Back to Playing Competitively In A Leage

It’s been about 1.5 years since I played in a basketball league.

Prior to my injury, I was playing in 2-3 league games a week. It brought out the sense of competition in me and I craved knowing I had to improve my game or the high when all cylinders are firing depending on whether we lost or won the game. After the injury, all that went to the wayside as I focused more on strength, recovery, and being able to play pickup without my knee swelling up.

Fast forward almost 3 years, and I’m able to play pickup pretty effortlessly (minus the creaks and pains from getting older). The competition in a pickup game is nowhere near the organized chaos of a league game where points, time management, fouls, and timeouts make the game much more complicated.

When I get back on the court, I wonder if I’ll regain the competitive spirit I once had, or if the game will just be another game of pickup. Knowing myself, I will most likely get competitive again, but will actively avoid driving hard in the paint or attempting a move I physically can’t do. It’s the illustrious “old-man game” I have heard about in my 20s.

You can grind it out in practice, pickup, or the weight room. When the time comes and your “called up” to play again, I think no matter what age or physical condition you are in, that edge will come back. Just as Andre Ingram how he felt last night after 10 years in the D-League:


The Flow

From a productivity perspective, a lot of experts talk about getting into the flow, where you are completely immersed in a task and can essentially zone out all distractions. In the workplace, the state of flow is highly lauded as the most productive you–as an employee-can be.

When I think of flow in basketball terms, I think about the freedom and adrenaline rush you feel from being completely engaged in a competitive game. I alluded to this feeling in my last post, and wanted to try my best of pinpointing this feeling in words.


It’s a stretch to compare basketball to figure skating, so maybe skateboarding might be a better analogy. On a skateboard, timing, angles, proper use of strength and explosiveness help you ollie onto a ramp or do a kickflip. When you watch some of the top street skateboarders run a course, it feels like watching a perfect performance where the skateboarder’s body parts are all being orchestrated in one fluid movement.

I get that same sense of fluidity when I run down the court on a fastbreak and have to time my steps to lay the ball in. There is a sense of completion, like fulling zipping up a zipper, or closing a Ziplock back, that comes with a well-timed pass to a jump shot or layup. Not the best analogy comparing the fluid movements of basketball to a Ziplock bag, but it was the first thing that came to mind.

Beating Your Opponent

It goes without saying, when you beat someone else one-on-one it simply feels good. More importantly, the feeling of getting past a defender who is equal to you in terms of speed and quickness is one of the best feelings I get from playing basketball. It’s not even about the total domination of another player, but the small wins that take place on one post move or the ability to make a pass down low in zone defense. Those little wins throughout the game only eke me on to get more little wins which results in a string of plays which culminates in 4 quarters of basketball.

The older I get, the more I have to rely on understanding the spacing and angles of the game rather than relying on physical prowess. That has made the game a lot more enjoyable and allows me to come to peace with the fact I can’t jump as high as I could before or dive for loose balls like I used to. To take it up another notch, the game ends up being more like 18 holes of golf where I’m forced to beat myself and improve my skills through constant learning and change.

I think back to 2008 when I was living in San Francisco at the time, and I went to an open run at a gym somewhere in the city. We go there early and the previous group was still on the court playing pickup. I looked more closely at the players and they were all well into their 50s and 60s wearing various braces, knee pads, and sleeves to guard their failing knees and limbs from overuse and degenerative wear and tear. Despite the injuries you sustain and the pain you feel from the physical aspect of the game, you still continue playing to enjoy those moments of fluidity and small wins.



Recognizing the mismatch

A couple weeks ago, I was playing in a league game at Chelsea Piers, and we our team came back in the 2nd half from 20 down and tied up the game with about 2 minutes left in the game.

Our team was on a roll. We all could feel the momentum in the game shifting to our side, and victory was in sight. After a few free throws here and there, the other team was up by 1, they had the ball with about 30 seconds left to go, and we needed stop to get the ball back and hopefully score on our end.

The whole game, I was guarding a small guard who was smaller but faster than I was. Plan in simple, he was quick. I like these mismatches because it forces me to play lower to the ground, and makes me move quicker on defense as well. I wanted to guard him, and shut him down. As the clock started winding down, our opponents started their halfcourt offense at the top of the 3. My man did a quick back door cut to the basket, and I was half a second too late to recover and my man gets a more or less uncontested layup to put his team up by 3.

I was furious, mostly with myself for being stubborn and telling myself I could guard this guy. About half way through the half, one of my teammates came over to me on a time out and asked if I wanted to switch since my man was beating me on a few plays and I simple could not keep up. In these cases, most guys never want to admit that they are getting “beat,” especially if the guy is not a superstar athlete where it’s clear that one player is better than the other. Most guys (myself included), want to accept the challenge and try to overcome any doubts about their physical abilities.

In these times, when the game is on the line, we need to put the team before ourselves because I saw the disappointment in all my teammates after my man made the layup and then the team going on to win the whole game. I have never single-handedly lost a game for my team in such a clear way, it ate at me for the next few days.

Putting the team above yourself is always something I struggle with because I want to control my own fate, in how the game is played and how the game is won or lost. In these cases, it is easy to get completely irrational about the situation, and let your ego take over the game rather than what makes sense strategically.

A journey to the NBDL tryouts

On June 16th, I participated in the D-League’s open tryouts at Basketball City in NYC.

The D-League holds national tryouts every year, drawing hundreds of ballers in LA, Chicago, Houston, and NYC. At the end of all four tryouts, the D-League offers 12-15 contracts to the top players from the tryouts to participate in the NBDL draft this coming November. Needless to say, the competition is pretty tough, ranging from players with high school experience to those who have played professionally overseas.

I arrived at Basketball City around 8AM for registration, and there was already a long line for players to enter the gym (registration started at 7:30AM). After I registered, I picked up the “official” NBDL shorts and jersey. The recommended size for someone my height was 3XL, while the shorter players got XL. After storing my stuff in the locker room, I sat around the courts with the other players while more people walked in and registered.

I had an hour to kill before the day’s events began. Most of the ballers that walked in were black, some white, no Asian. Some players were stretching, some were talking on the phone, and some even brought their agents. You could tell for for the players with agents, this was their life, their calling. There were also a lot of guys who looked like they haven’t worked out in years. Some were super short, skinny, and generally didn’t look that strong. But hey, I’ve made my mistakes of judging a book by its cover when it comes to ballers, so I didn’t want to assume anything.

9AM finally rolls around, and they tell us to sit in straight lines on one court according to our team. Everyone is assigned a team and a coach for the day (typically a coach from one of the NBDL teams). You play in 2 full-court games with your team for the day, and that is essentially the tryout. We sat down in our lines, and John Starks comes up to speak about his experience bagging groceries to dunking on one of the greatest players in NBA history. The head coach of the Erie Bayhawks, Jay Arriaga, then spoke more about the opportunities the D-League brings for NBA hopefuls, of course referencing Jeremy Lin a few times during his speech.

It’s 10AM, and my first game wasn’t until 1PM. I had a chance to watch other teams play, and it was eye-opening to see the level of competition at the tryout. My team was composed mostly of players who had high school experience and some college experience. All the guys on our team, including the ones we played, sort of knew that we were on a scrub team. We were just some random guys who signed up to play for fun, with the 0.0001% chance that we would have a really awesome tryout and maybe get noticed.

Even though we didn’t have top D-1 players on our team, we played hard and I noticed team camaraderie develop. Before our first game at 1, I had a chance to talk to some of the guys on our team, and I was humbled by how far some of them traveled to make it to the tryout by 7:30 that morning. One guy, a 21-year old forward, took a bus from Charlotte and was hoping to get noticed. Another guy around my age, took a 3AM bus from Philly and looked like he literally woke up with his braids somewhat undone. Another 30-something guy who was clearly the oldest one on our team, gathered us around and gave us a pep talk on how we need to stick together even though we are all technically competing with each other.

Just from talking to some of these other guys, and hearing other conversations, made me feel like I belonged. We were all uncertain about how we would perform, what our futures were, and who would be watching us. In the locker room, I overheard one guy basically sum up the dilemma at the tryouts.

“The coaches, they all tell you to not be selfish and move the ball around to find the open player. They tell you play as a team, and not show off your individual talent. If you want to get noticed…at some point you have to show off your individual talent or else you simply won’t stand out. It’s a Catch 22.”

In the game, the 30-something guy definitely was the standout on our team, and he kept on encouraging all of us to play harder and more aggressive. Even though I was playing with 9 other completely random guys, we all kept on playing as a team and it was truly about winning the game instead of showcasing the sweet crossovers you worked on all last week. When I took the ball to the basket and got fouled or got some and-ones, I would get high fives and short phrases of encouragement like “good shit” or “way to get big Al.” It felt like when you were a kid, and got accepted into that crowd of cool kids because you did something worthy of making you a part of their group. There were times when I was not playing my hardest, and the 30-something got in my face and told me to play harder defense. I listened.

It became instantly clear to me that all of us, regardless of our backgrounds, were at Basketball City that day for reasons much larger than trying out for the D-League. At least I was.

About 2 months before the tryout, I was sitting at my desk gchatting with a friend, and he sends me the link for the D-League tryout saying something along the lines of “here’s your chance.” I didn’t think much about it at first, since I figured there are so many talented players across the country that are more skilled, have more experience, and are just physically better at the game than me. I quickly read through the details about the tryout, and how only 15 contracts are given to players across the entire nation, and closed the link.

I couldn’t sleep that night. The question I kept on asking myself was: what am I so scared of? Embarrassment? Being told I have no game? Getting dunked on? These were all doubts and fears that I fabricated for myself to assuage my conscience that I made the right choice by not signing up. Perhaps this is not about basketball anymore. It never was. It’s about the times when you are faced with a challenge, and you decide to run or fight. I was confronted with a challenge, and that morning I chose to settle with my stable 9-5, nice dinners with friends, and occasionally playing basketball to get some cardio in.

The next morning, I went to work and opened the link for the tryout and read through the fine print once more. This time, it didn’t sound like a challenge anymore, but rather an opportunity. An opportunity to play with the top talent in NYC, and become a part of a group of players who have pipe dreams of playing basketball as a career. My friend provided me some humorous encouragement by saying that the Jeremy Lin craze could actually help me stand out from the other players, at least from an racial perspective. With that, I signed up.

I pushed everything aside, and started to daydream about what it would be like to be called up to the draft, and actually play for a living. If I got paid $35K a year to play professionally, I would leave my job in a heartbeat. This was fun for about 10 minutes, but the reality of the situation is that I’m just a recreational basketball player who is a little taller and skinnier than the average guard but plays a PF/C position. I decided that the only goals for this tryout would be to play as hard as I can and leave everything on the court. No regrets. In order to get there, I wanted to get in the best shape that I could, eat the healthiest as I could, and play as much ball as I could before the tryout.

Thus began my 2 month journey where I rarely went out, and focused completely on training. It was tough at first, but much like everything else in life, your actions slowly develop into habits. At work, I would research different agility drills to try out later at the gym. I read leg and core strengthening workouts and ate greens and lean proteins. I worked out 6 out of 7 days a week. It was probably overkill, but I knew it needed to be done. At night, I slept like a baby, giving my body a chance to recover before the next day. I think I ran harder and lifted more than I ever have in my life.

During this one leg workout, I felt my knee give out and felt a little pain, and for a second doubted all the work I was putting into this. After a few minutes, I realized you can put your body through some pretty intense stress, as long as you tell your mind to just go. My knee was fine, and I finished the workout dripping in sweat but satisfied with finishing the day. The toughest workouts were Wednesday nights, since I started taking a class at NYU that runs from 6:30-9:30. After a full day of work and then class, the last thing you want to do is go to the gym and put in the time. Nonetheless, I somehow would find myself at the Grand Central NYSC every Wednesday night getting kicked out around 11 as they closed the gym.

The night before the tryout, I bought some groceries and made myself a to-go lunch for the next day since they wouldn’t be providing any food at the tryout. I packed away my marinated chicken and steamed vegetables in some tupperware and started packing my gym bag with the usual: shoes, athletic socks, ankle brace, drinks, snacks, extra t-shirts. I was alone in the apartment, and I felt a calm settle before me, like when the sky clears on a rainy day and you can smell the dew on blades of grass. I wouldn’t describe it as an epiphany, but more of an affirmation that I have done the best I could with the time and energy available to me the last 2 months. I looked in the mirror that night and realized I am in the best shape of my life, and ready to put everything on the line the next day.

The saying goes, it’s always about the journey, not the destination. After our last game, I went back to the locker room and just sat. I exchanged some handshakes with the other guys on my team. It has been a long time since I prepared for something with as much dedication and perseverance as these tryouts. The last time was probably in high school, when I was studying for all those AP tests senior year. You work and work, and then the day comes where you tell yourself: “I just need to let it go.” We should all live for moments like these, when you are given an opportunity to overcome your own self-doubts about your abilities.

I packed away all the gear they gave us and put on the shorts and t-shirt I wore coming into the tryouts that morning. I put on my AF1s and headed back onto the courts again at Basketball City, and have never felt more satisfied with the work I put into something and the experience I received from playing with guys just like me. I walked out of the gym into the late afternoon sun, put on my headphones, and never looked back.

Up against Goliath

Last week I played in a league game where our opponent was vastly superior to our team. Ok, to be fair, it was one or two guys on the team that were really good, and the rest of the guys were kind of just cleaning up their shit (getting loose balls, rebounds, hustle plays). We knew about their star two players before the game, and were trying to figure out how we could match up against them, when deep down I knew they were gonna rain buckets on us. Being one of the taller guys on the team, I was left guarding their PF/C and actually wanted to guard their main PG (who did all the scoring). Alas, my contributions defensively were box out down low and make sure their bigs didn’t eat our lunch.

When you know you’re already outmatched before the game, it totally dampens your mentality during the game. I used to think this way in the past, throwing in the towel before the ball was even tipped to start the first quarter. In the last year or so, I just shut out this belief and think as if both teams are on a level playing field, and that the other team is just as nervous about the match up as you are.

During the game, their point guard rained 5 or 6 three-pointers on us, had at least 8 assists for layups, and ran the fast break like it was the 100m dash. I learned a few things about my game as they took a 20-point lead going into the last 5 minutes of the game:

  • Regular moves become harder – When I’m up against good competition, I tend to scrutinize my moves a lot more. Making sure I don’t turn the ball over, making good passes, and driving to the hole. As we all know, basketball is a simple game of feel and instincts, and playing this way where you’re analyzing you’re every move is no good.
  • The backcourt is all about speed – Thinking back to all the tough teams I’ve played against, one of the biggest contributors to the loss is not having a solid backcourt, and this manifests itself through the speed of the guards. Then there’s a full-court press and the guards are having trouble bringing the ball past half court and turning the ball over leading to fast breaks, it’s one of the worst feelings when you’re already down court completely detached from the play.
  • Clutch shots – Juxtaposed with my first point, stiffer competition does breed more risk on my part, and I take shots and make moves I wouldn’t otherwise risk taking in a game I think is evenly matched. I guess when the odds are stacked against me, I think of it as taking a raise in poker or betting on games–the more you lay down, the higher expected return.

With 5 minutes left in the game, with the result pretty much decided, I sometimes asked myself why even bother running hard or trying to make a play? It would be so much easier to let the seconds tick by.

I crave these games. I need these games. These types of games, at ANY level, bring things out of you that you would never expect. You either show up to the challenge, or run away and accept the loss as if it were predestined from the beginning of the season. I love showing up and making a run in the last 5 minutes, where we won’t win but cut the lead down to 10, and keep Goliath on his toes.

We made a run.