4/9/09

Playing hoops again

I still remember my first day at the Kia Motors Training Center. I had been hired as a teacher in the center's intensive English language program. The general manager gave me a tour of the facilities. He was most proud of the basketball court. He talked about the Kia Motors basketball team, how they were so great, he talked about the different players. We spent more time at the basketball court than we did in the classrooms.

Of course I was thinking that, for once, my race had helped me get a job in Korea!

* * *

I would occasionally play basketball with the students at the training center. I was a few years removed from my prime. When I was in college I played every weekend, mostly in pickup games. Of course, we were all surprised by a guy we called Bird. I never knew his real name--he was a white guy with a pony tail. He was unassuming, never talked trash, just played the game. Wow, did he play well! All kinds of pump fakes, smooth moves, great shooter. Everyone else playing was black so there was already attention on him. Then he'd start doing all those pump fakes, behind the back passes. Sitting around talking waiting for our turn, we were asking: "Who the hell are you"?

It turns out that he had played college basketball but gotten kicked off his team for smoking weed (often). It was one of those "don't judge a book by its cover" moments (about basketball, not the weed and long hair).

* * *

The next teacher who was hired at Kia was a tall lanky Canadian. He could not play basketball at all. Later, I was promoted over the Canadian to become program director. I still suspect that it was my basketball skills that played a role in the decision...

* * *

I had played quite a bit when I lived in Taipei. When I look back that was the time of my life! Pretending to study Chinese in the early mornings. Pretending to teach English in the afternoons. Seriously chasing women at night. Playing basketball on the weekends. I'm pretty sure I was better than everyone I played.

I never minded trash talking. But trash talking isn't as much fun when you're opponent doesn't really understand what you're saying. I was always the best player so I probably slacked off a bit. I still remember one day when one of the Taiwanese kids celebrated for making a good play against me. I had just been playing for fun, but after that, I put in his face, hitting something like 7 shots in a row to end the game. That was the last time I ever played for fun in Taiwan--after that, I tried to dominate every game. I realized some of them were trying to get a reputation off me.

I was still very good by the time I got to Kia. One day I was out playing, dominating. I then took a break at the basketball office. Ho Jae, who later would play on the Korean Olympic team, wanted to know if I had played college basketball in America.

I watched the game when the South Korean team got dominated by the American team in an international basketball tournament. Ho Jae scored 9 points, the US won by 20 or 30 points.

* * *

Time--the years, and time away from the court--have changed things. It happens. Even Michael "Air" Jordan should have changed his nickname to Michael "Floor" Jordan at the end of his career. I was reluctant to try to dunk this morning, knowing that even touching the net might be a challenge. I wish that I had recorded myself dunking a basketball on a regular 10' hoop back in the day. I will probably never be able to do so again. I may need to have the rim lowered to 8' or 9'.

This morning I did an hour on the treadmill when I looked in at the basketball court. There was another gym member at the gym shooting hoops alone.

I walked in and asked, "Do you want to go one-on-one?" I haven't played so intensively in years! We were trash-talking, fouling each other and finger-wagging like Bill Clinton did when he denied his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

I told my opponent at the very beginning. "You know you shoot like a girl, right?" "Don't think you're going to treat me like your bitch." I was already talking trash after a minute, not even sure I would be able to last another 5 minutes of playing.

My opponent thought it was very funny, as she laughed at my trash-talking. That's right, I played one-on-one with a woman. From Ho Jae to Nikki...

She hadn't played in years and was only shooting hoops because the fitness class had been canceled.

I gently talked her into playing.

And that was the end of the gentleness.

I was better, but not by as much as I would have liked. She had played on her high school basketball team. Even though I'm much more athletic, she began doing a number of pump-fakes after I blocked her first two shots. That let her know that I was treating her like a real opponent, and she upped her intensity, too.

I don't take it easy when I play. No exceptions for women, unless they ask me to play softly. Back when I was in college I routinely played basketball with members of the women's college team. It was great for them because they could improve their ability by playing against men and I could still win every game. Some guys were slow to catch on that a basketball isn't heavy and that women can shoot it very well when they are unguarded.

As a freshman sports reporter on the school paper, I remember looking at the basketball statistics for the women's basketball team. A couple of them had very good shooting percentages. So I remember asking during a sports meeting if the baskets were lowered for the women. The sports editor (a woman who later was the 2nd female president of the paper) couldn't believe I had asked such a stupid question. I'm surprised I made it out of the meeting alive.

But how could I be sure she wasn't being PC?

I've always taken to heart the saying from the publisher of the Chicago Tribune: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

I went to a women's college basketball game to watch them play. A few weeks later I played on campus and saw a woman shooting baskets alone. Who knows, she may have been there before but I just had not noticed her. I challenged her to a game of one-on-one.

Boy, was she delighted! She never tried to join the games when men played and no one ever invited her to play. Yes, she could play. More of them started coming out to play pickup games with us. I was starting a revolution.

Probably none of them could have played very much on the men's varsity or even junior varsity teams, but in a regular basketball pickup game, they were definitely good players! I enjoyed playing basketball with them. I would trash-talk them, treat them like any other opponent. I did not go easy on them. I remember one day a guy was laughing when several of the women showed up to play. He wasn't laughing after one woman he was supposed to be guarding nailed three long jumpers in a row. His teammates were then yelling at him to guard her.

The woman I played against this morning said she enjoyed the game--and the trash-talking! She says if she sees me around the gym that she'll challenge me to another game. I have the feeling she is going to do more trash talking next time around...

* * *

I've played basketball with numerous male college basketball players. Ralph James (1,465 career points), Ian Smith (backup, now a weight-fitness guru for celebrities), Tedd Evers (backup, 3 point shooter), Neil Phillips (1,069 career points in basketball, 800 yards receiver as a football player), and Rumeal Robinson (he played in the NBA for a few years, I just watched as he seemed to dunk from the ceiling). If any of them had told me that I shot like a girl I probably would have agreed with them.

CJL