My junior year in high school was...awkward. I had a new body and a new wardrobe, but I was still socially awkward. In high school, back in my day at any rate, social awkwardness was an unavoidable consequence of my lifestyle.
To wit: I loved playing video games. So much so, in fact, that I took the Nintendo versus Sega wars
very seriously. I also played Dungeons & Dragons, which was the high school equivalent of locking my genitals in a time capsule for future generations to dissect and study in order to understand why my life was so barren and sexless. As if all that wasn't bad enough, I was a straight A student who was on the school newspaper (because I wanted to be a writer) and
the school's literary magazine (because Cindy, my longstanding high school crush, was also on staff and had encouraged me to join).
And did I mention I was rocking some serious Coke bottle glasses?
Look, these days, being a nerd and/or a geek can be pretty cool. There are actual living, breathing women who think geeks are hot. And there are hot chicks who are geeks. This was most definitely not
the case when I was in high school. Most girls treated geeks like they bathed in toxic waste, and if you happened to stumble across a female geek, chances are she looked like she really did
bathe in toxic waste.
The social pyramid of my high school, from highest to lowest, was: jocks and cheerleaders, preppies (those were the kids who dressed well and had reasonably good table manners), hoods (those were the kids who were jean jackets, carried switch blades they never used, and didn't shower), nerds/geeks, hippies (that is, the kids who pretended to be hippies by listening to The Doors and not wearing deodorant), and The Losers (as described in Part 1).
So that's where I was: somewhere around the lower middle of the social pyramid...although closer to the bottom than the top. This meant that me and my friends -- who were fellow nerds/geeks -- were in the same boat. And, like Michael Ray Richardson might have told us, that ship be sinking
. We'd hang out on weekends talking about girls we had no chance of dating and trying to convince ourselves that playing Super Mario Bros. 3 or having a kickass D&D adventure was better than, say, going to the homecoming game or attending prom.
We all lie to ourselves to be happy.
Like many social misfits, I needed an outlet for the frustration of being, well, a social misfit. Basketball became that outlet. During most of the first semester, the weather stayed nice enough that I could continue playing outside. I was becoming bolder, traveling around and challenging people to one-on-one. More often than not, I'd win. And few things made me feel better about myself than pummeling somebody on the basketball court.
One problem I was running into, though, was those Coke bottle glasses I mentioned. I was becoming -- and have remained to this day -- a reckless, all-out kind of player. Crashing the boards, diving after loose ball, playing with reckless abandon...those were the things that won basketball games.
They also beat the hell out of you.
My glasses were always getting mangled. I had to go to my eye doctor at least once a week and ask one of the assistants to bend them back into a semi-recognizable shape. I'm pretty sure those assistants learned to hate me. When I walked in, the receptionist would look at me like I was covered in fresh animal feces. It got to the point where she wouldn't even say "hi" or speak to me at all. She'd just stick out her hand and wait for me to hand my glasses over. Hey, what can I say...I got my money's worth out of whatever I paid for those specs.
Still, it was becoming enough of a problem that I was seriously considering getting contact lenses. It didn't hurt that, during biology class, Alicia H. -- who I believe was somewhere between the cheerleader and preppie layers on my school's social pyramid -- casually remarked about my lost weight and said she thought I'd be handsome if I replaced my glasses with contacts.
Handsome? Me? No shit?
Not surprisingly, I soon made an appointment to investigate getting contacts. Saying it didn't go very well would be something of an understatement. I have no idea what went wrong, but whatever solution they used to prep the contacts burned the hell out of my eyes. The whites turned beet red and the skin around my eyeballs became what my eye doctor called "aggressively swollen."
The doc said something like, "Well, that can happen," and he tried to schedule me for another appointment to try something different. I opted not to show up. I would stick with my awful glasses. For now.
Near the end of November, my school started up an intramural basketball league. There were no set teams, however. You just showed up and shot free throws to decide teams. I figured joining that league was the next logical step in my basketball development. In relatively short order, I had created some skills and become a fairly decent one-on-one player. Now it was time to learn how to play on a team
. Or so I thought.
You know how some things are described as "organized chaos"? Well, this intramural league was more like "chaos only." There was no coaching or direction of any kind. Just 20-30 undisciplined high schoolers with varying levels of ability (mostly bad) who embraced all the worst habits of pickup basketball: terrible shot selection, reluctant passing, nonexistent defense and the near absence of anything resembling fundamentals. Guys played out of position. Almost every player on the court thought he was either Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan. Big men didn't rebound, little men couldn't handle the rock. So on and so forth.
It was, without question, the worst of the crappy crap basketball I could find. In fact, looking back on it now, I'm fairly certain I've never played in a worse pickup league than that one.
But I had no way of knowing that at the time. This was my first experience playing team basketball. Sure, comparing it to watching Larry Bird and the Celtics was like comparing vomit to a $100 steak dinner, but I just figured that's why the pros were the pros and the amateurs were not. This was training, right?
Still, it was hard, sometimes impossible, to enjoy any improvement in my own skills. Most players thought shoot first, second and third. And because everybody was so shot-happy, that meant nobody wanted to pass, because there was a better chance of seeing God than there was of seeing that ball again. This may have been the true origin of the Seven Seconds or Less offense. Only it consisted of six seconds of sloppy dribbling followed by a bad shot or a turnover.
I figured: "Whatever." I ran the court. I crashed the boards. On those rare occasions when the ball found me, I tried to take good shots or, if I wasn't open, make smart passes. Although in this league, the smartest pass would have been to throw the ball out of bounds. That would have saved everyone the pain of what was probably going to be an ugly shot.
I can't say I was learning much about playing defense. The quality of play was so bad that defending your man wasn't really necessary.
Overall, the intramural experience was a bust in that it didn't do anything to make me a better basketball player. But I was playing basketball, and, at that time, that was enough to sustain me. Unfortunately, it convinced me that a) most competition was bad and b) I was better than I actually was.
My game was deficient in several areas. I wasn't a good defensive player. My offensive game was solid but limited. And I had not yet learned to adjust my style of play based on the competition. Mostly because I hadn't yet faced the better ball players.
During the semester break, my mom got a phone call from her friend Cricket. (Her real name was Linda. Cricket was a longstanding nickname. Not sure where it came from, though.) Cricket, who lived in Anderson (which is an hour-ish away from Kokomo), had a son named Ryan. Ryan and I had been pretty tight when we were in elementary and middle school. But then my mom and Cricket had a falling out, and when parents have a falling out, so do the children.
Cricket wanted to make nice with my mom. That making nice resulted in a conversation about how their fight had ruined my friendship with Ryan. One thing led to another and the two women decided Ryan should come to Kokomo for a four-day visit. Neither of us were really into it, but we weren't really given a choice in the matter.
On the first night of Ryan's visit, I had already made plans to watch a live Celtics...regardless of whether I had a visitor. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that, like me, Ryan had become a big basketball fan. I was unpleasantly surprised to find out his favorite team was the Lakers. He proceeded to talk smack about Larry Legend and the C's. Like, relentlessly. To the point where I was ready to throw down. I didn't have a sense of humor when it came to discussing Larry. He may as well have been trying to pee directly into my mom's open mouth.
Yeah. That first night didn't go so well.
We spent most of the next day playing Nintendo were going okay until he opened up on Bird again. "That guys done," he said, "finished. He's old and has a bad back. And he was kind of overrated to begin with."
Them was fightin' words.
I challenged Ryan to a game of one-on-one, and he readily accepted. Even though it was late December, there was no snow on the ground and the temperature was in the high 30s. Perfect basketball weather! Or...something. We jumped into my Plymouth Fury and headed off toward my home court at Boulevard school.
Ryan was a year older than me. He was also a couple inches taller and a little more athletic. We had similar builds, but he was a little further along in his physical development than I was. During my relatively brief basketball career, I usually found myself matched up with someone shorter, smaller and physically weaker than myself. Not always by a lot, but by enough to give me an advantage.
I had no clearcut physical advantage over Ryan.
What's more, he'd been playing basketball for years. And at that point, he was better than me. We played a game of 21 and he beat me pretty handily. I tried all my go-to inside moves, but it was almost impossible to get my shots off over his extremely long arms. I scored off a couple nifty moves -- an up-and-under and a spinning jump hook -- but he quickly figured them out and managed to deny those attempts on following possessions.
He beat me in the next game of 21 too. And the next. And the next. I kept going to the same moves over and over because they were all I had. I didn't shoot threes. I didn't take long jumpers. I played down low and had a basic spot up jumper inside 15 feet. Ryan took all that way from me. And I didn't know enough about defense to stop him from scoring...which he could do from inside or outside. Plus he had a quick first step.
After he had beaten me several times, he started playing me at half speed, keeping things close and then closing me out at the end. And he was doing it pretty casually. I was getting more and more frustrated. I finally resorted to a kind of pickup trickery. I stopped announcing the score out loud so he wouldn't know how close I was to winning and turn it on at the end. I finally scored a bucket to win 21 to whatever he had.
"Wait, wait, what?" he yelled. "You didn't call out game point."
"Yeah, well, sorry," I replied.
"Oh, that's such bullshit," he said. "I hope you enjoy cheap wins, 'cause that's all that was. I cheap, dirty win."
Somehow, despite finally winning a game against him, I felt worse about myself.
Ryan refused to play after that, which was fine with me. My ego couldn't take another loss like that. We drove back to my house in silence. We spent the rest of the day in silence. But when evening came, Ryan was ready to wave the white flag.
"Hey, are there any cruising strips in Kokomo?" He asked.
"Uh, yeah, why?"
"Let's go crusing," he said. He sounded excited about the idea, and I thought if I agreed to go cruising it might make him forget about what had happened during basketball.
We jumped back into the Fury and headed toward Kokomo's only cruising strip: a three or four block stretch of road that ran by the Krogers grocery start, the now-defunct Hills department store, a McDonalds and the town's only Taco Bell. Wild times, I tell you. Wild times.
"So what do you do around here to pick up girls?" Ryan asked.
"Uh...." I had no idea because, of course, I had never successfully picked up a girl.
"C'mon," he said, "you must know some
"I know some, yeah."
"Know them. Yeah. Yeah, I get it." He was clearly not impressed. I felt like an idiot.
After a short silence, he said, "You know what your problem is? You need to loosen up. And I can help you with that." Then he pulled out a joint.
I nearly drove right off the road.
"What the fuck
is that?" I asked, even though I knew exactly what it was.
"It's a joint," he said, giving me a look of disgust, "what's the problem?"
"Uh, that is
the problem. Why the hell do you have a joint in my car?"
"Why do you think?" he said. With that, he depressed the lighter in my car.
As the lighter was heating up, I said, "Don't smoke that in here."
Ryan didn't reply. When the lighter clicked to indicate it was hot enough to use, he pulled it out and lit his joint.
"Man, I told you not to light that!" I was starting to freak out.
"Matt, you really need to learn to relax." He took a couple long, deep drags. "Hey, pull over."
"No way," I said. "Not until you put that out."
"Fine," he said. "You pull over and I'll put it out."
"Fine," I said.
I pulled over in a lot across the street from the parking lot most of the other cruisers parked in. Ryan got out of the car, but he didn't put out the joint. Instead, he climbed up on the hood of my car, laid down and continued puffing away.
I rolled down the window. "You're going to get us arrested!"
He didn't respond. I rolled up the window and sat there in silence...and fear. I really thought a cop would pull up any second and haul us of to jail. It only took him 5-10 minutes to smoke that joint, but it felt like hours.
After finishing the joint and tossing it into the street, Ryan hopped off my hood and got back into the car. "This shit's lame," he declared. "Let's go back to your place."
We didn't speak on the ride back.
The next morning, I woke up a few hours before Ryan. I was still wigged out about the joint escapade. I was terrified my mom was going to find out somehow...so I told her about it. Mom was pissed. She made a quick phone call to Cricket, who arrived to pick Ryan up before he'd even gotten out of bed.
That was the last time I ever saw Ryan.
But his visit, as humbling (from a basketball perspectie) and upsetting (from my irrational fear of arrest and punishment) had been, it had taught me an important lesson...Pickup Rule #4: Diversify Your Offensive Game
The doom of many pickup ballers is a lack of diversity in their offensive games. Some guys can only shooter jumpers. If you close out on those guys, they become completely ineffective. Some guys can only drive to the hoop. If you lay way off them and utilize help defenders, chances are they won't be able to get past you. Some guys can only play inside. If they're guarded by somebody bigger, stronger and/or more athletic, they'll probably be neutralized unless they have a wide array of post moves (and most people do not).
But if you can shoot from any range, drive and finish, and
play inside? That will make you pretty hard to stop.
For instance, let's say you score on a couple inside moves. Now you're defender is going to want to keep you outside. Now you'll probably be able to get some open jumpers. Hit a couple those, and your defender will probably try to close the distance, allowing you to get him up in the air on a pump fake and then drive right on by.
Avoid developing habits. Your best shot might be a three-pointer from the top of the key, but if you always shoot from there, people are going to figure you out. If you always do a hard dribble to the right, dribble back left and take a step-back jumper, people are going to figure you out. Not everybody, maybe, but the savvier defenders will, and then you're going to get shut down.
I try to challeng myself to do something different on every offensive possession. If I drove right last time, I might drive left the next. If I went outside on a recent possession, I'll check to see if my defender will give me a jumper. The more unpredictable you are, the harder it will be for defenders to create a defensive scheme to stop you.
This is what I learned from getting my ass handed to me. And I started showing up early to the intramural league to practice new shots, new moves, new drives. I finally started practicing three-pointers. I moved out of my comfort zone whenever possible. Since I was finally coming to understand that the basketball we were playing was crap, I decided to use the league as a laboratory for my game.
And that's what I did.
Labels: pickup basketball, The Pickup Diaries, The Pickup Rules