During the summer before my senior year, my high school ran a developmental camp for all the junior varsity and varsity wanna-bes (and already ares) in the greater Kokomo region.
In addition to my alma mater, Kokomo High School, there were a handful of other high schools in the area (Eastern, Western, Northwestern, Taylor, etc.). This meant more people available for the camp...and more competition for me to test myself against.
The camp ran every weekday for two weeks in August. There were, I believe, eight teams, each of which was named after an actual NBA squad. I was "drafted" by the Chicago Bulls.
Going in, I was completely and totally stoked about the camp. I was also feeling pretty confident. In addition to my many battles against my buddy Dave, I had been roaming the various basketball courts throughout town and had yet to ever feel truly overwhelmed by any of the competition I'd been facing. In my mind, the key to success -- which I defined as setting a precedent for making my high school's varsity team -- was go out there and play harder than anybody else in the camp.
Of course, there were a few dozen other guys thinking the same thing.
The KHS coaching staff supervised the camp, but they didn't coach any of the teams. They left that to various college age assistants whose origins were (and still are) unknown to me. But whoever they were, they took their jobs pretty seriously. They screamed out instructions and diagrammed plays like each contest was Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Winning was very, very important to them.
I have an embarrassing admission to make though: Winning wasn't all that important to yours truly. Yeah, I know. That's pretty Basketbawful of me, but it's true. I was like an NBA free-agent-to-be going for numbers so I could earn a big contract. All I wanted to do was play well enough to impress somebody on my school's coaching staff. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I went for personal achievement at the expense of winning, but I will say that team victories weren't something I concerned myself with.
Suffice to say, I have no idea what the Bulls' won-loss record was. If there was a gun to my head right now, I couldn't tell you whether we won every game or lost them all. I cannot remember the outcome of a single game in which I played during that camp.
However, I can recite my stats: 5.7 PPG and 8.9 RPG.
To this day, those numbers are still etched in my memory. They may not look like much, but I was pretty proud of them. After all, the games lasted only 30 minutes, and for most of the came, nobody logged more than 15 minutes a game. I shot 78 percent from the field. This was because almost every shot I took was a tip or a putback. During that camp, I took exactly one outside shot: A jumper from the left elbow (which I made).
Here's the thing: All anybody at that camp wanted to do was score. It seemed as if the assumption was that if you could score, you could make the team at your respective high school. So nobody wanted to give up the ball. Everybody wanted their shots. Like I said, the coaches were diagramming plays for specific players. But guys would circumvent the playcalling by fast breaking into an early offense and shooting before all their teammates caught up. It wasn't quite the chaos my intramural experience had been -- for starters, the talent level at this camp was generally higher -- but it wasn't any less selfish.
That's why I focused on rebounding instead of shooting. And my work on the board was strong. That's the one thing I remember my coach telling me over and over: "Good job on the boards, Matt." I crashed them with gusto. Nobody on the team was rebounding like I was. I didn't see many people on other teams rebounding like I was either. The way I saw it, rebounding was going to be my "in."
Of course, my rebounding success hinged on certain elements specific to this camp. First, most of the teams were employing a "hurry up" offense that featured fast and often times low percentage shots. This meant there were plenty of rebounding opportunities. It was kind of like 1960s NBA ball, minus most of the talent. But people were more concerned with running out on the break for a chance to shoot than busting their humps for rebounds. So many times, I was tearing down uncontested rebounds.
But hey, a rebound is a rebound.
I was also playing pretty solid defense. In fact, my coach would often stick me on the opposing team's best scorer. At the time, defense wasn't a focus of mine, and my fundamentals were pretty meh. But before camp, I had read an passage from a basketball book that quoted some of the defensive concepts touted by Dr. Jack Ramsey. The one that stuck with me the most was that defense begins before your man ever receives the ball. Therefore, Dr. Jack reasoned, if you can deny your man the basketball, you can beat him.
I embraced this concept to the fullest.
Therefore, I chased my man. I played full court defense on every possession. I had a body on my man constantly. Nobody got away from me. This got under people's skin. One player -- whom I believe was a starter for either Western or Northwestern -- got so pissed off at my relentless pursuit that he gave me a two-handed shove while screaming "Fuck OFF!" The move earned him a technical foul (which meant an automatic ejection) while earning me deep praise from my coach.
I also (unofficially) led my team in hustle plays. I dove after everything. If there was a loose ball, I went after it like a guided missile. My arms and legs were littered with bruises and floor burns. But I loved it. It fit with the attitude I brought into camp: Outwork everybody else.
As the camp progressed, I was picking up steam. In Game 6, my camp experience culminated in what I saw as a breakout game: a 10-point, 13-rebound effort while matched up against our school's one and only seven footer. Mind you, those stats were compiled in the first half. I wasn't able to add to them because I never played in the second half.
In fact, I never played again for the rest of the camp.
See, there was something else going on that I simply couldn't see at the time. You have to understand, I had never been coached before, had never played any actual organized basketball. I played mostly one-on-one, or two-on-two, or 21, or some other bastardized version of basketball. My five-on-five experience was extremely limited. Playing within a team was virtually brand new to me.
As a result, I was fucking terrible in the set offense.
I struggled -- and I mean I really struggled -- to run even the simplest of diagrammed plays. I cut in the wrong direction, zig when I should have zagged, set a pick or scream at the wrong time or in the wrong spot on the court. I would get confused mid-play and then resort to freelancing as my teammates continued running what our coach had diagrammed. Hell, there were times when I would run into my teammates during plays.
Frankly, it was embarrassing. But I wasn't nearly as embarrassed as I should have been. I should have realized what was coming.
When I showed up for Game 7, the coach didn't put me in the starting lineup, which was weird, because I had started every game so far. I assumed therefore that I would get in and play for the entire second half. But that didn't happen either. I didn't log a single second.
The same thing happened in Game 8.
Before Game 9, I went to my coach and asked why I hadn't played in the last two games. This is what he said: "I know I haven't been playing you, and I'm sorry about that. But these final games are sort of reserved for the players who have a chance to make their varsity teams. They really need the minutes to prepare them for tryouts. If we go up or down by a lot, I'll see if I can get you in, okay?"
And just like that, I knew it was over. My fool's dream of making varsity was thoroughly crushed. I didn't even bother to stay for the game. Nor did I return for the 10th and final game.
I was seriously depressed and completely confused. All I could think about was my sky-high shooting percentage, my stellar rebounding and my stout defense. I had skills. Useful skills. All I needed was a chance! But then, I reasoned, I had gotten a chance and failed. And that failure felt as humiliating as any I had ever suffered. It wasn't even like I'd tried out for the team and not made it. I got benched a fucking developmental camp.
I was so bummed out that I briefly considered quitting basketball for good. But as much as I wanted to do that -- out of childish rebellion as much as anything else -- I couldn't. It was in my blood. I kept playing, even though I kind of hated basketball for a while.
As a side note, shortly after my senior year started, one of the assistant coaches saw me in the hall and stopped me on my way to class.
"Hey, I noticed you stopped coming to the camp," he said.
"Yeah," I muttered, not even able to look him in the eye. "They stopped playing me."
"Yeah, that happens," he said. "And I figured that's why you stopped coming. You know, I almost called you up. I liked your effort. I thought maybe I could set you up with [some player on the varsity team], and you guys could practice together. Unfortunately, I just never got around to it. Just remember, sometimes it pays to stick with things, even when they aren't working out."
And that was it. The conversation ended and he just walked away, leaving me even more frustrated and confused than I had been before. Was he saying that I might have had a chance to make the team after all? If he'd called me, could he have given me the pointers necessary to fulfill that crazy dream I'd had? Or was he just throwing me a bone, trying ot make me feel better?
I never found out. It probably didn't matter anyway.
So in the end, I didn't make my high school's varsity team. But I still had a lot of basketball left in me.
Labels: pickup basketball, The Pickup Diaries