When I failed in my mission to make the varsity basketball team during my senior year, I didn't just stop playing basketball. I loved playing too much to stop. It was in my blood.
Certain things changed, though.
First off, I stopped training. That's not to say I stopped working out, or stopped running, or stopped practicing my jump shots and post moves. But I wasn't really trying to get better anymore. I realize that sounds like a contradiction: I was working to improve myself physically and practicing specific skills...isn't that the same as trying to get better?
All I can say is: It's different. Working with a specific goal (such as to make your high school team) and just doing stuff differs in terms of focus and intensity. I mean, think about watching people shoot around before a pickup game. Technically, they're practicing, right? But that practice doesn't make them any better, does it?
That's what I'm talking about.
Unfortunately, the side-effect of this was that I began to develop bad habits. My shooting form started to get deformed. My shot selection became a little more careless (unless I was in an intense game and needed to win...then I'd focus on high percentage shots). I didn't necessarily go all-out on every possession. Instead, I went all-out when I needed to. I expended only as much energy as was necessary to win.
Which leads to the second major change: I started shaving points.
Here's the thing. Most of the time, I couldn't find full pickup games, so I would usually end up playing one-on-one or 21. And since I usually played at the same places, I would usually end up playing the same people. Unfortunately, I was better than most of the people I played against. It was pretty rare I faced a serious challenge.
When you play the same people over and over and you always beat them rather handily, they stop wanting to play against you. After all, it's not really all that much fun if you know you're never going to win.
What I should have done was seek out better competition. And sometimes I did, but human beings are often creatures of convenience. If I know there are going to be a few people playing at such-and-such a court at such-and-such a time, I can spend less time trolling for opponents and more time playing basketball.
So I started making sure that games against inferior opponents stayed close. If I ever got too far ahead, I would stop going inside. I would take bad or sloppy shots. I would ease up on defense. As far as I know, nobody ever caught on. It's surprisingly (perhaps alarmingly) easy to make it look like you're trying really hard when you're not.
For instance, take a bad shot you're likely to miss and then, when ball bounces harmlessly off the rim, yell something like "Damn it!" Or make a really determined gamble for a steal you have no chance at. It will look like you tried while giving your opponent a free lane for an easy layup.
Let them keep the score respectable and they'll believe they had a chance. Then they may make it a personal goal to beat you. And if that's not enough, you can let them win the occasional close game.
The bad habits, the point shaving...now not only was I not actively getting better, I was making myself a worse basketball player.
But I didn't realize it at the time. I never consciously thought about any of it. Even with the point shaving, I just sort of did it. I never planned it out. I would just sense when people were getting bummed about getting beaten all the time, and I would pull back.
I guess these behaviors were, in part, the result of not having a coach or a strong male role model to provide instruction and guidance. But hey, I was still winning most of the time, especially when I wanted to, so I didn't see a problem.
And I still seemed like a basketball junkie. Which led to various funny incidents. The funniest of which I've recounted at least one other time, but I'll repeat now anyway.
I had a friend named Cindy that I had had a crush on for almost my entire high school career. Unfortunately, Cindy had had a boyfriend for that entire time...which kind of put a damper on any potential relationship.
But I hung around and waited and played the whole "best male friend" role like a sucker. I even showed up for her 18th birthday party with a ridiculously elaborate and thought out gift with the intention of showing up her boyfriend (which I did) and winning her heart (which I didn't...at the time anyway).
(In case you're wondering what the gift was: Cindy was really into clowns. Yeah, I know. Creepy, right? Well, I went to Service Merchandise and found this really expensive porcelain clown doll dressed in her favorite colors and mounted on this nice wooden stand. I think it cost $80, which represented a lot of toil at the Ponderosa, let me tell you.)
At any rate, Cindy and her boyfriend broke up near the end of our senior year. I was such a tool that when she called to tell me about it I immediately asked her out. I know. I was a little too quick on the trigger with that one.
Still, she was interested in trying to go out sometime. She just didn't tell me when exactly. So I was on the Cindy Date Watch. My mom knew about it. My friends knew about it. I was seriously intense about it. And everybody who knew me wanted to throw up, I think.
One afternoon after school, I was shooting around by myself at Boulevard school when my mom drove up to deliver a message: Cindy had called and wanted me to go to a play with her. (Remember, this was well before everybody had a damn cell phone.) Only the play was starting in about five minutes.
The good news was that the play was at our high school, which was only a couple blocks from Boulevard. The bad news was that I was dressed to play basketball. Specifically, I was wearing a gray Celtics t-shirt and a pair of Celtics practice short-shorts with black bike shorts underneath.
Now, when I call this the "bad news," I say that only in retrospect. At the time, I thought I looked good
. I thought the outfit was totally cool and that it made me look fit and athletic. But thinking back about it, it looked pretty stupid for playing basketball...
...and tragically fucking stupid for going on a "first date"-ish thing with the girl I'd been crushing on for almost four years.
So I jump into my trusty Plymouth Fury and rocket the two blocks to my high school. I got out of the car and literally sprinted up to the back doors of the school, where Cindy was waiting with her friend Holly. Cindy was gracious about my appearance, or at least pretended to be. Holly, on the other hand, kind of laughed and said, "Nice legs." I actually thought she was paying me a genuine compliment.
So I sat through some play, sweaty but smiling, sure this was the first of many dates to come. It wasn't. And although I honestly don't think that outfit killed my chances with Cindy at that time, I doubt it helped.
Two last basketball related memories before my time as a high school pickup player ended. The first happened in early May. I was out with my buddy Dave and his friends Mike, Mick and Rom (short for Romulus). Mike, Mick and Rom had actually been friends with Dave's older brother, Derek, who had graduated a couple years before us and joined the army.
In Derek's absence, that trio had semi-adopted Dave as a Derek substitute. They became increasingly pushy about it. To the point that Dave and I were playing basketball together less and less. But one day, out of the blue, they decided to play with us.
We gathered at Boulevard school. None of these three guys had ever really played basketball before, so they were predictably terrible. And if you've ever played basketball with non-basketball players -- especially if you're any good at all -- it makes you look incredible. I felt like friggin' Michael Jordan. No, seriously, they were that bad. And although Dave was pretty good, he just sort of stood back and watched.
Now here's where things got weird. Even though Boulevard was almost always the most deserted court in Kokomo, a group of girls (and one guy) from our senior class spontaneously showed up to good around at the opposite basket. They certainly weren't the cutest girls in our school, but they were girls, which meant it was time for some peacocking. Suddenly, Mike, Mick and Rom were trying really hard. And I was trying even harder to show them up, and show off for the girls.
I started making all sorts of crazy drives, trying to hit reverse layups and fancy double-clutch bullshit. And I was hitting a fair share. Now, you have to understand that Rom was an imposing man. He was over six feet tall and probably weighed a solid 300-plus pounds, some of which was fat but a lot of which was muscle. But in my experience, Rom had always been a gentle giant, someone with a high-pitched (almost girlish) laugh and an almost too-pleasant demeanor.
Not now, though. He started flinging his arms around like clubs. Powerful, man-killing clubs. Then I made a drive and, to avoid his defense, try to go up for a left-handed layup. Rom got his hand cleanly over the ball and forced it down with all his might, which twisted my elbow in a direction roughly opposite to which it was supposed to bend.
I hit the ground with a scream and a thud.
Whatever Rom did effed up my left elbow. I mean big time. Of course, I never went to the doctor to find out what was wrong, but the pain was intense...and it didn't go away any time soon. For many months after that, the slightest touch was like a dagger of pain. Bending the arm hurt like hell too.
I basically stopped doing any kind of working out that required me to bend the arm. I couldn't do it. It hurt too much. And you know, there aren't many upper body exercises you can do without bending your arm. This would be an ongoing issue until late in my freshman year in college. If I had realized it was going to go on that long, I might have gone to the doctor. Who knows? But I was a stupid teenager.
The final story took place on my final night as a student at Kokomo High School. After the graduation ceremony for my senior class, KHS held an event called The Final Fling. It was sort of like a little carnival in the school. There were food, games, prizes, a live band, etc. It was basically a big, alcohol-free party.
As it so happened, they also opened up the gym so people could play basketball or partake in various other activities. As soon as my group of friends got there, Dave and I went straight to the gym. As I walked under the basket to retrieve my first shot, I saw Dave taking a three-pointer out of the corner of my eye.
Dave tossed up an airball. And it hit me right between the eyes.
You may remember that I was still wearing glasses at the time. Well, my glasses shattered. What's more, the shattered frame cut my face in several places. So now, at the final party of my high school experience, I was blind and bleeding. My friends had to basically guide me around the rest of the night as I held a wad of paper towels over my face to stop up the blood flow...all for one measly shot at basket.
All in all, it was a fitting way to finish my high school pickup career.
Labels: The Pickup Diaries