1-on-1 hoops: Can I get some help here?

Posted: August 28, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Seems I again talked my way into trouble on the basketball court.

For about a year I’ve been going back and forth with a friend at work about how we need to find a court near our office where we can play a game of one-on-one. Typical office banter mixed with traditional basketball trash talk, both of us comfortable in our cubicles. Philip says he’ll cross me up, I tell him he’s too short to stop me in the post. Philip says he’ll knock down jumpers in my face, I tell him I’ll easily rise over him for threes.

This remained a theoretical matchup for months. He lives in Jersey, I’m in the city. We need to find an outdoor court and play on it when it’s not buried under a foot of snow. We have to find a time to play after work, which means bringing shoes and shorts and maybe an extra shirt and someone better bring a basketball or we’ll be practicing our defensive shuffles in the park while bystanders debate calling the police.

But Monday I finally found a court that’s near our office. It looks suitable from the online picture I saw, even if there aren’t any nets on the hoops. We tentatively scheduled a matchup for Wednesday after work.

God I don’t want to get my ass kicked.

See, even though I was a good basketball player growing up, I was never the best one-on-one player. Blame it on a lack of quickness, a killer on defense in those solo battles and a weakness that keeps me from racking up easy baskets. At basketball camps during the summer I could win a couple of games with outside shots but eventually I succumbed to someone who’d be bigger, stronger, faster and able to effectively contest my jumpers.

It didn’t really bother me. I loved basketball because of what happened when you had 10 guys on a court, not two. I took pride in my passing and enjoyed it as much as scoring. Basketball’s about working together, on offense or defense, and cutting, and setting screens and moving without the ball. I could score in one-on-one situations but it’s easier to do a few times a game compared to doing it for a full game.

As a kid I finally started beating my dad and then he retired from one-on-one games, a brilliant career move. Another relative, my uncle Emilio, remained a nemesis throughout my teen years. Today Emilio is probably the best player over the age of 70 in the world, a fact he’d surely prove if someone organized a tournament for that sect, an event medical authorities would stop before it ever started. Emilio was in his late 40s when we played during our occasional trips to Winona, Minnesota. I knew how good Emilio was at the time and knew how good he’d been in high school and college, back when Naismith first came up with his idea. That didn’t make it any less frustrating. This…old man could beat me off the dribble and knock down any shot from any angle. He had great stamina, so forget about wearing the old fella down. He enjoyed these beatings too, because what older guy doesn’t savor teaching a cocky youngster a few lessons?

When I went to school at St. John’s, I mostly played fullcourt pickup games but took part in the occasional one-on-one skirmish with my old Janesville pal Mike. Those games were good for my ego. Mike…well, Mike tried. He patented a ridiculous little flip shot in the paint that worked much better than it should have, especially since he shot it with his back to the hoop and he stood 5-7 with sneakers. Still, I dominated these affairs. Yet sometimes he squeezed out a victory, as his two-handed jump shot that always threatened to graze the ceiling occasionally dropped through the net. I’d also showboat or not go all out for a few points and soon he’d be nearing victory. By then, when I finally turned it on, it was too late and he’d pull the upset. I’m not proud of my postgame reactions after those defeats — I either pounded the basketball onto the floor so it bounced up three stories or fired it into the bleachers with a scream — but they happened. To be cruel, I’d suggest I didn’t really try my hardest, although my reactions to the losses exposed the falsehood of the comment.

My greatest one-on-one battles — and most frustrating, humiliating defeats — came during my time in Worthington, when I engaged in an absurd, years-long battle with a co-worker named Mike Nowatzki, a North Dakota boy with a sweet jumper who morphed into Nowitzki whenever we squared off, whether it was in the controlled environment on the YMCA’s court or out in the elements at a local park. From the beginning I underestimated Mike. North Dakota? So the state produced Phil Jackson, a University of North Dakota hoops legend on the court long before he became one on the bench. But other than Jeanie Buss’s boyfriend? Mike was about 6-0 and when he first asked if I wanted to play some hoops, I felt almost sorry for him. He was a clean-cut kid, an outstanding news reporter with a bright future, well-liked by his colleagues. Why did he want to humiliate himself on the court?

It took probably one possession for me to realize he had game and two to know I had a problem. In addition to his maddeningly accurate jumper, he could beat me off the dribble and was effective finishing at the basket. He also played defense–on every possession. While fatigue forced me to take possessions off, giving him the occasional wide-open look, he acted like Michael Cooper, minus the high socks. I backed him down into the paint, but he had the strength to keep me from getting right to the basket.

Over the years, as our rivalry evolved, I eventually developed a series of excuses, rationalizations and ploys, each more pathetic than the last, all of them designed to save my pride or give me a better chance at victory.

* If we started off playing a best-of-3 that quickly became a best-of-5 if I dropped the first game. Lose two, extend it to best-of-7. This didn’t often lead to victory but it at least provided hope. Or perhaps Mike returned to work so he could attend a city council meeting, meaning we couldn’t finish the series, meaning we really didn’t have a victor, did we? I know I was down 3-0 but it was best-of-7. The series never ended, and I never officially lost.

* Say the game’s going to 7. If I trailed 5-2, I could easily say we’re playing to 11. Going to 11 and I trailed 9-5? We’re going to 15. And if I was winning and Mike suggested those changes? Refuse, accuse him of poor sportsmanship.

* When I did beat Mike it usually occurred in the opener, when I had my legs and jumper. Even if I lost three games to one, I harped on that first game, called it by far the best indicator of who actually was the better player. It makes sense, if you think about it as much as I have, if you dwell on it late at night, when you’re alone in the dark, going over every missed shot and stewing over how much your foe will brag at the office the next day, filled with that famous North Dakota smugness. We’re both at full strength in the opener. This series shouldn’t hinge on who has greater lung capacity.

* One-on-one is meaningless. How many guys would Larry Bird beat in one-on-one? How many would Magic Johnson beat? How would he contain the quick guards? See, it’s an overrated exercise. Yes, I compared myself to legends, ignoring the fact Magic probably dominated solo games with his junior hook while Bird likely did the same with his automatic stepback jumpers.

Eventually, I debated every sport with Mike. We had drawn-out debates about who was better at baseball or football or bowling. We did actually play tennis against each other and I dominated there, which meant nothing for our basketball rivalry, even as I tried talking it up by saying I was much more dominant on the tennis court than he was on the basketball court. Some type of equivalency argument. I have it all written out somewhere, complete with charts.

When we both moved north and worked together in Fargo, our one-on-one games ended, but we joined forces in a rec league. Ah, a real game. Five-on-five. Cuts, passes, rebounding, working off the ball, fast breaks. Real basketball. Instead of cursing Mike’s jumpers I now cheered them.

I haven’t played Mike in a decade but I still take part in the occasional one-on-one game. Sometimes I head to my local park and play a high school kid who thinks he can beat up on the old guy. When I’m home, I’ll play my nephews Brock and Brady, who could never beat me… until the day they did. The same excuses emerged, only with a new audience. Only the first game mattered, younger legs should get stronger as the games go on. Against my nephews I also rely on shady reffing, calling phantom fouls at crucial points. Brock and Brady react like Bobby Knight but I ignore the pleas and protests and feign ignorance, confident that I got the call right. I can still teach them the occasional lesson but I should probably remember an old one from my dad: Stop playing once they start beating you.

So what will happen Wednesday against Philip? He’s 10 years younger but probably four inches shorter and when he’s gasping for breath on game point he’ll regret the half-pack of cigarettes he burns through each day. He’s stocky, strong. Maybe he is quick. But cross me up? I won’t be close enough on defense. I’ll lay off, make him show that jumper. On offense I’ll rely on my jump shot and the turnaround in the paint. I’m pretty confident.

But if Philip proves tough — or even superior — and wins two of three or three of five? I won’t pout. I’ll just remind him that only the first game meant anything, and I’ll talk about my sore legs and small lungs. I’ll tell him basketball’s a team sport and one-on-one games are sideshows.

And then I’ll throw the ball against a tree and tell him the loss doesn’t bother me at all. He won’t believe those words. Neither will I.

  1. Jerry says:

    When you retire from one on one it isn’t always a great career move but it a move of necessity. And getting your ass kicked isn’t the end of the world, it only seems like it at the time. Remember the addage of ‘the player who will beat you is the one you least think can’. It will soothe the ego when you get beat by an inferior player.

  2. Is Uncle Emilio part of the Izzy Mendelbaum clan of Seinfeld fame?
    Also, I’d like to request that someone film this upcoming contest … just in case you end up drop kicking the ball onto a 10-story building.

  3. shawnfury says:

    Emilio’s a legend, of that there’s no doubt. Played noon ball with him like seven years ago and he was still one of the better guards.

    No film. None of my defeats are documented, giving me plausible deniability.

    I do find myself getting more philosophical, Jerry. I guess that’s aging?

  4. Mike says:

    Mike here (the one that sucks at basketball in all of Fury’s posts), and I would just like to mention I just joined a 35 and older mens league for the winter and will be working on my game. I may have convinced Hammer as well. As a 36 year old, I will be young again. Toss in 2 additional nights a week coaching my son’s travel team this winter, I will be gunning for you next time you are in Minnesota. As for your “domination” of me in one-on-one contests at SJU, kudos to you for defeating a 5’8″, airballing freethrower, one second playing, Ollie-cloned, 16 point career varsity scorer. I should not have even scored a point against you in our match-ups, but alas, I somehow found a way, a will to win from time to time.

  5. shawnfury says:

    I give you credit where it’s due. I’m just not going to credit your “quickness” advantage for the rare victory. Sometimes the two-handed shot got hot – we saw it at Gardner’s, IM and one-on-one.

  6. Mark says:

    Just wanted to say that I love this post.

  7. shawnfury says:

    And Postscript: I beat Philip. Handily. 11-0, 11-7, 7-2, although who’s counting? He’s a good player. But my shot was on and my arm length proved troublesome for the young hoopster.

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