Monday, May 16, 2011

The Eye

Being that our school does not have its own gym, my team is always scrambling for gym time. This forces me as the coach to be very creative--one day, we run stairs that adorn a local business, another day, we run to the bridge and back to school. Some days, we carve out a small swath of space outside, sandwiched between the cheerleaders and their tumbling mats and the latchkey kids who are taking their sweet time in getting home.
With all these distractions, I found it smart during a recent workout to have the players close their eyes as they dribbled the indoor basketballs on the asphalt outside the school. The idea is to have them work on game situations, in which they will hopefully have their heads up to see the floor and any openings in the defense. The fingertips do the work, locking in the good habit of dribbling the fall away from the palm of the hand for greater control.
After about ten minutes of constant dribbling--inside out, crossovers, front to back-- I gave the guys the okay to open their eyes. Our big man decided he liked the sensation and kept his eyes closed as the eyes of his teammates fixed on him.
His tall, skinny frame bent awkwardly at the waist, his right hand bent in front of him as a sort of buffer for the defense, he looked alternately ridiculous, lost, and in his own world.
His intensity, though, burned through, and he was no doubt in that zone that athletes talk about with the reverence of a prodigal son.
That zone, as slippery as it is enthralling, is what an athlete chases his whole life.
"Look," said a teammate, pointing at his still-squinting center, "Josh has The Eye."
And, that, I think to myself, is what I'm chasing some ten years after high school.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Students versus Faculty Game

I'm not sure if it was the two Five Hour Energy bottles I downed five minutes before tipoff, or the excitement of a victory, but I didn't fall asleep until about 2:45 am a week ago. This was the night/morning after the teachers at my school took home a nine-point victory over the school's girls and boys basketball teams, and it might well have been a healthy dose of excitement that would not allow me to sleep. Apparently, these Five Hour Energy bottles will keep you up, and it seems fitting that one of the salves I relied on to prop me up for this Game of all Games kept me awake almost all night.
These salves included a pregame meal the likes of which I have not eaten in a long time--well, at least in the year since the last student/faculty basketball game. My carbohydrate count was similar to that of the cloudy-memoried meals I ate in my high school days, full of pasta and bread and cereal with just a little turkey on the bread and milk in the cereal for my protein totals.
I drank two eight-ounce cups of water twenty minutes before the game, strengthening the base built by the three eight-ounce cups I drank an hour before tipoff.
My pregame ritual may have been laughable to an observer, as I couldn't help but think that I was doing the same stretches and rituals that I'd done some thirteen years before as a high school player. This night, though, my ardent pregame preparation would have to make up for the fact that I had not "done my homework."
The plan was (always a dangerous three words) that I would play three nights a week for four weeks. A week later, my basketball shoes still fresh in the closet, the plan was altered: three times a week for three weeks...until I soon found myself begging into a game to 11 with players who were probably born right around the years when I was playing JV basketball. This was the night before the real thing-the students awaited the next night.
Playing the role of distributor (I mean, c'mon, I couldn't just score every time on these young players!), I fooled myself into believing that not being a standout in a game featuring all mid-teenagers was not so much a function of terrible conditioning as of rustiness. Rustiness, I figured, would be eradicated with this one game reawakening my prodigious games. My shoes had been broken in, the wheels greased.
It was with none of the previous night's confidence that I awoke on game day, fully aware that my trash talk of the previous week was far ahead of my game's readiness.
It's not so much important that the teachers recruited two former (albeit, 40s in age) NFL players with tangential links to the school, or that our personnel director's brother (he of the twenty-point output and suffocating defense) was weakly and half-heartedly cited as a "substitute" to complaining students. It's not so important that the teachers mounted a huge comeback to turn an early 14-3 deficit into a 47-38 victory, helped by two big three-pointers and a few assists by yours truly. What I'll remember is an early maze of images--a big man guarding me after a defensive switch, my brain lighting up with delight, knowing I can drive by him to the basket. An awkward crossover, our footwork in lock-step, a tip-away, a steal. As I trail this big man as he approaches for a layup, the distance between us seems to lengthen, and I trail off like a cornerback conceding a touchdown to a streaking receiver. Fresh in my mind is the idea that "back in the day," I would have blocked the layup or at least forced a bad shot.
This turnover and layup were almost as strong in my mind as the fact that we'd won.
The next day, I resolved to play hoops more-you know, three times a week to stay up on my skills...
I have yet to lace 'em up.