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In the Beginning was The Handle

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"Hi! Can Yago play?"

Which came first, the comforting feel of the ball in my hands or my ability to keep it in my hands?

I don't know. But I know I don’t remember ever feeling bad with a basketball in my hand.

To this day, there is some mysterious connection that occurs when I pick up the ball, a current that begins to flow. I do remember sometimes feeling bad when thinking about basketball, especially in high school, especially junior and sometimes, more rarely, senior year. I might feel bad in a game when the ball was knocked out of my hands, but never, ever when the ball was in my hands. When the ball was in my hands, and even just when I stepped on the court, all was right: I always felt good, confident, hopeful, optimistic, relaxed, and at ease.
Don't Think Too Much

If I wasn’t playing I was looking forward to playing. When I finished playing I felt a bit of sadness, loss. Sometimes I’d feel disappointed in how I’d played. Sometimes I’d feel frustrated about the play of teammates or the breaks that hadn’t gone our way. Sometimes (usually) I’d feel nervous looking ahead to a game. But those feelings never grew to the point where I dreaded playing, or was afraid to play. On the contrary, they were always swaddled in eager anticipation of the next game, the next time the ball would be in my hands. Usually, just lying back in my bed, picking up my ball, move it around in my hands, just feeling it was enough to comfort me.

Near the beginning of his basketball memoir My Losing Season, the novelist Pat Conroy talks about the staccato rhythms of the ball on the floor:

Where did all those games go, the ones I threw myself headlong into as a boy, a rawboned kid who fell in love with the smell and shape of a basketball, who longed for its smooth skin on the nerve endings of my fingers and hands, who lived for the sound of its unmistakable heartbeat, its staccato rhythms, as I bounced it along the pavement throughout the ten thousand days of my boyhood.
I know well the comfort of that feel and of that sound. The sense of absolute easy, effortless control dribbling the basketball. It was on a string, a part of my hand. Casually dribbling, then springing into motion, intensifying the rhythm of the ball, which followed me a like a cheerfully obedient pet. And there was a kind of pleasure I felt and indulged in varying and controlling the rhythm of the ball hitting the pavement on the floor. I can’t consciously keep a beat to save my life, but with the ball in my hands, I was a percussionist -- the ball and pavement my instruments -- and more than once I dribbled around the driveway laying down the track of the bouncing ball over the rhythms of Earth, Wind and Fire blaring out of my father’s boom box (which he’d allowed me to take out to the garage).

I don't know. But I know I developed and refined my handle playing against my older brothers and my father in the driveway, probably starting around the summer I turned 5. They were bigger, stronger, and faster than me. Tony was the best athlete and most skilled, my Dad was the toughest and most physical, and Juan was the one would wear me down psychologically. But the truth is, I couldn’t shoot over any of them and I couldn’t back any of them down, and they were all three aggressive defenders who got up in my chest, suffocating me, and they all three got under my skin. If they took it easy on me on account of our age and size differences, they were masters at disguising it. My game was protecting the ball, and using its motion as I protected it to create an opening, a passage, a line of flight through which I could burst on my way to the hoop. Post moves, jumpers, fade-aways, they came later (in response to different defenders and different defenses).

This primal ability to protect the ball stayed with me and served me well, even years later, in high school. Our coach installed the North Carolina four-corners offense for the first time in my junior year when I joined the varsity as the starting point guard.
It's all about me
It might have been my favorite part of the game. We would lead by a point or two in the final couple of minutes, coach would signal for the four corners, and I would be back in my driveway, dribbling and dribbling, beating my man, dishing off to one of my teammates in the corner, keeping alive an endless possession, the feel of the ball in my hands - an opportunity to be selfish in a system that mostly had me thinking about others.

Those possessions in high school might end with a teammate’s easy lay-up; more often with me shooting free-throws, which I made, especially at the end of games. I loved being at the line at the end of close games with the ball in my hand. But at the beginning, when I was a kid, it was all lay-ups, earned lay-ups crafted in traffic, under duress. They never gave up, even when I’d created my half-step margin, they rode on the back of my hip, the steel bar of a man’s arm across my chest, a sharp knee in my thigh as I pushed past, knowing in my bones and muscles that the path to the hoop was mine, a thing I had made and that I had a right to.

Tony was the best athlete and the most skilled of my first three opponents. And so even as I got my step on him (earned when I was older, granted perhaps by him sometimes when I was younger, either because he wanted to keep it interesting or he wanted to teach me wordlessly), I know it wasn’t done. He might block my shot from behind and so I developed the knowledge of using my body and the hoop to protect the shot, to protect my space.

I learned that I could go under the basket to shoot the reverse, I learned to change my shot in mid-air, I learned to stop on a dime, fake, and when he had committed and gone up or by me I would toss it up softly off the board. So if my handle and my quickness were my first game, finishing strongly and creatively near the hoop were the second, and a corollary of the first, and like my handle forged by the conditions of the games and especially the opponents I had at hand.

(Here is a hoops axiom: You develop what your toughest competition forces you develop, or, You become what you cannot yet beat. It is true at the improvisational level of a single one-on-one play and it is true at the level of teams and organizations from season to season.)

My ball handling skills could also have been built upon the foundation of drills I would only learn later, and they were certainly eventually enhanced by those drills. But the fundamentals and their principled, systematic and orderly, development by rote came much later. First there was this pragmatic academy founded on the chaotic urgency of my small body and my desire to keep up, my will to be grown, and equal at least to the best around me. Somehow, there was no intimidation, no fear. I was anger and determination, I was that ball on a string in the beginning and that crazy, intuitively calculated prayer I would toss up off the glass at the end.


det November 18, 2010 at 4:54 PM  

Hello, Dear Yago,
I will have to do some more reading. I think some of your recollections are somewhat miscued. For instance Papá, he was not physical so much as a klutz!Juan was like pulling teeth to get him to play!Me I knew I could whip all three of you. I also did a lot of dribbling drills with you on the driveway you did`nt like them much.

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