|Sometimes the best games are played for love.
There is a certain smell when you walk into a gymnasium. An airless kind of smell; a smell of leather, of shellacked floors, of old sweat. I like that smell.
-George Lippman: Unpublished Student Essay
I can't explain why I love basketball. My high school season ended over a year ago, and my college basketball career never began, but I am still a sucker for a good game of hoops. Is it the smell of a gymnasium? Maybe. But maybe it's more subtle, something less tangible. I do know one thing. I am not alone in my love.
My team is there with me. The score is tied, and the next basket wins. My legs ache from two hours of nonstop pounding, and my feet are sore in my not-so-new shoes. I'm guarding Felicia Holloway, but most players know her as Pheef, a 6-foot 2-inch center at Iona College, a Division I school in women's basketball. Pheef gets the entry pass, turns and shoots. The ball clanks hard off the rim. My team will get one more chance.
I tapped her arm as she released the ball, but she didn't call the foul so now it doesn't matter. Somehow I find it in me for one last sprint down the court. I catch the eye of my point guard, Terri, across the court, and instinctively I know what she is going to do. I spot up just beyond the three-point line, ready for what is coming. She drives into the lane. The defense closes on her. She whips the ball out to me. Legs bent, eyes on the rim, elbow under the ball, I shoot. Even before I see it, I know it's going in.
I have just won the game for my team, and I cannot think of a better feeling in the world. Moments like these, even if they are rare, are what keep me playing basketball.
At any playground, gymnasium or outdoor court in the country, you're likely to find pick-up basketball games. You'll see former MVPs and ex-benchwarmers slapping high-five as they run down the court to set up on defense. You will see a 40-year-old coach warning an 18-year-old student teammate of an impending double-team. Ours is a world with no referees, uniforms or statistics. Winning is important because it keeps you on the court.
Pick-up basketball is full of surprises. If Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes playing hoops for money in White Men Can't Jump are images that pop into your head when you hear the word pick-up, you're in for more surprises. Sometimes - more often than not - it's not about money. Sometimes the players - incredible leapers, dead-on shooters and fierce competitors - are women.
According to the NCAA, only 3.1 percent of high school basketball players go on to play in college. Only one percent of college athletes go on to the professional leagues. So, if you are not part of this elite group and you love to play, you have to find a place of your own.
Be nice when it is time to be nice and when others are nice to you. But the court is where we can be all the things we are not supposed to be. Aggressive. Cocky. Strong.
-Madeleine Blais: In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle
Women's sports have never been more popular. Last summer at the Women's World Cup soccer final, 90,185 fans crammed into the Rose Bowl, the largest crowd ever to watch a women's sporting event in the United States. A few months later, Connecticut and Tennessee drew 23,385 for a women's college basketball game. The formation of the Women's National Basketball Association has now given exceptional college basketball players a profession to move on to. But even more popular is small-scale play, where players spend their free time playing the game they love.
Without the facilities or organization of a league, it's amazing how different the game can be. Inside or outside, good weather or bad, even in darkness or light - we find a way to play.
Before I could score the game-winning three-pointer, we had to find a place to play. My friend and former high school teammate Maria and I went to shoot around at our former high school, St. Mary's in Annapolis, but no one was there to turn on the lights. We had a court, but very little light.
Three guy alums walked in, so we grabbed a high-school lifter from the weight room, opened the door for a little light and played three-on-three for 20 minutes in the semi-darkness. The weightlifters a room away looked at us a little funny, but if you really want to play, you'll find a way. Finally, more players showed up and we begged a janitor to turn on the lights. The game could begin.
Your pick-up teammates can be your best friends or complete strangers. Sometimes you know them, sometimes you don't. It can be organized, maybe by phone, ahead of time, but can be as impromptu as yelling, 'Hey, you wanna play?' on the court you're shooting at.
Most of the girls I play with are former teammates. We try to play at St. Mary's, so many of our games look like a reunion. Some players are older than me, some are younger. Others I only know by a first name, or maybe I remember them because of other things. It's funny: You might not remember someone's name from week to week, but you do remember whether they like to drive to their left or right, or whether their outside shot is good enough for you to play them tight.
But the regulars on my team are usually two of my good friends and former teammates, Maria Smear and Terri Daniels. Unlike myself, they now play in college. Terri plays at Maryland for Chris Weller, who just celebrated her silver anniversary coaching the Terps. Maria plays at Yale.
We've been on the same teams since we were 11 years old. We played together on the five-time state championship team, the Chesapeake Bay Hurricanes. We went to the Amateur Athletic Union National tournament with that team five times, making it to the final four at the 11-and-under national championship in Terre Haute, Indiana. We continued on to the same high school, enjoying success as Catholic League champions our sophomore year at St. Mary's.
When you play with people that long, you have a certain connection on the court. Usually nothing they do surprises me. Before this summer, we had not played together in almost an entire year, but the moment we stepped back onto the court, that indescribable it was there.
While I have my hands full with Pheef, Maria and Terri are concentrating on guarding each other. It usually works out this way; whenever we play, they are almost always matched up. It's a perfect match at tonight's game: Terri is the play-maker, the point guard who could also play center, the person who can slash to the basket with a move that makes your mouth drop. Maria is the sharp-shooter, the player you don't want to guard because she's usually going to score 20 points no matter what you do. But what makes this match-up a good one is that they both know each other's strengths and weaknesses.
I smile when I see Terri dribble the ball down the court, pass the ball to the wing, then explode towards the basket, getting the ball back for an easy two points. Now it's Maria's turn, sprinting down the court and catching a pass just a split second before Terri gets there. That's enough time for her to shoot and see it drop through the net. It's gonna be a good game.
Free for All
Pick-up is its own sort of basketball in other ways, as well. There are no referees, so it's up to players to call their own fouls. If you think you got fouled, you say it. Every player has her own way of calling fouls. When I play with people I don't know very well, I just say foul in a normal voice. But when I'm playing with friends or coaches, they hear it nice and loud. Which brings up another aspect of pick-up. Basketball courts are known for trash talk. This summer, there's been a lot of joking, but that occasional argument does break out.
About halfway through the game, I look around. I'm playing five-on-five with four Division I college players, one Division III player, one junior college player, one high school player, one former high school player (that's me) and two eighth graders. This is quite an array of playing ability, but it makes for a great game. A match-up I've been watching is the Division I player guarding the junior college player. They are almost identical in talent and, more important, tenacity. From the moment the game begins, I can see the tension building. Every time down the court, they get more aggressive, harder in their fouls. Finally, the tension breaks.
"I fouled her. Hey, sorry," the Division I player says to the junior college player.
"Why are you saying sorry now? You've fouled me every time down the court. Haven't you?" JuCo is getting annoyed.
No answer from Division I.
"Haven't you? Answer me!" JuCo is getting extremely agitated.
Still no answer from Division I.
"Just because you are Division I and I'm JuCo doesn't mean you're any better than me. I just didn't make the grades, bitch."
This is normal trash talk for a game, filling in small breaks in play or embroidering runs up and down the court. Pretty much everyone heard it. I was just sort of laughing to myself because I could see it coming from the beginning of the game. When you have two excellent ballplayers guarding each other, something is probably going to happen. Whatever happens, they are making each other better players on the court.
Situations like this do a couple of things to the game. First, everybody gets a little more tense. Second, it shoots up the level of intensity everyone puts forth. Whichever player is on your team, you're going to pretty much back them up. A scuffle affects the players involved, too: Some will play that much harder; others will let the confrontation get to them.
Playing without a referee usually makes for a rougher game. It also lets smart players see how hard they can foul before someone calls them on it. If I'm guarding a player who doesn't call the foul, she's going to feel it a little harder the next time down the court until she decides what is too hard. Then we both know. If you think you got fouled and you don't say it, then that's your problem.
There are no free throws, either. If you call a foul, you get the ball back. This makes for interesting game points. If you foul the person about to score the game-winning shot, she doesn't get a chance to win the game on the foul line. Her team still has to put the ball in the basket.
At the end of a pick-up game, you'll hear "Foul her, just don't let her score."
On Your Own
No referee, no coaches and no audience. Pick-up is a game of its own. No coach means there is no one telling you what to do or when to go into the game - and no one giving you advice on the next play. No one to get on you about passing more, no one to pull you out of the game for talking trash. Players have complete freedom to do whatever they want on the court, answering to no one except their teammates.
Sometimes, this makes for more creativity. You're more likely to try a new move on the pick-up court than in front of your coach. On the other hand, sometimes you wish for a coach to tell your teammate to stop throwing one-handed passes that keep getting intercepted.
Having no audience has its ups and downs. Many players need that rush of emotion that comes from an audience cheering you on. As the saying goes, "Hell is a half-filled gymnasium." I have to agree. The energy of people in a packed gym ready for the big game is amazing. In pick-up, there is no energy from the crowd to feed off of. Most of the time the only audience is your teammates. No cheers from the crowd, no overexcited parents screaming at the referees, no embarrassing Airrrrrrrbaaaaaaall chants.
Having none of it makes for a less exciting atmosphere, but also a simpler one. No one is keeping your stats, your picture will never be in the paper - and the only price of losing is that you get kicked off the court.
Which is where the term pick-up came from. Basketball teams have five players. Sometimes, teams are made by shooting free throws. The first five to make the shot form a team. If more than 10 people want to play, then the first 10 to make the shot get to play first. After the first game - which would usually be to 11 or 16 with each basket one point - winners get to play again. Losers sit. But the people who sat out first get to "pick-up" people from the team that just lost to play again. Hence the name of the game.
Or pick-up can be much less formal. Three-on-three, two-on-two, or even one-on-one is a game.
Many of basketball's secrets extend to life beyond the hardwood court.
-Bill Bradley: Values of the Game
One more thing about basketball is how much you take away from the game. Most people you're playing with are there for the exact reason you are: They love the sport, like the feeling of being on a team and want to have fun. It is not surprising that you carry things you learn playing sports into other areas of your life.
I've learned a lot from playing basketball over the years. All that came crystal clear to me as I played pick-up for fun this summer. A lot of it came to me all at once, in a single game.
For one thing, I've learned how to deal with all different kinds of people. People who blame themselves for anything that goes wrong People who never accept a shred of responsibility for what goes wrong People who inspire a team when they're down People who don't have a good word to say to anyone when their team is losing People who measure success by how many points they scored People who measure success by wins and losses.
The point is, you cannot avoid people on a basketball court. You may not like them, but you do have to depend on them. Depend on them for everything from showing up to playing hard. Being part of a team, dealing with different personalities is one of my life lessons.
That lesson is easy. The tougher one is coping with dreams that don't come true.
Ever since I can remember, I heard how important it was to get a college scholarship. At 12 years old, I'd hear "Man, there's a lot of college coaches here today," as a nervous teammate stretched before a game. I remember hearing Pat Summit, head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols, speak at the 14-and-under AAU National Championship in Nashville, Tennessee about what kind of player she recruits.
Everyone in that audience wanted to be that player. The superstar. The leading scorer. The go-to girl. That was the point when we were younger, to prepare for the moment when all our hard work finally paid off: when we signed on the dotted line for our college scholarship.
That moment never came for me. My last high school game ended in disappointment: losing the championship game to an arch rival. Younger players would come back to avenge the loss the next year, and for four of my fellow seniors, there would be other games to play in college. But for me, that was it: my final game.
So it seems my hard work didn't pay off in the way I'd hoped it would. I am not a college basketball player, but I have learned a valuable lesson: Sometimes, no matter how hard you try or work, your dream might not come true. How do you deal with that? It's easy: Now I play on my own terms.
I will never be a college basketball superstar or a WNBA player. That wasn't my goal this summer, though. Looking back, I'm not sure it should have been my goal when I was younger, because it's definitely not the point of playing sports. The point is to enjoy what you're doing every moment you're doing it. It's a cliché, but it's a true one: Sometimes the journey is much more important than the destination. That's the lesson I learned on the courts this summer.
I raise my arms in victory as I watch the shot go through the net. I am playing in a hot gym. No one is there to congratulate me on my game-winning shot except those who won the game with me. Most of the players will not even remember who won this game - let alone who won the game for their team. I am exhausted and sweating bullets. I have enjoyed every minute of it.
Amy Mulligan, who begins her sophomore year as a journalism student at University of Maryland this month, has been Bay Weekly's summer intern.