Dime’s (Pickup) Basketball Diaries

I’m a little scared. A summer without around-the-clock NBA free agent news and tantalizing yet most likely unfulfilled trade rumors is looming, and a sufficient replacement has not yet revealed itself. Basketball, really, is my wife. Steady with exciting and sometimes frustrating wrinkles. Even if I have moments of doubt in the summer, I always come back to my greatest love. With the lockout nearly upon us, I thought about pouring part of my now partially empty soul into baseball. But I just can’t make the switch because baseball has always been my on-the-side fling. In small doses, it’s great. But 90% of the time I’m left wanting more. That rush of knowing every play matters because the clock is ticking. Dig yourself in a hole and there might not be enough time to crawl your way out. (Cut to Dirk and the Mavs shaking their heads and pointing to their championship rings. Well, bracelets. Or anklets. I don’t know.)

And then it hit me. I may have given up on my NBA dreams years ago, but that doesn’t stop me from unleashing my competitive drive on unsuspecting street ballers. (More often than not it’s my opponent that does the unleashing, but we’ll ignore that for a second.) If following basketball can’t do the trick, I might as well play the game a bit more. So that’s what I’m trying to do. Here at the Dime office, we’ve developed a Friday tradition of sorts: head down to the gym in the mid-afternoon and gear up. Some of you may wonder why we don’t head to the streets, but unrelenting heat, full courts that aren’t actually full size and unfathomably long arguments over the score prompted us to graduate to the safety of the indoors.

I think I speak for everyone in our pickup crew when I say that our basketball-writing skills surpass our on-the-court aptitude. But there’s a certain pride that pickup elicits – actually, it’s more like anger. The shame of defeat is compounded by having to sit out at least the next game. And by the time you do get back on the court, you’re probably tired, stiff and cold. Not to mention the anger that has been festering inside after the loss.

But losing isn’t the worst part. It’s losing to that one guy – the one who’s beyond frustrating because he’s just doing something that’s not kosher. Everyone knows that there are certain unwritten rules of pickup that must be followed: no charges, no tic-tac fouls, no cherry picking, no excessive smack talking or gear. (Only NBA players are good enough for headbands, finger tape, arm bands, etc.) When that anger boils, there’s nothing more I’d like to do than send the offender packing. It’s not even about dropping buckets. It’s the knowledge that he’ll be at the end of the line if I beat him. Watching him sulk and bicker gives me shameless amusement and satisfaction. I’m happy and he’s pissed. I’m still playing, he’s not. And with that victory comes a sliver of respect from the next opponent. And let me tell you, it’s nice to be respected on the basketball court. There’s nothing worse than someone loudly explaining to his teammate why you suck and don’t need to be guarded tightly – talk about a confidence killer. And that’s really all pickup is – a game of confidence. There’s a reason why everyone is playing in that gym with you. They’re not going anywhere in the basketball-playing lives either. It took me years to acknowledge and accept that revelation. But once I did, it made my basketball life that much easier.

When we resumed our journey towards pickup domination last Friday, we were feeling pretty confident. With our crew of Martin Kessler, Mike Aufses, Kevin Zimmerman, Scott Horlbeck and myself, we thought we were pretty well rounded despite our lack of size. Martin’s our resident Brad Miller – an intelligent player unafraid to do the dirty work. When his defender isn’t ready, he’ll step out for the 18-foot jumper. Kevin’s the energy. Quick, fast and the guy on the court that no one wants to guard or be guarded by. Mike’s the ace in the hole. When you’re not ready, he’ll pull up with a Ben Gordon-like jumper and make you look silly. Get too close and he’ll slip right by you. As for myself, I’m a shooter – stepbacks, set shots, whatever. I’m only going all the way to the hole when there’s a clear lane because my quickness just isn’t there. The true star and centerpiece of our team is Scott, who combines his Lamar Odom point-forward mentality with a penchant for slamming his hand on the backboard in an attempt to block shots at the basket. And let me tell you, it’s alarmingly impressive and intimidating.

As a group, we’re strong defensively. Because in pickup, that’s all it takes. Most refuse to play offense unless the ball is in their hands. So we’re physical. We push, we shove, we foul. Nothing’s easy. And most importantly, we box out. None of us have Dwight Howard hops or strength, so we go the Kevin Love route – positioning, positioning, positioning.

We started out our run of five games with a 14-12 loss (the game was to 11). I personally couldn’t get going because my defender was simply too quick, strong and physical for me to handle. I got some buckets here and there, but nothing consistent. I’m just glad that no one had the box score, because my line would have probably resembled something straight out of the Larry Hughes/New York Knicks era. Relying on our bread and butter (jumpers), everyone else was knocking down shots. But they had that guy I’m preconditioned to hate. He cherry picked and he called weak fouls. And then he had the audacity to go nose-to-nose with Scott (wearing an Oregon Ducks t-shirt) and blurt out, “No easy buckets in New York.”

That put us over the top, anger-wise. So when we lost, we slouched down against the bleachers, pissed beyond belief and ready to go again. But our next opponents were weak and we coasted to victory. If we’re Kirk Hinrich on the athleticism scale, then they were Mike Bibby. But no one was in the gym, so we built up our confidence by hammering our overmatched opponent twice in a row.

Next up was a game were amped for. Led by a jersey wearing, muscle-bulging screamer who emphatically celebrated every positive play by his team (I’m all for positive energy, but this was bordering on Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football territory), the adversary seemed strong. But that’s lesson No. 1 of pickup: never judge an opponent based on looks. Well, we were guilty of just that, except they were way worse than advertised. So we cruised to an easy victory, complemented by defeating my favorite pickup player: the surprise guy. He’s the one that’s utterly shocked when he puts up a brick. Confusing himself for Dirk, he just can’t believe that he missed a contested 20-foot turnaround fadeaway. But it’s not his irrational confidence that confuses me most. It’s that his surprise at the miss is purely genuine. The best NBA players make 50% of their shots – but this guy is better and will not tolerate anything less.

By our fifth game (against the screamer and the surprise guy, plus three newbies), we were exhausted, although it could’ve just been me. It probably has something to do with the fact that I’m in the same shape as Eddy Curry, but I like to think that it’s because I was giving my all on every play. Anyway, we got killed. It felt like Game 4 of the Lakers/Mavs series. They countered our every punch with a jab, right hook, upper-cut, then kick to face while we were down. Every miss turned into a fast break. Every rebound went their way. So we lost 11-4, but ultimately proud of our 3-2 record.

Hopefully this Friday we can do a little better.

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