Pro basketball players aren’t like you and me. Shaquille O’Neal palms a basketball like it’s a Brussels sprout. Ricky Davis bounces around like he’s made of vulcanized rubber. Gilbert Arenas can walk on water.
Last week, I figured out how to reduce the NBA playoffs to a human scale. Like most people, my basketball expertise comes from playing pickup basketball. In a pickup game, you don’t know anyone’s name or background. Since there aren’t any uniforms or color commentators, the only way to relive your performance is to seize on easily identifiable traits. I can’t believe I had to guard the sweaty guy. Or, I totally crossed over the guy in the Michael Jordan jersey.
If you stare at pro players long enough, they start to look less like superheroes and more like the guys we’ve all hooped with at the YMCA. Ricky Davis isn’t one of the NBA’s top bench players. He’s that annoying guy who thinks he’s the team captain. The cagey old man who backs you down into the paint? You might know him as Chicago’s Adrian Griffin. The guy who has more wristbands than points? Ben Wallace.
In the run-up to the NBA Finals, you won’t see Steve Nash dish to a guy in jeans, and Ray Allen won’t be hounded by a defender who refuses to take his watch off. But here’s a list of some of the pickup archetypes you’ll see in the next month.
The Guy with the Funny Shot Who Can’t Miss: Shawn Marion, Phoenix Suns
Shawn Marion doesn’t shoot a jump shot, exactly. It’s more like a jump spasm—dribble, dribble, twitch. And it goes in! Every time I watch Marion, I think of Nick “Butter” Brown, my childhood teammate who dropped out of competitive basketball in seventh grade before becoming a pickup sharpshooter of the “How the hell?” variety. In a league full of players with mechanical, one-handed releases, Marion’s shot is a homegrown monster. So ugly. So miraculous. So butter.
The Guy Who Wears Too Much Protective Gear: Rip Hamilton, Detroit Pistons
It starts with ankle tape that peeks over the sock line. Then it spreads upward: a knee brace, an elbow wrap, a wrist support. Does your hypochondriac friend really need to play in shin guards and a fitted plastic face mask? Probably not. But those protective goggles might come in handy if there’s an earthquake.
The Guy Whose Dad Brought Him To Play: Damien Wilkins, Seattle Sonics
His uncle Dominique is a basketball legend. His dad Gerald played in the NBA for 13 seasons. What’s Damien doing in the league? His pops didn’t have time to take the station wagon home after school..
The Guy Who’s Fat: Anthony Johnson, Indiana Pacers
Who doesn’t love the roly-poly playground point guard? Every time down the court, you get to try out another nickname as you call for the ball. What will it be this time, Big Boy or Big Wheels? Big Stuff or Big Bubbles? Jelly Roll?.
The Guy Who Has a Friend Who’s Really Good: Damon Jones, Miami Heat
At first, you don’t notice him. He comes to the gym in the shadow of a big man. Then the action starts, and the big guy starts to dominate. The little guy starts to squalk about “my man’s” unstoppable game. Sports Illustrated recently reported that Damon Jones’ Miami teammates call him Lil’ Him and Donkey (to Shaquille O’Neal’s Shrek). And when Shaq takes the day off? Donkey starts playing like Eeyore.
The Guy Who Doesn’t Show Up: Kwame Brown, Washington Wizards (suspended for the rest of the playoffs)
Oh, you’re running a little bit late? I see, you thought we meant p.m., not a.m. You’ll be another 10 minutes? Now you’re at the wrong J.C.C.? No, no, don’t worry. We have enough to start without you.
The Guy Who Plays Defense: Bruce Bowen, San Antonio Spurs. Seattle Sonics guard Ray Allen on Bowen: “He pulls on you. He grabs you. He hits your elbow when you shoot. When you go to the basket, he’ll shove you and then he’ll fall. Just stuff like that that’s real annoying.” We’ve all been guarded by someone who tries just a little too hard. This raging maniac will tell you that he just loves to hustle. But we all know he’s overcompensating for his small point total.
The Guy Who Calls Too Many Fouls: Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers
If you touch his elbow, he calls a foul. Graze his nonshooting hand—foul. Step on his toe—foul. Make a little too much eye contact—let’s take that one out at the top. After this year’s playoffs, Miller is hanging it up. Shake his hand in congratulations for a long, successful career—foul.
The Guy Who Just Bought an And1 Video: Jon Barry, Houston Rockets (already eliminated from the playoffs)
Wait, what do you want us to call you again? I can never remember, is it Handles McKrissKross or KrissKross McHandles? OK, please stop spinning the ball on your finger. And yes, I’m pretty sure it is traveling when you run into the lane with the ball tucked between your knees.
The Guy Who Wants To Play Half-Court: Shawn Bradley, Dallas Mavericks
“We’ll get less tired,” he cries. “We can play longer!” Stringy beanpole players who are long in the arm and short on energy will say anything to convince you that it’s a bad idea to run back and forth. Half-court basketball is their evolutionary niche—they can stand under the basket gobbling up rebounds and tapping in misses without ever moving their size-19 feet. Shawn Bradley is just one rule change away from being the NBA Finals MVP. So, how about a half-court championship series, Mr. Commissioner? Come on, we could make it best five out of nine!