Good (Enough) at Basketball
All spring at Hood College, our lunchtime basketball sessions grew larger. Allen, our desktop support lead, took charge of the recruiting. Moreover, his newcomers pulled in more recruits. We got more staff and professors on board.
When we had started the year before, we'd limited the games to 30 minutes. We got 45 minutes for lunch. Counting time to shower, our games were cutting it close to our technical limit. As we pulled in more professors, security guards, women from the basketball team, and regular students, the spans of our sessions grew longer. We took 40 minutes, then the full 45 for lunch as if we didn't shower although we still did, usually. It's hard to stop playing when everyone else wants to keep going.
Eventually, the sessions started running as long as an hour. They grew more, too, reaching 70 or 80 minutes. Sometimes, I ran off the court, tossing off sweaty clothes as I sprinted to my work meetings.
From the Hood physics professor, I learned how to do a reverse layup. From two students, I learned to crossover dribble. From one of the security guards, I picked up a fadeaway. From another, I figured out setting picks. Pretty nearly everyone taught me to how to shoot while changing my aim in midair. They didn't mean to teach me that. It was simply necessary for me. I'd go up for a shot. A tall player would rise up to block me. I'd need to double pump to shoot around them. And usually, I would fail.
Sometimes, of course, I couldn't learn the bursts of speed that other men possessed. I couldn't dunk. I mostly couldn't block shots unless I had unreasonably lucky timing. There were limits to where my learning would peak. I hadn't been playing long and already I was bumping into my low performance ceiling.
The people we added from around our campus were better at basketball than I was. Fortunately, I kept improving in incremental ways. I practiced enough to get picked in the middle of line-ups in our lunchtime league. Mostly I got respect for passing and defense but, sometimes, when my shooting was good in one game, I would get picked first for the next.
That was always a mistake. In the top two was not where I belonged. Mostly, my hot shooting didn't translate from game to game. Occasionally, yes, it did. The team captain would pat himself (or herself) on the back. Mostly, though, the captains shook their heads with buyer's remorse.
Sometimes the opposite team would solve my lucky streaks by putting Bruce, the best defender, on me. Unfortunately for me, Bruce kept improving his positions and blocking. He was already our best former high school baller. He shot well. He timed passes perfectly. When he was guarding in the key, he picked off more passes than anyone. In fact, his defense was responsible for me learning to sink a hook.
He smashed back my shots back in my face so regularly, even with my double-pump moves, that I got desperate. I started on yet another dastardly plot. I knew no one took hook shots anymore. It didn't make any sense to me but there it was. Bruce and the other defenders had adjusted to my double moves. I needed an edge. I had to do something they didn't expect. I decided a hook was going to be it.
I headed back to the playgrounds.
After trial and error, I decided to practice hooks with my opposite arm upraised. That was the way I'd seen Kareem Abdul-Jabbar do it on old basketball game footage. He kept his defender off him with the opposite arm. It looked illegal but, at my height, I couldn't be shy about taking every advantage.
The first game I tried it, everyone laughed. And I sank three out of five hook shots.
The second game, I got a better defender. By the third, I had Bruce again. For almost two weeks, Bruce seemed mystified. He was taking my measure.
"Don't let him shoot the hook!" shouted one of the security guards. "Don't let him shoot the hook!"
He and Bruce took turns showing the others how to defend against my shot. Really, though, the first block came from Bruce. He had eyed my move for long enough. Now when he took an angle, he could get past my opposite arm and reach my hook shot. So, just for Bruce, I needed to try a hook fake.
And the learning continued.
"What the hell was that?" One day, in a small, pick-up game, Allen stopped everyone. He grabbed the ball under the basket after I heard a swish.
"Did it go in?" I had to ask.
"You didn't even look." His voice sounded angry but his eyes crinkled. He allowed himself an open-mouthed hint of a smile.
"Yeah." I had been practicing that, too, as stupid as it was. I sure got blocked a lot. This time, I figured a no-look shot would take everyone by surprise.
"Well," said the security guard with a smile, hands on hips. "Then it didn't go in."
"It went in," Bruce told me while everyone laughed.