At a recent pickup session, I ended up on a dream team and we went on an amazing run. If I could have drafted any four gym regulars onto my team, I would have chosen my talented, unselfish, hardworking teammates. We won four or five games in a row—none of them close—and felt that we would own the court until we ran out of gas.
A mediocre-looking team came on to play us. They had four average players and one guy we had never seen before. He was in his 20s, in extremely good shape, and I swear, he looked like a male model. (Later, I found out that he actually is a male model.) Male Model looked like he could play, but we had mismatches at four other positions and didn't think that his team would pose much of a challenge.
We were wrong. On the first possession of the game, Male Model drove through our entire defense and hit an unbelievable twisting layup. We figured it was a fluke, until he did the exact same thing on the next possession, and the next. After his third ridiculous layup, we completely collapsed the lane on him, so he pulled up from long range and swished a rainbow jumper. At this point we were in shock, but managed to get it together and revved up the offense. Although Male Model was a great defender, he couldn't guard all five of us and we exploited other defensive weaknesses for buckets. But at the other end, Male Model was literally unstoppable. We switched three different defenders onto him and he smoked them all. Every time we got a basket, he came down and responded in spectacular fashion. While our scores were of the traditional "find the open man" variety, his were improbable and demoralizing. We were in a tizzy because we had no answer for his Kobe Bryant act.
It was close at the end, but Male Model got the best of us and we lost. It was heartbreaking for three reasons. First, our dream team had been vaporized. It's so rare to end up on a team like that, and when it happens, you just want it to go on forever. Male Model crushed our dreams. Second, it sucks to get beaten by one player. Losing to a better team is understandable, but when your team has mismatches at four positions and the fifth player singlehandedly takes the game away from you, it's a bitter pill to swallow. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the player who wrecked us was a complete unknown. None of us had ever seen him before.
I've always found it harder to be dominated by someone I don't know than someone that I do know, and I think this is true for most recreational ballers. Why is this so? I'm guessing it's some sort of tribal thing. (Any anthropologists reading this?) We'd rather be defeated by someone familiar because their place in the local hoops hierarchy has been established. A guy like Male Model disrupts our sense of that hierarchy. His presence pushes all other players down a notch and also "breaks the bubble" of the game. By this I mean that pickup games with regular rosters are somewhat insulated from the larger world of basketball. We know, in theory, that there are much better players (and games) out there, but because we play with others on our level, we fool ourselves into thinking that we're better than we really are. When a talented outsider shows up and tilts the game, we get a window into the world of better basketball and our true place on the global hoops totum becomes clearer. If basketball is a form of escape, as it is for most casual players, who needs that pesky dose of reality?
Male Model has actually become a regular player in our pickup game, which has restored a sense of equilibrium. He is still a great player, but it turns out that he was really on fire that first day. Some of the better defenders have figured out how to contain him so that he doesn't take over every game anymore. (I personally cannot guard him at all and become mildly incontinent whenever he matches up with me.) More importantly, we know him now. It turns out that he is a pretty nice guy and we like having him around. And of course, I'd rather have my ass busted by someone I know than by a stranger.