Good (Enough) at Basketball
1977: I was so bad, I'm sure the coach would have kicked me off the junior varsity team if he could. I scored two points in my maroon-and-grey colors the entire season. Those didn't come from making a field goal. No, I got fouled. Twice. I took two shooting fouls and, each time, landed one out of two foul shots.
I had a bad attitude, knocked other players down on defense by accident (really - I had no sense of where I was supposed to be on the floor or whether someone was allowed to run by me or through me or what), and I was even bad at practicing. When I was thirteen, practice meant going through the motions someone else told me.
The coach said to run fast at the basket and hit a certain corner of the square painted on the backboard, so I did. I ran so fast, my layups bounced off the backboard to the top of the key. I acquired pretty much the nicknames you'd expect for that: Brickhouse, Brick Layer, Bricks Slayer (maybe after knocking someone down), and eventually just Bricks.
1979: Humiliated by being so bad at something that was otherwise fun, I started to really practice. After watching the University of Maryland games on television, I copied the motions of their best shooter, Brian Magid. To my surprise, I immediately improved. Aiming for the front of the rim actually helped.
I already knew practice made me better. Now I learned something more about how to do it. I realized there was a different kind of practice, a kind where you actively tried to get better instead of just plodding through the motions. Admittedly, as a teen it helped to have a basketball hoop in the woods where no one could see me starting out so bad that the squirrels would laugh and, slowly, teaching myself to dribble and sink shots.
I still used the backboard on most shots, the way my junior varsity coach had said to do, but I also kept copying Brian Magid and thought about the way he described his shooting. I started to listen to what other shooters on radio or TV had to say.
1980: During a visit to my old school, a couple friends saw me in the gym and asked me to make their pickup basketball teams even. There was an argument about who had to take me, followed by a sort of compliment that was actually an insult delivered to someone else, "Well, at least he plays defense."
Partway through the game, I realized no one was guarding me. I sank a shot, much to the dismay of my teammates, who were afraid I'd shoot again. Then I sank another. And another.
At some point during the first game, my teammates started trusting me. They passed me the ball deliberately. The other team sent my first defender away to guard a different bricklayer and they put someone good on me. That should have stopped me. But it didn't. All my practices flashed through me, all the dirt floor and leaves, the slick surfaces in the rain, the ball as I dribbled it off rocks and tree roots, my awkwardness and my adjustments to unpleasant surprises.
I kept adjusting. My team won. It meant we kept the court. And then we re-picked teams. There were more kids around, better players than me, but my captain picked me again.
During the second game, a teen ran out of the gym and yelled to one of his friends down the trophy hall outside.
"You've got to see this! Brickhouse can shoot now! He's hitting shots!"