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Why you fail regardless of how hard you try

Things I learned from pickup basketball

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

Taking the ball up the court, executing a perfect play, hitting a quick 3; there’s just nothing better than being a point guard in the game of basketball. But to have positions in a game, well, you need 10 people and between friends, it’s rare you plan events that actually happen.

In fact, when I played my first game recently, it had been close to three years since I had last played. It felt like I was embarking on something for the first time. But I was ecstatic and when the day finally came, I arrived with my stride full of eagerness and bounce.

I was excited to come back to the point guard position and dominate like I always did. “Hi’s” were quickly exchanged with everyone, and I grabbed my basketball to warm-up.

Heading to the free throw line, I shot a quick form shot to get into rhythm. It was an air-ball. My eyes winced but I figured I just needed more time.

I went back to the line and shot another.

“Air-ballllll,” one of my friends commentated as the ball fell short.

I spun around. Aaron, my friend, was incredulously staring at me. His eyes read, “What happened to you?”

“I just need to get into a rhythm” I said struggling to come up with an excuse. But I was worried. Had I really lost all my talent after three years? There was no way. Everyone else was making their shots.

Heading back to the free-throw line I shot another. It barely hit the rim and bounced off. This was an improvement, but it was nowhere near good enough.

“Hey, let’s start. Everyone’s here” said one of my friends (let’s call him Dylan). “We’re playing 3 games, right?”

“Yeah 3 games. Let’s start” Luke responded.

I had forgotten about the whole 3 games thing. Figuring that whichever team lost in the 1st game would just say they were “unlucky,” we had decided to make things out of 3. Meaning, if I messed up in the first game, I still had at least one more chance to prove myself.

The ball was thrown up for tip-off and our team got the ball. I had asked to be the point guard beforehand, so I took possession of the ball and dribbled up the court.

With the game just beginning, I figured if we could start strong, we could get some momentum and control the rest of the game. I saw a few teammates open, but the hoop looked better.

I quickly shot a 3 and waited for the splash.

The ball skyrocketed up and barely clanked off the side of the rim. “Come on!” I screamed. I couldn’t be missing my shots in the game, not when it actually mattered.

Meanwhile, the other team had quickly rebounded and was setting up what seemed to be a high pick-and-roll. The point guard found a player on the wing and the ball went up.


I stared at the net with jealousy, wishing that had been mine.

The ball was inbounded, and I took the ball up top. Most of the players were already covered, but I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. I drove to the hoop, but immediately I got caught in traffic. There were two defenders surrounding me and I had stopped and froze, the hoop nowhere in sight. Feeling desperate, I pivoted and threw the ball up, hoping it’d go somewhere.

It did, straight into the other defender’s hands. It didn’t even touch the glass.

Seizing the opportunity (and saving me from my remorse), the other team was sprinting down, attempting to make 2 fast-break points. I started sprinting down the other side, going to the paint when I noticed a full-court pass was thrown.

The ball was heading in my direction, to the opposing player behind me. If he got it, he would have an easy two points. Waiting for the right moment, I continued to sprint until the ball was right before me.

I leaped up, and it was mine.

“Yes, let’s go!!!” I screamed. As I began to dribble, I noticed everyone was struggling to catch their breath. Glancing at the lane, I saw there was only one defender in between me and the hoop.

Immediately, I bolted and took the ball while everyone else was too tired to run.

Reaching the paint, I had approached my defender and now it was just me and him. It was our dance, and this was my moment. I spun, snuck into a pocket, and let the ball float off my fingertips.

The ball bounced off the rim, and over the backboard. Out-of-bounds.

I was dumbfounded. Immediately, I buried my head into my hands, regretting my early celebration. I could see my teammates staring, wondering what was going on with me. I wasn’t playing like the point guard they had known me as.

Nothing was going in. First the shots, then the layups. I had a wide-open bucket, and I had still missed. As the other team inbounded the ball, I caught the last glances from my teammates. They were both confused and disappointed. I knew I’d have to change something, otherwise forget winning, my teammates weren’t going to play with me.

I figured I’d have to resort to solely passing. I wasn’t going to be able to do all of the duties of a point guard, but I could do some.

When our next possession come, I took the ball up and quickly noticed a man open in the paint. I lobbed it to him, and he got the easy 2 points. “Yeaaa!” I screamed, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit jealous. That should’ve been me making my shots. I could’ve gotten that pass.

As the game went on, we continued to battle, each team slowly racking up points.

Since I had stopped, my shooting wasn’t hurting our score anymore, but we were down, and we needed a bucket. It was 19–20.

With the ball at the top of the key, I assessed the situation. In the paint, our big man was dominating. He was bigger, stronger, and rougher. He could easily take the rock and tie the game up. Their wing defenders were also growing tired. If a pass was thrown to either of our wings, Luke or Aaron, the defenders would be too slow to react, and we could swing in a great three and end the game. On the other hand, my defender had eased up on me since I had stopped taking shots.

It was time to make things interesting.

I called for the classic pick-and-roll and ready to rumble, the big man came up and inserted himself at the top. I grinned. This was being a point guard.

Darting around to the right, I drove to the paint and as my defender struggled to find his place, I could see the confusion in his eyes. I liked it.

As I got deeper and deeper into the paint, the defender quickly locked on to me, giving me exactly what I wanted. It was my turn to shine.

Transferring the ball to my right hand, I dished a behind-the-back pass to the left wing and let it fly.

Over my big man and his man, the ball flew, and landed straight into two hands. But they weren’t our wing man’s. The defender had caught the ball, and now they had a chance to end the game.

I didn’t even want to scream, knowing any more attention would surely be the death of my reputation.

I sprinted down the other side, hoping to realize my mistake, with my wing man’s defender right in front of me.

He got into layup form and tossed the ball up. I jumped, trying to reach the ball.


The ball wasn’t going anywhere. I had blocked it and saved us from 0–1. There was no time for cheer though. Immediately, I grabbed the ball and started sprinting, vengeance in my hand.

I saw the same defender last time it had been just me and him. This time though, my teammate, Luke was on the wing. If we could score, the game would be over. If I went for it and made it, I’d be the hero of the team. Kings and glory, just like the point guard I had wanted to be. But if I missed, it’d be the biggest mistake of my (non-existent) basketball career.

I glanced at the defender again. Things were getting closer. I only had a few seconds left to make a decision. I couldn’t spin and pass the ball because my fancy pass cost us almost losing last time.

But I wanted to so desperately reclaim my ability to shoot. Luke was still waving on the sidelines, ready for the open ball. I wasn’t making the same mistake again.

Immediately, I dished the ball out to Luke, catching both him and the defender by surprise. Luke caught the ball, and got out of his trance, darting to the hoop. This was it. This was going to be game over. I couldn’t help but pine for the ball, but I knew I made my choice.

The defender came up to Luke who had been driving to the hoop. Immediately, in the corner of my eye I saw Luke smile and I grew confused. Why was he smiling? He hadn’t shot the ball.

He faked a move to the inside, throwing the defender off his trails, and side-stepped right to get into floater form. Why was he taking a floater? Just shoot the layup! The defender was running back towards Luke, and I was panicking. Why wasn’t Luke shooting the ball? Why had I passed to him?

The defender came up ready to jump to block the shot, leaving me without any hope, and then Luke passed it. To me. The ball was in my hands and the defender was now sprinting to me.

You want me to shoot? I haven’t been making any of my shots this entire game. Why am I shooting?

All my doubts in mind, I saw the defender getting closer and I knew I had to do something, or I’d cost us the game.

I side-stepped avoiding the defender’s trails and got into form. Releasing the ball, I let it float off my fingertips and hoped for the best.


Game. Over.

“LET’S GO!!” I screamed. Finally, I had done something. All my teammates were running to me, hands in the air. Soon, they reached, and we were all jumping up and down.

“LET’S GO!!!” we all screamed. We couldn’t stop ourselves. We kept jumping, until one left the huddle, feeling tired of jumping. Soon, everyone dispersed, leaving me alone to my thoughts.

I still couldn’t believe I had made the shot. Sure, it was a layup, but still. I couldn’t figure it out. I saw Luke in the corner of my eye, and figured I’d approach him.

“Hey, wait, Luke” I called out.

Luke turned around and smiled.

“Hey man. What’s up?” he asked.

“Why’d you pass to me?” I asked. I needed to know.

He looked surprised, like the answer was obvious. “You were open.”

I rolled my eyes. “I mean, I hadn’t been making any shots the entire game. Why’d you trust me?”

“Oh, because I wasn’t going to make my shot” he casually said.

“Wait, you knew you weren’t going to make your shot?”

“Yea, I’m not forcing garbage if it’s garbage. Alright, I got to go warm-up, okay?” he said, smiling, but also wondering what the heck was going on with me as he walked onto the court.

I nodded my head and walked away, dumbfounded. What on earth did it mean to force garbage? You were always supposed to make your shot. It wasn’t okay not to. Sure, that’s why he passed. But why lose confidence? If I had lost confidence, I would have never shot those free-throws, or that 3, or even dished that behind-the-back pass.

Which had all gone wrong. Maybe, he had a point.

“Hey, guys let’s start,” Luke called out. First to warm-up and first to ruin everyone’s break. That was Luke.

“What? Dude I’m tired,” Dylan said.

“Yea that’s just because you lost. Stop complaining, let’s go,” Luke said.

“Really got to be like that? Alright, okay you’re losing this one.”

“Tell me that after the game,” Luke said. Dylan smirked and grabbed the ball.

I hadn’t even warmed up, but everyone had already clustered into their respective teams. I trudged over to the top of the key, waiting for the other team to bring the ball over.

I saw Luke walking over to me. I was surprised, but the other team was still wasting time, so we had a second.

“Hey, I’m going to join you up top, alright?” he said.

I was startled but comfortable. It’d be nice to have someone guarding with me. “Okay, who do you want?”

“Oh no, not now. When we have the ball” he said, walking away.

“Wait, what?”

“Hey, who’s got who?” our center called out. The other team was coming up quickly and there was no one up ton. I rushed up, still surprised and confused. Why was Luke coming up top? I mean I knew I performed badly, but I could still do something, right?

Suddenly their point guard performed a spin move and with one step, he was in front of me. I rushed behind him, trying to steal the ball, but it was too late. He side-stepped and their first 2 points were scored.

“Let’s go” Luke called out as he joined me to take the ball up-top. I grabbed the ball, still reconciling that there was another guard with me, and dribbled it up.

My defender had moved his right foot past the three point-line, making the left lane open. I took a step right and then a did quick crossover left and blasted past him. With just their center in front, I figured I’d go straight into him and take it to him.

I drove straight into the lower part of his body, but he barely moved. I continued to push though, slowly getting closer to the hoop. He was starting to push me backwards, but I reached the hoop and jumped up to lay it in. Immediately, my body was slammed back towards the ground.


I was on the floor and my left elbow was badly stinging. The ball had fallen out of my hands and the center had taken it, dishing it to their point guard who was setting up the offense.

Struggling to get up, I saw two hands trying to help me up. One was the center who had whammed me on the floor, and the other was Luke.

“Come on, get up,” Luke said.

“Man, you can take a hit. Sorry about that,” their center, Bill, said as I took their hands, trying to get up.

“It’s all good. But dude, my elbow. It hurts,” I complained. It was still stinging as I was finally standing. The other team had just passed the ball to their wing who was wide open and threw it up.

“Yea, sorry about that. Maybe next time, don’t ram into me?” Bill shrugged as he walked over back to his place. The other team had already scored and one of our wing players were bringing the ball up.

“Guys, come on” Aaron said. He desperately needed help since he wasn’t exactly a ball-handler.

I jogged right, over to the top of the key, while Luke went the other way.

“We got you, alright?” Luke called out as he reached the top of they key.

I nodded my head and took the ball from our wing man as he darted out onto the side. My elbow still stinging, I realized I wouldn’t be able to drive as much. I needed both arms and that was only going to lead to bad shots.

Stuck and confused, I watched as the motion unfolded. Luke was slowly creeping over to the right, trying to make his defender make a choice. Our center was battling in the paint and our power forward was nowhere near open. Suddenly, Aaron darted across the other side of the court, and our power forward set the screen. Aaron reached the three-point line and had a second’s worth of space to get a shot up. I lobbed it over and he faked a pass to Luke, fooling his defender who had darted over to Luke.

He got the shot up, and it was clean.


“Boom,” he said shaking his fist as Luke nodded his head, approving. I smiled, happy with the play we had made. We jogged over the other side of the court as the other team brought the ball over.

“Hey, let him shoot. He won’t make it,” Aaron cockily called out. I shook my head, but realized he had a point. I walked backwards and gave their point guard the space to shoot.

Surprised, but willing, he took a deep breath and launched a 3. It barely clanked off the side of the rim.

“Come on,” he yelled, shaking his head. Our center grabbed the rebound over Bill and tossed it to me. I smiled as their point guard was still recovering from his loss and took the ball up.

I saw Luke running over, penetrating the defense, and found him for a quick layup.

He caught it, and tossed it up as he reached the hoop, laying in 2 easy points.

“Good stuff,” he said as he walked back over to me.

“Nice catch,” I said as I got back on defense.

Their point guard, obviously frustrated from his previous miss, was sprinting down the court, trying to sink 2 easy points. I got in front of his lane, ready to stop him.

“What are you doing George? Trying to score on me?” I taunted as he reached me.

He gave no response and drove into the lower part of my body. I winced. My elbow wasn’t ready to take the hit, and it was screaming. I kept my stance though, trying to stop him from pushing further.

Bill tried to get open, but our center stopped him and soon, Aaron had joined me and was double teaming their point guard. I saw as he desperately scanned the court, looking for someone and finding no one. He pivoted, and threw the ball up.

It didn’t even touch the glass and Aaron caught it, throwing the ball over to me. I grasped it and winced again. My elbow was not feeling it. I scanned the court, looking for easy options, as I slowly brought the ball up.

Aaron and Luke were in their positions, our center and power forward in theirs. Knowing my shot might be affected as well, I called for a pick-and-roll but pointed over to Luke. Aaron quickly ran over, taking a step towards me to lose his defender, and set it for Luke.

Luke spun around Aaron and ran over to the left wing for a jumper. I threw a quick pass, my elbow still stinging, and Luke turned around, extending his arm to catch it.

His defender was rushing over to him, but it was too late. Luke had brought the ball to his set point and was already in the air.

Two more.

“YES!” we all screamed, pounding our chests. We ran over, quickly exchanging high-fives.

“Nice play dude,” Aaron said as he gave me a high-five. “Oh, and the pass was beautiful,” he said, unable to hide his smirk.

I chuckled. “It was only because I didn’t shoot the ball.” My elbow was still hurting, but not shooting was helping.

“Hey, who’s got him?” Luke quickly called out, pointing to the ball.

Their point guard was running over, and there was no one in his way. I quickly dropped my hand from the high-five and started sprinting over to the ball.

Their guard was already past the half-court line, but I quickly reached past the 3-point line, starting to catch up.

He reached the 3-point line and I quickly got behind him. Suddenly aware that there was another person behind him, he darted right to avoid the ball getting stolen and I got in front of him.

Now, it was just me and him. He glanced at the hoop above him, and I got into my stance. I put my left arm out, hoping that he wouldn’t run into it.

He stepped left, giving me exactly what I wanted, and started to spin. I put my elbow into his back, and smiled, knowing he was going to miss. He snuck into a pocket and forced a shot.

It went out-of-bounds and I shook my head, wishing I could tell him something about garbage. Aaron ran over to inbound the ball, and I grabbed it, smiling as I saw Luke open on the right. I threw a full-court pass, and watched as the ball settled into his hands, slightly amiss.

One thing was for sure. I was racking up the most assists for this game. Luke shot a deep 3 and it sunk in.




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