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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, May 24, 2003

Weekend Hoops Blogging

I almost went back to my office when I saw the sign on the door to the gym: "NOTICE: The Hot Water Will Be Off Until 10:30 am." Routine server maintenance scheduled to run from 6:30 to 7:30 on a Wednesday morning will leave all Internet services completely hosed until 4:00 or so (sometimes 4:00 Thursday...), and let's not even talk about getting the heat turned on or off in a classroom building. If they claim that the hot water will be back on by 10:30 am, there's just no way the water will even be lukewarm before 5:00.

I'm glad I didn't turn around, though, because Friday's lunchtime basketball featured four of the best games I've played in since I started playing here, back in the summer. By some fluke, we ended up having all the best players in the gym (and probably seven of the ten best regulars) on one of the two courts, and got some good, high-quality hoops in. The first three games ended up 15-14 (the dreaded "next basket wins"), 15-14, and 15-13, and the fourth was still good, though not as close. (My opinion of the quality of the games has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that my team won all four...)

Of course, playing that much ball at lunchtime left me pretty much useless for the rest of the afternoon. And, for that matter, my legs are still sore enough that I'm having trouble getting to sleep, hence this post.

Getting a good run of games together is crucial to any attempt to use basketball as a half-assed exercise program, and also to the general enjoyment of the sport. Winning games helps, but winning a sloppy, poorly played blowout is less fun than losing a well-played, closely contested one (at least in the low-stakes world of pick-up...). The trick, of course, is figuring out how to get those games going, which is more than just a matter of throwing the best players in the gym together-- as noted in the last basketball post, you're better off with five mediocre players who know how to play as a team than a couple of great players who'll butt heads.

There are only a couple of structural factors that really come into play: getting good players, and making even teams. There's nothing you can do about the former (unless you start organizing invitation-only games), but you can have some influence over the latter. Sadly, there isn't a foolproof method for putting together evenly-matched teams. Free-throw shooting (first five to make a foul shot are a team, and play the second five) is a popular method, as it's impartial, but it's risky, and not for the reason you'd think. It's true that the best players tend to be able to make free throws, but there's no shortage of terrible players who can knock down a hundred free throws in a row (this is the "Foul-Line Lamprey" alluded to in the previous post-- the guy who can't do anything but hit free throws. You can't win with him, but can't get rid of him in a "make a shot to stay on" situation), which evens things out a little bit. The bigger issue is that for whatever reason, inside players tend to be systematically worse free throw shooters than guards, so you're likely to end up with all the ball-handlers on one team, and all the big guys on the other, which makes for a rotten game.

About the best way to do it is to split people up by talents, and then arrange the pairs into teams-- if you've got two big guys, put them on opposite teams (today, I was matched up against a football player, who could push and shove every bit as well as I can); if you've got two great jump-shooters, they go on different sides; if you've got a pair of Labrador Retrievers, split 'em up. It can be tricky to figure things out if your players don't happen to come in pairs (hours could be spent debating whether or not a good shooting guard can be balanced by a solid small forward), but the hardest part here is finding someone to pick the teams who will honestly arrange the pairs to give an even split (the best post player with one of the weaker guards, etc.). Most guys, consciously or not, try to fiddle things around to put themselves on the better team, and some of them aren't particularly subtle.

Most of the keys to a good game are a matter of attitude among the players, though. In order to get a good game, you need players who are willing to put in the effort to play good basketball.

The most important rule here is "Never Stop Moving" (coincidentally, this is also the key to hoops-as-exercise). The game is all about motion, and if you stand still for too long, you mess it up for everyone. If you keep moving, though-- chasing the ball, working to get open, crashing the boards, running the break-- good things will happen.

The best players all have a little bit of Labrador Retriever in them, and hustle will go a long way to make up for a lack of talent. Back in college, I used to play regularly with a guy who wasn't much of an offensive threat on paper-- he could hit a stand-still jumper if you left him wide open, and not much else-- but he scored a fair number of points just because he never stopped moving. He would literally run laps around the three-point line until the guy guarding him got sick of it, and stopped chasing him, and then there would be that damn set shot...

The other big general rule is "Shut Up and Rebound." Everybody likes to score, but you can't win games without guys who do the dirty work. This rule is especially important when you're playing with a new group of people. When I start playing at a new place, I don't even look to score for the first couple of games, unless it's a two-foot put-back shot. I've found that the best way to get accepted by a new crowd is to just play defense, rebound, and don't mouth off. If you go right out and start demanding the ball on offense, you get pegged as an egomaniac, and nobody wants to play with you. Play defense, rebound, and keep your mouth shut, and you'll help your team win. Good players will respect that, and they'll start passing you the ball without needing to be told. And if you put together four or five guys who all play defense and hustle, the quality of play will go up dramatically.

A lot of the keys to a good game are as much a matter of diplomacy as anything else. Another general rule that's especially good in a new gym is "Never Argue With the Refs." Arguing is almost always counter-productive-- I don't think I've ever won a game, in any sport, where I ended up bitching at the officials-- but it's particularly important in a pick-up context, as the games are always "call your own." Calls are made by players on the floor, and in a close game, this can turn ugly, fast. People start to take the game personally, and it ends up not being any fun.

If a guy on the other team says you fouled him, you fouled him. Don't argue it-- it's not like you'll get kicked out after five fouls, and all the call gets him is the ball back. If he's a Quick Whistle, you might note that fact, and make sure that you actually do foul him, but fighting over the call won't help, and the arguments just spoil the game for everyone. Likewise, if someone says you stepped on a line, or traveled, just give up the ball, and play defense. There are a couple of guys in every gym who will piss and moan and argue every call, and I hate to have them on my team almost as much as I hate to play against them. (When I played in the gym at Yale, everyone would argue. A simple, obvious foul call was an excuse for a ten-minute shouting match. God, that was frustrating...)

On the other side of the "officiating," it's good to remember that "Reciprocity is Key." If you'd be annoyed at someone for calling a foul when you just grazed his wrist, don't call a foul yourself in the same situation. If you plan to play a physical game yourself, don't call a foul unless you get absolutely mauled at the other end. You should always give as good as you get, but don't be offended to get as good as you give. Got it?

There are a bunch of other rules that are more situational than anything else. Some guys can get away with trash talk, other guys just have that indefinable quality that pisses other people off as soon as they open their mouth. Similarly, some guys will take trash talk as all in good fun, while others will boil over at a simple suggestion that they really ought to have called "glass" before banking in a thirty-footer. Some guys will watch their teammates shoot a hundred shots without complaint, others will pout if they go three trips down the floor without scoring. Those things you need to play by ear.

Friday's games were exceptionally good, on all counts. The teams were unusually even, as the scores indicate, and we had a good split of players-- each team had a good shooter, a good post player, a good point guard, and one all-around hustle guy (we were playing 4-on-4). Everybody played hard, nobody started any fights, and what trash talk there was was good-natured (and mostly emanated from my football-playing former student, who got the worse of the on-the-court match-up...). It's some of the best ball I've seen played up here, and the best workout I've had in a while.

The showers were ice cold, though. I knew they wouldn't get the hot water back on.

Posted at 1:21 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

You've Foiled the Scheme, Now Try the Scent!

I've been reposting a bunch of old stuff uncovered in the move to steelypips over at Blogcritics, and have started putting up some Steven Brust reviews. They like to include Amazon links with the reviews over there, so I was looking up the ISBN's for the books so they could be included. When I looked up Yendi, I was surprised to see a heading for "Customers Interested in Yendi May Also Be Interested In." I was even more surprised to find out what went in that category:

Yendi: The Perfume.

It's described as, "a luxurious, gentle, floral fragrance" and "a feminine scent that possesses a blend of florals and fruit." I guess now we all know "how the love of a good woman can turn a cold-blooded killer into a real mean S. O. B...."

Posted at 8:25 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

The Credulous Contrarian

One of the advantages of the academic life is that people go out of their way to arrange talks and events to provide enlightenment for the students. Of course, college students being college students, most of them blow these opportunities off, but they provide a nice diversion for the faculty...

One such event took place last night, with Jamin Raskin and the reliably irritating Christopher Hitchens speaking on the topic of "Democracy, the Constitution, and War."

Raskin is a law professor, and very much a lawyer. He declined to mention the war at all in his prepared remarks, instead launching an impassioned plea for further democratization of American politics, and railing against the anti-democratic tendencies of the Supreme Court. He made a couple of concrete suggestions that Matthew Yglesias is sure to love, including the abolition of the Electoral College, but mostly lost the audience in a blizzard of inadequately identified legal citations. Kate probably would've gotten more out of it than I did, which isn't saying a lot-- he had passion for his ideas, but didn't put them across very clearly. Which was evident in the fact that nobody had any questions for him afterwards...

Hitchens, on the other hand, is just eloquent enough to be dangerous. On the broader topics of the Constitution and Democracy, he was actually pretty reasonable, and said some fairly sharp things (noting that the Pledge of Allegiance is "too words too long," he cited this as a pattern, further exemplified by John Ashcroft saying that "In American, we have no king but Jesus." Again, two words too long...). On the specific topic of the war, though, he simply rattled off the bog standard warblogger line, with all the contradictions and inconsistencies any regular reader of weblogs knows of.

He spoke eloquently of what a marvelous and unique thing the American republic is, noting that it was explicitly founded as a secular and internationalist place (two of the qualities I find most admirable, though I think he fudges the details of the founding a little), and stating that these are qualities worth defending. Asked a question about expressions of religious sentiment by political leaders, though, he dipped into the LGF talking points and offered the opinion that the most dangerous religious statement by an American president in the last twenty-odd years was "Islam is a religion of peace" (as opposed to, say, George Bush the Elder saying atheists should not be considered citizens, which I find far more disturbing from a "defending the ideals of the republic" standpoint).

On any question relating to the war, he took every opportunity to wave the bloody shirt of September 11th. In fact, he manufactured a few, starting an "answer" to a question about the effect of the war on civil rights by noting that "many of the same people" who ask that sort of question at these events also make the argument that Bush and company knew the attacks were coming and let them happen in order to have an excuse to dramatically expand their police powers. Having introduced this irrelevant bit of cant (the questioner said nothing of the sort), he then dismissed it as not worthy of a response, and indeed, beneath contempt, before mumbling a few "we're at war, gotta break some eggs to make omelets" platitudes in response to the actual subject of the question.

In other areas, he's guilty of violating the famous Teresa Nielsen Hayden dictum: "Just because you're on their side doesn't mean they're on your side." Like many a warblogger, Hitchens seems weirdly convinced that the Bush administration actually shares his views (which, stripped of the rhetorical sleaze regarding September 11th, amount to a sort of liberal interventionism that I really don't have much trouble with). He's convinced that, any day now, they're really going to stick it to Saudi Arabia, which I find hard to credit. He blamed the US's failure to intervene more quickly in the Balkans on a "Clintonian nightmare" of excessive diplomancy, conveniently ignoring the fact that the delay was largely due to strident opposition from the very people who most vocally backed the war of the moment. And most paradoxically, he cited Bush's campaign rhetoric opposing "nation building" as a reason to have confidence in the current administration, because "they only went to war reluctantly," as opposed to a reason to fear that they'll do a really half-assed job of it (as, in fact, seems to be the case). For someone who expends a great deal of effort casting himself as a bold iconoclast, he's strangely credulous (or else far sleazier than I thought).

The problem is, he's very smooth while running through all this. He's a polemicist by trade, and thus has a way with a clever turn of phrase, and a very cultured manner of speaking. He actually manages to make some of this stuff sound halfway reasonable, at least while he's speaking. Toward the end, he dropped in a positive mention of the profoundly creepy Paul Wolfowitz plan for the Middle East (as part of the Saudi thing mentioned above), and it took a moment to realize what he had just said. The lesson being, I guess, that if you speak eloquently, and with a British accent, nobody (in America, at least) will notice whether your actual arguments make any sense.

Of course, I went to this expecting to be annoyed, so I suppose the evening was a success.

(Edit: Changed the title, because I'm a sucker for alliteration, and fixed some bad curly quotes. I hope.)

Posted at 9:15 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

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