“What Have I Learned?”
Weight: 175. I have been playing basketball in the morning with a group of adults and sometimes students since 2003. I also have a driveway hoops system at my house, where I have lived for nine years. During this time, I have been working on my basketball skills as a way of staying in shape. Over the past decade, I have moved from running and jogging for my cardio workouts to playing basketball for five days per week. Running up and down the court in pursuit of a win and as a way of building my own basketball skills replicates the energy used in running intervals, which most fitness experts agree is the best method for burning fat. Nevertheless, I did not walk onto the court with many basketball skills or with a good understanding of how to play the game. For what seems like years, I felt like the low man on the totem pole, the geeky kid on the playground, the last to be chosen in the pick-up process when playing "pick-up" basketball. My fellow players have informed me that I have come a long way since those early days in my school's gym.
While fitness and good health are the central themes of this journal, I want to discuss what I have learned about playing the game of basketball from my fellow players. Many of the people I play with have become my friends, but they are also my coaches. Sometimes, they don't know that they are providing me with valuable training, but since I play with the intention of constantly improving my game, their grit and determination usually provide inspiration and instruction for me. I'll wrap things up today with a short laundry list of areas in which I would like to improve on the court.
1. How to play defense. I'll never forget my first game with the big boys. A fellow teacher, John, pulled me over towards the baseline and said "George, stand here." He wanted me to place myself between the ball and the offender. I had to learn the difference between man-to-man defense and how to play a zone. I prefer man-to-man, but the defense also calls for "helping out" when the ball-handler comes close to you. On the other hand, if you help out, make sure your teammates have your man covered. Sometimes calling out "switch" is required if you pick up the ball carrier coming off of a screen.
2. How to set a screen (also called a "pick"). I never even knew these tactics existed in basketball until I started playing, and I learned the hard way. A screen is set when the team with the ball places a fellow offender directly in the path of the defender. The person with the ball being covered escapes to create space for a shot or can drive towards the basket. It's like placing a wall between you and the man with the ball that you are in charge of defending. I had to learn that if you see a screen being set against your fellow defending team member, you've got to call it out, letting the defender know he's got to get around the screen. It means knowing your right from your left, and being a good communicator. I am one of the most vocal player now because all too often I have been scolded for watching a screen being set without calling it out.
3. Keep moving, even if you don't have the ball. If you want to get a "touch" on the ball, you've got to get open. To do that, you've got to outsmart your defender or beat them down to the other end of the court when possession changes. I have mentioned in other entries how the fast break provides the best workout, but it's a great way to get open and create scoring opportunities. As soon as my team obtains the defensive rebound, I am down the court (unless I am the one making the rebound). My opponents often accuse me of waiting at half court until we secure the ball. I respect our rule of not "cherry picking," where someone is waiting at the other end of the court to receive the pass before possession changes hands. But if I can beat my defender to the basket on the fast break, then there is an opportunity to score.
4. Use the backboard. With the speed needed to get down the court, there will be times when I find myself alone under the basket. All too often, I would try to lob the ball over the rim. I soon found out that being even one or two millimeters off on a shot like that can cause the ball to carom off the rim and pop out. Using the backboard, I try to set up a lay up by gently banking the ball in the center of the square. I am not an expert in physics, but gauging how much strength to put on the shot and what angle to use when approaching the rim are all split-second considerations that the shooter must make. It's almost as though you can't really think about these factors as they are taking place in the game. You just have to do them. Using the backboard has to become habitual and instinctual once you get to the basket.
Once I take my eye off either, my defenses are down.
7. Don't be afraid to get the ball to the "hot hand." My fellow players have told me that over the years, they have seen great improvements in my level of play. Nothing meant more to me than when one of our best players said to me "George, you've really stepped up your game." But as I look around, I see how much more of a distance I have to go as a player. My shooting percentage still has much to be desired. There are guys I play with who have played since they were kids, and they have the benefit of years of experience on the court. If I have the ball and I see one of our "shooters" in the open, I will dish the ball out to the "hot hand," the guy who will be more likely to make the shot than I will. I'll be ready to follow his shot (or my own if I take it instead), but my stats are less important than being a team player and getting the "W" in our day's win-loss column. Scoring feels good, but winning feels better. Winning means staying on the court for the next game, and that's why I am there.
Several areas that I am working on include ball control and driving to the basket. Some guys make this look so easy. They slice through the defense and get to the basket just to drop it into the hoop. If I can get close enough for the lay up with out losing control or have the ball stolen, I can contribute even more to the offensive game.
8. Define your own levels of success. I keep track of my points per basketball session. Since most of our games are played to 15 (except for the last one, which usually goes to 25 depending on how much time is left), we get about four or five games in during the hour of exercise (assuming we get started at 6:35 or so). I like to assess my own progress by tallying up the points I have contributed over the hour. But defensive contributions such as blocks, steals, and interceptions contribute to wins without padding one's own point tally. On offense, assists contribute to wins (assists are defined as the pass made by one player directly before a successful shot is made by another player). My co-players are usually very good about passing the ball and engaging in "unselfish play." Also, if we play four-on-four, I'll get more scoring opportunities. So these are all variables that influence the results of that one standard by which I measure my performance. Having the confidence and respect of my team mates is a building block of success, but I am the final judge of how I played on any given day. By reaching my fullest potential physically, I can walk into the locker room satisfied with my own performance in all aspects of the game, no matter how I am perceived by others.
Until next time, stay healthy!