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Running Against Athletes On a Different Plane

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A Daily Babble Production

We watch basketball's best play on television all the time and occasionally in person.  What professional and top-tier collegiate athletes can do looks awe-inspiring enough from those angles.  But there is a whole different perspective and understanding that comes with being on the floor as the one trying to prevent some of those athletic feats from occurring.

It is an experience that never ceases to amaze me, and though I hadn't had been in that sort of situation in a while, the events of this past weekend proved no different on that front.  Some individuals are simply on a higher physical plane.

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Some background: I play pickup basketball several days a week, and the gym I use when I'm buried in the Midwest is occasionally visited by certain Big XII college players.  Your narrator is a 6-1 jack-of-all-trades-master-of-few-if-any who once upon a time played his high school ball for the smallest team in its conference, so he's a bit more comfortable than one might expect banging around down low defensively.  What I'm lacking in size and strength, I make up for with an equally appalling lack of quickness.  Scene set.

Saturday afternoon, two friends and I get involved in a five-on-five open run and take our first game with relative ease.  This means that we're the reigning owners of the court to face the team that had next, which just happens to feature two current Division I collegiate players, who we'll refer to as Six and Z.

This effectively ends any reigning of ours.

Z and Six don't try much throughout the duration of the afternoon.  And it doesn't much matter.

Z and I match up in the first of what would prove to be four rounds against this team on a slow day at the gym.  Z has three inches on me and a world of quickness.  I run (and hold my own) against quicker players all the time; one function of being slow is that most opponents are quicker.  What I don't do as often is run against guys with an explosive enough first step that even giving them a few inches of space atop the key doesn't help.  Z blows by me on the game's first play, and I'm fortunate just to be able to get enough of a piece of him to prevent a lay-up.  Good thing you can't foul out of pickup games.  

I'm not as fortunate the next time, when Z decides to cross over once and fly by me again, this time to convert  lay-in.  He is slated to be the starting point guard for his college team this year.  Denying most explosive point guards the ball at the gym is usually easy enough.  Working hard to stay with them on the inbounds pass usually gets the job done.  Not the case here.  All my defensive sliding in the world won't keep Z in front of me.  One move frees him every time. 

He isn't trying.

Z mails it in through most of that first game, and I'm fortunate to be guarding a certain other individual two games later when Z begins his real exhibition.  He drains two threes to start a game.  On an odd-man rush, his man tries to slide to the spot in front of him underneath the rim, so Z simply picks up his dribble at the block and leaps up for a thunderous dunk.  He climbs the ladder for reverse alley-oops.  His quick hands get him several steals that turn into easy lay-ups for his team, and his quickness makes getting a step on him a virtual impossibility.

The truth is that Z isn't even the real story of the day so far as understanding that issue of a difference of plane is concerned. 

No, that comes through matching up with Six for the next three games.  This senior is 6-foot-9 and 244 pounds, and he is one of the starting bigs on Z's team.  If there should be one particularly obvious problem for me heading into this match-up, it's the issue of strength.  If he wants to post me up, I'm going to be in a lot of trouble.

But I never find that out the hard way.  Because in three games against me, Six doesn't go to the paint more than a handful of times.  Instead, he spends the day doing what he does worst: playing like an off-guard.  Six hangs out behind the three-point arc all day and makes me look powerless time and again.  It takes everything I've got just to stay in front of him as he crosses over several times in order to get himself a look he wants from three on each possession.  His dribble is high, but his sizable body shielding the ball makes lunging for a steal a silly course of action.

I stay low.  I keep on my toes and slide as quickly as my feet will allow.  I bump him away from the ball whenever I get a chance.  On a few occasions, I even keep him in front of me.  But invariably, when he decides he is tired of playing around, Six rises up, and there's not a single thing I can legally do about it.  He's got eight inches and a world of leaping ability.  He lifts off and gets the ball up high for the release.  I'm not touching it or even getting in his way.  He hits from the arc.  He hits from 25 feet.  He hits from 30 feet.  That he is still a big man and not a great three-point shooter is my saving grace, which means Six misses from time to time.  But aside from trying to make him use some energy and work to get his shot, I've got little to do with it.

The two highlights of my day come in the final of four straight losses.  The first comes on the offensive end, when a ball-fake on the left wing gets Six to lunge to the middle in anticipation of a pass, freeing me up for one hard dribble to the corner and a foot-on-the-line jumper.  Bang. 

The second comes at the end of this second straight surprisingly close game.  With the stars trying only when they feel like they have to defensively and former Columbia Missourian and Meadville Tribune reporter Bill Powell bombing from the outside for us, we tie the first-to-16 game up at 13 apiece.  Z gets the ball to Six on the left wing right away on the game's biggest possession.  Six crosses left to right, and I stay with him.  He goes back to his left and steps hard toward the wing.  I stay with him again, and as he starts to elevate, I put my hand on the basketball before he can bring it up, which forces him to abort the shot and attempt a pass in mid-air, which gets tipped out of bounds by one of our defenders.  

"Did I hit you on that?" I ask before the ball is checked.

"Nah, you were on the ball," Six responds as he chuckles,  "But it wasn't getting called even if you weren't."

I get up just enough to rake him across both arms on the next play to prevent another long-range bomb, giving him the call this time.  Thinking Six was the one to call the foul, Z refers to his teammate by a term that can't be printed here.  The message: My hack shouldn't prevent this gentleman from draining a 25-footer.  For most of the day, it hasn't.

On the final play of this set, with teammates behind me screaming, "Get in his shorts!", I play my best defense of the day, summoning everything I have to stay right with Six from several feet outside the line, finally forcing him to pass.  The joy is short-lived, however, as Z gets a long rebound and drains a two, pushing us to the brink at 15-13.  They win on the next trip down the floor.

And while I feel good about my personal effort at the end of that final game, the last play of the preceding game made me wonder just how much any of it mattered.  Once again, the big fellas couldn't be bothered defensively for most of this game, so we were tied at 14.  Once again, Six had the ball on the left wing.  It was probably my second best defensive possession of the day.  Not shaking me with any of his dribble moves, Six rose up from three feet beyond the line.  I jumped into him as he did...and it didn't even seem to affect the flow of his shot.  Twine.  Game over.   The only solace came from Six grabbing my shoulder and commending me with a sincere "Good D" as he came down.

The size.  The explosive quickness.  The leaping.  The hand-eye coordination.  The accuracy.  All of it is apparent even in what qualifies as glorified goof-off sessions.  These guys are on a completely different physical plane, and seeing it up close and personal is stunning.

But it's a challenge I love, and it only makes me even more appreciative of what these guys can do when they go harder and do it against players their own size.