Good (Enough) at Basketball
Learning to be Mediocre, Part IV
The coach of the women's basketball team played with us at the lunchtime games. A hitch in this that I didn't understand at the time but realize now is: the coach usually quit when a woman from her team joined the game. The thought makes me I wonder if there's a NCAA rule involved. If the coach and players are on the floor together, maybe it counts as coaching time or something even though they're in a pickup game started by other people.
Anyway, our oversized group occupied an old, shiny, but age-stained multipurpose room with wooden floorboards. It had glass backboard hoops that didn't quite work - the mechanisms to raise and lower them had broken - but they were more than good enough for us. The college had no stands for anyone to watch games. There wasn't more than a meter of room between the edge of the basketball floor and the cinderblock walls. Every dive for the ball risked breaking bones. Despite these odd circumstances, the room hosted official college basketball games. It's what Division III is like, sometimes.
Despite her oddly-timed visits in the ancient gym, the coach saw us playing enough to get the idea of hosting a student-faculty game. There's a long tradition of students versus faculty. The problem for us was, when the coach got the idea, the faculty said they could provide four players. The rest of us in the lunch group, all staff, not faculty, needed invitations too. So the coach waved us all in.
Our group had played on the full court a handful of times about a year before. That wasn't enough. I insisted on a practice game.
"I want one, too," said Allen after a brief chuckle. "Only I figured I would have to talk everyone into it."
"No. We need one," Bruce agreed.
Everyone in our usual rotation was in. A week later, we all turned out for a full court practice. We had twelve guys, enough to practice substitutions. I had a lot of fun running the floor. Recently, I'd gotten back into a semblance of cross-country shape. It helped.
Unfortunately, I found I still had my "bricklayer" form from junior high school. While moving at full-court speed, my layup shots went hard to the backboard and bounced out. I knew there wasn't going to be enough time to solve the problem of this habit.
During our regular lunchtime scrimmages, I had never shot a layup. No one built up the velocity to take one, really, except maybe the tallest two guys. In my case, even when I gathered enough speed I was too short to get over my defender. So this was a known problem and I hadn't fixed it.
Adding the pace of a full court game to it only made the issue loom menacingly.
The Student-Faculty Game:
Here's how you get accused of showboating.
- Be a part of the winning squad
- Get underconfident about an easy layup
By the time I stepped in, our best five players had already built up a lead for our faculty-staff team. I came in as a reserve point guard. Starting from the top of the three point line, I ran a few plays, defended, made a couple easy assists, and sank an open jump shot.
During the next defensive play I knew a rebound was coming. From the angle of the shot by the opposing player, I knew where the bounce would go. I crouched to sprint for the other end. As the ball touched the fingertips of our rebounder, I took off. The man with the ball saw me launch. He lobbed in my direction.
I caught his pass and dribbled once, twice. And I was already there. At full speed, hearing footsteps behind me, I knew I wasn't going to make the shot. Because it was a layup. Because I had already tried to do this. I tried again, anyway. My planting foot, my right one, came down hard. I tried to break my momentum with it. But my shoe slid on the forty-years-of-wax floor, as it usually did. And I knew that, if I jumped right then, my layup was going to pound the backboard. I had to stop my momentum or at least slow it a little.
So I kept going.
It was what I knew how to do. I dribbled in an arc. With my defender trailing me, I spun underneath the backboard for a reverse layup. Perfect. Easy. It was my most reliable shot. But a minute later, I got pulled out of the game. Apparently, I'd been accused of a technical foul. The women's team coach stormed over to talk with me about it.
Somehow, mostly because we already knew each other, it wasn't too hard to have the conversation.
"That's showboating! Showboating!" She mimed my spin under the basket. "There was no reason for that."
"Sure there was. I don't know how to shoot a straight layup!" On the sidelines, I threw up my right hand in a gesture toward the basket.
"What do you mean?" Her hands swept the floor, even bigger. "You play basketball three days a week."
"You've played with me." Here's where the conversation slowed. "When have you ever seen me shoot a layup? How would that happen?"
She took at long look at me, hands on her hips. She was not a tall woman. But she wasn't short, either. The top of her head was an inch or two above mine. Her mouth hung open for a moment.
"You know," she said. "I don't think I've ever seen you shoot a straight layup."
After we talked a bit more, she rescinded her charge of showboating and we laughed about me not being able to shoot a layup. Bigger players could plant their feet and stop. The coach confessed, though, that she couldn't get that stop-foot action going, either. Our conversation got me thinking about the physics of it. To keep up with bigger players, my legs had to turn over at twice the speed. That shouldn't have made a difference to me planting my foot. But maybe it did.
"Or maybe it's your shoes," she said, pointing to my cheap low-tops.
"Enough," she said. "Go play some more. I have to get back to coaching my team. I'm just mad. I thought we'd be better than this."
The game evened out a bit but it's true that her side seemed overmatched.
In retrospect, the woman's basketball team was fine that year. It actually proved to be way better than the season before. They played to a 9-10 record against their AWCCC schedule, a lineup of contests that included three losses to a top-notch Notre Dame (Baltimore) team, with whom they managed to hold respectable games in the first halves. No, the problem with the student-faculty contest was the staff. We had guys who never went to college but they could play at a low college level. They were literally heads and shoulders above the tallest members of the women's team.
Some of the women had four or five years of experience. Some of the men had fifteen and they were in their twenties to mid-thirties. Basically, the best staff couldn't help being as good as they were. As for myself, I wasn't good enough for any sort of college level, not even our Division III women's team. But I was happy anyway. I felt more than fine with the mediocre competence I'd reached. I'd worked for it.
Also, I had never thought someone would accuse me of showboating while not suppressing a laugh. So that turned out fine.