That was the first time I realized that a player’s height is proportionately reduced by his distance from the basket, and that a big guy out in the open is easy meat.…”
by brian doyle
The tallest guy I ever played against was a seven-foot guy who had been in a professional basketball training camp. This was in summer league in Boston. Games were at night on a beautiful court under elm trees. The court was brilliantly lit, but everything outside the glowing box of the court was pitch-dark, so that guys who walked onto the court just appeared magically, as if they had been invented on the spot, or sent from another dimension. Sometimes it seemed to me that you could instantly identify a guy’s position by the manner in which he entered the bright stage of the court: guards would be dribbling lazily, forwards would be adjusting their elbow-pads and billy-clubs and brass knuckles, and centers would be trying unsuccessfully to remember their names and the day of the week.
Usually we would pay scant attention as the other team trickled onto their end of the court, but in this case we had heard that they featured a seven-foot guy who’d had a tryout with the Cleveland Cavaliers, so when he popped into the light, looking like he was twenty feet tall, we were impressed; he was indeed one long dude, he looked like he might remember his name, and he immediately casually dunked and stared down at us. We were a confident group, and we had a good center of our own, but our man was easily seven inches shorter than their man, although our man had been to Cornell University and usually knew the day of the week.
One thing I loved about our team then is that we never had the slightest strategy, we had no plays, we never scouted or even really deigned to acknowledge the opposition; we just went out and played as hard and fast as we could, figuring that in general our best was better than the opposition’s best, which often turned out to be true. And to my enduring pleasure we began that game against the seven-foot guy without a word about the seven-foot guy.
The seven-foot guy, I report with a smile, turned out to be the slowest guy in the history of basketball, lumbering so ploddingly up and down the court that he was constantly behind the play whether on offense or defense; our center noticed this immediately and turned the rest of the game into a track meet. But two other things happened that evening that still give me pleasure, all these years later. The first was the way our deft and devious point guard attacked the seven-foot guy with glee and brio and surgical skill. He drove right at him, which reduced the guy’s wingspan; he turned him that way and that when he got him out in the open court, one time spinning him around so quickly that the big guy fell down; and he forced the guy to foul him twice, earning four free points at the line. It was a clinic on how a small player can outplay a big player using speed and guile and changes of direction, and luring the bigger player out and away from the lane; that was the first time I realized that a player’s height is proportionately reduced by his distance from the basket, and that a big guy out in the open is easy meat.
The second thing was the way that our power forward, a burly chesty muscular guy only an inch or two over six feet tall, took on the herculean task of covering the seven-foot guy on defense. Our center, while a gifted scorer, was a terrible defender, uninterested at the best of times and particularly uninterested that night. But our power forward loved the bang and brawl of rebounding, loved the scrum and grapple of the lane, and loved the chance to frustrate a much bigger and heavier guy. I don’t think I ever saw a guy work as hard on a basketball court as our forward did that night. I cannot remember that he scored much, or even hauled down his usual dozen rebounds, for he had set himself to be an immovable barrier and annoyance and roadblock to the seven-foot guy, and he was all of those things in spades.
I remember once sliding through the lane trying to keep track of my own guy, for once, and seeing the ferocious look on our forward’s face as he strained to keep the big guy away from the basket. I would have stopped to shake our forward’s hand and express my admiration for a really remarkable night’s work, but he seemed busy, and not in the mood for pleasantries, and I was rather enjoying the novel experience of playing defense, so I kept going, holding on to the shirt of the guy I was defending, to be sure of his direction. A little later the game ended, and we shook hands with the other guys, and guys vanished back into the darkness magically, as if they only existed while on the court.
(illustration: brian doyle)
Brian Doyle was the author of many books, including the sea novel The Plover, which has, no kidding, music printed in it, not to mention Mink River, Martin Marten, The Wet Engine, and more than we can recall. He won the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing for Martin Marten, which was plenty cool and much deserved. Brian passed away peacefully at his Lake Oswego home on May 27, 2017.
More, much more, from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.