“We do not wear black sneakers. They mess up the floor and it is easier for the refs to see your feet move in black shoes.”
“Why dribble the ball once and pick it up? All you’ve accomplished is ‘one dribble nowhere.’” (This might have been Coach Root in 8th grade)
“Follow your shot.”
“Turn around and box out! Find the person with your butt and back into them!”
“No cross-court passes.”
“When you get the rebound, tuck the ball into your chest and stick your elbows out. Don’t stand still or the ‘little ones’ will come in and try to grab it. Better yet, hold it up above your head, elbows out and pivot, looking for your outlet. The minute you bring it down, that’s when they are going to jump you.”
When I graduated from high school and went off to college, I was sure that these words would be stuck in my head forever. Twenty years later and I guess I was right. I have not picked up a basketball in over two years and yet for some reason I signed up for a local tournament.
The last basketball I played was the “street” variety pick-up games at my local L.A. Fitness. You know, the kind of game where the guys begrudgingly ask the woman shooting on the side to play because they need a 5th; the game where they don’t actually pass to the woman until she’s the only option left and even then only half-heartedly; the game where the guys on the other team start rooting for the woman to get the ball, because even they can see that she’s wide open – and they’ve already gotten a taste of her elbows on a few rebounds and were surprised to get boxed out. Yes, those kind of games. I would wander onto the basketball court after running on the treadmill and lifting weights to get a few sprints in. There is something about the smell of hardwood, polished and waiting, and the sound of a basketball bouncing on the floor and clanking off the rim. Sometimes I would just stand at the line and shoot foul shots, if there was no game going on. Just the simple act of setting my right toe, dribbling three times, spinning the ball in my hands and letting it fly . . . swish. Took me back to the good ol’ days.
I have not even really worked out in a few months. The last time I remember going to the gym was when Kensi was about a year old and I left her in the Kids Club. She screamed so much I haven’t been back. So what was I doing this past Sunday, standing in the Student Activities Gym at UCLA, with a lot of younger, more athletic ladies shooting around? Was I really thinking that I could pick up where I left off so many years ago and play? Just like riding a bike, right? Pick up and get right back to it, right? Maybe not so much.
The ladies that I was teamed up with were a lively bunch. Six of them play regularly on a league team in Burbank. Although Sunday’s tournament was put on by the Lady Lawyers League, the players were from all walks of LA life – a police dispatcher, someone in the music industry, someone from Child Services, a lawyer, a nanny, the list goes on. The six teammates welcomed the three of us that latched on and somehow I ended up on the court for the tip-off. I stepped back and let the league player take the jump ball, worried that I’d end up on my ass if I tried a jump ball at this point. (She laughed when I told her that.)
The first few minutes went o.k. and then the wheels fell off. You know that pain you get in the center of your chest, when you push yourself beyond your physical limits? I got that after a minute and a half. I fought it and soon got past it enough to at least run down the court. I could feel my face turning red, but finally got my breathing under control. Then I took a shot. And missed. Airball. My arms felt like lead and I laughed as I struggled to even get the ball over my head. With just 6 minutes gone (we played 14 minute halves,) I gladly subbed myself out and found a seat on the bench. It went without saying that those “glory days” were long gone.
The first game ended in a heartbreaking 1 point loss. The second game ended with a three point loss and more than a few gripes about the officiating. Even allowing for the “volunteer” referee’s youth and inexperience, there were just some things that he should have not missed. When the opposing player has to leave footprints up my back to get the rebound over my head, I think it is time to blow the whistle. Oh yeah, she was about 5'3'.
The important thing is that I had fun, I think. I probably would have done a little better had there been an oxygen tank on standby at center court, but I held my own. I even managed to rack up some decent statistics (although there were no official scorekeepers,) I scored a few points here and there, made some foul shots (and fouls) and blocked a shot.
The funny thing for me was how quickly it all came back. Not the act of dribbling the ball or shooting or even moving to the open spot, although those things were certainly there as well, but the little things that I had forgotten had been drilled into my head all those years ago, things that I found myself doing automatically, and then wondering if people thought I was strange. For example, on defense I found myself calling out screens and yelling “shot!” when someone threw up a shot and putting my hands up (although they did start to weigh more as the day went on.) I moved my feet and turned to follow the ball, forming a triangle between my man and the ball, with the basket behind me. On a shot, I would turn and find my man and try to box out. On offense I would call for the ball and put my hands where I wanted to get the ball. I tried to dribble with my head up and see the court and my teammates and I tried to follow my shots. On offensive rebounds, I came down with the ball and then fought my way right back up without dribbling first. At least, that’s how I saw it all in my head.
I also heard Coach Holmes in the things I did. At one point a teammate grabbed a pass on the fly and shot the ball while still in mid-air. The first thought that popped into my head was that “Coach Holmes would have benched us for that!” I caught myself looking for jewelry before we started and then in defiance, told myself that I was an adult and this wasn’t the high school gym anymore and left my earrings in. In high school, we would have run sprints for that.
Physically, the day got the best of me. My back and shoulders hurt in ways they haven’t in years. The old knee and ankle injuries have flared up and I find myself hobbling a bit from place to place, getting stiff when I sit too long. Emotionally it was a step back in time, something I would never have realized that I needed without actually doing it. It was also a look into the future, watching my six year old pick up a ball and shoot around with her Daddy, and watching my baby, just a year and a half, trying to dribble the ball before it rolled away.
Yes, I walked away from that afternoon with a lot of aches and pains. But I also walked away with some new friends and my little girl begging me to put up a hoop at home and teach her how to play and I remembered why I love the game. I would call that a pretty successful outing. Now can someone please get me some ice?! Where's the trainer? I need my ankle taped!
Look at that form! Of course it went straight in!
Next season's rising star.