It always hurts the day after a big workout. In my case, it was playing basketball yesterday for what seemed like hours (it was, in fact, only about an hour and a half). I played one on one against this one kid, who confessed after a couple of games that he’d be taking the bus back to Jersey afterward — an hour’s trip.

He was a decent player with a decent enough jumpshot, to the point where he did, in fact, beat me one game. The other three — I think we played four games total — I beat him; somewhat handily, I might add. He was not particularly good as a defensive player, though I’d argue that most people who play playground ball are not good defenders, for to play defense is to put in effort, and when there isn’t a coach watching over you, you’re likely to slack off on the one thing that is actually hard to do.

I reckon it’s interesting that most people save all their effort for offense, because it reveals a fundamental lack of understanding how basketball actually works; that to win a game, you must score, but you must also stop the other guy from scoring. It is true that in park basketball there is no time being kept, so you have to outscore your opponent to win, but still, you must also defend your opponent in order to even have that opportunity.

I believe there was one game we played where I outscored the guy 11 straight points. But I only had the opportunity to do that because after he’d made the first handful of baskets, I told myself I would not let him score again. Once I got the ball, I got to work and made mincemeat of him.

The next guy I played seemed a little younger than he was, and for what must have been five or six games, he was pretty good competition. He didn’t play good defense either, instead opting to let me shoot, but by then I was a little tired and we’d moved over to another rim at the playground, one a good two inches lower than the previous, and I found myself overshooting a lot of my shots.

He beat me, if I recall correctly, two times, partly because he seemed to travel every time he got the ball down low. I have never seen a player move from one side of the rim to the other with less overall body movement and so much shuffling of their feet — but it was pickup ball and I didn’t feel like calling traveling. It wasn’t that serious.

He also had something of a hook-shot, although I wouldn’t really call it that. It was more like this little flip-up thing he did, where he cradled the ball down by his knees and then flicked it up toward the basket. It was impossible to block and he seemed to shoot with remarkable accuracy. It was kind of an unstoppable move and if I were him, I’d have just kept doing that.

However, the reason he could not continue doing it was because I pushed him out on the perimeter, and though he was smaller than me, he was not quite fast enough with his dribble to get around my defense. I managed to steal the ball from him a handful of times. I knocked him off in the last game with 6 straight shots from behind the three-point line.

Last week, I was playing two-on-two against these two kids who seemed to be friends. They might have been in their late teens or early twenties, and they were cocky in that way that all young kids who play a lot of basketball are. Since I am older and sort of unassuming, I always find matchups like these to be interesting.

One of the kids was pretty tall, I’d say roughly 6’7 or so. I’m 6 feet. He chose to defend me, and I was like: fuck, now I’ve got this big guy on me. But he too, I noticed, did not play great defense. Fearing I’d run around him, he didn’t come out on the perimeter much, leaving me instead to bomb on him from 15–20 feet way. And when he did play me close, I had a teammate I could pass the ball to.

My teammate, who I did not know prior to that day, had a field day with his defender. Spiraling layups, running floaters, pull back shots from behind the three-point line — everything he put up went in. Was he that good or was his defender that bad? I don’t know. All I knew was that on this day, the guy could have played for Team USA.

We played three games against this team, beating them handily in each one, and as the fourth one was nearing its close, the tall kid got super frustrated. How could a pair of cornballs like us be mopping the floor up with these young cocky professionals.

That’s when he decided he was going to “turn up,” and that it was time for him to “take over,” as he so eloquently put it. Undeterred by this bravado, my teammate and I proceeded to play the same way we’d been playing, because we figured this bolt of energy would likely dry up in a minute or two.

I wish I could say that it did, but the truth is, the tall kid was actually pretty effective. After talking his shit, he actually managed to “clap” over my teammate a few times, emphatically slapping the backboard in an effort to intimidate him.

In my younger years — when I played high school basketball — I did the same thing; that is, until my coaches told me I was being an asshole. They said it didn’t matter if I slapped the backboard, so long as the ball went into the net.

In fact, back then, every time one of us clapped the backboard, if the shot didn’t go in, we had to run laps. That’s how anti-clap my coaches were. I never wanted to run laps, so I stopped doing it and have only rarely clapped the backboard in the two decades since then.

I say all this to say, it was interesting when the tall kid tried to back me down in the post, too. He hoped to clap on me like he’d done my teammate, but he found that it wasn’t so easy to move me under the basket.

Frustrated, he began lowering his shoulder into me, an illegal move if there ever was one, and after he’d done it once or twice, never clapping the board, but still laying the ball up regardless, I said to him: “Dude, you can’t keep dropping your shoulder like that.”

To which he replied: “Get your weight up.”

I had to laugh at this, since I outweighed him and could reasonably pick this kid up and toss him like a frisbee had I wanted to, and just said: “It’s not about weight, it’s about you not knowing how to play.”

Now, this kind of reasoning is far too advanced for pick-up basketball, and it’s not like anyone would sit there on the receiving end of the conversation thinking: you know what, you’re right; I should stop doing that. That never happens in these situations. In fact, things usually only get more heated, and hey, maybe you even wind up getting into a fight.

Fighting is typically the last thing I’d be inclined to get involved with, especially over a basketball game, but still, you can’t be a pushover. The next time the kid came down into the post, he dropped his shoulder and I dropped mine as well, meeting his halfway, pushing him back like a defensive lineman. The ball went flying in the air, I jumped up and got it, then went in for a layup.

For the rest of the game, the tall kid did not score again; afterward, he and his friend decided they didn’t want to play anymore, which didn’t surprise me. They’d lost four games straight — this, after talking all that shit. That’s the kind of embarrassment that’ll have you not only leave the court, but heck, make you think twice about even showing up to the playground again.

I really love basketball. It has to be the best sport there is.

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.