|The Write Space and Time|
July 23, 2012 -- Really nice, well-meaning people sometimes strike up conversations with me in the spring that begin with, "It must be so nice to have the summers off!" Throughout the years, I have answered in a variety of ways. I went through the Explanation Stage: "Well, actually, summers are quite busy. We have camps in June and then we travel all over the country recruiting in July..." Then I went through the Sarcastic Stage: "Yes it's awesome. I love summers in the gym with 300 campers, weeks whose days all run together, and playing planes, trains, and automobiles in my spare time." Then I went through the Angry Mumbling Stage: "Grrrrrrrrrrarghhhhh (door slam)!" And I've finally, in the wisdom of my middle age, landed upon the Smile and Lie stage: "It is!! I'm having the best time." Which is actually an innovative way of choosing to feed the proverbial positive dog, while simultaneously choosing not to humiliate the uninformed.
Summer is not off, ever. It's just a different kind of on.
While the bulk of the "on" centers around a measly 20 days in July (which used to be more like 40 days spanning late June to early August), it still feels like a three month ride on a runaway train. And it ages you in ways your treadmill and your night cream cannot prevent.
For example, last Tuesday night I ordered a bacon cheeseburger from Wendy's at 10:45 p.m. And I ate every single bite of it. It wasn't even very good, and I swear it took them half an hour to make it, but I was not going back to the hotel without it. I'd been dreaming about it for the last five or six games. Because that's what we do when we're trapped in frigid gyms for 10 hours at a time. We dream of being free. And bacon cheeseburgers become beacons of hope.
We get up at ungodly hours to go places we'd probably never go, given the choice. We board planes that take us north before they deliver us south. Sometimes they go when they're supposed to, but most of the time they don't. And most of the time, they still have our bags when we get where we're going, but some of the time they don't. (Thanks for nothing American Airlines.)
So our diet is bad, our sleep patterns are worse, and our dispositions inevitably plummet as we see too much of what we don't want and not nearly enough of what we do.
And yet we do it, no matter the side effects. We grumble and whine and, ultimately, we endure. We rent cars, we plug a million addresses into our GPS, we fall into hotel rooms, and then we race to gym after gym after gym after gym.
Because players win games.
Coaches don't. Mascots don't. Fans don't. Players do. And in July, "players" travel around like high school marching bands invited to a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. So we follow along like the throngs on 7th Avenue to watch them -- a bunch of glassy-eyed, human billboards wishing we had worn socks and packed a parka.
And this is what we see: a lot of fouling. I'll just start with that. If a player is shooting, odds are she's gonna get smacked. And it doesn't matter if she's in the lane or 30 feet from the rim. The goal does not seem to be: make the offense shoot a bad shot, get the rebound, and go to the other end to score a basket. The goal seems to be: maul the shooter. Maul her now. Maul her to the ground if possible. Maul her with authority, then walk away and be proud that she did not escape unscathed on your watch.
We also see an inordinate amount of falling down, which may or may not be directly related to the fouling. Despite the fact that hitting the floor while in the act of shooting is a given (see above), there is also a whole bunch of just general falling, too. It's almost cartoonish sometimes. I want to run out to the middle of the court and yell "Slow Down!!" July basketball makes me think of what the Daytona 500 would look like if every 16 year old I know were allowed to drive in it. It's just a mess of players going way faster than their skill set -- and oftentimes their legs -- will allow. Warp speed basketball means turnovers. It means collisions. And it means a lot of falling down, which, really, won't sell many tickets or win many games. It makes me wince, it makes me tired, and it makes me want to go home (by way of Wendy's, please, if that's humanly possible).
Shot selection is a problem, too. I'm pretty sure the rule is: if you can get it off, it's a good one. I've seen kids shoot one versus three. I've seen kids shoot while falling down with their back toward the basket. I've seen 5-foot-4 point guards try to shoot through the forearm of six-foot-five centers. (Centers who aren't running in from the shadows either -- they're parked, rooted in front of the rim, waiting and salivating.) And I've seen lots of guys who think anything across half court is money.
But the ol' look-away layup is the shot of the summer. Apparently gazing toward your target is outdated. Maybe I'm just old school, but I have always found looking at the goal to be helpful. I saw at least one look away layup per game. And I saw a lot of games in 10 days. I wish that were hyperbole.
Last but not least, I would be remiss if I didn't address the dribbling. I love a good dribbler. I'm 5-4 for heaven's sake, dribbling was my badge of honor. But my team may play with a no dribble rule next year simply because I've seen enough of it in ten days to last me for a couple of seasons. If you're a post player, God bless your heart. And I hope you can rebound because that's the only way any of us are going to be able to ascertain anything about your skill set. Posting at the block, receiving safely, scoring simply -- these are bastions of great offensive play regardless of the system. And yet we get to see none of that because whoever has the ball is dribbling. Usually very fast and almost always purposelessly. If you're a big kid playing in July, nobody's throwing you the ball. It's a lonely world and I ache for you all. You better bank on coaches getting there for pre-game warm-up so we can at least see what the ball looks like in your hands. Otherwise you have no shot. Pardon the pun. The dribbler is the show.
Fortunately, however, that doesn't describe all teams or all players. Some teams moved the ball well and some kids even moved without it. Some kids rebounded like crazed animals and lots of kids played really, really hard. Some defended like it was really important to them -- like they took it personally, which is something I so admire. And I saw a few kids who could really, really shoot the ball. So there were pockets of promise. I saw a handful of players I'd love to find gift wrapped under my tree at Christmas. But I saw a bunch that made me just want to go eat a cheeseburger.
You know what though? As I commiserated with a row of coaches about the sorry state of the thing, it occurred to me that if all those kids knew how to play, they wouldn't need any of us. Our job is to teach them how to close out and contest without fouling. Our job is to teach them about rhythm and cadence, to get them to feel the pace of play like the comfortable beat of their heart. Our job is to define a good shot, to discipline players to not take bad ones, and to sell them on the parts of the process that make those good shots possible. It is our responsibility to teach them when to dribble and why, and to show them how to feed a post when and where she has an advantage. It's their job to want to learn and it's our job to teach them when we get them.
When you really stop to think about it, it's a nice little equation, actually. They need us and we need them. Hence the unending parade and these dark circles under my eyes. Ten days down, 10 days to go. The treadmill is calling...