Back to the Block

(This piece appears in SLAM 181. You can also read Bobbito’s rebuttal to ESPN’s recent article pronouncing playground basketball dead right here.—Ed.)

June 15 was the day the Spurs made “Ice Man” and “Dr. K” proud to have worn that uni back in the ’70s, but it was also Father’s Day, which meant there were old-timer games going on at multiple parks in the hood. If I have a choice between being a spectator and playing, I’m lacing up. So I skipped out on the last NBA game of the season and slid to “the Goat,” the legendary New York City court I grew up at.

On that Sunday, among the 300-plus at the Goat stood Mario Elie, an alum of the Goat and three-time NBA Champion. We used to run fulls together as teenagers in the early ’80s, and I’d always be nervous to be on his squad. “The Jedi,” a nickname Mario earned at the EBC tournament in Harlem, was All-City at Power Memorial HS, and no, he did not like losing. If a teammate hit the panic button and baked an apple (turnover), Elie was quick to scream on them. He kept that “win and stay on the court” pick-up bball attitude in the pros. Paid off lovely. He’s revered at our park.

Pick-up basketball, particularly outdoors, constantly informs the NBA, and has since influenced the formation of pro teams, for better or worse. Take a look at all the ugly jumpshots you see on TV during the season. Where do you think they were developed? Definitely not under the supervision of a coach. No. When a player has unorthodox form, more than likely that was born out of the playground.

When I see a teenager shooting a jumper off balance with both hands and no rotation in the park, I find it beautiful. They’re out there to have fun. Not everyone is on track to play for pay. Dr. James Naismith invented the sport to be played and used as an alternative to potential negative activity. In fact, he once mentioned late in his career that he didn’t create basketball to be coached, but only to be played. So if a kid is shooting a brick that makes dents in a metal backboard, more power to them.

I am less forgiving when it comes to the pros, though. How you gonna have bad form when all you have to do all year round is play ball? Players can submit to practice and repetition to improve their percentages, but ultimately, the root of the issue is the structure. And if your shooting coach is just grabbing your rebound and feeding you, they are doing you a disservice.

One might argue that form doesn’t really matter at all. If you look at Kobe, Carmelo and Durant, all have led the League in scoring and none, in my estimation, are pure shooters. They are all pure scorers. You can put 
LeBron and Wade in that group, too. All five have tendencies, at times, to shoot off-balance, even when wide open. You ever peep how their right leg kicks across their left in the air, and they land only on their left foot (like a pelican)? Imagine if a boxer tried to take a hit while grounded on one foot? These players are losing their center of gravity. Just imagine how many more points they’d score if they simply corrected this tiny little piece on their form.

The same applies to pure shooters, too. Stephen Curry’s game is bananas fun to watch. His release and follow through is perfect; however, his shoulders aren’t even square to the rim. He tilts. Same with NBA Three-Point Shootout winner Kyrie Irving. He gets buckets and doesn’t even have complete rotation on his jumper when the ball is in flight.

So the argument can be made that form doesn’t really matter when it comes to being a great shooter, so long as the player has confidence, practices and has plenty of repetition. I’d counter that with history, though. I’m not a stats dude, and I don’t play fantasy games. But I can tell you, without looking it up, that over time, over a career, strong fundamentals will reap better shooting percentages. It’s possible to shoot 50 percent and up from 10 feet and in with an ugly jumper, but those imperfections affect numbers the farther you get from the basket. Steve Kerr be my witness. Chauncey Billups, too.

Of course there are exceptions, but overall, you’ll find that the best career three-point shooters had their shoulders squared, elbow in line with their knee but not below their shoulder, arm in an L shape, shot the ball with their legs and guided it with their wrist. That simple. You don’t need to have Derek Fisher muscles to shoot from deep. The strength comes from your core.

Think of releasing the ball through an imaginary 10-foot tube surrounding you (that will give you arch and make it harder for a defender to block your shot). Players make the mistake of jumping as high as they can, and then shooting the ball at the rim (as if they were throwing a dart) because they’ve cocked the ball back too far (like throwing a football), which is unnecessary. Save your energy, and literally reach for the stars. Your shot should already be in motion while you’re rising off the ground so that you’ve released the ball at the peak of your jump. Essentially, don’t jump and then shoot. Just jump and shoot in one motion. It’s called quick release.

Once the ball is in flight, land on both feet exactly where you jumped from in a relaxed and balanced position. If you have perfect rotation, the ball will come back directly to you. (If your park doesn’t have nets, aim for the back of the rim. If your shot goes in, the ball will still rotate back to you.)

Don’t get it twisted; I love watching the aforementioned players. I just think that aside from the potential of seeing more points scored, ultimately it’s about respecting the game. Any of us who play in front of crowds have a duty to present it in an aesthetic fashion that pays homage to its potential beauty. I’m not saying everyone should shoot the same way. Not at all. But I do encourage improvement. Why wouldn’t I? Players and fans would benefit. Word.


Speaking of respecting the game, I’m not sure why NBA announcers always jubilantly say, “Eurostep!” when James Harden or Wade scores. I had the pleasure, the joy even, of watching Sarunus, Sabonis, Vlade, Drazen and Kukoc all play when the League opened its door wide in the ’90s for overseas players to splash, and I don’t recall any of them doing what would be referred to now as the “Eurostep.” I’m guessing the analysts are referring to Manu Ginobili’s move? Isn’t he from Argentina? You know, in South America?

This is in no way to take away from the European style of play. I’ve balled in 13 countries and 30-plus cities on that continent dating back to the ’90s. I’ve been in pick-up games against pros as well as exhibitions and tournaments against amazing outdoor amateur talent and have nothing but love for everyone I’ve met. But I’ve never seen anyone out there, in any court I’ve been to, do what’s called the “Eurostep!”

Back in 1981, I started playing every day at the Goat. That was my home. There was a dude there appropriately named “Lefty,” because, although he did own a right hand, he never used it. True “one-arm bandit” steez as we used to call it. We were playing a game of 21, and Lefty, as expected, went left. I slid my feet and cut off baseline. He had already picked up his dribble, so I thought I had stopped him, but boom. Lefty pushed off his left foot back toward the paint, shifted the ball in his hands across his chest, landed on his right foot and jumped off of it, and just layed me up like I was an overcooked angel hair pasta string.

I distinctly remember this moment because I felt helpless. I was also tight because in those days I was practicing my hardest to be ambidextrous. I’d brush my teeth, use my fork and comb my hair, everything possible with my left hand to get it as strong as my right, just so I could look correct on the court. In NYC, style matters greatly but ultimately because it has function. “Take what the defense gives you,” the older cats at the park would tell me. And here was Lefty, who did exactly that, but in a way that literally and figuratively skipped a step.

No one on the fence watching yelled out, “Euro!”

And Lefty didn’t create that move, either. The great Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Bernard King, two of the greatest scorers New York has ever produced, both did a side step en route to the sauce pan if there was a defender in their way. (Interestingly, both were stronger dribbling with their right hand, even when they were attacking on the left side of the court.) Neither moved laterally in as exaggerated a manner, as Manu or Harden does now, but they did change pace and direction in their motion.

Perhaps they learned this move from someone around their way in the ’60s. I don’t know. What I do know is that players from New York playgrounds who greatly influenced the NBA’s style eventually influenced the rest of the world, so it is more plausible that the Eurostep actually started here, got exported overseas, then came back as a revised import. Or something like that…

Will I miss watching the NBA this summer? I’ll be having too much fun playing ball at Booker T. Washington playground, where I’m doing the second season of my Full Court 21™ Tournament. Come find me. Guard up. Shoot your ugly jumper, it’s cool. Let’s go at it. Talk smack if you want. Just don’t yell “Euro.”

photo by Jon Lopez