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Finding comfort in returning to the hardwood

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A year ago, basketball courts weren’t even open. Now, it’s time to play again.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

On April 19, 2020, we were just over a month into the COVID-19 lockdown. That period of time feels like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Along with everything else we were missing, I, and everyone else like me, had gone over a month without playing basketball.

That day, I wrote a piece about trying to locate an outdoor basketball court. Most outdoor courts had been shut down — either by yellow tape, a bolted piece of wood over each rim, or by a padlock in the net. Even worse, some baskets had been treated “most barbarously” by removing the rims entirely, leaving only a blank backboard. (Yes, the quote is from John Barleycorn, by Traffic.)

I did not want to find a court in order to play five-on-five, or even one-on-one. I didn’t need that risk. I just wanted to get some shots up with no one else around. I finally found that outdoor court, as described here in my April 19, 2020 article.

Alas, that hoop was shut down several weeks later. That led to a quest to find other outdoor courts where I could shoot alone in the early morning, or even better, with a socially distanced buddy for shooting competitions. Several times, we located a good place where two shooters could let it fly, only to find the court closed down a month later. Several times, I was able to shoot in a friend’s backyard, facing true “home court” advantage for that day’s shooting competition. Once, I wound up in the backyard hoop of a “friend of a friend”. A true neutral court like the Orlando Bubble, except outdoors, and thus not in a bubble.

Two weeks ago, a miraculous thing happened. Good friend and fellow hoop fanatic Steve offered up a key to an indoor court where fully vaccinated Steve and I could shoot. I had forgotten how much better it is to shoot indoors — the joy of jumping off of a level surface, with no wind affecting the shot, no sun field to avoid, and not having to worry about the ball bouncing off the court onto grass wet with dew. On smooth hardwood, not rough asphalt.

Now, with the first shot (the 2021 version) in my arm, I can realistically anticipate playing actual games on other indoor courts. With that will come playing defense against other human beings, rebounding, passing, and the shouts of encouragement and other sounds of competitive hoops. Even now, I am gathering a list of my fellow hoopers who are either fully vaccinated, or will be soon. We all recognize that the best, or only, way to safely open businesses, schools, indoor dining, concerts — and especially indoor basketball courts — is for everyone involved to get vaccinated. Luckily, my fellow players know this and are doing that, or have already done so.

We all get there soon, and our games will re-emerge from the wind, sun and uneven asphalt outdoor courts of the past year. But when we do, I will look back fondly on the two-man socially distant shooting competitions we invented to help keep our sanity until actual games returned.

For these competitions, we named various shots so we would not need to describe them each time. For instance, a “DeRozan” is a long two-pointer, dribbling left and pulling up above the elbow for a seventeen footer. (I made 14 DeRozans in a row on my return to an indoor court, something that would have been almost impossible outdoors.) Two hard dribbles to the right for a pull-up is a “Jerry West jumper”. A pass to the post with the shooter immediately re-locating for a catch and shoot three-pointer is a “Steph Curry”. Any one-legged step back with the right knee up? A Nowitzki.

Flying off an (imaginary) screen to catch a pass, immediately rising for a three pointer, is a “Duncan Robinson” a.k.a “Shoulda Been a Spur”. Catch and shoot three from the left corner? A Danny Green!! Back-pedaling to a three-pointer in the right corner is a “Ray Allen”. (I never choose that one. Too soon.)

Shots don’t need to have a name. When it is your turn to decide, you can choose whatever shot you can describe: Pump fake off the pass, side step dribble, three-pointer. Cross-over, two dribbles, bank shot from the wing. Fake left, turn-around jumper, right elbow. Running teardrop from just inside the free throw line. Oh wait, that’s a “Tony Parker”.

We have four games that we generally play. I am proudest of inventing “Baseball”. (And you thought it was invented by Abner Doubleday.) In my version of baseball, you attempt to make as many as you can of a shot. You get to keep making shots until you have three “outs” or misses. Your opponent does the same for that shot. Once your opponent has three “outs” or misses, that ends the first inning. In the second inning, your opponent chooses the shot and “bats” first. You keep switching off until nine “innings” have been played, most total “runs” (made shots) wins. All shots should be taken at “game speed”.

“Most in a row” is just what it sounds like. You choose a particular shot, and each player gets five chances to make as many in a row as he can. The players trade off selecting the type and location of the shot. My 14 DeRozans easily won one round of that game of “most in a row”. In the case of a tie (for instance, each player’s best for that shot was seven in a row), most total makes for that shot is the tie-breaker. First player to five “wins” prevails.

“Around the world” is similar to what we all played as kids, but styled like the NBA All-Star three-point shooting contest. Total number of shots wins, with the last ball at each station worth double. We normally do three or five shots at each spot. Unlike at the All-Star game, we trade off after each location, instead of shooting all 15 or 25 at once.

“Five at a time” is free form. This is a move and shoot game. Each player gets five shots from wherever he wants — but must be flying around the court to shoot off the pass, a dribble or two optional, from different spots all over the court. Done correctly, this is an excellent work-out. The game ends when we run out of time — or simply get too tired.

We always finish with a free throw competition. Each player shoots three free throws for the first three rounds, then trades off one by one if necessary. A swish is two points, a made shot that touches rim is one point, a miss is minus one. First shooter to 10 points is the winner — but you must hit 10 points exactly. If a player has 9 points, he must make, but not swish, the next shot. If he swishes it while at 9 points, he doesn’t go to 11, and instead stays at 9.

Even after gyms have opened up, and we can play five-on-five indoors, I will still be doing these games. Sometimes good shooters just need to get out there and shoot. At least once a week, I will try to find a buddy, an outdoor hoop and an early morning to get a bunch of shots up. I want to see if I can break my record for the most DeRozans in a row.