He’s the one that slows down games and reminds you why you hesitate to even play pickup in the first place. There’s no doubt this guy had talent. But every time he went to the basket, he initiated contact and called a foul, putting us in an impossible situation: street ball rules dictate that you respect the call – but what do you do when someone abuses the “call your own fouls” privilege? If you want contact, don’t go all Tim Duncan incredulous on everyone when the defender bangs right back. But that wasn’t even the worst part. On the other end of the floor, we couldn’t take it to the rack. And no, it wasn’t because of their stifling defense. Every time we even sniffed the paint, they’d hack, grab and shove with reckless abandon. Literally intentionally fouling, I kid you not. My man, who rocked Lil Wayne’s hair with an NFL fullback’s body, would yank my arm every time I blew by him. (The drawback of looking like an NFL fullback is that you defend like one as well – physically capable but altogether incapable of side-to-side movement.) He even called a carry on Mike AFTER he drove to the basket and scored. But we’re men of the high road, so we respected all the calls. Karma was on our side and we weren’t going to mess with it. With the score tied 8-8, we weren’t losing to these chumps. This game was personal. They encroached on the unwritten rules of pickup with no mercy. It was our duty to realign the stars and bring justice to the hardwood. And we did with three straight points and an 11-8 victory. Watching them drag their bodies off the court was the most satisfying moment of the entire day.

At this point the wait for next had ballooned to four or five teams, so a loss would equal our exit from the gym. Of course a guy who clearly played for the NYU basketball team (he was fully geared up) brought himself and his crew of similarly athletic guys onto the court next. It was clear that he was the best on the court and had no business play pickup with us scrubs. Maybe he wasn’t that good, or maybe his mom never loved him enough and he yearned for that ever-elusive self-confidence – I don’t know. Either way, he clearly didn’t get the memo that pickup is for people who suck/think they’re good but suck/mediocre to good players. He clearly fit none of these categories.

After a few minutes of up and down action, it was obvious that he had game. But we weren’t willing to fold. The whole game we trailed by two, struggling to find any sort of offensive consistency but somehow managing to drop buckets. Trailing 7-5, Mike decided enough was enough. Using an array of floaters, pull-ups and other can’t-get-near-the-bucket-moves, he engineered a 6-3 run and an 11-10 lead for Team Dime. After a stop and a mini fast break, the ball was hurled up court to me. Standing alone on the three-point line, the opportunity to end the game was right there. But I had too much time. I started to rotate the ball, and worst of all, think. And you only have one thought in that situation: “If I miss, there’s no way we’re winning this.” When the ball left my hand, I knew it immediately. Long. The ball clanked off the back iron and caromed right into an opponents hands, turning into a lay-up at the other end. Two points later, I left the court enveloped by guilt as we lost 13-11.

As badly as I wanted to get back on the court and show the NYU guy that fancy gear and color coordinated clothing are not always equivalent to basketball skill, I wasn’t going to wait an hour.

And thus ends part two of our pickup journey. For those scoring at home, that gives us a 6-3 summer record. Not too shabby, I think.


Martin F. said...

Ohhh, the hacking team with "Superstar". Love them. The last time we played one of those teams it was about 4-4 and I took the ball at mid court and stood there looking at Superstar.

"You really wanna go there with this? is what I asked him, along with a few other choice words, and recommending they try a rec league with real refs. The other 8 folk waiting helped by jeering their ass, and they backed down on the b.s. calls. Of course we lost. Couldn't toss a pea in the ocean after that.

My favorite game of "Guys who shouldn't be here" was watching them play a game against a bunch of little dudes (none could have been taller then 5 foot 10, much less 6 foot) who down 6-1 went into the 4 corners, or at least the park league version of it. They must have had the ball 5 minutes every time before they shot, which pissed off the other guys, who started playing stupid when they did have the ball. Little guys lost 13-11 too, but it was hilarious watching them.

ivn said...

I'm surprised you haven't gone up against one of my personal least favorite pickup ballers: the Coach. the guy who demands to play point guard and tries to run sets and plays that only he has a firm grasp of. he's also quite fond of shouting instructions about a second after they'd be useful, like shouting "switch!" on a pick-and-roll when the guy with the ball is already halfway to the hoop. I almost always get stuck on the same team as a Coach.

cs said...

very good

Dylan said...


You gotta win that game! Set the cosmos right. Also, "a few choice words." I love it.


I've run into the coach plenty of times, just not recently. I'm sure your mention of him will guarantee he's on my team next time.