Page 2 columnist
Sixth Avenue and Houston Street, New York City -- Mad Max met Manhattan in the middle of this corner city park Thursday night, where a menacing-looking basketball half-court was temporarily constructed on a platform, surrounded by an 18-foot-high silver chain-link fence. Think hoops as a pro-wrestling steel-cage match.
Eight of the top playground basketball talents in the city were brought in as the culmination of a Nike-sponsored tournament of one-on-one to determine the best individual player around.
Who were these guys? Well, you might recognize half of them if you follow fairly obscure Division I college basketball teams. They all hail from some part of New York and brought with them name-recognition that comes with local summer-league dominance. Some have made a living playing overseas, and you can be sure that they all are confident they could play in the League if they got the chance. They couldn't have made it this far if they weren't.
DJs spun hip-hop records for the 1,200 people who ignored scorching weather and a twisting three-block wait to finally pack the park at dusk, noisily collapsing into two sets of metal bleachers placed along the baseline and left side of the court, waiting for the games to start.
The scene -- vibrant with the latest NBA jersey fashions and buzzing with backseat analysis -- was a trip if you enjoy hoops couture, but it wasn't the place to go looking for secrets into how a team might upend the Lakers. One-on-one is boxing to organized basketball's barroom brawl. But watching the tourney's seven games through the crowning of a champ, six themes for one-on-one success became clear. Apply them the next time your parent, sibling, buddy, boss or significant other throws down the challenge (taking them into a cage is optional, but finding a DJ to create a soundtrack is highly recommended):
1. Understand the rules
Games were eight minutes long, running clock. The first player to 22 points -- or leading when time ran out -- won. Alternating possessions. To keep things moving, there was a 10-second shot-clock; to keep things interesting, there was a 3-point arc, which disappeared in the corners. That's the simple part.
There was a ref, but any player who expected the ref to call it close -- to call it at all -- was playing in the wrong place. "Why are you yelling at the ref?" celebrity master of ceremonies John Salley mocked. "They ain't the one that fouled you!"
Lessons for your own game: Anything goes. Take that Ewing Hop. Do a little shuffle in the post. Carry. Slap. Hold. Push off. Trip. No blood, no foul? Try "no foul, no foul."
2. Get yourself a nickname
After analyzing some of the players in the night's tourney field, it became apparent that all playground-basketball nicknames derive from one of five devices: (1) Alliteration with your first or last name (Cameron "Killah" Benison, Dan "Delightful" Shanoff); (2) Initials or name-shortening (Darren "DP" Philips, Kevin "Kev" Houston, Dan "Shhh" Shanoff); (3) Pop-culture pun (Tariq "Captain Kirk" Kirksay, Dan "Smirnoff" Shanoff); (4) Specific skills (Mike "Mr. Smooth" Campbell; Dan "Mr. Afraid-of-Contact" Shanoff); and (5) Plain-old boasting (John "The Franchise" Strickland, BJ "Beast Monster" McFarlan, Dan "Half-Man, Half-Mouse" Shanoff).
Lessons for your own game: Armed with these templates, you too can develop your own playground-basketball nickname. However, it always helps the credibility to have someone else dub you, preferably someone who admires you.
3. Check your wind
One-on-one is a hell of a lot more tiring than five-on-five. In the team game, you can take plays off -- or at least let someone else carry the load once in a while. Alone, no one does the work but you. The running eight-minute clock made the games more like a grueling 800-meter sprint than a well-paced marathon.
Of the eight guys in the quarterfinals, six were beefy power players and two were guards. Quite a bit of energy was expended by the post players to work their way down low, then throw up a hook. Consequently, all players were fresh and strong through the first two minutes; inevitably, by the six-minute mark, things slowed progressively. In a few games, barely a handful of points were scored in the last four minutes of the game.
Lessons for your own game: When determining game rules, avoid something out of your comfort-zone, like running eight-minute clocks. One-minute clocks sound about right.
4. Practice crowd control
The raucous turn-away audience was fickle -- what else do you want from New Yorkers? They would root for one player as he would begin by putting a hurting on his opponent, then cheer like crazy as the underdog would scratch his way back into the game.
Crazy dribbling, spin moves and the ol' dipsy-do were crowd-pleasers, but were quickly dismissed if they didn't result in a basket. After an early barrage of missed 3-pointers, Kev was hearing it from the crowd -- and getting hammered down low by The Franchise. Jumpers, some onlookers howled, were for ... something you can't print on a family website. But when his outside shot finally went down and Kev rode his hot streak to the comeback win, the crowd cheered louder with each basket.
Lessons for your own game: The players who recognized the crowd's presence -- with a little dance, or raised arms after a long made shot -- were rewarded with its attention. If someone is watching you play, treat them like your fan base; if no one is watching you play, try pantomime. You'll be inspired.
5. Diversify your game
Style is overrated, particularly if a player with a Mahorn-caliber derriere keeps bumping his smaller opponent further into the key until he gently lays the ball in. This was Mr. Smooth's early trouble with DP in the fourth quarterfinal. In a winner-take-all tourney, all that matters is to get the ball in the hole, no matter how you do it; DP was ugly, but effective.
As he put in his third straight muscled layup, it seemed that the theme of the night would end up being "big man backs it down ... jump hook right," which is how 90 percent of the tourney's baskets were scored. Smooth could never beat DP in the paint, so he brought the ball back well beyond the 3-point line and started bombing away -- hitting nothing but net. DP wasn't quick enough to guard him that far away from the basket, and Smooth took advantage. Six treys later, Smooth was on his way to the semis; DP was on his way back to Brooklyn. Smooth and Kev -- the tourney's only two guards -- would use their abilities to drive and to hit the deep shot to advance to an all-guard finals in a field of big men.
Lessons for your own game: Admit it -- you'll never win the battle down low, so shoot as many 3s as possible while your legs are still fresh. Maybe you will get lucky.
6. Play for something -- ideally tangible
What's the point of playground basketball games? To hold the court for a while is satisfying. Pride is always an enjoyable reward. But let's face it: Money and fame are much better.
When Smooth and Kev took the court for the finals, the title of "King of the Court" (including a trophy crown) was the least of what was on the line. The tourney winner would get $5,000 -- not a bad payout for a night's work. He would get a one-year Nike shoe contract -- certainly more than the other guys at the local court would have, particularly the pair of one-of-a-kind platinum high-tops that matched the crown. And he would get his own larger-than-life, Joey-Harrington-eat-your-heart-out billboard spot right above the court later this summer.
So Smooth and Kev went at each other as if this was the break of their basketball lives. It made for riveting competition -- winner literally take all. Kev almost had his second stirring comeback of the night, but he ran out of clock and Smooth never ran out of long-distance bullets. After the game, with a stunned look on his face, Smooth walked a red carpet laid down on the court to a royal-looking throne, where the fans gathered around to cheer him.
Lessons for your own game: Follow these six rules. Mr. Smooth did, and his "coronation" was a point-by-point lesson of how to apply them to become a one-on-one champ.Dan Shanoff is a columnist for Page 2. His "What's Hot, What's Not" trend-spotting list appears on Thursdays.