At my current school, Tufts University, a tragedy recently occurred. It was announced in a school-wide e-mail that this winter there will be no intramural sports. Along with the NBA, sex, food, and occasionally my friends and family, winter intramural basketball has been among the few things to constitute my thoughts and dreams since the end of last season. I’m a basketball-addict, so this is the equivalent of denying Lamar Odom of candy or Caron Butler of Mountain Dew. Although winter IM basketball has never been a coherent institution at Tufts, in the past we would at least manage a few competitive games before the inevitable school/work/partying-induced forfeits that wound up dooming the league.
Nonetheless, this recent announcement marks a true travesty for a senior who merely wants an IM championship before he graduates. I guess there will always be men’s leagues–if I’m lucky maybe I’ll even play alongside Moochie Norris. In the mean time, I’ll have to satisfy my addiction with unhealthy amounts of pick-up basketball. And in the process, I plan on kicking some liberal-arts butt. But how to kick butt? Being an average 5’10” baller with increasingly fragile knees and ankles (and thus decreasing quickness and jumping ability), I have had to adapt my game over the years. ‘Tis the season for giving and alliteration, and AGR gives back by passing down the tried, true, and trusted tips and tricks for tackling pick-up basketball. Somewhere, Brah-rak O-brah-ma should be taking notes…
Use your hands in a legal-ish fashion
Hand-checks on defense: Pick-up ain’t the NBA, so take advantage of it. Constantly use a hand or forearm (or two hands/forearms) to impede and check your opponent, whether he has the ball or not and whether he’s on the perimeter or in the paint. This strategy is valuable against the big and strong as well as the tiny and quick. It is unclear whether this is a foul or not, but regardless, no one calls this foul, ever. Next time your teammate asks you, “Yo, who’re you checkin’?” think to yourself, “No, who am I hand-checkin’?”
Push-offs on offense: Getting open can be important, especially for shooters. Because of the dearth of NBA-caliber athleticism in pick-up hoops, many die-hard ballers have carved out a niche for themselves as sharp-shooters. If you are one of those guys, stop frantically running around to get open and instead create some extra space by wedging a hand or forearm in between you and your sure-to-be-frustrated opponent. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Exploit the inherent offensive advantages of pick-up
1’s and 2’s vs. 2’s and 3’s: In pick-up basketball, the game is typically scored with 1-point and 2-point field goals as opposed to 2-point and 3-point field goals. This gives an advantage to the shots from beyond the arc from a simple mathematical perspective. 2’s have more value relative to 1’s (double the value), than 3’s have relative to 2’s (1.5 the value). If this still doesn’t make sense, play out a short scenario with me: The Wizards hit four trey-balls and two regular buckets en route to 16 points in the first six minutes of a game. Their opponents, the Lakers, hit zero threes but manage to make the necessary eight regular field goals to keep pace and tie the game at 16-16. Now, let’s convert this situation to pick-up. The Wizards would have 10 points ((4*2)+(2*1)=10) and the Lakers would only have 8 (8*1=8). As you can see, the long-ball goes a little bit longer for your team in pick-up. Start gettin’ your Antoine Walker on and launch away.
When there are fewer players…: there is more paint to be had. Take advantage of the open interior. Whether the game is half-court or full-court, 4v4 or 1v1, pick-up basketball can offer a cleaner lane to work with than in traditional 5v5 hoops. Drive, post up, and score in the paint. To boot, there are no offensive three-second violations (which will be touched on later).
Know the situation
Match-up exploitation: Because of the whimsical nature of pick-up basketball, the on-court talent gaps are often times larger than those seen in organized basketball. If your team has the LeBron of pick-up or your opponent has the equivalent of Squeak from BASEketball, forget the concept of teamwork and go to work on the match-up, instead. (This goes both ways–on defense, remember to offer constant help if you are cursed with Squeak for a teammate or LeBron for an opponent.) Likewise, avoid bad match-ups by ignoring any godawful offensive teammates you might have.
Knowing your environment: Is the game half-court or full-court? And about that court– is it long/wide or short/narrow? Are you inside with the hardwood or outside on the asphalt? What about the hoops…do they have soft rims or double-rims? Hard or soft backboards? Are they 11 feet, 7 feet, or somewhere in between? We could go on and on…is the ball flat or pumped? Is the weather windy or calm? Hot, comfortable, or cold? Different environments complement different styles of play better than others. AGR can’t pick apart every potential environment (although I do recommend ruthlessly taking advantage of soft backboards), but we’ll say this: Wake up, smell the leather of your shoes and ball, and know your environment.
Scouting: Waiting frequently accompanies the pick-up experience. No one likes waiting, so turn that waiting into scouting. Scouting can be the difference between winning and losing–scout the opponents, out their weaknesses, and rout them into oblivion.
Take advantage of the rules (or lack thereof)
Lack of “shooting fouls:” In pick-up basketball, points shouldn’t come easy. There are no refs, so it’s the best time to get gritty and grimy. And because there are no refs, there are no shooting fouls or free throws; instead, a fouled shooter merely regains possession after calling the foul without the opportunity for freebies at the charity stripe. Thus, I recommend pummeling any shooter with an easy shot to eliminate an easy bucket. If they make the shot with the foul, they don’t even get the ball back (a recommended rule change from AGR, incidentally. Rewarding an and-1 with possession would add an exciting element to pick-up in lieu of free throws). The fouling-the-shooter strategy can be obnoxious and even dangerous for your opponent as well as yourself (via court-rage), but it’s a winning strategy, nonetheless.
Lack of offensive 3-second violation: This can be exploited by anyone. The lack of a 3-second violation allows for the most physical of backing-down, the most patient of jump-hooks, and the most intricate of post-pivots and pump-fakes. Offense, take note.
Carom the ball (pick-up basketball has a love affair with lazy rebounding)
Boxing out: I’m pretty sure the words “box out” are foreign to the average pick-up player. Get low, establish position, and make Paul Millsap proud.
Tipping the ball: When attacking the boards–especially on offense when you are crashing from behind–take advantage of typical pick-up laziness and the lack of “over-the-back” calls by slapping the ball towards a teammate. On defense this can ignite a fast-break and on offense you can create quick shots for teammates. No other maneuver results in more obscenities from opponents.
The picks of pick-up…
Setting picks (and moving picks): The pick-and-roll is one of the simplest and most unstoppable plays in basketball. The good news for pick-up players–other than that the play is simple and unstoppable–is that defending the play requires the opponent to fight through a screen, which necessitates effort and smarts on behalf of the defense (something pick-up defenders don’t typically possess). The even better news is that this play is made even more dominant by the use of the moving pick. The moving pick’s illegality is overlooked in pick-up and frustrates defenders more than Kobe himself. The fundamental play of basketball might be the screen-and-roll, but the fundamental play of pick-up is the moving screen.
Making picks and picking up: To divide teams in pick-up ball, sometimes two “captains” draft players to create the teams for the next game. Assert yourself as a captain, pick up the best players to assemble the best team, and then pick up the inevitable onlooking females after hours of dominating the courts. Bro-life-win.
Be a pal
Sharing is caring: Share information and analysis–it’s good to get your team of likely strangers on some common ground. Share the rock (with the good players, at least). Go above and beyond. Offer water, ankle tape, rec specs, or a pregame prayer to share with a teammate. In addition to their material gain that will translate to on-court success, it will facilitate team bonding and chemistry. Sometimes I get odd looks when I pray to the pick-up legend Aaron Carter, but results are results.
Know your teammates: Rarely do all my teammates know each other in pick-up ball. Learn each other’s names so you can communicate effectively. Learn where each player operates most effectively on offense. And learn their favorite players to pump them up by using said player as a nickname that invokes a vicarious identity for them to live/play through (nothing motivates me like being called “Baby Admiral”).
Play with (talented) friends: This one is pretty straightforward. If you bring good players to the court for your squad, you’ll have guaranteed chemistry and talent. Personally, I always bring Kenny Anderson to my games to ensure victory (I give him free tennis lessons in exchange).
Be a pain
Sinning is winning: You know that water/ankle tape/prayer you shared with your team? Actively keep it from the other team. Maybe you even steal their water/ankle tape/prayer. Sinning leads to winning. Some people habitually “misremember” the score in their favor. Others go for the ankles or even Bruce Bowen-esque karate kicks. I don’t condone the aforementioned basketball sins, but I’ll acknowledge their existence and utility for winning.
As Team USA learns every couple of years, international basketball is its own unique game that affords different strategies; the same can be said for pick-up basketball in comparing it to organized basketball. That being said, one common thread remains amidst all the forms of basketball: the desire to win. Hopefully, this guide will serve as a Christmabasketbukkah present for hoops fans worldwide.
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