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.