We are the joke of the Monday Night Hamilton (Massachusetts) Basketball League, a roundball refuge for the over-35 set. Each winter, my team -- Manchester Electric -- stuffs the opposition. But each spring, when the play-offs roll around, we get bounced. For three years, I chalked our winless streak up to choking. But last year, during another play-off drubbing, I had an epiphany: We weren't chokers. We were a flawed team.
For the fourth straight year, rebounding forward Bob Magro pushed the break when he shouldn't, and guard Rick Vancisin didn't shoot when he should. I hogged the ball, attempting to re-create the play-making magic of Earl "the Pearl" Monroe. "You dribble too much," muttered Tom Linkas, during yet another unproductive time-out. "Screw you,'' I muttered back.
But Linkas, our coach and power forward, was right. All my basketball life, I've seen myself as a savvy team player, a guy who made other players better. Linkas put me on notice that I was living a basketball lie. That hurt. So I went looking for help.
The Never Too Late Basketball Camp in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts is that rare thing -- a place where coaches attempt to teach avid, adult-age hoopsters how to become team players. NTL (a nationwide outfit) isn't a fantasy camp, where glam NBA stars flit about. Nor is the camp a glorified pickup game, where the take-home lesson is to shoot the ball -- if you're lucky enough to touch it.
Run by Steve Bzomowski, 46, formerly a coach at Harvard and once a scout for the NBA, NTL is all about practice -- team practice. That means high-intensity drills, plays to run, endless whistles, a trainer, a penalty sprint or two, and a coach who really coaches. Friday and Sunday are short, bookend days. Saturday is a monster: hoops from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Twenty people in all -- 16 men and 4 women -- show up on a Friday night in late autumn. There are law partners from Chicago, brokers from Wall Street, an executive from Covance Inc. (a biopharmaceutical-development company), and another from PeopleSoft Inc. (a business-software developer). Some of them play in leagues for urban professionals; others play in crack-of-dawn pickup games. Most have at least one thing in common, explains Bzomowski: "They're still pretty pissed at their high-school coaches for cutting them."
9:31 a.m.: Fast Break
Judging from the pre-practice shooting and layup drills, there appear to be several gamers among us: Rocco Sellitto, 38, a six-foot-three-inch podiatrist from Brooklyn, unleashes swooping Michael Jordan imitations; Ray Vazquez, 44, vice chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, dribbles between his legs with a Globetrotter-like flourish. Bzomowski notices me noticing. "Every team," he reminds me, "looks good in warm-ups."
Our Dr. Jekyll side comes out during the first team drill: running the fast break. To execute a "showtime" break, says Bzomowski, attack hard, but stay well spaced and stay in control. We run through an exhausting number of three-on-twos and three-on-ones. And we keep score ("because this is America") -- by measuring how fast we can sink 11 shots.
Outnumbering the defense as we do, we should be able to nail 11 fast breaks in just a few minutes. Instead, we fumble. We fail to run in the correct lanes. We throw outlet passes over our teammates' heads, at their feet, and into the hands of big men who have never learned to dribble at full gallop. Those of us who were smug going into the drill are suddenly a lot less so.
"It's fun to fly," Herman "the Helicopter" Knowings, a '60s playground legend from Harlem, once said of finishing the fast break. But we're stuck on the runway, waiting to take off.
10:05 a.m.: The Post-Up
We split into two groups. My team will practice post-up moves. Being a five-foot-ten-inch point guard, I'm not exactly captivated by this "big man" drill, and I don't exactly hide my lack of interest. Big mistake. I fumble a pass and then drift into the lane, where I flick up a shot. A whistle shrieks, and Bzomowski chews me out for my half-assed effort.
I vow to put more into the move next time -- to spread my limbs wide and to stand firm, like Shaquille O'Neal. But I'm convinced that big-man play isn't my role. I pass and shoot. Shouldn't I work on my dribble drive -- and leave the big men to do what they do best?
"On good teams, players know their roles," Bzomowski retorts. "On great teams, players know their own roles and everyone else's role too. The more you know about how a teammate plays his position, the better you'll play your own position."
Back to the pivot I go. This time I catch the ball, turn, and power up. I also grunt like a bull seal. One of the big men, Mike Sheridan, 50, a sales rep for Northern Plains Distributing Inc. in Fargo, North Dakota, taps me on the shoulder. "Nice move," he says. "Lousy grunt."
11:05 a.m.: The Free Throw
We gather around for a 10-minute primer on how to step up and sink the big shot. Most of us don't want anything to do with "the big shot." That's understandable, says Bzomowski. But the free throw doesn't have to be a big deal. A free throw is, after all, a free shot: No defense. No distraction. Just you and the hoop.
Successful free-throwers follow a ritual every time they step up to the line. Bzomowski squares his feet, spreading them shoulder-width apart, with one foot slightly ahead of the other. He lines up his shooting hand with the center of the hoop, takes a deep breath, keeps his eyes on the front of the rim, shoots, and follows through. We watch as he swishes a dozen shots in a row. In a charity event, he once sunk 300 free throws in 10 minutes flat.
But for most of us, the free throw isn't nearly so easy. It's the most naked moment in basketball. Action stops, the referee hands you the ball, and everyone -- teammates, opponents, hopeful family members -- waits while you take aim. Consistently sink your free throws, and you'll become a prized teammate. Miss them, and your demoralized team will lose its bounce faster than a Spalding with a stake in it.
11:30 a.m.: The Scrimmage, Part I
The morning session ends with a controlled scrimmage. Bzomowski, who is coaching my team, maps out five plays for us to run. Each play involves a series of screens. None guarantees a gimme layup, but all are designed to make life hard for the defense.
Call our team a work in progress. Jeff Hurwitz, 38, a senior vice president at Covance, complains that nobody sprints down-court to pick for him. I'm mad because the group has yet to figure out that I'm a point guard. Mike Steinberg, 38, a managing director at Nomura Securities Co. Ltd., isn't angry, but he should be: He's one of the better players on the court, but we've largely ignored him. "We need a time-out, we need a time-out!" screams Hurwitz. But in this match, there are no time-outs. Chaos reigns.
3:30 p.m.: One-on-One
After a three-hour break, we're back for more. On tap is a series of one-on-one offensive drills against a "live" defense. The object is not to feed our lifelong lust to be Dr. J but to turn ourselves into a plausible scoring threat. After all, if you're not good enough for the defense to take you seriously, then you're a liability to your team.
We practice hard-crossover dribble drives. Then we switch to fake-crossover drills. In each case, we get three seconds to blow by our defensive partners. Bothered by our flabby efforts, Bzomowski stops the action to show us what we should be doing: He tears past a defender, dipping his shoulder low to draw contact. "The defense is like a door," he says. "Bust it open."
Later Bzomowski stops us at mid-drill and pulls aside the camp whippet, Andrew Feldstein, 34, a structured-finance specialist at J.P. Morgan & Co. "The easiest person for the defense to guard is the guy who never moves," says the coach. "The second easiest is the guy who's always moving fast."
Bzomowski demonstrates how to roll off a pick and then make an explosive, dribble-drive move to the hoop. Rather drowsily, he sets up the move: "It's like slowwwww . . . BAM . . . FAST! Sucker the defender, and then accelerate from zero to 60."
5:15 p.m.: The Scrimmage, Part II
Everyone is dragging. humidity in the gym has reached Amazonian levels. The Gatorade and orange slices have vanished. "Scrimmage time!" cheers Bzomowski.
While Bzomowski maps out a crafty opening play, our squad gathers around Vince Audinot, 42, who is brandishing an aerosol can of stickum. This tacky substance, when applied to shoe bottoms, should help our sneakers to grip the floor. "The stuff works," says Audinot.
It works all too well: We're stuck in neutral. Bzomowski calls a clear out-play for me: I'm supposed to beat Ray Vazquez one-on-one and then either score or pass to an open teammate. But Vazquez stuffs me. On the other end of the floor, Vazquez issues a no-look, behind-the-back bounce pass that results in an easy layup. Departing from camp rules, Bzomowski allows us a time-out.
Teamwide griping erupts, but our coach shuts it down. Bzomowski chastises everyone and then sends us back onto the court with a parting shot: "If the play's not there, call another one."
We run a new double-pick play that's meant to free up Hurwitz for an inside gimme. Astonishingly, it works. Next time down the court, I roll off a pick and break free in the lane. Harking back to the post-up drill, I fake-pivot and, moving the other way, power up with a jump hook. The ball drops through the net. Two possessions later, in a textbook move, Hurwitz hooks his man on an inside pick, fades toward the corner, and drains a 15-foot jump shot.
Suddenly, we're clicking. Six hours ago, we hated one another -- or at any rate, we hated one another's game. Now there are smiles all around. So Bzomowski raises the stakes: The score is 105 to 105, he announces, with three minutes left to play.
But none of us cracks.
We are a juggernaut: We make steals. We execute fast breaks. We sink baskets. We're loose, we're smooth, we're in control. Tomorrow may be different. But today we're a team.
Action Item: Hoops Conditioning
Few physical endeavors tax the human body in quite the same way as basketball. Unlike other cardiovascular sports, such as running and cycling, playing hoops requires a phenomenal amount of lateral cutting, quick pivoting, and explosive jumping. Greg Brittenham, the strength and conditioning coach for the New York Knicks, has put together a program that will prepare you for all of those moves.
Brittenham's "Complete Conditioning for Basketball," available in both book and video formats, includes tests for determining your current level of hoops fitness; a regimen for building abdominal and lower-back strength (your "center of power"); flexibility exercises; and drills that improve both basketball skills and general conditioning.
So take your pick: You can follow the coach in the video, or you can follow along with the book's 50 illustrations and charts. Either way, if you get on Brittenham's program, chances are good that your first winter-league game won't leave you feeling as if you'd been flattened by a truck.
Coordinates: Book: $15.95. Human Kinetics, 800-747-4457, www.humankinetics.com; Video: $39.95. Fever River Sports Productions, 800-932-2534, www.syskos.com
Sidebar: Hoops Nation
Looking for a fast break on your next five-day, six-city business trip? "Hoops Nation: A Guide to America's Best Pick-Up Basketball" (Henry Holt, 1998), by Chris Ballard, gives the lowdown on roughly 1,000 courts, rating them on everything from ambience to backboard quality. Here are three highlights.
Atlanta: Ballard calls it one of the five best pickup courts in the United States: The Run N' Shoot Athletic Center has seven full courts, a weight room, and a running track. Coordinates: $6 for a one-day pass. 1959 Metropolitan Parkway, Atlanta, 404-767-1522
Los Angeles: Immortalized in Ron Shelton's film, White Men Can't Jump (1992), the Venice Beach Courts boast ocean views and the world's best trash talk. The main court is flanked by four half courts, where three-on-three games rule. Coordinates: Near the Boardwalk, at Venice Boulevard and Pacific Avenue, Venice, California
New York City: Think of it as a hoops-only health club: Basketball City features six hardwood courts, electronic scoreboards, and a corporate-heavy clientele. The sign-in for pickup games is computer-monitored, so there's no jawing over who goes next. Coordinates: $25 for a one-day pass. Pier 63 at West 23rd Street, New York City, 212-924-4040
Sidebar: Hoop Talk
The quickest way to get shunned at a local court is to give a blank look when someone shouts, "Dish the rock, baby!"
"Forget about embarrassing yourself," says Jackie MacMullan, the "Inside the NBA" columnist for Sports Illustrated and a longtime connoisseur of trash talk. "Your ignorance of hoops vernacular may keep you from seeing the ball ever again." Here are MacMullan's picks for an abridged version of the hoops lexicon.
- dish (dish), noun or verb: a good pass
- drain (dran), verb: to swish a shot
- hops (haeps), noun: good jumping ability, syn: talk to God, air time, rise
- J (ja), noun: a jump shot
- kicks (kiks), noun: basketball shoes
- rain (ran), verb: to hit long-distance jump shots, syn: en fuego (on fire)
- rock (raek), noun: a basketball
- stroke (strok), verb: to shoot well
- "bank's open": denotes the use of the backboard on a jump shot (as in, after draining a 15-footer off the glass, "Bank's open, baby!")
- "break ankles": to fake out a defender by using a crossover dribble
- "your world": informs a teammate that he can beat his man ("Take it to the rack -- it's your world!")
Sidebar: Hoop Wear
Hoops fashion goes through more changes than a supermodel at a Milan premiere. Here are the latest do's and don'ts, according to Chris Ballard, author of "Hoops Nation."
Basketball: Stay away from red, white, and blue ABA balls. "Bring a Spalding Ultimate Indoor ball [$57], and people will play with it."
Sneakers: Nikes and Filas command respect, but don't wear them on the street. "Sneakers should be carried into the gym and unveiled."
Shorts: No tennis shorts or Bermudas. Shorts should be extra-baggy and should drape down to the knees.
Shirt: "Wear your league jersey. At least it shows that you're on a team."
Socks: "Ten years ago, low-cut socks screamed 'wussy.' Now they're cool."
Bag: Ballard recommends HoopSaq ($45.99, from SportSaq), a basketball-specific day-pack.
Wristband: Put one band high on your forearm, just like Mike.
Baseball Cap: Wear it backwards. "Worn frontwards, a cap blocks your line of sight."
Coordinates: $12.95. "Hoops Nation: A Guide to America's Best Pick-Up Basketball," Henry Holt, 888-330-8477, www.hholt.com
Sidebar: Hoop School
The options for advanced degrees in hoops have improved immeasurably in recent years. Weekend camps tend to be the most popular, but there are also evening courses.
Never Too Late Basketball Camp: Steve Bzomowski's empire now includes weekend camps in New Hampshire and California, as well as western Massachusetts, and weeknight courses in Boston, New York City, and Washington, DC.
Coordinates: Never Too Late Basketball Camps Inc., West Medford, Massachusetts, 888-685-4667, www.nevertoolate.com
Beyond Basketball: Led by Charlie Rosen, past coach of several Continental Basketball Association teams, this camp focuses on every aspect of the game -- including ways to bring team play into street hoops.
Coordinates: Beyond Basketball, Rhinebeck, New York, 800-944-1001
Sports Legends Fantasy Camp: A four-day, you-against-the-greats showdown featuring Otis Birdsong, George Gervin, Nate Archibald, and Bobby Jones.
Coordinates: Personalities International, Dallas, 800-937-5107
Contributing Editor Todd Balf (firstname.lastname@example.org) also writes for Men's Journal and Sports Afield.