Editor's note: I am critically behind in e-mail. How critical? I'm seriously considering abandoning my e-mail address and starting new. I keed. But seriously, I'm way behind. If you've e-mailed me and not received I response, it's not because I don't love you. Know that.
Buon giorno, everybody.
Evil Ted and I just returned from another work trip in Pisa, Italy. During last year's trip, our primary goal -- other than that whole "work" thing -- was to find a pickup basketball game. We very much wanted to match our American basketball skills against the skills of our Italian counterparts. You know, for the sake of, uhm, international relations. Yeah.
Well, we failed. Utterly. Here's the proof.
This year? Great success! Our Italian supervisors, perhaps out of guilt for making us once again trek across the sea to learn things we could have figured out over Skype, worked relentlessly to find a way for us to play basketball during out visit. And by "worked relentlessly" I actually mean they figured out someone in the Pisa office has a weekly pickup basketball group.
It took a few days of asking around, but we managed to set up a game for the first Friday of our trip. The thing about pickup ball in the Pisa area is that there aren't really any courts you can just walk onto. Rather, there are gymnasiums where you can reserve court time by the hour. Unfortunately, we were unable to reserve the court in Pisa -- as far as anyone told us, there's only one court there -- so our Pisan co-worker Tim reserved a court in nearby Livorno for the low, low price of 50 Euros.
The day of the big game, Tim came by our "desk" for a little shop talk. (I put desk in quotes because it was more like a long wooden table with a bank of computers. Kind of the computer software version of a sweatshop. Very Orwellian.) It quickly became obvious that Tim takes his basketball quite seriously. He gave us incredibly detailed scouting reports on everybody who would be playing: Who could shoot, who could drive, who crashed the boards, who like to run, etc. He even told us that one guy was a lefty, so we needed to adjust for that. It was all very thorough.
Tim also let us know that he was pretty good...and that he hated to lose. He claimed to be a brutal smack talker who didn't mind getting in people's face and playing hard, hand-checking defense. To illustrate this point, he pushed me hard in the chest. Just so we were clear.
(For the record, I always get a chuckle when a pickup baller tells me he hates to lose. It's always good to know when somebody can't be included in the massive hoards of people who enjoy losing. You don't want to play with those people.)
Evil Ted and I listened without offering any description of our abilities. After all, there was no sense in tipping our hands and letting our soon-to-be opponents prepare for us. That and we were starting to get nervous. Were we in over our heads? Tim's description made his group sound like some very serious ballers. What if we got schooled? That would be humiliating. Especially since our secret fantasy was to establish our American basketball dominance.
Friday after work, we rushed back to our hotel and switched into our basketball duds, after which we rushed right back to the office to meet our co-worker Brent, who had agreed to give us a ride to Livorno. On the way to the court, we picked up Brent's son and his son's friend, who (as Tim had warned us) liked to run.
Before we arrived, Brent told us not to expect an American-style gym. He was right. If you didn't already know the building housed a basketball court, you'd never guess it in a million years. Honestly, the outside looked like an old Roman ruin crossed with something out of a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. If I hadn't been with some locals, I wouldn't have ventured inside...or anywhere near it for that matter. It looked seedy and dangerous, and I couldn't imagine what state the court would be in.
Turns out, the court was pretty nice. It was regulation size (by which I mean international regulation size). The floor was painted cement, which was odd, but it was fairly tacky and provided decent traction. Rather than the rectangle you see on standard American courts, the painted area was a trapezoid. The ball was severly overinflated and the rims were a tight and tempermental as any rims I've ever used. ET and I were the first ones on the court shooting around before the game, and we chucked up some pretty spectacular bricks. I couldn't even get my patented hook shot down. Ever shot was clunking off the back iron or rattling out.
Our nervousness was on the rise.
After some light warming up and stretching, the other players slowly ambled onto the court. Two people were late, so we started with four-on-four. Tim and someone we didn't know divided up the players. That someone we didn't know suggested a team of me, Evil Ted, Tim, and a blocky, slow-footed man named Robert. Tim was not happy about this. He felt the talent was weighted on the other team, particularly since they were mostly young gunners. Tim thought they were going to run us off the court. He demanded that when the other guys showed up, our team would get the better of the two.
Due to our team's presumed defensive shortcomings, Tim called for a zone. "We cannot stay with them man-to-man," he insisted. I was positioned at the bottom of the zone directly under the basket. Before the first check in, Tim looked at me very seriously and said: "Don't let me down."
Now, before I describe the game itself, I should probably say a few things about how it was played relative to American pickup ball. Rather than a game of ones (for standard two-point shots) and twos (for three-pointers), the scoring was by standard twos and threes. But here was the weird thing: Rather than keep a specific score -- for example, 10-7, or whatever -- each team kept track of how many they were ahead or behind. For instance, assume a team was ahead by that 10-7 score. They would yell out "Plus three!" Our hosts explained this method is easier than tracking the actual score.
Hey, when in Pisa, right?
Here's another weird thing. Rather than always checking the ball in at the top of the key, the ball was immediately checked in wherever play had been stopped. If the ball went out of bounds on the baseline, the team with possession would simply throw it back into play and go. Foul under the basket? Quickly throw the ball inbounds and go. This process took some getting used to.
Okay, so those were the only major logistical differences. But the style of play was also vastly different.
The first 5-10 minutes was nothing but fastbreaking. Seven seconds or less? Try four seconds or less. It was run-run-shoot, rebound or inbound, run-run-shoot, rebound or inbound, run-run-shoot, etc. Just mad sprinting up and down the court. After that initial burst, things slowed down and it became more of a standard half court game.
That half court offense was like nothing I've experienced before. It was like 1940s basketball. There was no physical contact. None. It was like everybody was surrounded by a personal force field. That's not to say people didn't play up on each other and contest shots. But when I went into the post, or crashed the boards, I wasn't getting hacked, held, poked, pushed, etc. like I'm used to in the U.S. I never really thought of my usual weekly pickup league as being all that physical, but now? Let's just say it was something of a culture shock to be posted down low without a forearm in my back or a knee up my ass.
The halfcourt plays basically had two options: The Drive and The Whip. The Drive was a simple, straight ahead, bull-in-the-China-shop stampede toward the hoop that either ended in a layup attempt or an overly elaborate pass back out to the perimeter. The Whip was where the ball would whip around to various stationary players until a wide open shot was created against our zone. And that shot, when it came, was always a long-range set shot.
I have to tell you, as the foundation of our zone, I felt like Bill Russell. For the most part, I simply rotated around the paint forming a wall between the basket and anybody who chose to drive. During the first several minutes, I blocked six or seven shots. I mean, guys just came straight at me. No juking. No fancy-schmancy circus shots. They just made a head-on assault on the basket, seemingly determined to shoot the ball directly through my waiting hands.
Once my Russell-like presence was established, our opponents became increasingly reluctant to attack the rim. And when they did, they were taking these awkward, windmill-style layups that were usually way off the mark (although, admittedly, a few did go in).
The thing that struck me about the moves I was seeing is that they were all very linear. There wasn't much in the way of zig-zagging or hotdogging with the ball. Nobody was overdribbling. It was either a straight drive or a pass to comebody cutting or standing wide open. It seemed very fundamental and unselfish.
It seemed bizarre.
Of course, offense was where we had the most fun. I have to tell you, I've never in my life played with so little physical contact. I'm not trying to obsess over this, but it was huge. I'm a reasonably skilled big man, and I was the tallest person in the gym that night. As a result, I got layup after layup after layup. It's not that guys weren't contesting, but seriously, try going up over someone several inches shorter than you without getting touched. You're going to convert a lot of shots that way. I felt like Wilt Chamberlain.
(The lack of contact, and the expectations of it, was evident both ways. I lightly brushed somebody on his way to the hoop and he immediately stopped and started jabbering in Italian. I asked Tim for a translation. "He says you killed him," he said. Really? I wasn't even sure I touched him.)
Another thing was, when people blocked out, there man didn't try to forcibly shove them off their spot. They just tried to find another open spot from which to pursue the ball. There was one guy who kind of shoved me once. I shoved back, and that was it. Nobody got physical with me again for the rest of the night.
This set the stage for some serious board crashing, not only by me, but by Evil Ted as well. ET is a guard, and he usually stays out on the perimeter. When he realized how free and open the paint area was, he started going after the basketball. In 12 years of playing with him, I think I'd seen him try to tip in a shot maybe once. Maybe. That night, he attempted three tips and converted two. And I have to admit, they were pretty wicked tips.
We also ran. Well, I should say, I ran and ET hit me Peyton Manning style for easy layups. It basically went like this: I'd grab a rebound on our end, shuffle the ball to ET, sprint past everybody, and receive a loooong pass from ET for the open zero footer. During one stretch, we did this three or four plays in a row. It was like nobody there had seen a full court pass before.
We killed our opponents. Badly. It was +3, then +9, then +18, then...we just stopped keeping score. About three quarters through the game, Brent got hurt, so Tim switched sides to go five-on-four against us.
We still killed them.
Okay, here's the last weird thing. When our hour was up, everybody just stopped. Like, stopped mid-play. Everywhere I've ever played in the States, people try to wring every last second out of a game, typically running over the alotted time. So seeing people willingly walk off the court when there was nobody waiting and no obvious reason to call it quits was kinda strange.
I got a ridiculous amount of praise after the game. Guys were high-fiving me. Somebody told me I should try out for the Italian league. Tim joked (in a somewhat irritated voice) that I had a "triple-triple" (I assume he meant points and rebounds). I have to admit, it felt good.
Not for Tim, though. He was our ride to the train station so we could get back to Pisa. Only he stormed out of the gym. We had jog to catch up. Turns out he was frustrated that he hadn't played better (or maybe that me and ET had played so well). He told us that we could expect better from him next time. And to be shut down. (As a follow up, he showed up to work on Monday and greeted us with, "Good morning, ladies.")
It didn't matter. We were stoked. And we couldn't wait for next week's rematch.
Only it never happened. There were trips and schedules, and nothing could be worked out. We never got the chance to prove we were legit. For all we knew, we might have simply been First Night Superstars. It's possible our Italian foes would have figured out our games and put it to us. We'll never know.
And unless we go back and find another group of Italian pickup ballers, we'll never know if we were genuinely good or just good relative to our competition. And that's okay.
It was just fun to hoop it up overseas.
As a postscript to this story, I officially got back from Italy late last Friday night and played my first American pickup game on Sunday morning. Within 20 minutes, I had a busted lip. Yep. Didn't miss the extra physical contact.