I’ve got a beef with this whole “no pressure, no diamonds thing.” Not just because I don’t really jibe with motivational quotes in general because you either want it or you don’t, but because it’s categorically untrue. Pressure doesn’t give you diamonds it just makes whatever’s inside come out.
I used to be pretty decent at hooping. Those of us on the middle school team who were good enough got hand picked and groomed to possibly play JV, but hopefully Varsity, which actually just meant practicing with the high schoolers. I didn’t hit puberty until about 3 months into college so you could guess that I was physically less impressive than my contemporaries. I had a high pitched voice, and was a generous 110 lbs, soaking wet, holding my gym bag and probably all of about 5’6” in my favorite shoes. I was swimming in my practice jersey too.
This was about the time that our school really started recruiting kids to come play basketball and football to pad admissions numbers with a more attractive sports program, so when I stepped on the court I felt like a toadstool in a valley of Redwoods. The head coach was on some Pat Riley shit and never really came out of the bleachers during practice so it was mostly up to the assistant coach (henceforth referred to as Coach) to drop sapient jewels of wisdom on us about how defense wins championships and boxing out is key. Just like everyone in the starting 5 couldn’t run a sub 4.5 40 and grab a stack of nickels off of the backboard. I mean, these were the guys I’d watched throw alleys to each other off the glass when they blew out the defending State Champs the year before as freshmen.
We had this rebounding drill that we’d do at least once every week at the end of practice called “No Man’s Land.” Basically Coach would stand beyond the arc and toss up bricks while groups of 5 fought for put-backs. You weren’t allowed to leave until you made one, if you were last you had to run, and Coach damn sure wasn’t calling any fouls so it was pretty much prison rules within reason. He’d explained that before, but I wasn’t ready for the first elbow I caught, which was straight to the nose, and my vision started blurring with tears. Now, my brother was 6’3, 180-something at the time, and I played in the driveway with him all of the time, so I’d been on the receiving end of a good number of ass-whoopings already— and I was no punk— but you never really get used to them, and you shouldn’t. I wiped my bloody nose on my jersey and finished the drill, dead last, and ran my extra suicides. I can’t really remember how many; all I can remember was looking down at the blood on my shirt and my wack ass Team Jordans pounding on the hardwood the whole time, thinking about how stupid it was that I still had to go to soccer practice and do homework after that. There had to be something else I could be doing that didn’t remind me that I wasn’t as good at everything, like reading comic books or playing video games or some other form of ‘nothing,’ which I was never allowed to do too much of. What’s more, I was way better at soccer anyway.
I would dread it every week. Coach would blow the whistle, chuck the first brick, and we’d climb all over each other, elbowing, pushing, and hip-checking our way to the ball, and I’d have to run, on top of getting waylaid by a bunch of draft hopefuls. I’d complain to my Dad every week and he’d listen, and then respond with a frustratingly unhelpful “you have everything you need.”
It might’ve been a Wednesday or a Thursday. It was some day later in the week and I hadn’t been trampled in awhile, so I knew the drill was coming. I was at lunch and not eating, thinking about what “you have everything you need,” actually meant. Then I had what my Mom calls an “ah-Ha” moment, right then and there, staring at my carton of chocolate milk and my taco salad, which was getting cold: as a soccer player I had faster feet than almost everyone on the team, and I could also shoot the lights out. That was because I spent a lot of mosquito-bitten nights by the glow of the motion-sensor floodlight in our driveway with my Dad learning how to shoot. He raised our hoop nearly half a foot so that my brother and sisters and I would learn to rain teardrops over taller defenders. There’s also a whole other narrative there on holding ourselves to a higher standard than others but that’s neither here nor there— all I wanted was to leave practice earlier.
So that afternoon, sure enough after running some really complicated ‘Carolina Blue’ type half-court inbound play for an hour and a half, Coach told us to fall in for No Man’s Land. I was a little steadier than in weeks past because at least I wasn’t squaring up with my hands down and my face presented like before. It wasn’t some Cinderella shit though; the first shot clanged off the rim, and in a blur of synthetic mesh, a guy who was pushing 6’9 caught it in mid-air and slammed it in. He’s playing professionally now. The second wasn’t much better; I managed to come down with it, but so did another guy who ended up starting all four years at some D1 school. He jerked me around like a rag doll until he wrested it from me and laid it in off the glass. The third one, though, was short and flew off the rim, almost toward the free throw line. I grabbed it, paused, stepped back to take the worst shot in basketball, the long 2, and drained it. See, everyone had been fighting for layups, and Coach hadn’t said we could take long jumpers, but he didn’t say we couldn’t either. Was it a wanton disregard for the rules? Maybe. Did it work that way every time after that? No. But in the confusing, and ill-bred words of hothead Detective Mike Lowery, “It ALWAYS works sometimes.”