Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Psychology: Self-interest versus collective good

My last post was about how normative practices (such as how players "get next") affect game conditions. I tried to make the point that local rules and norms in pickup basketball profoundly shape the experience of playing.

Thinking about this further, I realized that the specific issue of "next" actually signifies a larger tensionthat between self-interest and collective good. Skilled players who advocate a system of next in which captains can cherry-pick their teammates are acting selfishly because under this system, these good players will tend to end up on strong teams and will get to play longer by winning more. Average and bad players, of course, suffer under this system.

There are many pickup scenarios that highlight this tension. Here's one. Have you ever played in a game where one player made a few ticky-tack foul calls? What tends to happen? That's right, everybody starts calling more fouls! So here, Sensitive Foul Guy's behavior shifts the culture of the game. If others don't react by lowering their foul calling tolerances, then Sensitive Foul Guy has created an unfair advantage for him and his team. Of course, this dynamic almost always leads to a series of "That was a foul! That was not a foul!" arguments that threaten to derail the entire run. Increasing foul sensitivity is a great example of the "tragedy of the commons," where everyone would benefit from playing with reasonable fouling standards, but individual players' self-interests undermine this collective goal and ruin it for everyone.

Here's another, less common example. Lately in my pickup run we've had an organizational problem. When the run is especially busy, players like to get two full games going, with winners playing winners and losers playing losers in a "second round." Sounds good, what's the problem? The problem is that this system cannot accommodate new players. So what happens is that the first round games end and teams switch courts to play the second round. But new players invariably show up during the first round and wait by one of the courts. When the second round games are supposed to start, there is almost always a fight between the new players and the players coming over from the other court to play their second round opponent. (This system is stupid but it sounds cool to a lot of people. They need to get their f*cking heads checked.)

The personal interests of the players are clear: everyone wants to play as soon as possible. But multiple teams, according to completely different logics, have the "right" to play. Who capitulates? I DO. As one of the oldest players (and the only professor) playing in a college gym, I feel a responsibility to set a good example, so when I am caught in this situation, I calmly explain why the tourney system makes no sense, and then offer to wait. My teammates are not always happy about this, but I give them my speech about self-interest and collective good and they generally seem to be somewhat sorta kinda ok with it. What strikes me is the reaction of other players, who are braced for an argument and surprised that someone would willingly sacrifice his own playing time. Last week I did this very thing and a player on the team that was jumping us looked at me with genuine puzzlement and said "Wow, you're so nice." I explained to him that I was not being nice, but rather acting in a way that set a positive example so that we would all eventually benefit. I asked that next time he was caught in a situation like the one we were in, he volunteer to sit and wait. He furrowed his brow and appeared to consider it before checking the ball in and starting play. Baby steps I guess.

Final example. The other day I was ahead of the entire defense on a break. My teammate threw me a great over-the-top pass and I had a clear path to the rim. But as I caught the ball my feet got mixed up and I shuffled slightly before taking two big steps and laying the ball in. I think it looked a little funny, but no one on the other team said anything because it was a marginal situation. I turned right to my opponents and said "I traveled. No basket." They were shocked. My teammates were shocked. In response I simply said "integrity of the game."

I hope that by setting a good example I will encourage others to think of the collective before thinking of themselves. I want to create a culture in which personal sacrifice is normalized, where players are willing to act against their own interests when they recognize that the collective good is at stake. I often talk to other respected regulars about this. I tell them that we all need to think of the good of the game before we think about ourselves. But this is difficult in pickup basketballa loosely organized activity with an ever-changing roster of participants. The problem with asking players to attend to the collective is that the collective is amorphous and unbounded. Still, I feel that if the most respected players actively promote honorable behavior, others will be inclined to follow suit. The players I talk to seem to understand this in theory, but when there's a three game wait next Sunday afternoon, we'll see.

I'll close with some simple but powerful advice. When faced with a self/collective dilemma, we should always ask ourselves: What would Jesus Shuttlesworth do?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The science of next

Ok, let's get a little social sciency up in here. I want to discuss something I've thought about for a long time: How does the process of "getting next" affect the dynamics of a pickup game? I've played in a lot of different games with various ways of doing this, but I think that there are two main procedures in the U.S.

Through democratic selection. The next five players to show up get next game, regardless of who they are. In general, those who have been waiting the longest are the next to play. If there are fewer than five players waiting, losing players engage in a shooting contest to fill the available spots. This is the most common form of next.

Through conferred authority. The next player to arrive becomes team captain. The captain has the liberty to accept or reject other players who ask to play with him. If the captain wishes, he can even select players from the losing team to join his squad, despite the fact that they are "jumping over" players who have not yet played. This is a less common arrangement, and I've mostly seen it practiced on the east coast.

Now I'm going to argue that the conferred authority method is worse on all counts. For years in Boston and New York, I played in games that used the conferred authority method, and it never made sense to me. Why not?

1. It lacks consistent internal logic. This method causes massive confusion. Who has next? Can I play with you? Why not? If I can't play next, can I play with the team waiting second next? Third next? Where is my place in the queue of nexts? At its worst, the conferred authority approach can produce a long string of captains with no teammates, each waiting to cherry pick the best players from losing squads. When games get crowded, the system's vague logic and players' intense desires to play spark a conflagration of arguing.

2. It unfairly stacks teams. This method eventually creates extreme team inequalities. Next teams are invariably getting stronger and stronger because they are selecting the best available players. Weak players, meanwhile, are being sent to the back of the line. When these weaker teams finally make it onto the court, they are quickly dispatched by the high quality team that currently owns the run. Ultimately, the weak players leave because they keep losing and then they have to wait an hour to play again.

3. It changes the culture of the game. Winning becomes the primary goal of playing. This is because the conferred authority method essentially changes the game's supply and demand of players. Since some players are in more demand than others, the likelihood of playing after losing is variable across players. Those who do not expect to be picked up by a next team must win to keep playing, or they will be subject to the humiliation (and long wait) of finding a spot amongst the sea of nexts. The need to win is a direct reflection of self-interest, which runs rampant under this system. Average/bad players who do not advocate for themselves will not play very often. (Good players will get picked up again no matter what their personality.) Thus, all average players must seek above average teammates to increase the chances of victory, and at the same time, above average players seek to avoid playing with the average players.

4. It encourages shady behavior. For all the reasons described above, players (especially captains) must use deceptive tactics to keep their teams strong and avoid relegation to "last next." This usually involves dissuading or refusing subpar players who ask to play. The most common form of shady behavior is when a waiting captain targets a star player who is currently playing and holds a spot for that player, even though others are coming up and asking to play. Again, this is technically allowed, but it just seems unethical. Many times, I'd approach a waiting captain and ask to play, only to be told that "his friend was in the bathroom." Of course, when the next game started, the "friend" turned out to be a star player who just lost. When shady behavior is built into the norms of the game, the norms of the game should be questioned.

Overall, the conferred authority method produces more competitive games, but also more stress, conflict, and unhappiness among players. I also feel that it compromises the integrity of the pickup game because it is so profoundly undemocratic. The larger point here is that the structural conditions of play can exert significant effects on who plays, how the game is played, and how players relate to the experience of playing. The conferred authority approach leads to a competitive environment structured rigidly around a hierarchy of skill. On the other hand, the democratic method mitigates this hierarchy and fosters a fair-minded approach to the game where playing time is freely available, regardless of how good you are.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a baller!

I finally got around to watching the 2011 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, which had been buried deep in my DVR. I know it's pathetic, but I'll watch anything with basketball in it. I saw Space Jam in the theater.

I was pleasantly surprised at how competitive the game was this year. The requisite former NBA-ers like Scottie Pippen, Jalen Rose, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin did their thing. Other standouts included Romeo Miller aka Lil Romeo, Common, and yes, Justin Bieber, who took home the MVP award (based on fan voting) and showed decent skills along with an annoying, self-absorbed personality.

But let me tell you, I was most impressed with 46-year-old U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Before dedicating his life to public service, Duncan was schooling overgrown blue bloods as captain of the Harvard basketball team, and then took a 4-year walkabout in the Australian pro league. So the dude can obviously play. But in the Celebrity Game, Duncan played with a particular poise that should make all of us aging ballers proud. He didn't try to do too much like the boy-idiot Bieber. He wasn't trying to be a star. He played within the flow of the game, setting solid screens, making nice crisp passes, and never forcing shots.

Duncan clearly had some serious game as a younger man, and while he doesn't have much speed or hops left, he has become a cerebral, efficient old-timer. Check out this nasty behind-the-back dime. No cutter left behind!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Psychology: Intraracial rivalries

"Is he better than me?"

That's the first thing I asked when I heard about a guy my old NYC running mates were calling "Jeff 2.0." Jeff 2.0like mewas an undersized, pass-first point guard with good handles and a decent jumper. He was also Asian.

In December, I got together with my NYC basketball friends to play in their regular weekly game. Jeff 2.0 was there and it was the first time we had met each other. He seemed like a very nice guy and he definitely had some game. We ended up guarding each other for most of the night. I played my ass off against him and at the end, I felt that I had done respectably, especially since I had just come off major knee surgery. But it got me thinking about intraracial competition. Jeff 2.0 and Jeff 1.0 (me) were the only two Asians in the gym that night, and I felt that we were both subtly trying to capture the "Best Asian in the Game" award. Unfortunately, as we know, there is no such award.

I think that an easy hypothesis here would be: Players will play harder against same-race opponents.

But I don't think it's that simple.

The better hypothesis is actually: Players will play harder against same-race opponents when their race is relatively rare in the game.

Growing up in upstate New York in the 80s, I didn't know any other Asian ballers. In most games I played in, I was the only one. Going to college in Boston, I met a few other Asian players, and I definitely played harder against themwanting very much to be the best Asian around. I mean, there was no way I was going to be the best player on the scene, but I had a really good shot at being the top Asian (and I think I was). I moved to NYC for grad school in the late 90s, and found myself in a tough situation. I played with quite a few Asians at the gym and in the parks, where there was no guarantee that I'd be anywhere near the best. There were definitely some Asian ballers at NYU who could easily bust my ass back up to Poughkeepsie. I would play SO HARD against them, but they were just better than me. I remember one of the "kings of the gym" (a black guy) coming up to me one day and saying something like "You're the second best Asian brother here. You've got a good game, but [the other Asian] is the best." I couldn't disagree, but I was stung by the truth of what he had said. I hated that anyone else knew what I knewthat I wasn't the best of my kind.

But then I moved to Berkeleyaka the Land of Asians. I started balling at the UC Berkeley gym and at various parks around town. Now, instead of being one of a few Asians, I was one of many. In fact, some of the games I played in were all Asian. Suddenly, being the top Asian player didn't seem so important anymore. For one, there was no way that this was going to happen. There were too many Asians playing in my games now, and too many of them were clearly better than me. But more importantly, the social structural conditions of the game had changed my perceptions. I found that with so many Asians to compare myself to (and to be compared amongst themselves), I didn't feel that same intraracial rivalry.

So I believe that racial uniqueness plays a critical role in this dynamic. When there are only a couple of you, you see an opportunity to gain status in the eyes of the local hoops community. As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I like it when good players give me a racist nickname ("Yao," "Ichiro," "Duck Soup"), as it means that I am noteworthy, despite the general disadvantage of my race. But when your racial category reaches a certain tipping point, this status competition becomes more or less moot. You'll never get a cool racist nickname if there are fourteen of you.

Thinking about this suggests a further complication, which is that overall racial category statuses also matter. For example, if two relatively skilled black players are playing with eight white guys, do they feel the same pressure to be the best of their race? Maybe, but maybe not, as black players tend to have higher status generally in pickup basketball culture. For those with high hoops status, being the best of their kind may take a backseat to being the best, period.

Thus, I think that the best hypothesis of all is: Players will play harder against same-race opponents when their race is relatively rare in the game, and they are in a relatively low-status racial category.

And of course, here's the question we really want answered. Does intraracial rivalry affect the highest levels of play? Do Kirk Hinrich and J.J. Redick get insanely pumped up to guard each other?

Friday, February 11, 2011

First day in the brace: Outclassed

I couldn't wait until this weekend. Yesterday I went to the gym in my new knee brace to "shoot around and do drills." So I shot around and did drills--for about an hour. Then players started showing up. The first time I was asked to play I politely declined. But the second time I was asked I eagerly accepted. How many times can you put drugs in front of an addict and expect him to refuse?

The main reason I decided to play was that the game looked soft. Most of the players were undergrads and they were not particularly good. If there was any game I was going to be able to play in, this was the one.

My stat line from that game: 0 points (0 for 0 shooting), 0 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 turnover. I assisted on every one of our team's baskets in a losing effort. One of the assists was a sweet behind the back pass through two defenders. I take responsibility for the turnover, although a better big man would have caught it and laid it in.

This game was both encouraging and frustrating. I was encouraged to realize that I could still defend, handle the ball, and pass. But I was frustrated to realize that I was not able to get any decent looks because of reduced mobility and psychological issues related to my knee. I decided to try playing in another game.

But the game suddenly changed. All the mediocre undergrads left and better players took over. This happens a lot at our school gym. The goofy games run from 4:00-5:30, but then all the grown-ass men get out of work and show up. Between 5:30 and 8:00, the games are very competitive. Still, I wanted to see what I could do against better players. The answer: basically nothing.

My stat line from the second game: 0 points (0 for 0 shooting), 0 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 turnovers. It wasn't that I was tired. The game just got too good for me. My defender was significantly better than the kid who had guarded me the first game. My teammates were also much better this time around, pushing me far down the offensive hierarchy. Everyone was much better this time around. I was simply outclassed.

I am ok with this. I'm just coming back after a two month layoff. I have spent a lot of time learning to accept age and infirmity. I play because I love to play. Despite feeling limited and old yesterday, I had so much fun. And last night, for the first time in a long time, I dreamed about playing basketball.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Equipment: Bracing myself

I've suffered a setback on the path to recovery from ACL surgery. In December I was playing pickup in NYC and, on the very last play of the entire night, tweaked my surgically-repaired knee. It didn't feel that serious at the time, but some swelling persisted and for a few weeks after, it just felt weird. I went to see my ortho doc, who examined my knee, told me that it seemed loose, and ordered an MRI. The MRI showed some fraying and stretching of the ACL, but my doc did not recommend surgery. Instead, he suggested I "brace it" and gently return to basketball.

At first I was happy with this diagnosis. Another surgery was the last thing I wanted, never mind the ensuing rehab. But today I went and got my brace. This thing is a f*cking monster! (The pic on the left is the actual model I got.) It's pretty light, but I've been wearing it all day and it definitely lets me know that it's there. It also makes me feel like a character in a sci-fi movie who's been partially reconstructed with robot parts.

Over the years, I've seen many aging ballers wearing these big-ass braces (including Old School after his own ACL repair). To be honest, my opinion of these players was a mix of admiration and pity. I admired them for gutting it out after their bodies had failed them, but pitied them for having those same failing bodies. When we are young, it's hard to imagine a time when we will need such equipment to continue playing a child's game. It's easy to scoff at the old guys doing everything they can to keep up. But soon enough, we are those old guys, and we are faced with enormous, pressing questions.

-Should I keep playing?
-Should I retire?
-What can I expect from myself on the court now?
-What skills must I develop to keep playing effectively?
-What exactly is this "golf" that ex-ballers seem so obsessed with?

The brace serves as a constant reminder that I am on the steep part of the downward curve of hoops ability. It also suggests that I've taken basketball to a certain logical endpoint in my life. When I'm sacrificing my future health for a few moments of adrenaline on the court, I'm not so sure my priorities are in order. In a way, bracing my knee means bracing myself for the inevitable.

Still, I'm going to keep playing. I'm lugging this brace over to the gym this weekend and testing it out. Even though I'm older, slower, and partially robotic, I can't let go of the game that easily, especially after the surgery and rehab I've gone through in order to keep balling. There's got to be a few kids I can still cross up, right?

Setshotters: Please share your knee brace stories with us.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Careers: A love affair, interrupted

In March, five days after my intramural team won the league title, I was playing pickup ball. I drove the lane, jumped, landed, and felt my left knee come apart. The pain was incredible and I knew that I was in serious trouble. My ACL was blown. I had surgery, followed by months of physical therapy.

I thought about retiring from basketball. I figured that I had had a good run of it, and I had reached the age (35) when most professionals begin practicing their color commentary. Now obviously I'm no professional, but I was left wondering whether I had reached hoops menopause.

Unsurprisingly (if you know me), I dismissed the possibility of retirement pretty quickly. I love basketball too much, and the months off just underscored how important the game is to my life. Retirement felt like an unwanted divorce. ("Baby please! We can work this out!") Within weeks I was doing dribbling drills in my garage. I couldn't wait to start physical therapy, rehabilitate my knee, and get back to playing. I would ride my bike to the park, sit in the grass near the basketball courts, and pretend to read a book while ogling the pickup games. The only thought in my head: "I need to get back out there."

Well, I'm back out there. I started playing a few weeks ago and told myself I'd take it slow, which I have, but not by choice. I'm taking it slow because I am slow. Amazingly, I'm ok with this. I'm just so happy to be playing again that I don't care about how good I am. My stamina is poor and my shooting can best be described as erratic, but my ballhandling is solid (drills in the garage) and my court vision is undiminished. Instead of trying to be mid-career Jason Kidd, I'm happy to be late-career Mark Jackson. I don't need to be an alpha dog anymore.

Priorities matter. Younger players often don't have fun unless they win. I have fun no matter what. Winning is important to me, but not at the expense of camaraderie, honor, and the sheer animal joy of playing. Winning is not what I have been missing. Glory is not what I have been missing. Basketball is what I have been missing. And here's the actual bottom line: you don't end a 20-year affair because your lover inadvertently gave you a boo-boo.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The emotional complexity of an intramural championship

So my team has won the intramural championship. Overall, it's great. We worked really hard, came together as a team, beat some excellent opponents, and truly had a blast during the season. The playoffs were challenging and exhilarating. As the number two seed, we cruised through the first couple of rounds, then faced an extremely tough team in the semifinal with one extraordinarily skilled playera former D1 shooting guard. Luckily, they had just played an exhausting quarterfinal, while we won ours with ease. (The semifinal was the second of two games on the same night.) Because they were tired and we were not, we pulled away in the second half and won by 20.

We had expected to play the number one seed in the final, but incredibly, they lost their semifinal game because they could only field five guys and basically ran out of gas. So we faced the twelve seed, the defending intramural champion and a team that was much better than their seeding would suggest. (Also, a team with a ridiculous name: "O U NO FO SHO.") The game was close throughout
both teams playing with real passionbut our best players went into high gear at the end and iced it. Afterwards, we got our championship t-shirts and had our picture taken for the website and a banner that will hang in the gym's fieldhouse. I should have been elated, and part of me was, but it was more complicated than that.

I had sat on the bench during the most crucial stretches of the final game so that our best five could play more minutes. This was the right thing to do, but after the game, I wondered if I should have felt bad about not contributing more. I definitely thought that I had done my part during the season, but at the same time, I think that the team could have won without me. Even though I was technically the captain (because I had filled out the registration form), I was also a replaceable part.

I've played on league teams where I was the best player, which I did not really like, but I've never played on a team where I was one of the worst. Intellectually, I was able to accept my reduced role, but when the buzzer sounded in the championship game, my animal ego stung more than I thought it would. As our team picture was being taken, I had a couple of dispiriting thoughts. First, how much longer can I play at this level? This season was tough on me, as I was constantly matching up with quicker, stronger players. Second, will I continue to be ok with being a role player? Will my role get smaller and smaller? How small will it have to get before I am not ok with it?

I have some time to think about these things, but next year, when I look up at our championship banner, I wonder if I will feel pride, guilt, or both.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Glory: Too old to celebrate?

Last night we were having a great pickup session at the university gym. I was on a team with some good players and we had won two games in a row. A couple of guys I had never seen before assembled a team to play next. They were both wearing shirts indicating that they had played college football, and they both looked like college football playersthick, strong, athletic. They also seemed kinda mean. They didn't interact with other players in the gym and exuded an air of ruthless, cutthroat competitiveness. Now I know that in America, we celebrate this attitude. "Kobe is an assassin." "MJ will rip your heart out and eat it." But the culture of pickup at our gym is one of intense but friendly competition. Most everyone plays to win, but it's a fairly close-knit group and there is a lot of mutual respect and admiration.

As we started to play, I immediately found myself hating the football players. They were really surly and griped about everything
fouls, traveling, out of boundsI think you know this type. They didn't appear to be having any fun. Unfortunately, I was guarding the "smaller" of the two and he was killing me. Three pointer in my eye. Surreal, hanging layup in traffic . . . and one. Ankle-breaking crossover leaving me in the dust. At one point, I fouled him and offered him possession. He grabbed the ball, shot me a nasty look, and walked away without saying a word. I was feeling really bad about myself (and absolutely despising him), but at the same time, my competitive instincts were kicking in. I did not want to lose to these guys. I knew that if we lost, I'd spend the whole night thinking about it, simmering in my frustration.

We play games to nine straight by ones and twos. I know that this is stupid, but it's part of the culture. I'd like to change the scoring system to twos and threes, but I think that math education has gotten so bad in this country that many people are incapable of counting in such large increments.

The score was 8-7 them (i.e., they could hit any basket to win but we needed a three-pointer). My man had scored five of their eight
. I had only scored once, although I had assisted on three or four other baskets. The ball was inbounded to me and I started racing up the court ahead of my teammates. Often I will do this to draw the attention of the defense, allowing a trailing teammate an open cut to the hoop, whereupon I will drop an easy dime. But this time I was intent on shooting. Not only did I want our team to win, I wanted my man to feel the sting of the loss most acutely. As I came across halfcourt the entire defense sagged back. Without hesitation, I pulled the trigger on a long three and drained it, winning the game.

I freaked out
in both triumph and relief. I turned and ran down the court, arms raised, yelling "WHAT?! WHAT?!" as if in disbelief. It felt amazing. I saw the guy I was guarding flop against the bleachers and throw a towel over his head. My teammates and I exchanged hi-fives as we strolled to the water fountain. At that moment, I felt that my night had been made, that I would sleep soundly replaying the sweet swish of that last shot in my dreams.

But soon after I started to feel bad. Had I acted in an unsportsmanlike manner? If the football players had won, I bet they would have walked off in smug silence, without explicitly rubbing our faces in it. The knowledge that they had beaten us would have been enough. Why did I feel the need to twist the knife? And aren't I too old to be hooting like a teenager? As the only faculty member who plays regularly, I should be trying to set a good example. To make it worse, two players on the other team were people that I really like
including the best female player in the gym. Do they think less of me because of my outburst? Clearly, it wasn't about them, but they had also endured the loss.

I think that one reason I felt so guilty about my actions is that they were deeply reflective of my insecurities about aging. As much as I have worked to accept the deterioration of my game, I still find it hard to lose to young, arrogant players. I guess I want them to know that they, too, will get old and that one day, there will be even younger players seeking to humiliate them. But with my friends, I'm frequently talking about those who play honorably and those who do not, and even though the initial adrenaline rush of that game-winner was awesome, in retrospect my post-shot behavior did not seem particularly honorable.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Intramural update: "No your roll"

To start, an anecdote from Jack McCallum's book :07 Seconds or Less. When journeyman Ledell Eackles played for the Miami Heat, his contribution to one particularly memorable team meeting was walking up to the whiteboard and writing, "No your roll." Teammate Glen Rice's reply: "Sit down, dumbass."

Ok, I mostly included that because I think that the story is funny, but it also relates to this post.

At the halfway point of the season, our intramural team is 4 and 1. The first game seemed a bad omen: we played very poorly and lost to a team we should have beaten. The second game resulted in a win, but not an encouraging one. We played a team that was significantly worse than us and barely survived. I think that our main issue was getting adapted to one another. None of us is really used to playing with so many capable teammates, so we were all deferring too much, especially to our star forward (who was also deferring). We also lacked defensive intensity because we were still getting used to the refs and were not sure what their fouling tolerance was going to be.

But the last three games
all victorieshave been great. Our defensive intensity is way up and guys have really been looking for their shots. The ball movement has been excellent. Our big men have dunked on many fools. One game we shot about 60 percent from three and rang up the highest score that the league has seen this year (80).

The biggest issue that I have had to deal with personally is learning to be more of a role player. When I play pickup at the gym, I'm generally the 2nd or 3rd shooting option and the main ballhandler/distributor. That means that I have the ball in my hands a lot and feel like I can take a substantial number of shots during these games. But our intramural team is so good that I've had to accept a lesser role. I come off the bench, don't get to handle the ball as much, and take far fewer shots than I'm used to.
The real difficulty for me is negotiating the tension between deferring to better shooters and retaining enough aggression to still be effective on the floor.

When I was younger, this situation might have been more bruising to my ego, but I'm actually happy to be a second banana on this team because my teammates are so skilled and it's clear that I should not be one of the primary scorers. The culture of our team softens the blow as well. Everybody is really supportive of one another and that makes it easier to accept reduced responsibility. When I initially put the team together, I prioritized inviting high-character players because I knew that getting along was much more important than assembling transcendent talent. As I watch our opponents snipe at each other
after losses, I know that this decision has payed off.

I'm still struggling to no my exact roll, but I'm confident that I can make peace with this. We're getting better with each game, and the more we embrace our proper places on the team, the better we will ultimately become. Tougher opponents await us.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Last chance for glory?

I've decided to play intramural basketball this year and I've assembled a team of nice, talented players. It wasn't an easy decision for me. I'm an untenured professor who should be spending his evenings slogging away at journal articles and class lectures. I'm also an aging baller with cottage cheese ankles and an ever-growing list of bodily creaks and cracks.

So why did I do it? Well, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I don't have many chances left to play competitive basketball. The other day I was telling a younger player about a shot I am developing this year (a fading turnaround jumper from the low post). He asked me why I was bothering. I told him that at my age, you lose something every year, so you have to add something to make up for it. He laughed, but I was dead serious. Every year I lose more and more: quickness, hops, strength, willingness to absorb contact, mental acuity. Eventually I won't be able to add enough each year to compensate. Next year I'll be worse than I am now. The year after that, worse still. So, I thought that if I am going to captain a team to a "title," I've only got a few shots left.

We'll see how it goes. We're playing in the competitive league, so our opponents will probably be pretty good. I've got some ringers on my team though, including a guy that played for our university (i.e., D1 skillz). My teammates, to a man, are unselfish, skilled, physically strong, and hardworking. We're called the Manhandlers for a reason.

First game is this coming Monday. If this is my last shot at glory, I'm ready for it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Who WAS that guy?

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 rownone of them closeand 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.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Rosters: Managing the list

This summer, I've been organizing pickup hoops at my university's gym. I'd heard that the pickup scene is usually pretty dead during the summer, so I spent the spring collecting e-mail addresses from the regular players and compiling them into a list. It's been great so far. I've got more than 40 players on the list and we get 15-20 out there every time I send out a basketball alert.

Overall, I like administering the list because I can virtually guarantee that any time I want to play, there will be others to play with. I also like the fact that I have some control over who gets on the list, and more importantly, who is excluded from it. Now don't get me wrong
this isn't some velvet rope thing, and it certainly isn't as exclusive as this basketball list. I invited almost all the regular players at the gym. However, I was also able to subtly exclude a few bad apples by intentionally failing to mention the list when they were around.

But now the list has grown beyond my control. People talk about it during our pickup runs and I am getting quite a few referrals via e-mail and in person. In principle, I have no problem with this, but the existence of the list is so well-known at this point that it can no longer be hidden from those that I wanted to hide it from.

This guy, for example, is one of the biggest doofuses in the gym and I had taken great pains to keep him out of the loop. But the other day I was running in a game and I heard him yell to me from the sideline, "How come I didn't get on the e-mail list?" Others must have been talking about it. I was overcome with two distinct negative emotions. I felt guilty for excluding him and I also felt annoyed that he was acting so entitled about getting on the list. Ultimately I had no choice but to add him and now he's coming almost every time (and acting like a fool).

On the one hand, I feel like a jerk for applying my own standards of play and personality to list membership, even if those standards are fairly lax. Isn't this the sort of anti-democratic elitism that we want to eliminate from our society? Haven't we all felt bad for being excluded from something? On the other hand, some dudes are meatheads and need to stop playing competitive sports with reasonable people. Moreover, I am constrained by my position at the university. If I were a student, I could probably be more of a hardass about restricting inclusion on the list. But as a professor (and the only one who plays pickup ball), I feel a duty to act charitably and promote harmony in the university hoops community.

I feel that this issue reflects a fundamental dilemma in the democratic process. In theory, democracy is a good thing because it is inclusive and fair. But at the same time, democracy is messy and inefficient because all voices demand to be heard. (In this case, all players demand court time.) Even America's founding fathers designed our wacko electoral system to limit the irrational and uninformed influence of the masses. Why shouldn't I be able to limit the influence of mean, unsportsmanlike players?

Friday, March 06, 2009

"Worse than he thinks": Self-image versus ability

I recently wrote about appearance versus abilityspecifically, about players who are "better than they look" and those who are "worse than they look." Another important issue, and one that is a source of endless frustration to thinking ballers everywhere, is self-image versus ability. To me, the worst players to run with (aside from the belligerent and insane) are those with drastically inflated self-images. You know these players. They're the ones who think that they're the best on the court, the ones who think they know how the game should be played and how you should be playing it.

There are a lot of things to despise about these types. They often tend to ballhog. They "coach" a lot, telling others what to do and where to go. The construct completely distorted histories of games and their roles in those games, rarely blaming themselves for losses but almost always overstating their contributions to victories. But what I hate most about these players is that there is nothing you can do to make them understand the lunacy of their perceptions. There is no such thing as constructive criticism. In fact, there is no place for criticism at all, unless they are criticizing you. After playing with a worse-than-he-thinks player, one is invariably frustrated. You know, and others know, that worse-than-he-thinks is indeed, worse than he thinks, but there is nothing you can do to make him grasp that. Ignorance might be bliss for him, but certainly not for us.

In my experience, worse-than-they-think players tend to overfocus on their good skills and ignore their weaknesses. Such a player might be a good jumpshooter, and ramble on incessently about this shooting prowess, but never acknowledge that he fails to effectively rebound, defend or pass. When his ballhogging costs his team the game, worse-than-he-thinks will chastise his teammates for failing to hit shots, rebound, defend or pass. Argh.

There is an older guy in my current run that is the epitome of this type. I really don't like him, nor do the other thinking players at the gym. Last night, he was on a very good team and spent a lot of time puffing his chest out and acting like he was the king of the court. The truth was that his teammates were carrying the load and all he was doing was yapping like a miniature dog. When my team played his team, I was forced to guard a strong, highly skilled player. On one play, worse-than-he-thinks set a screen for my man, who hit a long, contested three (I managed to get over, but a little too late, and my man hit a good shot.) Coming back down the court, worse-than-he-thinks sidled up next to me and exclaimed, "THAT WAS A BIG PICK RIGHT THERE," as if he was the one who deserved credit for the shot. I wanted to smack him in the mouth.

Here again, the words of Obama brother-in-law Craig Robinson echo in my mind:
"You can tell a lot about a guy by the way he plays basketball. You can tell if a guy is selfish. You can tell if a guy is phony. There's a lot of different ways on the court you can tell that." My view is that the on-court personality issues of worse-than-they-think players seem to be exhibited off the court as well. Whenever I encounter one of these self-absorbed douchebags in real life, they turn out to be, well, self-absorbed douchebags.

Any advice on dealing with these types?

Friday, February 27, 2009

"That guy is better than he looks": Appearance vs. ability

Here's a topic I think about all the time: What factors most affect opinions about players' skills, and by what process do those opinions change? In pickup basketball, there are often unknown players rotating into the playing roster. For purposes of team selection, shot distribution and defensive assignment, other players must evaluate them quickly and make uninformed assessments about their prospective abilities. It's like speed dating.

In my view, the following characteristics carry the most weight in these initial evaluations:

Height: The taller the better.

Fitness/build: Overall, the fitter the better. Moreover, players who have a "basketball build" (lean and athletic) also experience an initial status upgrade.

Age: The age-status curve is shaped like a bell. Players who appear to be in their early 20s to early 30s have the highest status, as they are believed to be mature enough to have absorbed necessary knowledge of the game, but young enough to still run and jump effectively. The very young and the very old have the lowest status.

Race: In general, black players get the most credit. Asian players get the least credit (believe me on this one).

Attire: This is complicated and multifaceted. Length of shorts is key. Tightness of shirt and style of sneaker are also important factors. Players who wear NBA jerseys, or worse, full NBA uniforms, lose credit. Players who wear the jerseys of teams that they appear to have actually played on get a lot of credit.

Language: Players who speak competently about basketball (e.g., "screen and roll," "going left") will get credit. Those who obviously lack hoops vocabulary will lose credit.

Certainly there are others, but these, in my opinion, seem to be the main criteria by which new players are judged. However, what's even more interesting to me is the process by which players rise and fall in status as their actual abilities become known. Specifically, I think that initial status characteristics are integrally related to status mobility. Here, I propose two interrelated hypotheses:

H1. Players who look like they'll be really good, but who turn out to be average or bad, lose status much more quickly than players who look like they'll be bad and actually turn out to be bad (the "worse than he looks" hypothesis).

H2. Players who look like they'll be average or bad, but who turn out to be good, gain status much more quickly than players who look like they'll be good and actually turn out to be good (the "better than he looks" hypothesis).

Evidence for these propositions can be found in almost any pickup game. I feel like players who "look the part" but don't have the skills to match are severely denigrated (e.g., "waste of height"). Conversely, players who look ordinary but who exhibit great skill come to be held in extremely high regard. My favorite example of this was one of my hoops mentors in college. Pete was this tiny Vietnamese guyliterally 5 feet tallbut he was lightning fast, passed like Stockton, and had insane handles and deeeeep range. He would also pick your pocket if you stopped paying attention for any amount of time. Guys were always underestimating him and getting their asses busted. I was guilty of this as well. The first time I guarded him during my freshman year, he got the ball on the perimeter and pump faked. I went up thinking I was going to swat his shit into oblivion, but found myself way up in the air as he ran through my legs and laid the ball in. (Spectators and other players, of course, went crazy.) Then, because I was scared to bite on any more shot fakes, he proceeded to hit about 500 threes in my eye over the course of the night. Over the years, I saw Pete victimize countless suckers like this, and he was considered a legend in our college gymthe prototypical "better than he looks" baller.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Setshot in the Chicago Tribune!

Well, we've finally made the big time. Setshot was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune about the significance of Barack Obama's love of pickup basketball. We are described as a "slightly tongue-in-cheek blog."

The article can be found here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Careers: A 73 year-old college basketball player!

I've just come across this amazing story about a guy returning to play junior college ball at the age of 73. Previously, Setshot has reported on a 52 year-old college player and a 50 year-old WNBA player, but this guy's story seems patently absurd. Ken Mink last played organized college basketball in 1956. Now a semi-retired journalist, he's somehow made the team at Roane State Community College in Tennessee.

There is video of Mink practicing with the team here and here. While the whole thing seems kinda gimmicky, and it's clear from the video that Mink is not really on the same level as his juco teammates, you've got to admire the guy's moxie. The Roane State coach says he hopes to get Mink some minutes during garbage time in blowouts. Setshot will be eagerly awaiting those YouTube clips.

A fantastic quote from the coach: "Our weakness last year was experience; I think I've taken care of that.''

The best part of the video is near the end, when Mink's teammates ask him to come to a party. The coach discourages it because, he claims, Mink will need to stay in top condition to continue practicing and playing. And then Mink calls his wife to ask if he can go, and she says no.
In response, the coach praises Mink's "support system at home." I love that:

a. He is asked to go to the party.
b. He wants to go to the party.
c. His coach does not want him to go to the party.
d. His wife does not want him to go to the party.
e. He apparently needs a "support system" to keep him from making reckless decisions.

**UPDATE 11/4/08: Mink scored 2 points in his first game! Video here.**

Friday, September 26, 2008

Race: Losing anonymity

One strange and unexpected aspect of my new hoops-life here in Denver is that I have lost a significant degree of racial anonymity. Having played in NYC and the SF Bay Area for the last decade, I'd become accustomed to being one of many Asians on the local basketball circuit. Here, however, I am one of only a few, and as a consequence, I'm identified and remembered much more quickly than I'm used to.

I'm not sure if I like it or not. On the one hand, I have been able to more effectively develop a rep in my regular game because people remember me as The Talky Asian Guy Who Plays Ball Here. On the other, I have noticed that defenders are better able to get in tune with my moves. That is, because I am more memorable, they learn my tendencies and tricks a lot faster, which is a pain in the ass for an aging baller who's losing a step.

In certain ways, this reminds me of my playing days as a teenager in upstate New York. Back then, most Asian kids didn't play ball and I was viewed as a comical aberration. In fact, the guys in my local game simply called me "Chino," which was totally racist, but I liked it because it made me feel like I belonged. Even in NYC, when I played on a court with mostly Hispanic guys in the days before Yao Ming and the emergence of global hoops, the other players called me "Ichiro" (as in the baseball player) because he was the only Asian athlete they knew of. I liked that too.

But now I'm old and not looking to be the belle of the ball anymore. I just want to play, have a good time, and work off the three donuts I ate for lunch. Anonymity has become more important to me and yet I've found myself in a place where I can't have it.
I'm considering playing in whiteface.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Politics: McCain panders to aging ballers

John McCain's choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate has the media clamoring to paint the selection as a political ploy to win over disaffected female voters and appease the Republican party's conservative base.

Setshot knows better. Palin (number 22 in the photo) was actually chosen to draw the politically powerful aging baller community to the GOP in November's election.

Democratic candidate Barack Obama is well known for his love of pickup hoops, even at his advanced age (47). YouTube is filled with clips of Obama balling on the campaign trail. (Check out this excellent mixtape.) Clearly, Senator Obama has the skills to
pay lower the bills.

But what about Governor Palin? Apparently, "Sarah Barracuda" (her high school hoops nickname) played point guard on a state championship squad from Wasilla, Alaska, but there is scant evidence that she plays anymore.

Nice try McCain, but the aging baller community is too savvy for that. Despite our temptation to support a cute former high school basketball star, we're going to stick with our man Barack, who continues to find time to play the game, and has even proposed building a court in the White House.

As always, Senator McCain, the ball doesn't lie.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Careers: Being old and new, part 2

Things are coming together basketball-wise here in Denver. I've found a pretty good Sunday afternoon run and I've also started to play a little at my new school's gym. The games there are good exercise and fairly fun, but they've definitely highlighted the fact that I am significantly older than most players on a college pickup court. Luckily, I look young and can pass for a student-type, but as we have said many times on this blog: it's not how old you look, it's how old you feel.

Yesterday I was at the school gym shooting free throws by myself when what appeared to be the entire women's basketball team rolled in. I wasn't sure what to do, so I asked one of the players if they were practicing. She said that they were just playing pickup and that I was welcome to join in. I ran with them for a couple of games, but pretty much stayed out of the way and kept quiet. The players were really nice, but I felt like I was intruding and I absolutely did not want to be the doofus who tried too hard to impress all the ladies. After a while, some regular joes
—mostly college-agedstarted to play on the next court over. I told the women I was chatting with on the sidelines that I was going to "go play with the civilians" and one of them replied "yes, you should." Very subtle.

Eventually, the civilian game got enough players for full court and we started to run. It was a decent game and I was one of the better players on the court, so feeling outclassed or out of place were not issues. But during (and between) games I noticed that the other players seemed to be taking the outcomes very seriously
—often criticizing teammates for defensive lapses and poor shot selection. Losing players seemed to be genuinely upset as they sat and waited for next game.

Now that I'm an older player, it's easy for me to forget how important everything seems to younger guys, and how, so often, basketball outcomes stand in for their larger senses of self worth. I've played so much pickup ball in my life that every outcome
—from the most devastating loss to the most unlikely victory—has happened to me a million times. Don't get me wrong, I'm competitive and I always play to win, but the disappointment of getting smushed on the court does not linger emotionally for me any more. I know that there will always be another game, and that all wins and losses eventually fade into obscurity. To me, what matters the most is one's reputation as a competitor and a sportsman.

After games, I would go and shake hands with every person on the other team, telling them that they played well (whether they had or not) and that the game was a lot of fun (whether it was or not). Many of the young guys actually seemed surprised by this
—like you're not supposed to commiserate with the enemy or something, and that "fun" is not really what pickup ball is about. It reminded me of how much my perspective on recreational hoops has changed over the years, and that for younger guys, victory and personal performance seem far more important than camaraderie and sportsmanship.

So while I will continue to play at the school gym because it is close and convenient, I'd like to find a group of older players to run with. I may look young, but man, I feel old.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Careers: Being old and new

I've just moved to Denver from the Bay Area. In a lot of ways, the move is great: great new job, great new apartment, great new city. What's not great is that I have to find new places to play basketball. I've moved a lot in my life, and each time, I've had to find good pickup games in unfamiliar places. It's always tough, and even tougher now that I'm old and crabby. As a younger guy, I'd play in any game I could find, but now I'm much more picky about quality of play, and more importantly, level of sportsmanship. Plus, I have to reestablish myself in new socio-hoops environments, which can be stressful.

I've been in Denver about two weeks now and I still haven't found a decent game. One reason for this is that it's incredibly hot
like record-breakingly hotso no one is playing outdoors.

Yesterday I went to a rec center near my apartment and found a few guys shooting around. We all shot for a while and then made an awkward transition to two-on-two. The game was pretty good. My teammate, incredibly, had played basketball for my alma mater. He was a terrific player with a deadeye jumper and seriously polished moves around the rim.
Our opponents were also quality players. One was a high-school kid who claimed that he almost broke the state record for three-pointers. I'm not sure I believe that, but he was indeed a very good shooter.

We won a couple of games
—mostly because my teammate was unstoppable. I played pretty well, repeatedly posting the high school kid up and tossing in various old man shots (he hated it and was despondent about being "shitted on"), but after two games I was done. The altitude just destroyed me! Each game was to fifteen, and by eight I was begging for the end. By fifteen I was clutching my shorts, gasping and unable to speak. I should have expected this, as I've routinely been running out of breath while performing strenuous tasks like climbing stairs, walking to the store, and petting my cat.

So now I'm facing a sorta-Catch-22. I want to find some full court games to play in, but I'm not sure I'll be able to keep up because of my sea-level conditioning. However, the only way I'll get into mile-high shape is to play in said full court games. And the whole dilemma is irrelevant if I can't find any games to actually play in.

I'll keep you posted on the Denver Old Man Pickup Hoops Scene, and if anybody out there knows of good runs in the 303/720, please let me know.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Women's basketball star returns to action—at 50!

Our friend and fellow aging baller Ali directed us to this story about women's basketball legend Nancy Lieberman being signed to a seven-day contract with the WNBA's Detroit Shock. Liebermanwho has already been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame (in 1996!)returns to play at the ripe old age of 50. In her "first" game with Detroit, Lieberman recorded zero points, two assists and two turnovers in nine minutes of action.

Wow! While Setshot has previously drooled over expressed admiration for Iowa's "Granny Basketball League," Lieberman has taken old lady hoops to the next level. Whether you care about women's basketball or not, this story is an inspiration.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Tips: Kareem 's advice to players over 40

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes a cool blog for the LA Times that reports "the insights of the NBA's all-time leading scorer."

Recently, I was directed to this entry, in which he gives some solid advice to ballers
over-40 who want to keep runnin' with the young-uns. In so doing, Abdul-Jabbar touches on issues that have become Setshot staples: lack of respect, diminishing abilities, and increased injury risk, to cite a few. I'd recommend reading his post, which is pretty brief, but if you need further brevity, here's a summary of Kareem's advice:

1. Lift weights.
2. Stay in shape and keep your cardio conditioning up.
3. Specialize more in your play.

By the way, that's a vintage photo of Kareem giving me basketball advice in the 1970s. He was demonstrating a technique called "Kermit Washington style."

Monday, April 28, 2008

Relationships: The poisonous player

Have you ever played in a game in which there was one person who just ruined it for everyone else? In my favorite weekly pickup game, there is a guy who comes semi-regularly and poisons the whole atmosphere. Old School and Hops both play in this game, and they will agree that this guy (I'll call him "the Idiot") is a serious problem.

The Idiot is actually a good player. He is in great shape, works hard on both ends of the floor, and has a versatile game. Unfortunately, he is also psycho-competitive and talks constant trash. Now, I'm not opposed to a little trash talk, but the Idiot takes it way too far. His banter is not at all playful and he invariably upsets someone to the point of fighting (usually verbal, but it has escalated beyond that). He also likes to denounce his opponent after his team wins
in my opinion, a form of unbelievably poor sportsmanship. I'm the type of guy that normally recoils from conflict, but a couple months ago I got into a screaming fight with the Idiot because he was being such a jerk to one of my teammates that I couldn't hold my tongue any longer. In fact, the Idiot pretty much gets into a fight with one or more players every single time he plays. (If you're wondering if I'm doing any racial coding here, it should be noted that the Idiot is white.)

I think that the crux of the problem is that the Idiot's style is totally out of sync with the culture of the game. His never-ending belligerence shuts everyone down emotionally and saps all the fun out of playing. I've played in games where this kind of behavior would be slightly more appropriate, but the game I'm talking about is a "nice guys" game. The same people
come out every week. We all know each other and for the most part, genuinely like each other. The games are very competitive, but the governing code of the court is to be considerate, friendly, and a good sport in both victory and defeat. Trash talking is kept to a minimum, and when it's done, it's without malice. That's why the Idiot stands out so much. His poisonous attitude is just a total wrench in the works. Last week, to the shock of many, one of the nicest players in the game lost his temper and yelled at the Idiot: "This game is normally so much funexcept when you're here!" The rest of us were thinking the exact same thing.

The basketball court is one of the few venues in polite society where strangers can come together and compete in a casual way. Everyone has a right to show up and play, but when games develop a regular cast, as ours has, there is a tendency to want to exert control over the playing roster. However, there is no easy way to exclude someone like the Idiot from participating. We hoop in a public park and abide by the rule that if you show up and call next, you play next.

So Setshotters, what can we do? Is there any way to discourage him from playing? And when he does show up, how can we minimize the effects of his poisonous personality?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Strategy: Psychological tactics for aging ballers

As I've gotten older and more injured, my game has evolved to compensate for reduced mobility and ever-slowing reaction times. Previous Setshot posts have discussed scouting, ball tricks and other strategies for remaining effective as an aging baller, but lately I've been thinking about different psychological ploys that can be used to deceive, demoralize or intimidate opponents. As a smaller player, I've always utilized these approaches to an extent, but in recent years I've had to rely on them even more, and I've found a few that work very well for me.

I think of many of these psychological strategies as "precedent setting." That is, they are things that I do early in games to establish a pattern that my opponent believes will continue. Later in games I may abandon them, especially if they have already accomplished the desired result.

For example:

1. I run harder when I sense my man is winded. Early on in games, especially the first game of the day, I often run out of air, only to regain it when my lungs adjust and I get a second wind. When I think my opponent is on his "first wind," I make it a point to run my ass off for a few plays, even if it kills me. I also do a lot of curling around screens because my man will have to expend energy to get over and catch me. The payoff can be great, as players will make defensive adjustments to my sprintingsuch as giving me more space and switching more often on screens. I won't (can't) run this hard for the whole game, but my defender doesn't necessarily know that. One of the most common things I hear opponents say about me to their teammates is "he runs a lot." This is sort of true, but it's partially due to advertising.

2. Early in games, I box out hard on every play if my man is bigger than me. I don't want to deal with bigger opponents in the paint. I'd rather compete on the perimeter, where I'm more likely to have an advantage. So what I do is set a precedent by boxing out aggressively at the start of games. Again, I won't necessarily do this for the whole game, but I find that most pickup players don't really like to deal with this level of effort, and at the end of games, I almost always find myself guarding on the perimeter, no matter how big my man is.

3. I talk to imaginary teammates. What I'll do is call for a screen that isn't really there, pointing to a spot on the floor and yelling "Screen! Screen here!" to the empty air. To make it even more convincing, I open my eyes as wide as I can and nod, just like I would if I were really asking for a screen. If I sense that my defender has shifted in anticipation of the screen, I'll drive the other way, having been given a few extra inches of space. A similar trick is to yell "Post up!" to an imaginary teammate (or even a real one), hoping that my defender will drop off to guard the entry pass and give me space for a jumper. I did this last week, sticking a 15-footer as my young opponent fell back to double our center. As we were running back up court, my defender rolled his eyes, extended both his middle fingers and screamed "Yo f*ck you Jeff!" I loved it.

4. If my defender is watching me instead of the ball, I follow a nonexistent shot with my eyes. Try it. Just make your eyes and head do a parabola
like you're watching a jumper in flightand see how often your defender will turn to look for it. (Make sure no one is dribbling at the time. The sound gives the trick away.) It's a great opportunity to run away from your man, and after you do it a couple of times, he'll start to get confused about when your eyes are lying and when they're telling the truth. He may even lose out on rebounds because he'll keep looking at you when a shot is actually in the air. More importantly, it will annoy him.

A related tactic I use is looking at the floor and acting nonchalant when a long pass is coming to me. My defender will be relaxed because it doesn't seem like anything is going on, but I'll suddenly wind up with the ball in my hands, racing towards the basket. I learned this one from John McPhee's book, A Sense of Where You Are, about Bill Bradley's playing days at Princeton. Bradley was reported to have outrageous peripheral vision (he could look at the floor and see the ceiling), and he did these kinds of tricks all the time.

5. I pass early and shoot late. Early in games, I try to play "true point," focusing on ball distribution and offensive flow. I'll be aggressive, but I'll mainly drive with the intention of dishing. On the perimeter, I'll mostly look to reverse the ball to the weak side, trying to make the defense to rotate and adjust. What I want to do here is make the defense forget about me as a shooting threat. Later in the game, however, I'll ramp up my shooting because I'm usually getting more space from my defender. I have a fetish for taking shots with the game on the line, and I think that this strategy gets me better looks during crunch time.

Setshotters, if you'd like, share your own psycho-tactics below.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Seriously, Barack Obama is a baller

Last year, Setshot endorsed Barack Obama for President based on reports about his lifelong love of basketball. By all accounts, he continues to play and so, like each of us, he is an aging baller. Now, as if speaking directly to the Setshot community, he has promised to build a basketball court in the White House if he is elected.

Can he be President, like, now?

What's more, he wants to build his court over a bowling alley that Nixon commissioned. Out with the exclusionary, imperialist Alley of Shame and in with the Obama Hardwood of Racial Harmony!

Setshotters, here's the real question: How are we going to finagle ourselves a pickup game on President Obama's court? Could it be as easy as showing up and calling next?

*Update: Great footage from HBO showing Obama playing pickup ball. He looks pretty good, but clearly can't go right at all. Thanks to our friend Sully for the link. And another clip from friend and Jazz fanatic Matt. Sweet passing!

A news article about the Obama Court is reprinted below.

Basketball court in White House future?
By Bob Kravitz [Indianapolis Star, April 1, 2008]

Many years ago, President Richard Nixon had a small bowling alley built in the White House.

If Sen. Barack Obama is elected president, he will replace the bowling alley with something more suitable to his tastes: a basketball court.

"There's not only a chance (that he'll have one built), but it's a guarantee," Obama said Monday on WFNI 1070 The Fan.

When it comes to basketball, Obama knows his stuff. During a 10-minute conversation, he talked about his NCAA bracket -- well, what's left of it. He talked about his days as a high school player in Hawaii, where his team won the 1979 state championship. He brought up Eric Gordon, saying "he could use some guidance." And he talked about becoming the Baller In Charge, saying he would have a basketball court constructed inside the White House.

"I tried bowling (Sunday) in Pennsylvania and threw two gutter balls," Obama said. "So we'll have a basketball court, at least a decent half court."

As a high schooler, Obama wore No. 23. "I was No. 23 before Michael Jordan was 23," he said with a laugh.

He described himself as "a slasher, a three, maybe a poor man's Scottie Pippen or Tayshaun Prince -- a guy like that without as much talent.''

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Psychology: Scouting in pickup games

The other day I was waiting for next game at the gym, talking to a teammate-to-be about this teenage kid that was playing and that I would have to guard. The kid was fast and had some good moves, but he didn't seem to be able to shoot from the outside, so we decided that I should go underneath every screen and dare him to put it up. When we came on, I went with the scouting report and cut under every pick, letting the kid have any three he wanted. It worked. He had been the leading scorer in the previous game, but we held him to one basket.

I really enjoy scouting other players in pickup games, but I feel sort of alone in this. Not only do I find it hard to get others to talk about player tendencies and good counter-strategies, but many people look at me like I'm a nutcase when I start developing scouting profiles of opponents. And it's not like I'm doing Sabermetrics or anything out there, I'm just saying stuff like:

"He can't shoot with his off hand. Force him left."
"He's really out of shape, so you should run."
"He always spins to the middle."
"He won't shoot from beyond 12 feet."
"Watch his hips. That's where he's going."

Sometimes I engage in more psychologically-oriented scouting, like:

"He's mentally fragile. If you show some toughness in the post, he'll shut down and stop playing hard."
"His ego is bigger than his game. Let him shoot and freeze his teammates out."

I love this stuff because it takes the game beyond the physical aspects of play and introduces interesting strategic and psychological considerations that can be exploited. But again, it's hard to find players who are willing to have these discussions with me. Don't get me wrong, other players are usually gracious and they listen to me ramble, but no one ever seems as enthused as me about this facet of the game.

Why not?

I think that part of it is laziness. Many people just come for recreation and exercise, so they don't feel that they have to engage the game at this level--fair enough. Some other players just don't possess enough basketball knowledge to have these discussions. But I think that there are some, particularly alpha male types, who think that the game is really truly about physical dominance, and that if you can't beat the other guy with your game, you don't deserve to win. Thus, there is no need to talk about the strategic stuff. Just get out there, bust your man's ass and walk off like a stud.

Or maybe I'm just going about it wrong. Maybe I have to introduce scouting insights more gently and not seem like I'm taking the game so seriously. Whatever it is, I'm not going to stop scouting at the gym. Not only do I believe it to be effective, but it's really a lot of fun for me.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Midrange Game

Analysts have long lamented the wilting of the midrange game, and here's some pretty definitive proof. The chart shows data from 340,000 shots over the past 5 years of college basketball. Things might look a bit different if Joe Forte's 1,055 career attempts had been included...

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Junior Varsity

Junior Varsity...like Proust's madeleine, the words bring back memories. Mostly bad memories. Like having to guard Harry Beresford, who: a) was a varsity lineman on the football team; b) was determined to put the ball in the hoop without regard for maintaining an appropriate distance between one's elbow (or armpit) and the defender's face; and c) would sweat profusely (and malodorously). Or having to maintain a squat position while holding bricks above my head. But these are trivialities, with little consequence for my subsequent basketball career.

A lot of things happened between 1988 and 1989. Regan became an Ex-President. The Berlin Wall fell. Jack Nicholson terrorized us as the first artist to work in the medium of homicide. The world was introduced to the musical genius of Milli Vanilli, with the release of "Blame It On The Rain." Things were clearly changing for the better.

Yet basketball shorts lagged tragically behind the times, with dire consequences for my basketball career. During the 1988-1989 school year, I, due to a lifetime of maternal oppression in the realms of candy, sugar cereals, and miscellaneous junk food, made a habit of saving my lunch money and using it to purchase a Hostess apple pie (480 calories, 22 grams fat), a package of ding dongs (368 calories, 19 grams fat), and a box of Gobstoppers (400 calories). Instead of the corndog.

So, naturally or unnaturally, my thighs became Clintonesque. And, proud as I was to have made the JV squad (it should go without saying that this was based on my height alone), I was mortified about the prospect of my pasty, broad thighs being appraised by a female audience. I found that the best way to avoid exposure was to maintain a more or less seated position. My coach was happy to oblige me in this regard.

When the exigencies of the game (or, more likely, a democratic impulse) demanded my participation, I was forever tugging at my shorts instead of keeping my hands up on defense. I picked up a lot of offensive fouls and led the team (perhaps the league) in three second violations (to go along with my 0.5 ppg). All because of my shorts.

Eventually, I left the team, never to return to organized basketball. But then! Later that year, the hemline on the Fighting Illini final four uniforms made a noticeable advance toward the knee. There were subsequent (cough! Dook cough!) retreats waistward, but this territorial acquisition was finally solidified by Michigan's Fab 5 two years later.

Sadly, it was too late for me. I was the basketball version of the East Berliner who was caught attempting to escape days before the wall came down.

On the other hand, these guys are certain to come away with better memories of their JV experience.

But then, they don't have to wear nuthuggers, do they?

*Still, things might have been worse if the Edmonds Tigers had gone with what NC State was wearing at the time.