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Basket Case

Inside one man's quest to shoot a perfect jumper, despite meddlesome neighbors, children's taunts and limited physical ability



“I HAVEN’T SEEN you make one yet!” a helpful bystander yells out as I bounce another shaky jump shot off the netless double rim of the empty court by my apartment. This is problematic. The thought of people accidentally seeing me practice makes me nervous enough; active viewers are another thing altogether. One afternoon an adorable 6-year-old girl stops walking and starts doing play-by-play—”Miss! Miss! Miss! Score!“—and I grin at her broadly while fighting off an urge to break down in tears and beg her to stop.

Such are the torments a grown man must endure when he suddenly decides to learn to shoot a basketball.

Ask my friends to describe my form, and they’ll tell tales of an unseemly, stuttering, one-legged thing—like a newborn fawn, given a basketball and directed toward a hoop. I always assumed I would get better over time, but as I approached the age when you begin to accept that the skill set you currently possess is the skill set with which you will die, it became clear that wasn’t the case. Something had to be done. I wasn’t ready to die without a jump shot.

When I set out on this little self-improvement project several months ago, it was boldly and with hubris. I will absent myself from society and practice ceaselessly, I thought. Then, when I return to the court, I will effortlessly roll off a screen into a catch-and-shoot so fundamentally sound it will bring tears to the eyes of my foes. And when my rec league teammates wonder how the guy they’ve never seen make an off-hand layup is now positively stroking the ball, I’ll chuckle knowingly.

For all the minor humiliations looming on the horizon, the process at first is instantly gratifying. The at-home writing job I’ve just started allows me to schedule daily practice. I set aside one hour every afternoon to hustle to the public school court down the street, shoot, then hustle home, shower and be back on the computer for work. And I focus on the one bit of advice I’ve accrued so far—”Keep your elbow in,” from my buddy Ben, a skilled shooter—and I am wildly optimistic about the meager results. I am a piece of untouched marble, carving myself into shape. All I ever had to do was try!

And then, almost as quickly, I abandon all hope.

When the shots do fall, it’s meditative. Shoot shoot shoot, let the mind wander, let it shut off altogether.

When they drop, it’s a simple, blissful thing. But most of the time I’m cursing myself and kicking errant balls around the pockmarked court. Progress stalls. I humble myself and beg the sweetest-shooting friends I have for help. Ray is polite and instructive and silently dumbfounded by my collection of hitches. Mike is less elegant: He watches me brick J’s while he sips a Dunkin’ Donuts latte and shouts things like “Needs improvement!” and “Verdict: Shot lackluster!”

Ira, a one-time basketball coach, endeavors to break me down and build me up again. He has me shoot with my (dominant) left hand only, my off hand tucked behind my back. He has me get all the way underneath the ball, bending my knees nearly to the ground. I practice curling the ball off my fingertips—index finger last, pointing forward on the release, the hand hanging high in the follow-through. Every motion is exaggerated, and it’s humiliating and exhausting. But it’s also thrilling. I have a blueprint. Lying back in bed with a ball, I curl, release and catch, keeping in mind a vintage Larry Bird photo, mid-jump: his body taut, his leap at its apex, his hand floating completely off a perfectly cradled Spalding.

I wind up playing a lot of one-on-one with half the third-graders in my Brooklyn neighborhood, Crown Heights, because telling an 8-year-old, “No, see, I have to practice alone for a magazine essay,” doesn’t quite wash with children. One afternoon we play Utah, a rowdy every-man-for-himself affair, and these kids are so friendly and chummy that any concerns I’ve had about the future of humanity are put to rest. One chubby youngster spouts off all manner of PG trash talk—”I want my milk, I’m ’bout to get my milk”—which pleases me no end.

But then the kids realize I’m the only one out here who brought a ball, and that if I win I take it home. Suddenly I’m getting hacked like crazy by their tiny hands, my arms and shirt are getting yanked; a dozen cackling children chase my dribble from right to left like we’re playing out some surrealist sneaker commercial. In the end, I prevail (they are children), and high-five them before heading home.

Later, the famed Crown Heights Hasidic community pops up to present a new problem. During the days around Rosh Hashana, a string of pious believers pass by the court to ask me if I’m a member of the tribe, and if I’d want to take part in a prayer with them. I am, and I’m not into denying my ancestry, but we barely even lit the Hanukkah candles growing up and I’m trying to shoot here, so I worm out of it. The first time I pretend I’m too out of breath to talk, and shake my head vaguely; by the end of the week I’m loudly declaring myself a gentile before they even approach. One young man tacks a “That’s going in!” onto his “Have a nice day!” and I air-ball. I wonder how all this is affecting my karma.

I take my ball with me wherever I go: visiting college buddies in Ann Arbor, on assignment to California, home to my parents in Massachusetts, where the gears on my old hoop have rusted into a buttery acquiescence. I binge on YouTube— Mike Miller netting an endless string of practice three-pointers, Stephen Curry’s compact form in gorgeous slow-motion— and film myself to spot flaws. I pick up tips constantly. Find a regular target, front or back rim. Focus. Release.

You shoot, you try to get better, you keep trying that forever. You shoot until it falls into place. At the beginning I thought I could put in work for three months and birth a jump shot. And, relative to the abomination I was working with before, something new and—to me, only to me—glorious has entered the world. But if I want to keep that up, I have to keep the rest of it up. Ray Allen is the greatest jump shooter alive and he still comes out every day and shoots, hundreds of times. I don’t know if I have that kind of will.

Toward the end of my project, our rec league starts up again. One evening my team finds itself in a hotly contested game, tied with 10 seconds to go, the other team with the ball. They miss; I corral the rebound and get fouled. As I trudge to the free throw line, no one, least of all me, thinks I’m making this. But I drop down, remember my jump form. I take about 10 seconds to line up my shot—and I sink it. Game over.

We jump around on the sideline, go out and crush some celebratory cheeseburgers, and a few hours later I get a text from Ben, the guy who gave me my first piece of jump shot advice, way back when. “Ahhhh,” he writes. “Shoooooterrr!!!”

Not quite. But maybe by next summer.

In case Larry Bird is reading: AMOS BARSHAD, staff writer for the online magazine Grantland, is available for tutoring.

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