Joe leaned to his right, trying to shift the defensive attention. It was a trick he had learned almost as soon as he started playing basketball.
Defenders know most players prefer to go right so are predisposed to accept any evidence the offensive player is going to move in that direction.
He had perfected the art in one-one one battles against his taller, older friend Martin.
That had been such a key part of his childhood…playing ball with his friends. At first it had been exemplified by his duels with Martin.
Two years older, a foot taller, 30 pounds heavier, Martin had won. Game after game after game he won. He won by going inside for lay-ups. He won by getting every rebound. He won by blocking Joe’s best shot attempts.
But Joe had a dogged desire to get better, a willingness to work at it, and a ferocious competitive streak. Slowly but surely he figured out ways to get better.
Instead of losing 11-0, 11-1, the games started getting closer. 11-7. 11-8. 11-9. Once he even forced their version of overtime.
Always they played losers outs, win by two. But Martin was still better when it mattered. On that one crucial possession Joe would have the chance to take the lead and Martin would just crush his best move.
So Joe found a new best move. And another. He became more creative, adept at fooling Martin. If Martin knew Joe’s plan he could stop it every time. But if Joe could shift him out of position for just a heartbeat, it presented an opening and Joe could often score.
When he began playing pick-up ball in games of 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 he found he was among the best players. He found ways to score. The harsh lessons of getting the ball sent flying when he attempted a shot against Martin now put him in good stead as he was able to subtly redirect the efforts of his defenders and now got to the rim virtually at will.
By the time he was in high school he had perfected a go to move he saved for clutch situations. He would head fake to the right, do a reverse spin dribble that put him on the left side of the lane with his defender on his right hip and explode to the basket, laying it in or, when he grew tall enough, dunking it with the rim protecting him from the defender. It was the same move he had developed playing against Mel on his driveway.
It was a brilliant move, and very effective until he sprained his ankle one too many times. He had done so repeatedly through the years, and it had never been a big deal. He was young, he recovered quickly.
As he entered college, he found himself wearing high tops as opposed to his beloved low tops. They cut down a little bit on his lateral agility but provided the extra support. He still thought of himself as indestructible, but looking back it was a sign that his body was starting to break down even before he hit his prime.
By the time his extremely brief pro career ended, he pretty much had to wear an ankle brace to play. Gone was the agility that allowed him to make spin moves with regularity, as was the explosiveness to get past defenders.
So he did what players do, he adjusted. Instead of spin moves designed to get lay-ups, he went to pull-up jumpers. He could still elevate quick enough to get a shot away after shifting a defender.
There were times even this move was tough for hi to pull off. Sensitive ankles screamed in anguish as he put tremendous torque on them with the pull up. It was a different stress than the stresses of spins and after a time, even that move was one he used less and less.
He found it would take longer and longer to recover. He did not even need to actually injure it to need recovery time. Just the stress of several jump stops would have his knees aching for days on end.
Even running up and down the floor was something that would have him feeling fatigue for several days. He would be slightly less energetic, find it harder to get up in the morning for a few days after a game.
As a result, he found himself looking for teams that played zone defenses as opposed to man-to-man, for teams that would walk the ball up the floor instead of run constantly, looking for teams that would set screens, work the ball around and slow the game down as opposed to the frenetic pace he played at when he was younger.
He learned to pick his spots to expend his energy. He was choosy about when to drive, when to post up, or when to take his pull-up jumper.
With the game clock almost expired and his first three options, it was looking more and more like he was going to have to choose. Take a contested jump shot, drive to the rim, or to drive and stop short for a jump shot.
Regardless, he was almost out of time. The ball was in his hands, and it was going to be up to him to decide the game.
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