There Are No Secrets

Pick-up game stories are like war stories for cowards or, more accurately, like reenactment war stories. Yeah, the trembling of hands that just hit game-winners or the shaking of fists that just let one fly over outstretched fingers feel like the stuff of legends, the kind of tales with which you could regale your friends over beers while they hang on your words like so many fans waiting to see the fate of a buzzer-beater. But they’re not; no, those stories tend to be boring, self-aggrandizing collections of bull**** best suited for some poor girlfriend, patiently waiting to tell you about something more interesting (because anything is). And with all of that said, I have a pick-up game story to tell, sort of.

I play a regular game, twice a week at noon, with some men who are mostly much older (and more financially stable, thus the ability for recreation at noon) than I. Most have played ball at varying levels of competition, from rec leagues to high school to the occasional college guy (one time, Bobby Sura showed up, but that’s not this story). At the moment, there’s a clear paragon among us, a 40-something with a dead-eye jumpshot from anywhere and covered in muscles in places I wish I were less soft. And that guy, well, he’s my size; therefore, when matching up, he and I often find ourselves guarding one another, though describing what he does to me as “guarding” seems to me a liberal application of the word. On the other end, though, I find myself at a loss. Too far back, and he steps up and guns a 30-footer in my face. Too close, and he’s by me, pushing off for any space he didn’t create with his first step. To worsen a maddening confluence of events, the pride within me allowed me to fall into his mind games and shake off help defenders, lying in wait for his impending, bullish charges toward the bucket, either because I knew someone else would inevitably burn us or just so I could make him pay for all of his taunts that my teammates “better give the boy some help”. I found myself almost ready to fight with him the other day, frustrated by the fact that everything I did still routinely ended with me on my back, as he put up another jumper (that usually went in).

Ever the insane person, I finally broke down and went home to study some videos of Shane Battier because that’s what a cartoon character such as myself would do. Immediately, I was reminded of the brilliance required to contain the world’s greatest scorers, with jabsteps that would break my 40-year-old’s knees and fadeaways that don’t get flustered by 7-footers, much less my stubby 6 feet. At first, the skill appears obvious, as the steals and blocks mesmerize and beg the viewer to recall Battier’s greatest hits when guys in the red and yellow could win 22 in a row, even if its ultimate culmination was just some nameless Sunday afternoon game against a badly injured Lakers team. But that first viewing wasn’t why I was watching these; I needed more, something I could use, some semblance of an imitable philosophy to stop what feels like an unstoppable force from simply imposing its will.

tumblr lmfl9f1sjg1qgr0w2o1 5001 There Are No Secrets

That’s when I remembered that Shane Battier’s brilliance never really lied (or lies, lest I write an obituary for a man or his career simply because he played in a different city for half of this past season) in Shane Battier; instead, most of his greatness comes from his ability to blend with, and use for his benefit (and for that of the rest of his brothers in red), his teammates, an innate understanding of where those around him should and would be. Yes, the imposing wall of man that was Yao Ming provided a pretty hefty target to shade unsuspecting (or should I say wholly suspecting) perimeter players toward, but only through brilliant footwork, kindergarten-teacher-like patience and a healthy trust in every single one of his teammates can Battier do the unthinkable, like limit the Kobes and Durants and D-Wades of the world. He goes way under screens, confident his partners in crime will be there waiting, denying what can’t be permitted. Despite the myriad ball fakes and misdirections of the eye thrown his way, Battier stays true and always contests without leaving his feet, at least until he’s sure, in that split-second available, that the demi-god he’s likely got to shadow around that particular night has committed first. In his brilliance, so much goodness can be gleaned, even verging on virtue.

In Shane Battier’s defense, we learn trust, commitment, solidarity, oneness. That D is like a Buddhist prayer, quietly acknowledging how little we can control but still trying to make the most of what we can. Trading Shane Battier appeared a necessary evil for the Rockets at the mid-point this year, and it was a deal I whole-heartedly supported, even if that heart was being broken by doing so. Still, just watching those videos reminded me why I so desperately want the Rockets to throw their first bit of post-lockout free agent cash his way. Not just because of his defense, or presence on the team; I’ve always secretly kind of hoped he’d go on to take a larger role with the team, to go all Obi-Wan and become more powerful than any of us could ever imagine. Maybe he’d be a coach, maybe a GM (I’m sure Daryl Morey would approve so long as it didn’t put him out of work personally. Morey and Battier’s beliefs in a cohesive unit’s success seem somewhat akin, especially given that Battier and Morey both seem to be more reactive than grounded in any one, stifling philosophy), although Battier’s breadth of knowledge and general well roundedness never boded well for his likelihood of being so deeply involved with the game after his retirement.

Maybe, just maybe though, he could teach us all his secrets, though. Except for, while digging through videos trying to scrounge up some more material to use for my own selfish (and ridiculous) purposes, I heard from Shane’s own mouth that there is no secret to defense, just will and effort. Such platitudes generally run off the backs of sports fans so inured to the endless recitations of the athlete’s selfless coda, but out of Battier’s mouth, these things resonate. Just try harder, be smarter, care more, and you’ll be better.

After playing our normal six or seven games the other day (my playing mates’ older bodies rarely hold up to much more, and my own doughy corpse gladly accepts the layoff), one of my teammates came up to me and said of my failed attempt to stop my 40-something tormentor, “You know, you were reaching way too often. He wasn’t fouling you; he was being smarter than you and waiting for you to screw up before attacking your body when you left it vulnerable.” I knew this, even if I didn’t want to admit it. The next time I step pout there, though, Battier’s words, as empty as they would have been from almost anyone else, will ring in my head. There are no secrets, just will and effort. Stay true.

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