I’d just moved to Miami.
I had been working on my game, of course, but I needed to find where the basketball players were in Miami. I didn’t know anyone, but I knew they were somewhere.
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My college teammate Wes had just began his coaching career, and it just so happened to be at Miami-Dade College, twenty minutes away from when I was living.
Wes told me that the gym at MDC played host to a recreational basketball league on some evenings, and he suggested that I show up there one night, bring my stuff, and see who might need a player.
Wes’ suggestion wasn’t my usual style of doing things — when I played somewhere new, I liked to be invited, expected — you know, welcomed.
But this show-up tactic was the best only idea I had, so I showed up.
I got to the MDC gym and walked up a dude who was dressed like a New Yorker: fitted hat, oversized NBA replica jersey, white jean shorts, untied Jordans. If I had been from Miami, I would have called this man’s style loud, but I’m from Philly, so to me, what he was wearing was a normal everyday get-up.
Turns out he was from New York, a Miami transplant like me. He was Puerto Rican, and the coach of a team who had a game in this rec league, starting in a few minutes.
I told him I was an overseas pro who was new in town, and asked him if he needed any players. He looked me up and down, then told me yes, he did need a player.
That’s how I got into the Miami hoops scene.
That same loudly-dressed coach also ran leagues of his own; later that summer, I was playing in one. The games were held in a small gym not far from MDC’s campus.
The core of the team consisted of three friends who all were doughy, short, and loved to play basketball. All these guy did was shoot threes, and they actually made a good number of them. I think they were Cuban. There was me, of course. Our fifth player (we usually played with just us five) was a 6’4” Colombian pro hooper named Felipe.
Our team was small-ball before small-ball was a cool thing to do.
Felipe was my height, much less athletic than me, but bulkier. Felipe played guard, but had the naturally-built body of a power forward. Felipe played and carried himself as if he truly believed that he was the best player on the court at all times — which was fine by me, since he and I took turns dominating the ball. The three Cuban amigos were happy with our styles, as long as they got to hoist their fair share of three pointers.
Somehow, this mix of players worked successfully. We were all guards, some just taller than others, and we played a 2-3 zone defense for all of every game. Felipe or I would grab every rebound, dribble the ball up the court and decide what to do with it.
The reason this worked so well was probably because the competition in the league wasn’t that great; every team was similar to ours in having 1 or 2 really good players alongside a bunch of happy-to-be-there filler, men who called playing basketball their “cardio.”
In one particular game, we were beating up on the yellow (jersey color) team.
Their roster setup was like ours, in having several very-undersized scrubs (ours were Cuban, theirs were White guys) and only one good player: a Black guy at guard who was my height but closer to Felipe’s build.
I could tell that the Black guy could play, but there was only so much he could do.
There were two of Felipe and me versus only one of him, and our Cuban players were better than his scrub White-guy teammates.
We were up 25 at halftime.
As the second half began, the good Black player from the yellow team apparently decided to try making the game interesting, because he came out firing.
Taking the ball and shooting every shot, attacking the basket hard, shooting threes. He had the first 3 or 4 baskets of the half for his team.
Problem for him was, our team was matching his individual efforts point for point. The math was against him.
As a team, we were still playing zone defense and were still up by twenty-plus. I could not have cared less about how many points this Black guy scored in a game that his team wasn’t gonna come close to winning. He could score fifty, as long as we stayed up by twenty.
After the fourth straight basket scored by the good Black player, though, Felipe inexplicably called a timeout.
In our timeout, Felipe announced that we would be switching to a box-and-one defense.
The simple idea of a box-and-one is a defense employed to focus on shutting down one specific player on the opposing team.
The “one” in a box-and-one defense is the one defensive player who’s going to, presumably, shut down the scorer on the other team.
When NBA star Stephen Curry was in college, for example, opposing teams would play box-and-one defenses aimed at slowing Steph down, forcing his other teammates to take and make shots.
But, every strategy has a counter-strategy.
The weakness of the box-and-one is that it creates more opportunities for the other four players to make plays. The bet a team playing box-and-one makes is that, in employing the box-and-one, those other four players aren’t quite good enough to utilize their gifted advantage.
Back at our game, I guess Felipe called this box-and-one defense because Felipe felt he needed to prove a point in shutting down this one Black guy who had started scoring a lot. Felipe immediately assigned himself to be the “one” in our defense.
Fine by me.
The game resumed.
Felipe guarded the now-active Black guy scorer. The Black guy kept scoring, even more now, cooking Felipe’s ass and turning Felipe into a fucking empanada on the court.
The box-and-one was supposed to slow the Black guy down. In actuality, it had made things worse.
After third straight bucket scored on Felipe (a scorer who I never knew for his defense), Wes spoke up.
Wes had been sitting in the stands near the yellow team’s basket. I was near the sideline when I heard Wes say in a low tone, “Dre you might need to guard him.”
During a stoppage in play, I told Felipe that I would be taking over as the “one” on defense. Though he had been the one to initiate this strategy, Felipe offered no resistance to my declaration. I think he’d had enough of trying to guard the Black guy. His “point” would be left unproven.
Mind you, we’re still up by twenty points. The yellow team is not going to win this game, no matter what Back guy does. This game is already over. But Felipe has now made it a pride thing, and I have to clean up his mess.
It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.
Before, when he was scoring against our zone, it didn’t really matter. But now that I’m actually guarding him, I don’t want the Black guy to leave the gym believing that he was the best player on the court, regardless of the scoreboard.
I guard him well the first time he gets the ball against me. The second time, I force him into a tough shot that he misses badly.
We’re still comfortably ahead.
There’s still fifteen minutes left in this blowout of a game though, and I need some stimulation. And in basketball, there’s one stimulation tactic that has always worked for me.
Black guy and I have not exchanged a word all game long. But now I turn to him and announce,
“You ain’t gonna score another basket the rest of this game.”
I don’t know Black guy, had never seen him before. But apparently, he speaks the same basketball language that I speak.
He perks up and starts yapping back to me. The trash talk between us is the only interesting thing about the remainder of this game.
This kind of stuff — antagonizing an opponent while soundly beating him — is fun for me.
Black guy futilely tries to score on me, at which he succeeds only once for the remainder of the game. I continue to trash talk him with every miss.
I TOLD YOU you weren’t gonna score again!! I TOLD YOU!!! I TOLD YOU!!!
It makes the rest of the game fun. We win in a blowout. As the game winds down, I turn to Wes, whos been entertained by the second-half trash talk battle, and channel my inner Muhammad Ali.
I told you he was going down in the third, and HE WENT DOWN IN THE THIRD!!!
I see Black guy a week later in another league in a different gym. He scores 25 points by halftime. The dude could really play. I find out that he was a Miami native, and that he’d played D1 college ball and had a career overseas going at the same time as me.
Black guy, Felipe and I all play in the same leagues for the next couple of years.
Felipe never calls another box-and-one.
Sometimes you have to manufacture interest out of nothing, especially during the most mundane of situations.
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