“Twenty seconds!” someone yelled from the sideline. I had just snatched a rebound under the other team’s basket. Everyone was already down-court, and I stood alone, holding the ball. Time started to run out.
“Seven ... six ... five ...”
I dribbled across half court, where a short, muscular man with a shaved bald head and tribal tattoos up both arms waited for me with his arms outstretched. My teammate ran up to him and set a pick. I dribbled right, but the illustrated ball of muscle shoved his way through the pick and got back in my face. I picked up my dribble and looked for someone to pass to. Nobody open. Now I was in trouble: no time to pass to a better shooter, no dribble to get a better shot. Way outside, with a man in my face, the clock ticked down.
“Four ... three ... two ...”
I lifted the ball and pump faked. My inked nemesis bit on it and jumped too soon. Success! I jumped up as he came down. As I rose up, I cocked the ball over my head and threw it to a teammate who wasn’t looking. The ball sailed out of bounds.
That's when it dawned on me: I am the worst basketball player on the worst basketball team in the worst basketball league in New York City. Really? Could this be possible? The realization was soul crushing, so I examined the facts.
LET’S START WITH THE league. The Word bookstore in Greenpoint sponsors this league. The bookstore sits across the street from a popular pickup-game court, and the store manager is a hoops fan (and a bit of a baller on the court, herself). A friend of mine had captained a team in this league the last three seasons. He invited me to join his team with the promise that the league wasn't competitive and was "a little nerdy." Just right for an out of shape 34-year-old who gets winded climbing the subway stairs.
The orientation session for the Word league provided further proof of his claim. The players are required to complete a literary quiz before joining. I not only aced it, but caught players sitting around me copying my answer to the question: "What does N.B.A. mean for writers?" After turning in our quizzes, we were briefed on the rules. Rule number one: Don't be an asshole.
The most important rules were that teams must always have a female player on the court, you weren’t allowed to play defense until a player crossed half-court (no pressing), and you called your own fouls. This last one was a new rule for the Word league. In the past, referees called fouls. But the league commissioner felt that a referee caused too many arguments and that calling our own fouls would force people to be more polite to one another. If the league didn’t even need referees, I expected something along the lines of a glorified layup-line, which, again, was exactly what I was looking for.
(Also: I think she’s right. I haven’t seen a single argument over a foul call. One player on my team even calls the fouls he commits on the other team, a level of sportsmanship that goes beyond even my own genteel sensibilities.)
So far so good, I thought. But my first game in the Word league quickly crushed any notion that I had found the league appropriate to my skill level. While my team warmed up on one basket before the game, a player from the opposing team ran the length of the court and dunked on the rim we were warming up on. He grinned at us and then sprinted back. I doubt we even have a player who can touch the rim. We looked at each other in panic. I expected the Word league to be the kind of league with lots of timeouts for people’s glasses falling off. This was going to be a whole different thing.
IN OUR FIRST GAME, the league-mandated female player on the opposing team was a shorthaired, tattooed badass, who drained one three after another whether you had a hand in her face or not. On defense, she refused to guard our female player and talked smack up and down the court—imagine Bruce Bowen as a young white woman from Williamsburg. All of these qualities I found impressive and entertaining from the bench. Once I subbed in and saw that she was guarding me, I found them terrifying and humiliating.
I first took the ball off an inbounds pass. As I dribbled it up to half-court, she waited, smiling. "You look scared,” she said, as she pressed up against me. “Don't be scared. I'm not gonna hurt you." I picked up my dribble at half-court, passed to the nearest open player, and then ran around, pretending not to be open until it was time to run the other way.
We lost that first game, amazingly, by only two points. We lost the next three by a combined six points. We kept losing, but losing close, giving us reason to believe that we were due to win a game any week now. We just needed to gel as a team and find our style. And maybe recruit someone taller than six feet.
We lost the next seven games. The margins of defeat kept getting bigger and bigger. The Word league doesn't keep standings, preferring instead to let every team enter an end-of-the-season tournament for the championship (thereby making the entire season the pre-season). If they kept standings, we'd have one win because of a forfeit one week when a team showed up to play us with 15 guys and no female players. We played them anyway and lost by 16 points. Still, even with a single asterisk win, I doubt—and hope, for Dr. James Naismith’s sake—that any other team is doing as poorly as us.
Our opponents’ reactions to us from week to week said it all. One week, we played a jovial group of similarly aged and talented players. The game was close, competitive, and fraught with blunders and turnovers on both sides. The other team seemed to be tripping on themselves, throwing the ball out of bounds a lot, and fouling us on every possession. They also beat us by 10 points. After the game, they said, "We wish we could play you guys every week!"
MUCH OF THIS IS my fault, I fear. Over the past few weeks I’ve convinced myself that I’m the worst player on the team. My earliest suspicions stemmed from the fact that my teammates rarely, if ever, passed me the ball. I’d drive down-court with a teammate on a 2-on-1 fast break, and the defender would leave me to block my teammate’s layup. Inevitably, rather than passing to me—wide open, right under the basket—they’d look my way and then pass to a teammate who hadn’t even made it down-court yet.
Between periods, when we huddled up to discuss what was or, more frequently, what wasn’t working about our strategy, I would just nod my head whenever someone suggested I play the “help side” or that we switch to the “diamond zone.” I would put my hand up for a high-five, then hit the court and run back and forth under the basket, with no clue where I should actually be. After a few games of this, one of my teammates seemed to realize I was clueless. On the bench, he tried to explain to me, in the simplest of terms, what to do. “Just stay with your man until they get to this spot, then switch with me. I’ll tell you when.” A merciful, discreet assist.
Despite possibly being the worst player in the city, I love too much about the game of basketball to actually get seriously discouraged. While I’m sure there is much to be enjoyed in an effortless three-point stroke or the ability to dunk a basketball, I try to savor the small victories. With the right attitude, there is also much to be learned and appreciated in a series of humbling defeats. I give myself a new and practical goal in each game: grab four rebounds, make your guy pick up his dribble on the perimeter once a quarter, be the first person down-court after every basket. I manage to score at least one goal in every game. While I may not be as good as I once imagined myself in the driveway, I can take comfort in seeing a bit of improvement every week.
The Word league may not be the pasty and fragile indoor kids league I had hoped for, either, but I doubt you’ll find a more fun—or more interesting—group of people to play basketball with on a Saturday morning. And I’m sure my team will win a game eventually. Actually, I’m not all that sure, but it doesn’t really matter.
“This is not rock bottom for us,” said LeBron James, toward the end of last season after the Miami Heat had just lost their fifth game in a row. “We can lose every game and probably still make the playoffs.” Since the Word league lets everyone in to the final tournament at the end of the season, we find ourselves in the same spot as the greatest basketball player in the world. “Once you get in the playoffs,” he mused, “everyone’s record is 0-0.”
We’re at the mid-season break right now. I have seven weeks to figure out what a diamond zone is. And for anyone who can dunk and has read some John Updike—we could use a ringer.
Editor’s Note: Since this writing, David’s team has won four games—and even gone on a winning streak. But again, the regular season games don’t actually count. Either way, yay David and team!
David Hill writes for Grantland and is a member of the NYC-based sketch comedy group The Charlies. His writing has appeared in The Awl, McSweeney's, and The New York Times.