His eyes flicked towards Chris in the high post. Chris was being matched up with a slightly taller defender, and almost as soon as Joe looked that way, he dismissed the option.
Chris was the type of player he had always hated playing with. An overblown sense of his talent, a complete lack on conscience and willingness to fire up any shot from any spot on the floor no matter how well he was covered.
Chris was the prototypical “black hole” of playground legend. He thought the only good pass was one that came to him. The idea of passing out of a double team or passing to a cutting teammate or even passing to another player because he himself was in bad position to shoot never occurred to him.
From one standpoint Joe understood Chris. Joe liked to shoot as well but he was also a willing passer who did a better than average job.
He had played with more than his share of gunners throughout his career. They had always annoyed him. A good team beats a good gunner the vast majority of the time. Being part of a good team mattered to Joe.
It was one reason he had always been willing to “do the little things” as people called it. He was always the guy dropping back to defend against the fast break, setting the screens, going hard to the boards even against taller, stronger opponents.
When he was young he had the speed and stamina to keep battling against people gifted with better size than he had. Now, however, he found himself tiring more easily. It took him a second longer to drop back on defense, so he had to play further from the basket on offense. It took him longer to recover from a stout forearm shiver under the boards, so he had to pick his spots to get a rebound.
That made it more frustrating to play with a guy like Chris. It was one thing to be wearing himself down grabbing tough rebounds, defending against odd-man fast breaks, setting screens, and working hard if he got rewarded.
But when he worked hard to establish post position or made a cut through the lane to get in prime scoring position only to watch Chris jack up a wild shot against two defenders in his hip pocket, then watch the shot careen well away from everyone on the Celebrities, it took a lot of the fun out of playing the game.
Fun. Was it still fun to play?
This team was not a group of guys from the same neighborhood playing on the same team because they went to the same high school. This was not a group of guys representing the same college. It was not even a semi-pro team getting sponsored by a local restaurant.
He was now playing on a team made up of friends of friends, co-workers of friends, the friends of his friends’ co-workers…some of these people he still could not remember their names after 6 games together.
That might have been a huge part of his love for the game. Most often, the never-ending pick-up games were against people he knew and knew well. Typical games included a couple guys from his street, a couple guys from the church he went to, and their friends from their school or other local schools.
There was a certain camaraderie that developed. They regularly bought each other sodas, Gatorade, candy bars, power bars and so forth.
A lot of bragging went on in regard to every aspect of their lives, on and off the court…who was seeing what girl, who was about to get what job, who had the hot new car or whatever else they could find to compete in with braggadocio.
But the real bragging was reserved for momentous occasions. Woe betide the young man who offered up a lay-in to see it swatted out of bounds. The act was inconsequential in terms of effectiveness…with no shot clock and the ball going out of bounds, there was no change of possession.
The real value came in the smack talk as claims of epic proportions were made.
“I blocked that so hard your grandpa got bruised.”
“I like that new tattoo you are sporting on your forehead. You must love Spalding.”
“That shot was so weak a double leg amputee could have blocked it.”
“Did that feel the same as it does when you ask for a date? Total rejection.”
“Way to bring it strong, Nancy.” It was never clear why Nancy was considered a weak girl’s name. But that always seemed to be the name used.
Of course, should a guy get juked out of his shorts the claims were no kinder or less grandiose. Perhaps the most-used one, often after someone had fallen so hard for a fake they lost their balance, involved the artistry of a mime.
Someone would hunch down, search the pavement for a bit, and mime picking up something extremely small with their thumb and forefinger. “Here is your jock strap back.” The inference was he had been faked right out of it.
Had the guys not known each other well, much of the smack talk might have inspired fights. But they did know each other. Thus it became a symbol of their friendship based on basketball. It even became part of the fun. It was fun because of the people involved.
But then again, at this stage of his career, it was not really about who he played with so much as it was just playing. And yes, when it came down to it, playing in a game decided on the last possession was still worth the sweat, the bumps and bruises. It was still fun.
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