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.