bball experience

Note: This is not a picture of the man who schooled me in the following story. He was much bigger and stronger. Much more impressive. Please believe me.

In pickup ball, as in life, experience is something you greatly underestimate...when you don't have it. That's why younger players tend to come across as arrogant cocksmiths on the court. I can't tell you how many times some strutting teenager has challenged me to one-on-one with that "I'm gonna kick the old guy's ass" look on his face only to get sent away with his tail between his legs.

But, once upon a time, I was that arrogant kid. And here's how I learned my lesson.

I was a pretty good player in high school, although I never tried out for the varsity team. I got quite a bit better during my freshman year at college, owing mostly to the relatively high level of competition I was facing at the co-recreational gym and in the dorm intramural leagues. See, I went to a Big Ten university, and many of the ballers I played with and against were very good high school players who weren't quite good enough to get a scholarship at a Division I college. There's no better way to hone your skills than against people who are as good or better than you.

I returned to my hometown that summer full of piss and vinegar. I immediately joined a 24-hour health club where all the current and returning varsity players got their game on. Occasionally, there were full-court games, but the big thing at that time was to go at it one-on-one. That's how people wanted to prove themselves. That's how bragging rights were won.

And I never lost a single one-on-one game at that court that summer.

Boy oh boy did I get cocky. I started talking some trash and doing little things to embarrass my opponents, like cleanly blocking a shot, recovering it, and then giving it back to the guy. There was an older black gentleman who used to sit on the bleachers, watching and heckling and handing out nicknames, and he used to call me "Disaster Master" or "Master of Disaster." He would howl and laugh at the guys I was playing against, and I loved it.

The highlight came when I beat one of the former varsity players I had graduated with -- a guy I really didn't like -- in 14 straight games of 21. He was determined to keep playing until he won one, but I finally told him, "Forget it, you're never gonna beat me" and walked off the court.

So, yeah, I was pretty full of myself.

One night I was invited to dinner with my girlfriend's family and the subject of my basketball "prowess" came up. Her dad, George -- whom you may remember from this story -- mentioned how he had been on the varsity team in his day and still played at the local union hall. I half-jokingly suggested we play some time, and he said, "Yeah, let's do it."

A week or so later, we met up at the union hall. The building housed a very nice and well-cared for court, and there was nobody there but us. George was taller than me, solidly built, and had huge, thick hands. And he was in great shape. But despite the obvious signs that he wasn't your average former athlete in decline, I sauntered into the situation with a thick-witted confidence. After all, he was in his mid-40s. To my brazen 19-year-old self, that seemed positively ancient. And if there's anything that our American culture teaches us -- both consciously and subconsciously -- it's that the young always overcome the old. It was inevitable, right?

We started off with a series of odd shooting games I'd never heard of. There was one game in which you alternated freethrows and layups, and each successive layup had to be performed with a greater degree of difficulty than the last. Then there was a five-shot drill. Then we ran some full-court passing drills. And we finished up with HORSE.

George outperformed me in each and every game and drill we did. To a kid who had gotten used to always winning, it was embarrassing and more than a little irritating. I was anxious to get started so I could whup him in one-on-one...and I kept wondering what he was "waiting" for (at the time, the idea of warming up was completely foreign to me). Finally, it was time. He came up, handed me the ball, and said, "Okay. Full court one-on-one. Twos and threes to 24. Win by four."

Full court one-on-one? He had to be kidding...right?

Wrong. He was deadly serious. And, on my first possession, he was all over me. After a few unsuccessful drive attempts, I took a bad shot from the freethrow line. He rebounded it, sprinted downcourt, and launched a running, one-handed three-pointer that hit nothing but net.

He called out "3-0" and then sprinted back to the other end of the court and took up a defensive stance. I was a little surprised, but figured (stupidly) that it had been a lucky shot. I walked the ball back to my basket and tried to post him up. He was too strong to back down, and too tall for me to shoot over. He blocked my eventual shot attempt, sprinted back downcourt again, and hit another running one-hander from beyond the arc.

That was the very first moment where it occurred to me that I might be in trouble.

And I was. He clobbered me, something like 24-8. After the game, I was totally winded and even angrier than I had been during the warm up. I shook it off and figured that his age would soon be catching up to him, and that I would overtake him in the next game. But it didn't happen. He cleaned my clock again. And then again in a third game. By the end of that one, I was so out-of-breath that I couldn't even stand up straight. I was gasping and heaving like I'd just finished a marathon. At this point, I just wanted to quit, but he handed me the ball again and said, "Come on. Best of seven."

I lost that one too.

The defeat had been so humiliating that I became obsessed with the rematch. I decided the biggest problem had been my lack of conditioning. So I went at the cardio machines: Treadmill, bike, Stair Master, rowing machine. On some nights, I was doing about an hour and a half worth of cardio. About a month later, I challenged George to a rematch. I lost that series too, 0-4 once again.

This changed my basketball life. I now trained and practiced with only one goal in mind: Beating George in one-on-one. I would plan weekend trips home around facing him in one-on-one. (This greatly irritated my girlfriend, who felt as though she was competing against her own father for my attention.) But no matter what I did, I couldn't beat him. There was one game in which, I swear, I went 11-for-11 and still lost. (He hit a couple threes, and I hit none.)

Then, on the day I thought I had finally beaten him, I learned another lesson. I sank a three-pointer from the corner to win my first ever game against him. Or so I believed. I screamed "Boom baby!" (which Slick Leonard had popularized during his Pacers broadcasts) and raised my arms to the sky. I danced a little jig. I was unreasonably elated. Meanwhile, George retrieved the ball, handed it back to me. "Don't disrespect your opponents," he said, referring to my somewhat excessive celebration. "Play that possession over." I was stunned, but I did what he said. I missed my next couple shots, he hit his, and I lost. Again.

On another weekend visit, George and I decided to get in one quick game before dinner at an outdoor court not far from his house. I won the game, fair and square, and was smart enough not to celebrate. But he grinned at me anyway and said, "Best out of three." And he won the next two.

This cycle went on for almost two years. All the while, I was developing new moves, learning to play defense, training my body to increase my strength and endurance. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we became more and more evenly matched. And, finally, one day I beat him in a best-of-seven series. I wish I could say it was some epic duel or that I won the seventh game on a final, dramatic shot. But it didn't go down that way. I simply won four of five games and that was that. Neither of us said anything, but we both knew. As he did after each and every game, George shook my hand and said, "Good game." Only this time, it was a little different.

George was (and still is) a great man. He taught me about playing the game, which also taught me about the game itself. Many of my outlooks on basketball and the men who play it developed during our relatively brief but intense rivalry. He taught me to respect the game, my opponents, and myself. He taught me to be gracious in victory and noble in defeat. And whether you agree or disagree, I think those are very important concepts for young men -- and even older men -- to learn. I'm still grateful.

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18 Comments:
Anonymous AK Dave said...
Too true. Experience is king in almost every aspect of life, and sports is no exception.

As for the whole naked butt-slap thing in that other Basketbawful post... if we are more conservative/shy about stuff like that than our parents, kids these days are even more shy than us. I run in an indoor track facility during the winter months in Anchorage, and the high school track and field teams are there practicing in the mornings. In the locker rooms, I'm walking around and taking showers, well, naked, like most men do. The high school kids- and I'm not making this up- take showers while wearing their underwear. Apparently it is too traumatizing to kids these days that someone might see their unclothed man-region that they can't even get undressed in the men's locker room anymore!

The world is changing, Matt, and I'm not sure it's for the better.

Blogger HoopStar said...
I nodded my head the whole time I read this. It reminded me when I was in Junior High and High School.

I played AM basketball at a local YMCA every morning before school. The group was a bunch of older guys (40+) that were no where near George's physical level. But no matter what, when it came to game point, they would all score on me with some old school moves (hooks, scoops, running jumping shots, etc).

When I was in high school, there was one guy (Howard) that was an oldschool cat. He would work me out for hours in shooting drills. Then we'd always have to finish with fullcourt 1on1. The gym we played in was old. Tile flooring, out of bounds right next to the wall, no three point line (even though it wouldn't have mattered since the ceiling was too low to shoot from that distance). He always seemed to be crafty enough to beat me.

I have always respected these lessons and it ultimately lead to a college basketball scholarship at a small school. There were many times when I wasn't quicker, stronger, faster (i was 6'3" SG at about 190lbs) I would have to pull out of my old bag of tricks that I learned from those players. I had a better sky hook than our post players. Most young players these days discount those shots as luck, but I guess they'll learn when I'm hanging 30points from luck.

Always respect your basketball elders, one day you too will be in that position if you are lucky!

Anonymous Nick F. (Buck Nasty) said...
Once more, the beauty of the game illustrated by the grassroots,truly a wonderful time for all basketball fans.

So what happened with the girl?

Blogger Matt said...
Great story, and a great lesson.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
is that a pic of him?

Blogger Soresu said...
Good post. I'm still young at the ripe old age of 25, but I've played, and still play all the time at tons of local gyms, churches, outdoor courts, etc. and you're dead on accurate. There's something to be said about the veteran experience. I've played with enough older people to gain a great deal of valuable insight, such as patience, humility, hustle, teamwork, and I know that when I step on the court with an old-timer, never to disrespect them. When it comes to the hardwood, I have to admire the old folk who still get out in the grind of pickup games. Besides, usually what they've lost in speed and power, they've made up for with a deadly accurate jumper.

Blogger KneeJerkNBA said...
Your mistake was playing full. The key to beating old men is slowing down the tempo, keeping them in the half court where their speed can't hurt you.

Oh, and if I were casting this movie, Clooney would be George (and not just because of the name). You would be played by Zach Galifinakis.

Anonymous brandon hoffman said...
Good story Matt.

Although I'm having trouble envisioning a running one handed three-pointer.

That in itself, had to have been totally demoralizing.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
ak dave -- Showers in underwear? No crap? Wild. Although as a nervous 6th grader, I probably would have done that if I'd been allowed...

hoopstar -- Thanks for the story, man. I think a lot of young hoopers could greatly benefit by mentorship from an older, better baller. But I'm guessing that many of them are, physically, so much better than anyone who could teach them, they don't learn many of these lessons.

nick -- Well, we dated for several years and then, as with many a young romance, we broke up.

matt -- Thank you, sir.

anonymous -- No. I got that pic from a Google image search. George was much more physically impressive. Still is, actually. It speaks to the benefit of rigorous phsyical conditioning.

soresu -- You're so right. There's an older gent at my regular league, named Larry, who's in his late 50s and yet still has three moves that are almost 100 percent accurate, one of which is this bizarre reverse scoop that he can hit against almost anybody. I guess if you do something enough...

kneejerknba -- Heh. Too true...but...Zach Galifinakis? I was thinking Dustin Diamond.

brandon -- It was. Like I mentioned, it wasn't so much the first one, because I rather foolishly assumed that was luck. When he did it the second time, though, I thought, "He can do that at will??"

Blogger Michael Hsu said...
I think your problem was that you never needed to learn how to shoot. I call it the Jordan theory. Michael Jordan was so ahead of his opponents that he never needed to learn how to shoot. The greatest critizism (lol i cant spell) against Jordan is that he could not shoot the 3. Well the fact is that he could get anywhere on the floor against any defender so why bother with the 3. In the current game I think Dwayne Wade has the same problem.

George seemed to be in excellent shape to be able to beat you since the first thing to go when people get tired is perimeter defense or he just was never convinced that you could hit an open 20 footer. By your description of George I think he was just as atheletic as you, but more expirenced or practiced. I do not really see it as a bad thing that you lost. His physical attributes all seem to be intact that we younger people think older people lost.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
michael -- Actually, my shooting wasn't a problem. I could always hit from the outside. But I hadn't faced someone who was that big, that strong, and that committed to defense. Let's face it, a lot of young people -- and I was guilty of this too -- don't really concern themselves with defense. George new how to play it and he was relentless. I was used to getting whatever shot I wanted whenever I wanted it. He took it away from me. And I had to adjust be learning moves that would enable me to get free.

That was another one of the lessons I learned. There's a big difference between practice-time shooting and shooting in a game. Also, and this is in reference to the shooting games we played, George believed in always staying focused and treating every shot like a vital opportunity. I never played that way in shooting games. After all, they were just diversions until the "real" game began, right?

It's not like that now. When I play HORSE or whatever, I take ever shot very seriously. I wish my buddy Mr. P was around to talk about some of our epic HORSE duels...Mr. P, you there?

Anonymous Wormboy said...
I like these occasional folksy stories. You're becoming a regular hoops Buddha, Matt! ;)

So, did the girlfriend have huge hands? O_o

Blogger Super said...
Just wondering how did you against him in transition? I would think that playing one on one would lead to a decent amount of fast break opportunities. I realize that he was doing a good job of getting back on D but still in transition and even semi transitions you have lots of options especially if youre going full speed and they have their back to the basket in defensive stance.

You're coming full speed and if theyre anywhere above the FT line you should have no problem getting to the basket. Just read their body position and pull out a hesistation or maybe even crossover to a finger roll. If they pick you up too soon I would imagine that would be easy to do especially if you have better footspeed than them. And then if they ever even think about sagging just shoot a pull up at the FT line.

I'm not trying to disrespect you or anything. I definitely appreciate experience and am not trying to claim I know all kinds of stuff. I'm just curious as to how the transition situations went down since you didn't really mention them at all.

Anonymous Toby said...
Where I play the "experienced players" make up for their lack of speed with their well practiced and wiley cheating ways. Loose elbows, whinging to the refs and so on. No question it works for them but hardly something to be proud of.

Blogger Shiv said...
One of those stories that "one never talks about" was me and one of my buddies, both strapping 21-year olds, getting beaten by a 40 year old and his 13 or 14 year old son.

And really, it was the father who did the most damage. Physical posting, a couple of bone rattling elbows, quick hands and deadly from about 25 feet in.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
what school did you go to bawful, cuz i go to a big 10 school and some people are decent but for the most part people are pretty terrible... maybe i don't play at the right times

Blogger Drake said...
Actually Michael Hsu, Jordan did learn to shoot the three when necessary (see 1992 Finals / Clyde Drexler or Clyde Drexler Fans insinuating that Drexler was as good as Jordan but could also shoot threes). But there are also 2 things to consider:
1) The 80's/early 90's was a different time in the NBA, and people just didn't jack up a jillion threes (except for maybe Chuck Person)
2) Michael Jordan didn't really need the three to average 30 points per game through his career because, as Michael said, he was just too damn good.

But don't confuse Dwyane Wade with MJ. I love Wade, but most of his game seems to be some sort of reckless drive to the hoop where either his moves, excellent touch, or the refs will bail him out somehow. Young MJ, on the other hand, was a sight to behold and possessed perhaps the most beautiful inside-outside game ever. But it remains to be seen whether Wade, if he can ever get past his injuries, can do what MJ did later in his career: become a great shooter.

Older MJ learned how to shoot a lethal and automatic mid-range jumper , and it became just another part of his vast arsenal.
So Michael Hsu, don't confuse ability to shoot 3's with great shooting. MJ did need to learn how to shoot the ball as soon as he came into the league, and he needed to refine his shooting ability later on when his athleticism and quickness were waning.

Anonymous Nick F. (Buck Nasty) said...
Interestingly enough, there (was) an old black dude (around 50) named Larry that came to the gym around here that had the old school moves you'd expect from a guy that age.

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