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Monday, May 14, 2007
Updated: May 18, 4:01 PM ET
The ultimate hoops game from hell

By Patrick Hruby
Page 2

The thrill of leading a fast break. The clowned-so-bad-you-gotta-laugh indignity of falling for a slick crossover dribble. The piggy bank ching! of a jump shot ripping a metal net. Few things in life are more enjoyable than a good game of pickup basketball; fewer still can be mentioned on a family-oriented Web site.

That said, heaven isn't always a playground.

Nope, sometimes pickup is more like hell. And all it takes is one bad actor, one archetypically annoying individual to spoil a good run. Like the guy who always tries to pick teams so his squad has all the best players. Or the dude who's more interested in showing off the new AND 1 move he's been practicing than, you know, not traveling every time he touches the effin' ball.

With that in mind, Page 2 presents eight of the most irritating types of pickup players. Share the court with them at your peril …

The Dirty Old Man
Species: Grabbius Elbowus
Signature Behavior: Making totally coincidental, utterly inadvertent physical contact. For the entire game.
Distinctive Markings: Elbow wrap, knee brace, surgical scars.
Natural Enemies: Fast breaks, the airspace around the basket, fraying Achilles tendons.
Mating Call: "What? What? Play through."

Old Man guy

He can't jump, sprint or shuffle sideways. And yet he refuses to take up golf. Like Andres Gomez beating 19-year-old Andre Agassi in a long-ago French Open final, the Dirty Old Man overcomes the ravages of age and/or the loss of original knee ligaments with a hefty helping of cunning and guile -- only by cunning and guile, I mean well-timed karate chops to the small of your back. A master of the game's gray arts, the Dirty Old Man does all the irritating stuff that earns whistles in organized hoops but never counts as fouls in pickup. Shake him with a crossover, and he'll knee you in the thigh; raise your arms as he posts up, and he'll hook you as he spins past; block him out, and he'll punish you for the insult, burying a forearm into your neck while using your shoulder as a springboard to the ball. Playing well below the rim, he's not above hand-slapping, shirt-grabbing and setting blind, moving picks (shoving off with both hands, of course, before rolling to the hoop for an easy deuce). Anything and everything to remain competitive.

Still, the Dirty Old Man isn't an unskilled hack.

He's usually a solid player, the dude who always hits the open cutter. It's just that his body can't keep up with his mind, fading muscle memory and still-burning will to win. And so he compensates, often by stiff-arming you in the solar plexus. (Enjoy the taste of elbow? By all means, go for the steal.) The Dirty Old Man won't try to injure you -- he's too honorable for that -- but he will drive you to frothing, pissed-off distraction. And that's exactly what he wants, because the more you worry about his next poke to the ribs, the less likely you are to just run right past him. As such, the best defense against his tactics is no defense at all -- instead, get the oldest guy on your team to switch up, and let the two lions in winter rage against both the dying of the light and their inevitable driving range destinies, one New York Knicks-circa-1993 hand check at a time.

(Also remember: The Dirty Old Man is you in about 10 years. Or maybe sooner, depending on how much ibuprofen you have to gulp down after a good, long run. So have a little sympathy.)

The Sweat Hog
Species: Speed Stickum Subigo
Signature Behavior: Perspiration, and lots of it.
Distinctive Markings: Dark spots on clothing; a waxy sheen everywhere else.
Natural Enemies: Dry cotton, a firm grip on the ball, stable footing if he happens to fall on the ground. Electrolyte loss.
Mating Call: Ungh! Wheeze! Ungh!

Sweaty guy

He is, first and foremost, a hairy beast. A wet and hairy beast, his surface is more matted than a frat house carpet, yet somehow slicker than a baby seal dipped in crude oil. The Sweat Hog perspires like everyone else, sure, only his runoff never evaporates -- not in an air-conditioned gym, not under a blazing summertime sun. Uh-uh. His manly dampness hangs tough, pooling like rainwater in the divot between his neck and clavicle, clinging to his torso like a suckling infant, soaking through his shirt like the spray from a busted fire hydrant.

Wait. Our bad. We almost forgot: Somehow, someway, the Sweat Hog always ends up on skins.

Yep, the Sweat Hog always ends up on skins, always brush-slides against you in transition, always ends up with the ball in the low post, leaving you two equally unpalatable options: (a) lay off, and give him room to shoot; (b) body up, and be coated in a sticky, salty, seemingly supernatural substance that recalls the ectoplasm from "Ghostbusters." Bad enough to give up the baseline; worse still to be slimed for the effort. To borrow from Gatorade's Super-Scientific Institute For The Study Of Fitness Models On Treadmills With Electrodes Taped To Their Chiseled Abs: The Sweat Hog's excretions aren't in you. They're on you. Indeed, it's nearly impossible to play with the Sweat Hog and not feel both physically and emotionally violated -- in dire need of a hot shower and a counselor, like someone forced to watch Hideki Matsui's DVD collection in its entirety -- never mind that El Cerdo Del Sudor has no idea how disgusting he is (if he did, he'd bring a couple of extra shirts, and a towel and wipe off the freakin' ball once in a while). Basketball is a messy, physical game; the Sweat Hog reminds us that the players are messier still, one clammy, icky residue deposit at a time.

The AI Wannabe
Species: Chuckmus Maximus
Signature Behavior: Throwing the ball at the basket. Early and often.
Distinctive Markings: If he's wearing an arm sleeve and/or NBA replica jersey, you're in for a really long afternoon.
Natural Enemies: The other four guys on his team.
Mating Call: "Count it!" (Clank)

Iverson guy

He's a confident little man. Give him that. He'll miss five shots in a row, yet know that the sixth is going down. Along with the seventh. And the eighth. And the 15th. It's not that the AI Wannabe shouldn't handle the rock -- he's usually the best dribbler on the blacktop -- or that he'd be better off setting picks, crashing the boards and mixing it up inside. (He's too short for that.) No, the problem with the AI Wannabe is the same problem posed by the real-life Allen Iverson: He can shoot your squad in or out of a game. And in this case, the emphasis is on out.

In truly maddening fashion, the AI Wannabe typically starts out strong, smoking his defender for a couple of spectacular one-on-one baskets. So far, so good. Until the other team adjusts. It traps, shadows, double-teams. That leaves guys open in the corners and under the basket. Hands up, palms out. Only the Wannabe AI doesn't pass. He keeps shooting, one tightly contested jack after the other, determined to showcase his talent, his specialness, his sheer unstoppability. His teammates get antsy, then ticked. They stop running hard, quit playing defense, start surrendering transition layups and cheap putbacks.

All of this makes the Wannabe AI more determined, more frenzied in his chucking; sooner or later, even the other team gets annoyed. The end result is the worst kind of run, the sort of ragged, disjointed game that concludes with players walking off the court, hands on hips, fuming and muttering, before the final basket is even scored.

(Note: To be fair, it should be pointed out that the AI Wannabe does deign to pass at least once a game. Unfortunately, said pass is typically a 110 mph corkscrewing no-looker from five feet away that manages to jam your fingers before spiraling into your gonads, leaving the Wannabe AI to shake his head and vow not to share the ball the rest of the afternoon.)

The Guy Who's Too Good
Species: Homo Superior
Signature Behavior: Scoring at will, making opponents look four steps slow.
Distinctive Markings: A look of bored indifference, punctuated by self-satisfied smirks.
Natural Enemies: None. The Guy Who's Too Good inspires awe, not fear.
Mating Call: "Ball!"

Pro guy

He's the closest you'll ever get to playing with Kobe Bryant. And not in a good way. The Guy Who's Too Good is just that: waaaaay better than everyone else in the gym, so much so that he seems to be from another planet, a faraway sphere where inhabitants are all 7 feet tall and can control orange spheres through telekinesis alone. Maybe he played Division II. Maybe he played Division I. (And if he's a former pro, forget it -- he's giving, at most, 5 percent effort. I know this because I once beat Isiah Thomas and another guy in a two-on-two game at my health club; Zeke was definitely more interested in checking his cell phone than checking me.)

Point is: Going against the Guy Who's Too Good is just plain unfair. Laughably so. Try to stay in front of him? You're going to pull something in the deepest, darkest recesses of your groin, one of those lower torso muscles you didn't even know you had, until it flares up like a hot piece of charcoal and makes you wonder if your appendix just burst. Think you're open for a jump shot? The Guy Who's Too Good will close on you like a cheetah chasing a limping wildebeest, then snatch the ball out of midair. With both hands.

For the sake of sport and/or to keep himself from falling asleep, The Guy Who's Too Good often lays off -- takes jumpers with his nonshooting hand, hangs out at the defensive end of the floor, only passes and rebounds for long stretches of action. Too bad none of this matters. When the game's on the line, the Guy Who's Too Good invariably scores the winning basket, quickly and easily, as if the five guys desperately attempting to stop him are shin-high orange drill pylons. The worst part about it? While playing against the Guy Who's Too Good is disheartening, playing with him is downright numbing; you'll hold the court 'til they turn off the lights, yet feel less involved than the people watching from the nearby treadmills.

The Marathon Man
Species: Energizerus Bunnyum
Signature Behavior: Perpetual motion.
Distinctive Markings: Jogging shorts, beat-up running shoes, shaved legs.
Natural Enemies: The literally weak of heart. And lungs. And shins. And lower back. And …
Mating Call: "C'mon, one more run."

Marthon guy

He never stops. Ever. Not to catch his breath, not to tug his shorts, not even for cold water. The Marathon Man runs, and then runs some more, 'cause running is what he does. Who he is. If the Marathon Man doesn't compete in actual marathons -- or triathlons, bicycle road races, swimming the English Channel or some other ungodly test of human endurance -- then he's currently training to do so. Which means he's in shape. Tremendous shape. Better shape than you, better shape than everyone else on the court. And man, does it show. The Marathon Man is the first guy back on defense, the first guy out on the break, the guy who's always crashing the boards, jumping the passing lanes, diving for loose balls, coming out of nowhere for tip-ins. All of this is great -- great if he's on your team. But not so great if you have to guard him.

Check the Marathon Man, and you end up running too. Up and down, sideline to sideline. No break. Basketball ability becomes irrelevant; cardiovascular survival, paramount. After five minutes, you're panting; after 10, your lungs feel as small as cashews; after 20, you're questioning every beer you downed in the last five years, every waking minute you didn't spend spinning on an exercise bike, every sleeping minute you didn't spend sequestered in a high-altitude tent. Meanwhile, the Marathon Man is fresh-faced, smiling, looking as though he should be sipping a drink and twirling a cocktail umbrella. He's sweating, sure, but just enough to give him a healthy glow. He seems to produce energy through photosynthesis alone, and your heart would be full of envious hate … if only it would stop beating faster than a death metal drum solo. Chasing the Marathon Man is like chasing the Road Runner, sans the cliffs and falling anvils; at the end of the day, you end up clutching a puff of smoke. And also your knees, since you're leaning over, sucking wind, too exhausted to vomit and/or sit down, as sitting down would require eventually getting up, which is too daunting to seriously consider, and really, didn't the Greek messenger Phidippides drop dead after running the very first marathon, anyway?

The Coach On The Floor
Species: Yappimus Irritatus
Signature Behavior: Finger-pointing, lip-moving.
Distinctive Markings: The rolling eyes of his closest teammate.
Natural Enemies: Your failure to execute a proper pick-and-pop; your misguided insistence on driving to the hoop in transition, even though you DIDN'T HAVE NUMBERS; your general inability to recognize when the Coach On The Floor is about to launch a 30-foot set shot, and subsequent failure to establish offensive rebounding position, which is what this team really needs -- unless you crashed the boards, failed to grab the ball and let your man leak out for an easy layup, in which case you need to get back on D.
Mating Call: "Front the post! Call out the switch! Iso! Iso!"

Coach guy

Outside of the vastly inferior talent level, the average pickup game is not that different from the NBA. Exactly three offensive plays are worth a damn: (a) let your best player go one-on-one; (b) throw the ball into the post, then cut or spot up; (c) run a pick-and-roll. But don't tell that to the Coach On The Floor. He labors under a baseless yet stubborn delusion: The blacktop is Princeton. And I'm Pete Carril.

Pound-pound-pounding the ball, waving his off hand in the manner of a sailor directing fighter traffic on the deck of a supercarrier, the Coach On The Floor tells you where to stand, when to move, how to distinguish a good shot from a bad shot. (His shots? Shrewd, even if he misses. Your shots? Ill-advised, unless you make them.) He is Bob Knight without a practice whistle, Phil Jackson without the incense, Lawrence Frank without the game film, Doc Rivers without a clue. Oh, and when things go wrong or ragged -- occasionally known to happen in pickup basketball, a pursuit in which teammates generally self-select at random, having never practiced a single minute together -- it's forever your fault, usually because you didn't ROTATE. Indeed, next to HAVING NUMBERS, the Coach On The Floor is obsessed with ROTATION. Particularly when the man he's guarding has just dusted him like an attic windowsill.

The Guy Who Doesn't Know His Own Strength
Species: Homo Hazardous
Signature Behavior: Hulk go smash!
Distinctive Markings: Football practice shorts, lack of visible neck, stretch marks on his chest from pumpin' serious iron.
Natural Enemies: Jaws, noses and orbital bones within a 5-foot radius.
Mating Call: "Hey, are you all right?"

Muscles guy

Fact: I can't bend back my right wrist more than 75 degrees. And every once in a while -- usually when it rains -- the joint swells to the size of a tennis ball. The reason? In college, I made the mistake of playing pickup with a group of guys on the football team. Now, these guys weren't NFL, corn-and-growth hormone-fed huge -- I went to Georgetown, after all -- and I'm not exactly tiny. No matter. On an otherwise routine breakaway layup, I was clobbered in midair by a linebacker who apparently thought I was attempting to catch a slant pass over the middle. Careening face-first toward the basket support, I extended my right arm, palm out, in an effort to protect my head. Ouch.

(Actually, I'm not sure what damaged my wrist more: the collision, or linebacker dude subsequently grabbing the same hand to yank me to my feet.)

Here's the thing about The Guy Who Doesn't Know His Own Strength: He means well. He's a good sport. He'll always help you up -- that is, after he lowers his shoulder and drops you like a SWAT team using a battering ram on a locked door. Energetic, eager and clumsy as a puppy, he simply doesn't grasp his potential to wreak physical havoc. He probably plays football, possibly fullback. He's usually large, but doesn't have to be. Power and attitude are more important -- especially the latter, which tends toward genial obliviousness. The Guy Who Doesn't Know His Own Strength runs hard, hits hard, pursues and tackles clear through the whistle. No matter what. He doesn't quite get that asphalt isn't grass, that no one's wearing pads, that if anyone was actually looking to get decked, he'd be half-drunk and playing pub league rugby instead. He's just having fun, in his own inadvertently destructive way. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to Sitting In The ER Waiting Area On A Saturday Afternoon With An Ice Bag Over Your Steve Nash-Looking Nose is paved with the good intentions of the Guy Who Doesn't Know His Own Strength. Who, bless his heart, was nice enough to drive you to the hospital.

The Playground Sheed
Species: Pickupus Overwroughtus.

Signature Behavior: Arguing over every call like it's Game 7 of the NBA freakin' Finals.

Distinctive Markings: Oddly enough, never wears a referee shirt. Not even if he really does work at Foot Locker.

Natural Enemies: Anyone who would rather play basketball as opposed to standing around watching someone demonstrate the subtle nuances of the over-the-back rule; everyone who needs to be somewhere else within the next three hours.

Mating Call: "Ball! Ball! Check it up! … Are you kidding? That's not a foul!"

Sheed guy

The Playground Sheed has never committed a foul in his entire life. Just ask him. On second thought, don't ask him. In fact, don't say a word. Bleeding knee? Missing limb? Bite your tongue. Please. Because once you open your mouth to protest one of his hacks -- well, friend, you've just crossed the Rubicon, released the hounds, invited the Devil and his gold fiddle down to Georgia. Exit light. Enter Sandman. The Playground Sheed treats every call against him as an affront to his manhood, his family, the honor of the Shaolin temple. And he'll let you know about it. Will he ever. He'll grab the basketball, stop the game, scream and bark, plead and cajole. He'll point his finger. A lot. Cradling the ball as if it contains nuclear launch codes, he'll argue his case with the single-mindedness of a trial attorney, the fervor of a revival preacher, the mettle of a prizefighter. He's willing to go 13 rounds, ready to wear you out. The Playground Sheed has never reffed a basketball game in his life, but trust him: He's right, you're wrong, the sun rises in the East and this egregiously boneheaded call -- this stinging injustice of cosmic proportions -- will not stand.

Disagree, and he literally will threaten to take the ball and go home; sometimes, said ball even belongs to him.

Of course, the Playground Sheed will call plenty of fouls on you. Nothing wrong with that.

While it's tempting to dismiss the Playground Sheed as a ranting nutbag who takes pickup basketball far too seriously -- mostly because he's a ranting nutbag who takes pickup basketball far too seriously -- the truth is that his psychosis is easy to understand. He just wants to win, very badly, and knows that every call can potentially decide the outcome of a game. Couple that with the pickup necessity of calling your own fouls -- not to mention the unwritten code of macho omerta governing those calls -- and it's no surprise the Playground Sheed can be so intractable. He isn't trying to bully or get over on you. Not consciously. He genuinely believes he's innocent. In the name of victory, he's psyched himself out, gulped some I-didn't-do-it Kool Aid of his own making. All of which makes it pointless to engage him, given that pickup basketball lacks the equivalent of a technical foul.

Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Patrick here.