Gentleman Scholar

The Anxiety of the Pickup Basketball Player at the Jump Shot

Plus: How do I explain my past debauchery to nice girls?

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson

Photo by Christina Paige

Please send your questions for publication to (Questions may be edited.)

Dear GS,

How should I respond to bush-league defensive tactics in a basketball game? I play old-guy pickup basketball, and sometimes the person guarding me will defend jump shots by shouting “Off!” before I even release the ball. This really annoys me. For starters, it seems extremely Duke-y, you know? Like slapping the floor, but even more irritating. My exasperation may also have to do with the fact that he’s usually right—my already-poor shooting percentage worsens when he shouts this. When I do make a shot, it’s sweeter than usual, but I lack the Jordanesque killer instinct to use his taunting as incentive. Mostly he gets in my head.

I know that the point of the game is to score more than your opponent, so should I stop worrying about a guy doing something within the rules that helps his team win? Or are there certain levels of decorum and self-respect a gentleman should expect from his opponents on the church-gym court?

Shane, Arlington, Va.

Thanks for the question, Shane. It pleases the Gentleman Scholar to consider the matter of sportsmanship, and it especially delights him to mistily revisit his career as a Young Gentleman Scholar-Athlete—an era of explicating Kurtis Blow, cultivating a nourishing hatred for Christian Laettner, and alternately emulating the eyewear styles of James Worthy and Kurt Rambis. Also he is psyched that it offers a pretense to mention ever-so-casually the playground game where he sprung from the asphalt to deflect a field goal attempted by Jason Kidd.

Much of the rest of my mental highlight reel is filler—happy accidents of H-O-R-S-E play, an incongruously excellent behind-the-back pass—but reading the question I flashed on the first and last evening I found myself in the zone. I was a high school frosh, at one with the universe and on the way to racking up a double-double. I hustled after an errant pass and, to prevent an out-of-bounds violation, I bounced the ball off an opposing player’s face. He teared up and whimpered a bit.

Was it uncool? Who cares? It was a regulation game. But the guy spouting “off” is supposed to be playing a friendly game, and so while his actions are not unethical, they violate the local social contract.

How to respond? This is supposed to be a friendly game, right? I would remind you that one common bonding ritual among male friends is razzing. Your aim is to reform this chump into someone worth being friends with—or at least someone who does not lower the quality of your leisure time. He needs a good ribbing. I’d suggest that after the next game, you buy him a Gatorade. (Orange would be good here.) As he begins to swallow the first electrolyte-restoring gulp, shout “Choke!” Repeat as necessary until he gets the message. Just sure to stand clear of the spit-take blast radius.

Gentleman Scholar,

Let us suppose that an erstwhile non-gentleman has a past that he has left behind, and let us also suppose that this past includes working at an ironically titled “gentleman’s club” in Las Vegas for a number of years while doing a wide variety of debauched and ungentlemanly things with a staggering number of people.

Having emerged from this situation blessedly disease-free (I checked, several times), reformed, and now endowed with manners and good taste and such, how should such a person approach his past when he meets a nice girl who might recoil with horror upon hearing of this past? It turns out I’m no Hugh Hefner and don’t care to live a life of endless debauchery, but at the same time I find myself very nervous about dating any sort of intelligent, beautiful, artistic woman for fear of said past, even though intelligent, beautiful, and artistic (or at least two out of three!) is the only sort of woman I want.

Your advice is much appreciated,

Reformed Non-Gentleman

Thank you for you letter, RN-G—and thank you for your trust. The pleading postscript—“please do not publish my real name under any circumstances”—touched my jaded heart.

How shady can this past be? Reading between the lines, I find myself fantasizing about your tenure as a strip-club DJ, employing a warm bellow to summon Jazmine to the main stage and a purring baritone to lure Chastity into your backseat. I mean, if you engaged in human trafficking, then put a lawyer on retainer and pray for mercy, but I have the sense that your actions were more naughty than nefarious.

I suggest a preemptive strike. When first getting to know a lady and wanting to dodge the issue of your dodginess for the few dates, volunteer information about your sordid past out there as early as is comfortable, in the vaguest possible terms, radiating only mild regret. Don’t make it a big deal. Spin as if presenting a rake’s progress report. “You ever been to Vegas? I lived in Vegas for a while, you know. Those were crazy times. But the weather was really good for my sinuses.” The phrase crazy times will cover any manner of depravities, and lightly invoking the city’s code-of-silence tourist slogan will maybe get a giggle that gives you time to ease away from the topic. Then, in a few weeks, once she knows the virtues of the real you, you can fill in the details regarding animal tranquilizers and personal lubricants. Perhaps you’ll even discover further shared interests.