Honestly, there are few things that feel better than dribbling a basketball. Very few…and those are all outside of basketball. It seems natural: Basketball in hand. The basketball pounding against the gym floor. The sneakers squeaking. On the court, it’s art. Dribble low. Dribble high. Fast. Quick. I know it sounds corny, but for me it’s true. I could be in the gym for hours, and do nothing but push the rock through drills.
When I was younger, my emphasis in high school was ballhandling. It came at the perfect time too. I needed it. In the eighth grade, I was about 5-11, nearly six feet tall. I was the tallest kid on my middle school team, and nearly the tallest on my AAU team, spending the majority of my time in the high post as a four man. I could handle the rock, but had never played on the perimeter.
After my school season ended in March, three months later I was suddenly playing in summer leagues for my high school. I went from looking down at damn near everyone to being middle of the pack, from the paint to the wing, from rarely ever shooting a three to standing out behind it on an island. I went from being a lanky big man to a two guard. I always had range for a bigger player, but ballhandling wasn’t something I worked on consistently. It was slightly uncomfortable at first. Luckily for me, I loved the game enough to be in the gym three hours a day and soon enough, I was fine.
The YMCA I used to go to was relatively new. No one knew about it. It was small, but had built a brand new full court. I especially loved the nets, the way the ball would whip through them whenever I made a shot. Most of the time, I was alone in there. It was the perfect setup to do what I had to, which was to take Jamal Crawford‘s skillset, and try to assimilate some of it into my game.
Even before that, at the time Jason Williams first descended on the national conscious, I was living not too far away from Belle, West Virginia. I saw the high dribble, the showmanship. I saw a rural, country boy living in much the same way I did. I’ve shed light on my obsession with Jason Williams before. Even today, I still sometimes watch his old tapes.
My 5 favorite players to watch dribble:
1. Jason Williams
2. God Shammgod
3. Baron Davis
4. Ben Gordon
5. Allen Iverson/Bone Collector (it’s a tie)
Eventually, I was rummaging through my garage, past the old fridge and the dusty and ragged tools, into a box to find a pair of enormous garden gloves. Brown as the dirt that was matted to them, old as the box I found them in, my fingers barely fit halfway down the gloves. I still don’t know who wore them. Then I was at the gym, every day, two $10 rubber Wilson basketballs and a pair of garden gloves. As Billy Donovan once told J-Will to do, I dribbled: spider drills, two-ball drills, behind-the-back off the wall, full-court speed drills and half-court avalanches (a drill I made up where I start from midcourt with an in-place move and run towards the basket doing a move every step in a stream of conscience that doesn’t end until I’m right at the rim).
When I did eventually take off the gloves, usually about an hour into it, the ball would whip from hand to hand like a beach ball with gravity. The Wilson was as large as a watermelon but as light as a Nerf ball.
You know you love to dribble when watching your shadow actually gets you hyped. Somehow the shadow always looked better, smoother. You might fumble trying to get down Hardaway‘s two-step, but the shadow never did. So I started going into the raquetball courts at the Y, always empty. No one ever used them, and the lights were always off. The perfect place to watch your shadow (it’s interesting that I would probably never do this stuff now. When you’re a kid, and your swagger is outta control because 1) you live in a tiny fish bowl and 2) you don’t know any better, you don’t care if people stare).
In the summer of 1998, I went to a summer basketball camp at Allegany Community College in Western Maryland, if for no other reason than I figured a future pro would come and play with us: Steve Francis. He was about to leave for Maryland, about to completely blow up. At the time, he was unknown to people who weren’t in the DMV area and hadn’t seen him put on show after show at ACC. And he did at the camp.
Francis was known for his explosive finishes, but it was always his ballhandling that excited me the most. The way he would put his whole body into a crossover, moving as far to one side as the ball was before whooshing back the other way; the way he viewed every game as something more than just a game; it wasn’t enough to put a move on someone and score. He had to embarrass them on the way. Good for entertainment, not always good for winning.
My 5 favorite ballhandling drills:
1. The half-court avalanche
2. The spider
3. Full-court two-ball
4. Two-ball stationary
5. Dribbling ANYWHERE/EVERYWHERE
Despite all of this, it was always hard to transition the skills into a game. Maybe it was a confidence thing. I could hit people with the two-step all the time in pickup games, but when I got into the real thing, I rarely even thought to bring it out. Maybe it was a physical thing. Perhaps I wasn’t going quite hard enough in workouts, even though I felt I was. Maybe it was flexibility. Who really knows? Sometimes I would bring the spin moves out, the double crossovers and the pull-backs. Often, I didn’t. Some drills directly impact in-game success. Others don’t. Sometimes, it’s all how you work on it.
Ballhandling is unique. Shooting jumpers, yeah maybe your release is different, but the result is the same. Either it goes in or it doesn’t. But every dribble machine has their own style, their own technique, own confidence level, different moves they’ve mastered, others that will forever remain just out of their grasp.
John Wall‘s stationary crossover is one of the best in the league. I’m not talking about just his crossover. I’m talking about a specific move, crossing over from a standstill spot, going from zero to 60 in one side-to-side movement. I’ve always been better on the move. For some reason, I just can’t pull off this move (check Dwyane Wade‘s move at :38 seconds. But when I got to college, my roommate could do it. He was 5-7, without any muscle whatsoever, didn’t really look like a basketball player at all, but he would catch people all the time. ALL THE TIME. He had that crossover down, in place, from one side to the other, without any dribbles to rock the defender or to catch his rhythm. Just VROOOOOOOM and he was gone.
Studying Iverson’s crossover was akin to finding the key that unlocks the vault. How did he do it? Was it just pure quickness? Watch as he leans against his ball-side thigh. Watch as his opposite foot curls over as if he’s twisting it. Most of all, watch the set-up. I call it the bounce. The split-second hesitation where he hesitates, ball at his waist, his torso standing up, even leaning ever so slightly the other way…and the boom, go back hard the opposite way before whipping the ball back again, the defender going for the bait nearly every time.
Ballhandling is an art. There’s no right or wrong way to practice it or get comfortable with it. If you work enough, it just comes. One person might have a crazy spin move. Someone else has that in-and-out that goes so fast, you’re always falling for it. He loves dribbling low to the ground, fundamental, his moves straight-line, north-south. That dude loves dribbling high, herky-jerky, speeding up and slowing down, baiting you and then exposing you. All of it comes together to form a unique culture, something perhaps no other sport can boast. A culture within the game.
Even today, I still find myself surfing YouTube to watch people dribble (thank god for YouTube by the way). And I probably always will. Even today, I still find myself trying to decipher the best, or quickest way to get handles. And I probably always will. Can someone tell me? Does anyone have an answer? There are 1,000 different answers, 8,000 different drills. There’s a tutorial for every move, every step. Everyone has the answer, but yet no one does. And still, that’s what makes it special. That’s what makes it different.
Millions of different ways to paint a masterpiece. That’s what makes it an art.
My 5 favorite ballhandling videos:
What was/is your favorite ball-handling drill?
Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.