Once I discovered the joys of shooting a basketball, the rest of the summer after my sophomore year in high school was a blur of balling, working out, and bussing tables at the Ponderosa. And even though I didn't love working at the 'Rosa as much as I enjoyed the other two activities, it was a means to an end. Namely, my first car: A 1978 Plymouth Fury.

Cherry red and roughly the size of a small ocean liner, the Fury -- which I named "The Red Baron" -- was a one-way ticket to freedom. I could now go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. You know, as long as my mom was cool with it and it was before curfew.

I purchased the Fury on a Friday night in early July. If I recall correctly, it cost around $800, which seemed both like a small fortune and a ridiculously tiny price to pay for virtual independence. The bad news: I didn't have my license yet. I had actually failed my first driver's test a couple weeks prior.

This still pisses me off. I was kicking ass on the test and then, at the very end, right outside the DMV, the woman administering the test asked me to parallel park. I nailed that too, and I naturally assumed I'd passed with flying colors. However, she failed me. When I asked why, she said it was because, while turning left onto Markland Avenue -- one of the main streets in Kokomo -- my left tire had passed ever-so-slightly through the opposite lane and cut over the front edge of the yellow line separating the two sides of the street.

"If there had been a car there, you would have hit it," she said.

"But there wasn't a car there," I replied.

"True, but there could have been."

"But...but...people do that all the time," I said.

"Yes, but new drivers shouldn't," she answered. "I think having to retake the test will break you of that bad habit, don't you?"

Seriously, I could have choked a bitch.

The Tuesday after buying the Fury, I went in to retake my test. I got the same instructor, and yes, she remembered me. She literally had me drive a circle around the DMV and passed me.

"I trust you learned your lesson?" she said.

The only lesson my 16-year-old self learned was that people in a position of power can and probably will screw with you. But at least I was now a licensed driver.

Now, I had taken the test in my mom's car -- a 1987 Buick Somerset -- because it was much smaller than the Fury and therefore easier to drive under testing conditions (that is, if I needed to parallel park again). When I got home, the first thing I did was jump into the Fury. Jammed in the key. Turned the ignition.

Nothing but a dry cough-like sound.

See, on Friday night, shortly after getting my new car home, my buddy Greg had come over and -- since I couldn't actually drive us anywhere yet -- we had spent the night sitting in the car listening to the tape deck...which was wired directly to the battery. That meant the radio could be on and running even when the key wasn't in the ignition. Sure enough, I'd left it running and the battery was now deader than Shaq's bathroom scale. Dead and so old, in fact, that jumping it only blew a little rust off the connectors.

One battery replacement later, I was finally on the road.

But I wasn't taking too many joy rides. Not at first anyway. About the only places I drove to were my friends' houses -- it kind of rankled them at first that I wouldn't drive us to the mall or the local cruising strip -- and my "home court." This was a little basketball court behind Boulevard School, my old elementary school, which just so happened to be about two blocks away from my high school, Kokomo High School.

The Boulevard court had some definite downsides. The backboards were made of the creakiest wood imaginable, and the rims were composed of the clangiest iron in the known universe. The blacktop surface of the court was covered in dead spots and shallow, nearly imperceptible depressions that tended to collect water. Oh, and it was surrounded on three sides by nothing but corn fields. This meant that a) there was no protection from the burning summer sun (so I often had no choice but to shoot toward the sun from one angle or another) and b) there was no protection from the wind.

And, if you've ever played outdoors, you know the wind can be a real problem.

That said, the Boulevard court was also relatively private. Nobody liked to play there for the reasons outlined above and the fact that there was no three-point line. As a result, I could practice for hours upon end without being interrupted or even seen. And I was definitely in Learning the Game mode. And for that, I wanted privacy.

Since I didn't have any actual coaching, I decided to make Larry Bird my coach. I re-read Bird's autobiography, Drive. I re-watched Larry Bird: A Basketball Legend as well as every old Celtics game I had on tape. I went to Kokomo's only major bookstore -- Walden Books -- and found a copy of Bird's instructional manual Bird on Basketball: How-to Strategies From The Great Celtics Champion. (Still available used from Amazon.com!)

I read. I watched. I read and watched some more. I digested. And then I tried to incorporate Bird's concepts into my budding game.

Which brings us to...

The Pickup Rules

In case you haven't seen Zombieland yet -- and I highly encourage you to do so immediately if you haven't -- the main character, Columbus, is a painfully awkward nerd who managed to survive the zombie apocalypse by strictly adhering to a series of zombie-specific survival rules. For instance:

zland rule 8
Kickass indeed.

But long before Jesse Eisenberg was unintentionally (one assumes) fooling people into thinking he was Michael Cera -- they're entirely different people, I swear -- I was inventing the rules necessary for my survival in pickup basketball. I will be describing these rules throughout The Pickup Diaries.

Now...despite his reputation as a fearsome outside shooter, Bird's arsenal also included a wide variety of drives, dunks, layups, hooks and scoops. He also had some killer low post moves. That's why his career field goal percentage was just a shade under .500, and he probably would have finished above .500 if he hadn't limped through his final four seasons with bad back.

Just for kicks, here's Bird beating the Portland Trail Blazers left-handed. I'm not kidding. You might have heard or read about this one: Bird told teammates beforehand that being so great was boring him...and he he vowed to shoot left-handed all game. He didn't, but Bird still ending up scoring 22 of his 47 points using his left hand. I know. Awesome.


At any rate, Bird's shooting philosophy became the basis for my very first rule regarding pickup hoops:

Pickup Rule #1: Always take the highest percentage shot available.

Sounds obvious, right? So simple...but so very hard. I mean, you'd think everybody would do this. But take LeBron James and Kobe Bryant for example. They're probably the two best basketball players in the NBA, but they take an unbelievable number of crap shots. At times, it seems like they're stuck in permanent heat check mode. And they aren't alone. Lesser players do it (think Monta Ellis). Hell, even lousy players do it (for further reading, please refer to the collected works of Hughes, Larry).

Mind you, Bird wasn't without sin. He had the blood of a hundred bastard field goal attempts on his mangled hands. But in general, Bird tried to always get -- for himself or his teammates -- the highest percentage shot available. And for Larry Legend, that meant close to the hoop.

When Bird retired, he was perhaps the greatest three-point shooter in league history. Even today, he's considered the one of the all-time greats, in part due to his dramatic victories in the NBA's first three Long Distance Shootouts (1986, 1987 and 1988).

But in many ways, Larry hated the three and decried its use. This was because a) he felt it was a low percentage shot (which it is) and b) that if a team had a two-point lead at the end of the game, that team should never lose to a last-second shot. Which is kind of ironic, considering Bird won several games on last-second treys during his career.

However, despite this slight contradiction in philosophy and behavior, Bird's word was Basketball Law to me. For this reason, I never practiced threes. Never even attempted them while goofing around. To me, it was a waste of time that could be spent practicing shots I could actually use in a game. (For this same reason, I've never attempted a half court shot or developed any trick shots for HORSE, unless you consider a three-pointer from NBA range to be a trick shot.)

Therefore, all my shots were attempted from 15 feet and in. After all, I had almost grown to my full height of 6'3" -- I've often wondered whether I would have grown even taller had I not spent much of my childhood malnourished -- which made me a "big man" in pickup basketball terms. This meant that my game should be close to and going toward the basket.

I worked on every variety of layup I could think of. (Although it was quite a while before I realized the value of trying to develop my left hand...in fact, I'm still working on that.) I used my mental chalk to draw a 15-foot arc around the hoop and practiced shots from every angle. (However, due to dead spots and funky rims, I often avoided baseline shots, which would haunt me later.) And I worked on my inside moves.

Fortunately, I was a natural in the post due to decent footwork, a long wingspan (or, as my college roommate BadDave called them, my Gorilla Arms), and a soft touch. Plus, I had spent my formative years following the Bird-era Celtics. This meant hours upon hours of watch Kevin McHale put opponents into his torture chamber.


McHale -- yes, my last name is also McHale, no Kevin and I are not related -- had a seemingly endless array of low post moves. This wasn't exactly true. He had a set number of moves, but the moves had so many subtle variations that they seemed endless. These moves are actually described in stunning detail in The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons, which makes the book a must-read for anybody who wants to became a killer post player in pickup ball.

And that was my life for the next two months. Endless, tireless practice. I practiced in the morning, the afternoon, and at night. I played in the sun, the wind, and in the rain. By the end of that period, I was knocking down a fairly high percentage of my shots, which made me feel pretty good about myself. After all, I had only just picked up the sport.

What I didn't (and couldn't) understand at the time was this: A large part of my early "success" was due to the fact that I had focused on a very specific and therefore very limited number of shots. Not to mention that every shot had been attempted against no defense. But these things don't matter when you don't know any better. I was confident. A little cocky even. And with the new school year fast approaching...

...it was time to take my game on the road.

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43 Comments:
Blogger AnacondaHL said...
How could you, Bawful? Posting this right as the USA game is starting, what are you, attempting a David Stern media move?

Blogger Basketbawful said...
How could you, Bawful? Posting this right as the USA game is starting, what are you, attempting a David Stern media move?

Is this the point where I adopt a smug smile, tell you you're wrong, and then fine you?

Blogger AnacondaHL said...
Is this the point where I adopt a smug smile, tell you you're wrong, and then fine you?

I'm disallowing this post. Offsides!

Anonymous Cetti said...
Great, reading this made me miss England's goal. also reminds me of my time of learning how to play basketball.

Blogger Owen said...
Amazing...reminds me of how I become crazy about basketball overnight. Don't we all wish for more time.

Blogger Sid said...
I had a similar mentality about having a higher priority for taking higher percentage shots near the rim. So I'd pass off or over dribble trying to get nearer to the hole. More often than not this resulted in turnovers or bad shots for the team as no one on the team spread the floor with jumpers. (We all kind of sucked back then)

Life got a lot easier the day I started taking some long jumpers off the dribble.

Blogger chris said...
A large part of my early "success" was due to the fact that I had focused on a very specific and therefore very limited number of shots. Not to mention that every shot had been attempted against no defense.

No defense?

Sounds like you'd be a natural for practice in Don Nelson's East Oakland funhouse.

Blogger Japes said...
Awesome. It still amazes me how ambidextrous LeBron is. I've been working on my left hand shooting/dribbling for 10 years and it's only about 20% as good as my right. I'm guessing you'll explain in future chapters how good you've developed your left hand?

Blogger chris said...
BTW, I hope there are photos of you cruising down US 31 in the land-boat, er, Plymouth Fury. :D

Blogger Basketbawful said...
No defense?

Sounds like you'd be a natural for practice in Don Nelson's East Oakland funhouse.


Yes. No defense. That came later...

Anonymous msk said...
Such a ridiculous game for Bird, that Portland game.

One thing that strikes me looking at games from the 80s, is that the defense just looks so porous. I recognize the rules are different now, but no one tries to close on shots hardly at all. Hardly any hands in faces, sharp rotations... maybe I'm just biased after watching the Celtics-Lakers finals, featuring insane defense.

Anyway, nice post, Bawful. It reminds me of endless hours playing as a kid, all to myself - splendid times.

Blogger Dooj said...
This story reminds me of my first few years playing basketball. I also have those gorilla arms and being an early bloomer I was the tallest player. I took 3's but not often and always went to my strength, the 10-15 foot jumpshot. My little brother on the other hand takes an inordinate amount of 3 pointers.

P.S. I'm sure you wanted to know all that...

Anonymous AK Dave said...
I think what is kind of lost in all of this is something you mentioned in your first post, somewhat in jest, that really points out a major issue in the 80's and 90's that flew under the radar for too long:

"Science hadn't discovered nutrition yet."

Seriously. When I was a kid, I had no idea that eating ice cream and pizza and drinking pop was really THAT bad for you. I used to go to TOWN at McD's and Taco Bell (heh).

And while parents may have TOLD us that 'junk food' is bad, we were never told WHY, other than 'it makes you fat' or 'because I said so'.

Anyway I won't go off on a rant about the evils of HFCS, but I think that ingredient alone probably is responsible for making you gain so much weight, and food manufacturers (that just sounds wrong in itself- food should be grown, not 'produced' or 'manufactured') know damn well, and have known damn well for years that the stuff is literally addictive and poisonous, but continue to use it because it tastes so damn good.

DAMN YOU, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP! DAAAAMMMMNNN YYYOOOOOUUUUUU!

WV: poossio (how the French played at the WC this year)

Blogger chris said...
AK Dave: But you know what? I've always been of the philosophy that, if you KNOW what you're eating and choose to eat it, and choose it for deliciousness...as long as you aren't mindlessly doing so and turning into a lawnmower, why not?

I brought up a point in that vein about 3 years ago in a college journalism class when author Michael Pollan (the guy behind the book "The Omnivore's Dilemma") was guest speaker. Basically, I had read his tome and came to a conclusion quite unlike what the book's proponents came up with.

No, I actually do like salads and other "healthy" things too, but tasty is tasty, and sometimes that involves trans fats!!!!!

Blogger Will said...
I have a good story of failing a driving test. It is equal parts dumb mistake by me and dick move by another motorist. I am almost done with my test, I am sitting at a stop light. All I have to do is drive 100ft. and turn left and I pass. I am in the left-hand lane with a left turn lane next to me. After the light there is an even further left lane that I need to change to. I pull out from the light and am changing lanes when suddenly there is a car there when there wasn't before. It turns out that the car behind me at the light swooped into that lane instantly after the light changed and cut me off. My big mistake was not checking my blind spot. I was so pissed about that mistake for 2 days.

Anonymous AK Dave said...
@chris:

True. But you know? As an adult, you have the knowledge and perspective to make an educated decision on whether or not you are going to eat something. You state above that if you KNOW what you're eating, and you choose to eat it, it's on you.

Agreed! HFCS is tasty, no doubt. I don't think its the devil either, but I am wary of it when choosing what to eat, because I know of its effects. I have the knowledge and perspective necessary to make that decision and live with the results.

But as a kid, you only know one thing: what you like, and what you want. Most kids are totally hedonistic and don't think beyond 5 minutes. They are slaves to their desires. Like Matt said "he literally couldn't help himself." I don't doubt that. And that is why parents shouldn't allow kids to stay up as late as they want, decide what to eat (PIZZA EVERY DAY!! YAY!!), play with knives, etc. They are not capable of deciding what is in their best interests, especially at an early age.

But the bigger problem was that even ADULTS back in the 80's/90's didn't have sufficient information to make educated choices on foods because the USDA and FDA was out telling us what to eat with this bogus-ass "food pyramid" that was designed to effect our spending (not improve our health).

This lack of information on the side of parents, coupled with a child's uncontrolled desire for tasty candy/pop/pizza/hamburgers/etc, along with the manufacturers knowledge that they were peddling poison (exaggeration, I know...) contributed heartily to the issue of childhood obesity in the USA.

And unfortunately, not every kid had the drive or the wherewithall to pull himself up by his bootstraps and hit the weights/courts like Matt did.

Anyway, I agree we decide what to put into our faces, and choosing to eat junk is like choosing to smoke- its the consumer, not the manufacturer, who makes it happen. But still, when you're dealing with children, I think the rules are a little different, and its no secret that companies like McDonalds etc market their junk heavily to children who can't make rational decisions, yet have influence on their parent's spending.

I'd just like to close by saying: SAN DIMAS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL RULES!!!!!!

Anonymous Ian said...
Bill Simmons is a fucking joke stealer and definitely reads your blog, bawful. In his mock draft chat with Marc Stein:

I can't imagine in a million years why the Nyets would take a small forward who averaged 16 points a game and turns 23 in July over an 18 year old kid with Favors' tools.

The Nyets!!! That's copyrighted to Basketbawful!!! At least it should be.

Anonymous Ian said...
and by Marc Stein I meant Chad Ford in my previous post, I don't know why i constantly mix those two up.

Blogger Dooj said...
@ak dave

Took me a second, but I finally got your quote. Well done, sir.

Blogger AnacondaHL said...
Google Trends says USA Today first used the term big in September 2009, and was first on this site in November. But in any case, it's such a simple joke, I doubt it originated on this blog.

Anonymous Ian said...
In reality I really just hate Bill Simmons. I loved how Chad Ford destroyed him on Bill's idea for a Paul to NJ trade, leading to King Crab and CB4 signing with the Nets, thanks to Bill's inability to understand the cap/player salaries.

Blogger chris said...
AK Dave: Of course, parents also need to stop listening to their kids as well, until those kids become...well...I'd say adults, but then Big Baby Glen Davis proves that that sometimes never happen.

Think of it this way: decades ago, when "surgical bleeding" was the way to go, and people didn't realize that citrus could overcome gout...basically, what I'm saying is that we went from one set of non-knowledges to another, and we might as well enjoy it as much as possible. :D

(cue up my love of real-sugar Coca-Cola, available in, of all places, CLEVELAND.)

Anonymous Sorbo said...
I know this is not a tennis blog, but jesus, there's a Wimbledon match tied in the fifth set at 54-54. Holy shit, that must be tiring.

Anonymous Shrugz said...
http://www.sportsnet.ca/basketball/2010/06/23/2010_nba_mock_draft/

Canada should stick to hockey (I`m canadian) Luke babbitt goes 11th and 12th Avery Bradley`s blurb says Avery Johnson

Anonymous laddder said...
Just read both your pick-up diaries post today, great stuff!

You went serious mode on bball pretty quickly, i've been playing since 6-7 years old but I didn't take it seriously (AI: PRACTICE!?) up until 10-11 when I joined my school team.

Even then I was AI mode. I hated training/practice/working out.. but i loved the game

Blogger AnacondaHL said...
And the game was just suspended for darkness at 59-59. This has to be setup.

Anonymous AK Dave said...
@Dooj

You have just aged yourself :D Here's another one of my favorites to pull out in everyday conversation-

"Dude. Strange things are afoot at the circle-K..."

Anonymous AK Dave said...
@chris:

yeah, real-sugar coca cola in a GLASS BOTTLE, ice-cold... mmmmmmmmmmmm

Blogger chris said...
AK Dave: I know Pepsi recently did its "throwback" real-sugar stuff nationally...why can't Coke!? Not everyone is um, blessed to be in Northeast Ohio or in the Lehigh Valley.

Blogger The Dude Abides said...
"The rims were made of the creakiest wood imaginable, and the rims were composed of the clangiest iron in the known universe."

Make up your mind, dude. Are they made of wood, or are they made of iron?

Anonymous Sorbo said...
@AnacondaHL, No set up, because playing a 10-hour-plus match basically ensures you losing in the next round.

@Bawful, Got a great lefty practice for you, taught to me by my step-father, a great pick-up player, but unfortunately he is only 5'5". (1) Stand flat-footed about 5-feet from the basket facing the backboard. (2) DON'T use your right hand to steady the ball, (3) without jumping, shoot (you can go to the balls of your feet). Repeat until you make/swish 10 (or 20, or 25, or however many you choose). (4) Take one step back (or about 2 to 3 feet) and repeat steps 1-4. (5) The free-throw line is the last spot you practice from.

Best time to practice lefty is at the end of a shooting session. Your legs are probably a little tired as are your right arm and shoulder. Shooting lefty without jumping allows you to rest your legs and use parts of your body not yet worn down, your left arm and shoulder.

Loved the rule(s) of pick-up games. It's a sad thing to play today with so many ball-hog/iso guys out there. They think someone is keeping tally of they're backtop points or that their shooting is always the best option. It's like playing with four Corey Maggettes. Can't wait to read the rules on fouls, three-point lines (or should I say two-point lines), trash-talking, and cheap plays (throwing the ball off a guy's leg, pushing guys in the back on rebounds, etc.).

Blogger eileen said...
Now I'm requesting a picture of the Red Baron as well as Fat Matt.

I met Kevin McHale at a bar in South Boston a few years ago (back when the rookie camp was at UMass Boston). In addition to being astonishingly tall, he was very nice and chatted with my friend and me for several minutes.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I've lived in Cleveland nearly my whole life..and I have no idea where you found real-sugar coke here. Please enlighten me, sir.

Blogger Fanarchy said...
I fucking love this blog

Blogger Dan B. said...
Another great entry. If only I bothered to, you know, actually learn anything about the basics of a good jumpshot or even how to make a layup back when I had a hoop in my driveway. And I definately never learned a single thing about defense. My dad used to burn me all the time with his hook ahot, and everyone else I knew could just take it to the rim at will on me.

Anonymous re: real sugar Coke -- I know that I have found it in grocery stores in Cleveland and its suburbs as of three or so years ago (the most recent trip I took there). The cases of 12oz cans were all labeled as having sugar instead of HFCS, and sweet heavens did they ever taste good. My buddy and I stocked up on a shopping cart load of cases and brought them back to Kentucky with us.

Anonymous Sorbo said...
@all the real-sugar coke lovers. It's not a throwback edition thing, it's normally sold. It's been sold at some CostCo's around the Bay Area of SF. This is going to sound mildly racist, but please don't shoot the messenger, it's been informally dubbed as MexiCoke, because you can always find it at Mexican groceries, taquerias, and on taco trucks (otherwise known as roach coaches when not serving Mexican food). It might have something to do with the fact that real-sugar Coke is regularly sold in Mexico, so Coke brought it to Mexican/Hispanic neighborhoods in the US. Again, please don't shoot the messenger.

Oh, I can someone tell me how Chris Bosh NOT making a FA decision is a headline on ESPN. I haven't decided where I will play next year (I'm leaning towards the high school's blacktop over the park's concrete courts), but ESPN isn't following my twitter account.

Blogger 80's NBA said...
Japes said:
"I've been working on my left hand shooting/dribbling for 10 years and it's only about 20% as good as my right. I'm guessing you'll explain in future chapters how good you've developed your left hand?"


Ten years???

Sorbo mentioned above a great practice drill. It really works.

That drill is on an instructional shooting website www.FreeThrowAce.com I put together for my private lessons students. Try some of these drills with both hands and you should be able to develop your rhtyhm and stroke with both hands in several weeks' time.

Also, when you play pick up games, pick certain games where you make yourself shoot with only your opposite hand for the entire game. It will feel awkward at first, but you will get used to it. Like Bird once said, "Practice, practice, practice."

Blogger chris said...
Sorbo: Yep, seen those around Sacramento and SF.

However, American-made real sugar Coca-Cola does exist - the bottlers in Crabtown (er, Cleveland) and Bethlehem, PA offer it. If those places only did mail order...

Anonymous AK Dave said...
@Sorbo-

YOU RACIST! Seriously though, what's wrong with "Mexi-coke"? I like it. And the bottled cane-sugar coke I was talking about earlier WAS bottled in Mexico, so there is truth to it.

WV: prepries
Did the prepries make fun of Bawful for being underweight as well??

Anonymous Sorbo said...
@AK Dave, I use MexiCoke, but some guys don't like the "Mexi" part of the word, as it can be a little derogatory. It's the equivalent of calling Japanese people "Japs." It's not the N-word racist, but on a scale of 1 to 10, it's about a 2, with 10 being someone who drops five N-bombs in one sentence.

Blogger Wild Yams said...
I know I'm like days late to this (it's the first chance I've had to read any of these), but did anyone else think the beginning o this entry was eerily similar to the beginning of Christine (the Stephen King novel)? I was nervous there for a sec :)

Anonymous FooTara said...
THANK YOU for this if I may call it ne "Livin` large".I read you years now and I am a huge basketball fan and I also play a lot of pick up basketball myself.But right now I am in such period of my life that started to forget basketball in a way(I missed more than half of the playoffs...WTF) but reading all this that you wrote now makes me feel better through the struggle I am in now and makes me want to play more and again.For that thank you again.

Blogger Nina permata sari said...

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