A grueling four days at NBA boot camp (cont.)
Much of this, it turns out, is about feeling comfortable. We run through a series of improv games, learning to vary our tone and presence. For example, during one game I'm on an "expert panel" with Henry Abbott of ESPN and Bill Ingram of Hoopsworld. Our expertise, we're told, is as lobster hunters, so we then take questions from the audience, trying to read each other's cues as we go. (To watch video of this improv, and much more, check out Henry's True Hoop blog, where he lovingly and exhaustively chronicled our week at IMG.)
The alarm bleats. I consider rolling onto the floor, then crawling to the shower. It's not that my joints are sore -- remarkably, due to the extensive stretching and strength work, they are not, for the first time in years after playing -- but my hamstrings feel like they're attached to a winch that won't stop turning. I head to the gym early to loosen up. This, I find, is the greatest luxury of the week. As a 34-year-old father, my basketball these days usually comes in frantic bursts and, aside from a hasty quad stretch here and there, is focused 100 percent on playing. Show up, go full speed, race home. To have the time to warm up properly, using a rolling pad to loosen muscles and performing a variety of exotic stretches, makes a striking difference.
Another luxury is the recovery time. Icing down after each workout, naps in the afternoon, a veritable Gatorade IV. And, this afternoon, after our morning session, an ice bath. It's something Deng does every day in the summer, and I see why. Aside from the initial shock of entering 50-degree water, it's quite nice. During two minute sessions, it feels like this: COLD!, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, blissful. Afterward, I feel like I've just unwrapped a new pair of legs.
It turns out I need them. In the evening session, we practice finishing strong at the rim -- always overhand rather than with a scoop or finger-roll ("Remember Patrick Ewing," warns Thorpe). Then, after practicing coming off of screens -- drills Thorpe refers to as "Reggie Millers" -- we pair up, a guard with a big man, and work on ball screens, turning the corner and, my favorite, running the "pinch post." If you've watched many NBA games, the play is familiar. First, the big man comes to the foul line extended to receive a pass from the guard, who's at the top of the key. The guard can then cut off the big man's hip and receive a handoff, picking off his defender in the process. Or, the big man can fake the handoff and then hit the guard with a dump down pass as he continues looping toward the basket. Or, finally, as Chris Webber used to do for the Sacramento Kings, the big man can fake the handoff, then spin and shoot a free-throw line jumper. Only, unlike Webber, we try to actually put arc on the ball.
The night ends with a scrimmage notable primarily for the fact that no one gets injured. (A sidenote: For those wondering about other elements of the game, like, say, defense, we covered that too. In fact, Thorpe and Moreau take us through an enormous amount for only four days.)
In deference to our conditioning, Thorpe put this morning's workout last. "Had we done it on Monday, you'd all be done for the week," he says bluntly.
We arrive in the gym to find the baskets lowered to various carnival heights -- eight feet, nine feet. It is time to dunk. For NBA guys this is a key element of the program, and on any given day they might dunk between 150-200 times (on a 10-foot rim, of course). Thorpe wants his players to attack with force, be quick leapers and always finish with authority. This draws fouls, creates aggressive drives and, for prospects who are on the cusp of making an NBA team, can be the best way to make an impression. When one of Thorpe's borderline players recently went to training camp with the Phoenix Suns, Thorpe's advice was simple: Go find Amare Stoudemire and try to dunk on him. It's your best shot at making the team.
So, like the pros, we practice. I pair with Ryen Russillo of ESPN, who's a beast down low, and we proceed to do unspeakable things to a 9-foot rim. Or at least that's how it feels to us, in the moment. There are few things more primal, more gratifying, than throwing down monster dunks. By the end, Ryen and I are trading roars with each jam. To be honest, it's the closest I feel to a "pro" all week. Who cares that it's 9-feet?
Like everything, the work is structured to mimic game conditions. So we toss the ball off the backboard, catch the "rebound" and try to take one step and dunk. First right-handed, then left-handed, then off one foot, then off two. We hook dunk from the baseline (to put our off shoulder between us and the defender). We take one step, head fake, then dunk to draw contact. And we stand under the rim and jump straight up and dunk, then try to catch the ball and go straight back up by quick-jumping off our toes -- 20 times in a row. By the end, we are sopping with sweat, our calves on fire, and it's only just beginning. (Does all the practice help, you may wonder? Check out this preseason clip of the spindly Martin throwing down on Greg Oden and judge for yourself).
Next up is Thorpe's piece de resistance, the Superman drill. Here's how it works: Stand on one side of the lane, throw the ball off the backboard at an angle and then sprint and leap to catch it in the air and land on the other side of the lane. Now do it 20 times in a row. It is ridiculously tiring. Dunking, it turns out, was a lot more fun. But then -- salvation! -- we are told to incorporate the two. So now we throw, rebound, and dunk, again and again.
Alas, it's one of our final drills. By noon we're headed back to the lodge to pack up, grab one final meal and disperse, lugging quads stuffed with concrete. Thorpe asks me if I want to stick around and practice with the post-grad kids that afternoon. Though my mind says yes, my hamstrings say no. I wisely decline. Within two hours, I'm as sore as I've been in years. It feels fantastic.
In the weeks that follow, I find myself clinging to the glow of the experience, fighting to make it part of my daily life, which again revolves around typing and diaper changes and unfreezing food that looks like perhaps it should stay frozen. I exchange e-mails with Henry at ESPN, who writes, "I really, really, really need some time to perfect the things I kind of learned" and I can't agree more.
At my local YMCA in Berkeley, Calif., I continue incorporating elements of the warm-up routine, and focus on the little details when I play -- keeping that foot forward on the drive, curling tight off screens. Once, I even find myself inadvertently blurting out "Pinch Post! Pinch Post!" to a teammate. Since it's Berkeley, he isn't fazed in the least. After all, people shout crazy stuff all the time around here.
I am aware that expecting someone in a pick-up game to run the Pinch Post is complete lunacy. It's like going to McDonald's and asking for your burger medium rare. I can't help myself though. The impulse is like a vestigial tail from my week at IMG.
That's OK, though. Basketball is a game that reveals its beauty in layers; the better you understand it, the more you appreciate it. And in that regard, I feel like I've been reacquainted with an old lover. Time may have passed, but the spark is still there.