Foul number twenty-one

I just got back from my basketball game. I play in a men’s league with my dad, my brothers, and some of my brother’s friends. We won, barely, but I left the gym unsatisfied with how I played. Some games are better than others. Once in a while I’ll have a game where I’m just on, everything’s hitting, all of my shots, my blocks. It’s a rare feeling, like I’m possessed by the spirit of basketball.

But the flip side to that coin is games where I’m unable even to catch a pass. The ball hits me in the hand, and I just kind of fumble around until it’s either out of bounds or picked up by a player on the opposing team. Tonight wasn’t my worst game, I got a few solid blocks, I scored a basket, but I definitely didn’t feel on. Everything was happening like one or two seconds beyond my reaction time.

One negative highlight that stands out took place toward the end of the second half. Like I said, it was a pretty close game. We actually only wound up winning by two points. Throughout that second half, our team had a very slight lead, like it was close enough that the other side could have easily made a few three pointers to take the win.

They were desperate to catch up, and they started fouling us whenever we had possession. The idea here is that the fouls would stop our momentum, ultimately forcing us to shoot free throws. If we miss the free throws, they could gain back possession of the ball, potentially setting themselves up to even things out.

Standing under our hoop after one of my teammates missed his shot, I jumped for the rebound and went to put it right back up. Anticipating a foul, I pushed the ball toward the basket, and sure enough I immediately felt a few arms on my back, my side. The ref blew the whistle and everyone lined up so I could shoot my foul shots.

Foul shots are tough. I’m not playing toward my height advantage at the free throw line. I’m standing at an exact distance from the hoop and I have to try to make the shot while everyone else stands there and watches.

Again, my game is totally hit or miss. Some days I’m on, I’m hitting my shots, I’m sinking my free throws. Other days … well, like tonight I went for my first foul shot and it hit the rim, bounced around and then dropped to the side. One more try. Maybe this time I could give it a little more arc, a little more height.

“Guys!” it was the point guard on the other team, “He’s got a high shot so look for a crazy rebound!” OK, that’s fine, he was trying to win too. But now he was in my head. I needed to shake his commentary. I needed to envision the ball leaving my hand, my wrist flicking perfectly at the last second.

But that one missed also. “Guys!” it was the same guy, “If we have to foul, make sure it’s number twenty-one!” The message was loud and clear: this guy can’t shoot the ball, so let’s look to foul him without worrying about anything going in.

His team followed the advice. I found myself under the hoop again, my hands on the ball after securing a rebound. I could feel two guys ready to crash down on me. One of them wrapped an arm around my waist, the other just kind of jumped on top of me. Still, I made the effort to get the ball up, and the ref blew his whistle sending me right back to that line for two more foul shots.

Now I was feeling a little more confident. I’m not a great shooter, like I’m not that consistent of a shooter, but my shot isn’t awful. I know how to shoot a free throw. Whether or not it goes in, I mean, whatever, I haven’t figured out exactly how that works, or how it’s supposed to work every time. I wrote before, I’m off sometimes. I can feel the ball leaving my hands and my arm twists just slightly, or I don’t give it enough gas to make it to the basket, or I give it way too much juice and it bricks against the backboard.

But statistically speaking, I should be able to get at least one of these in. One for four, right? That’s got to happen. But it didn’t. I missed both and hustled back to defense. The whole time that I was lined up for those shots, all I was thinking about was how I’d maintain my cool confidence after I had made those shots. I wouldn’t look at the point guard, not right at him, but I’d have a look on my face, I’d be saying without saying it, hey man, you see those shots? Looks like you shouldn’t have told everyone to foul me.

And I was still thinking about that the third time I got sent to the line. This time my optimism turned into a kind of desperation. Please God, I can’t miss six shots in a row. There’s no defending my shooting skills after missing six in a row. The point guard kept coaching from the line, “Come on guys! Big rebound here!”

A lot of times when I’m shooting free throws I try to get out of my head, to not think about it. I’m relying on a muscle memory that doesn’t really exist. But if I’m having an on game, a strategy like that might actually work. I won’t think about anything, I’ll line up for a shot, and I’ll sink them both in. But not right now, this time I was focusing very hard on making at least one of those shots. Come on Rob, wrists straight, imagine the arc, envision the ball making almost no contact with the rim or the net as it sails perfectly through.

But it didn’t happen. However close my shots got, no matter how badly I wanted them to bounce a little bit this way or that, I choked. I totally botched six foul shots in a row. After the game, after we shook hands and packed up to leave, one of the refs came up to me and even said, “Better work on those free throws.” And so whatever, it’s just basketball. I’m not a pro, I’m just looking to play for enjoyment. But I can say whatever I want about being this or that, about my shooting being off or on. Tonight the point guard was right. Foul number twenty-one, because he can’t shoot.