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.''