Recently, while in Ottawa on business, a friend asked me to drop by his youth (14 y/o) basketball practice and offer a few pointers to the players. Never one to miss out on an hour in the gym, I drove to the west-end of the city and made my way inside Sir Guy Carleton Secondary School in Nepean, Ontario.
As the guys were put thru their paces, I warmed up – jogging the length of the court, then shuffling up and back, then stretching a bit. The coach, my pal, then asked me to run a passing drill.
After this, I was asked to step in and help play some D as part of another drill. I did so, taking notice of how very quiet my players were. I chalked up their low volume to nerves at the presence of a new guy in the mix. But after a few minutes I couldn't take it anymore; I requested a “time out” to talk with my small portion of the team. “Hey guys, do me a favour, let’s start talking – a lot. Ok?” The guys agreed and we continued with the drill, effectively shutting down the O on most of the next 10 possessions.
Soon enough, another friend of the coach arrived. Paul is 6’4”, 210-ish, built like steely home appliance with muscles taped on the side and sneakers on the bottom. And he still, at 52, plays like the all-star he was at McGill University in the 80s; a painfully effective blend of biceps and brains.
A full-court game ensued. The old guys (x3) picked up two young players – Markins and Ben-G – and our team proceeded to take on the rest of the younger crew.
Now there’s one thing a bunch of old guys who’ve played ball at a decent level will never do when faced with young guns: Walk up the court – in either direction. It’s a matter of pride. We want you to know that we are still fit and we're extremely keen for: (a) you to know that; and (b) you to acknowledge in some was that we’ve ‘still got it’. To this end, we will drop – quite literally – before we’ll show any signs of having aged and/or lost a step. Indeed, during these games, Paul, Coach Kevin and I took no water and refused to sit between matches, choosing instead to heckle the young players back onto the court (before our aged muscles seized up).
It was a good run, but as the games (we played a handful to 7) progressed, it quickly became apparent that at least one of our young teammates was not as committed to life on the defensive end of the hardwood as he was to his herky-jerky, Euro-stepping moves on O. Now, to be fair, Ben-G, at 5-foot-nothin’, has game - serious game. And he is lightning quick off the dribble. But I’ll be damned if that boy knew that the defensive end of the court had a rim and backboard.
I might have tolerated some slack play if Little Dawg was hitting his shots. But Ben-G was missing a bunch, and did not know that a missed shot is a “turn-over” (altho technically, perhaps, not called such on a stat sheet). And, according to the rules that big Paul and I play by, if you miss a shot, you hustle back, preferably arriving in the paint before your winded and slightly pissed off teammates get there.
Not so with Ben-G. Instead, "Isaiah Thomas III" would dip his head, grumble at his misses, then stroll to mid-court and wait for the ball to be pitched ahead to him on the next possession.
Now, I’m a tolerant man. This was not my practice to run. And after a pick-up game ends I like to connect with my teammates by slapping hands and saying, “Nice run”. But on that day, after the last hoop rippled the mesh ("Paul, you've still got a sweet stroke!") , I only had kind words for 4 of my 5 teammates. I paused in front of Ben-G as he unlaced and offered some sound and perhaps too-stern advice. To paraphrase, I said that I enjoyed the practice (which I did) but noted that next time we play, if you miss a shot or throw the ball away you better be the first guy back.
I’m not sure if a 14-year-old hears any message from a 50-year-old as constructive. But that’s how I meant it: constructive and instructive... and a little like, “If I was 14 again, I’d be very pleased to kick your ass”.
Good teammates work as hard without the ball as with it, and they make every effort to make their teammates better. If they don’t do these things they risk the wrath of the guys who have been picking up their defensive assignment, sweating their jocks off, and trying hard to compensate with for serious attitude with serious hustle. The Ben-Gs of the world also doom themselves to the ballplayer’s version of Hell: Becoming the guy that no one else wants to select for pick-up.
Even for if the run is in sleepy Nepean... on a Wednesday nite... in a gym you’ve never heard of.