Learning the Jump Shot: A Story of Falling Away From Eden
Tony, my oldest sibling, is nine years older than I. As a boy, I idolized him completely. It wasn’t one thing in particular about him that I idolized, it was just his way of being in the world: energetic, confident, attractive, imaginative, and spectacular in both success and failure. There’s a lot that I didn’t know about Tony’s life when I was young, a lot about his struggles that I didn’t really discover, let alone understand, until much later.
Tony was a naturally gifted athlete with a special gift for basketball. He played ball as he lived: with an intensity that veered into recklessness, with intelligence, and with grace. He was also played out of position. An even six-feet tall, with great quickness, strength and leaping ability, not to mention a fine jump shot and good ball-handling skills, he ought to have played guard. But on his high school team, he played center. He excelled, and maybe enjoyed himself. I don’t know. But I’ve often imagined that playing center confined the expression of his skill and athleticism, which somehow stands for other hard luck constraints he would face in life. But I didn’t know any of that then. I just remember that on Friday or Saturday nights my parents would take me to his games, and then for the rest of the weekend I would replay those games by myself in the driveway.
I wasn’t in the driveway trying to do the particular things that I’d seen Tony do, nor was I practicing the things that he had shown me that I might want to learn first. I was just playing basketball by myself. Dribbling that perfectly beautiful orange rubber ball with the mysterious lines whose pattern I could never quite grasp around the driveway and then trying to heave it through the hoop. Just playing basketball. The patch of grass around the basketball pole grew bare so that when it rained mud puddles formed. My dad (or one of my brothers—I don’t remember which) put a couple of small pieces of scrap plywood there so that I could use that space without the ball thudding in a puddle, dead. Someone—I was so ignorant of the many little things that the grown-ups did to make my life easier—also rigged a couple of extra workshop lights to the gutter of the garage to illuminate the driveway so that I could play after dark. In the winter, we shoveled away the snow, put salt on the patches of ice, and wore gloves. Year round, I played nearly every day.
When I got to middle school I made my school team and began to learn about plays and defenses and teamwork. But in terms of individual skills, I still just did what I had always done in the driveway. I dribbled, passed, and shot the ball, just as I had naturally grown to do them. Even the drills we did in practice to reinforce those skills were pretty much the same as what I did in the driveway, except that there were other people around doing them too. I got along just fine, an above-average guard with good ball-handling, passing, and shooting skills, and a growing intellectual and intuitive sense of the ways of the game. And I loved the game.
Most kids, when they shoot a basketball, will just push it up toward the basket from around their chest with two hands. They might leave their feet to do so, but it is more that the momentum created by their upper bodies pulls their feet up off the ground in a kind of half-hearted, uncontrolled jump, after the shot. And for most kids, including me, if you do it enough times, it starts to work pretty well. But around eighth grade, some of the kids suddenly grow, not just taller, but facial hair and defined muscles. If you happen to be defended by one of these kids when you are trying to push that ball up to the basket from your chest, you are very likely, as they used to say, to wind up with “Spalding” imprinted on your forehead. You’ll get your shot blocked.
Enter what is called a “jump shot.” Enter my first teacher. Enter my first lesson in the art and value and pain of discipline, practice, and the cultivation of a second nature. Or, in another words, enter the trying rewards of being banished from The Garden. One day in eighth grade, before our season had started, as we were all just shooting around before practice, or maybe it was after practice, Coach drew me away from the group and toward a side hoop. “Yago,” he said, “I expect you to do more scoring this year. But you are going to have to develop a jump shot.”
Now, I was a pretty conformist kid, afraid enough of getting in trouble and eager enough to please that I rarely questioned or rebelled against authority. And I didn’t this time, either. But I did feel a kind of dread and inner resistance upon hearing Coach’s words. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn to shoot a jump shot, or didn’t want to score more points, or help the team. I think it was mainly that I didn’t want to change what had always worked just fine for me, and then maybe partly also that I was a little afraid that I wouldn’t be able to learn to shoot a jump shot. It’s still that way for me sometimes; for example, when someone has read a draft of something I’ve written and tells me they have some suggestions.
But as I say, I was a pretty obedient kid, and I did respect my coach. So that day I learned the mechanics of the jump shot. In almost every way, it ran absolutely counter to everything my body and mind had been doing with a basketball for the last nearly-10 years. To begin with, there were the physical changes in my shot. Now, I had to shift the ball from my chest to just above my forehead, my right arm cocked at a 90-degree angle below the ball. Plus I had to push with just my right hand positioned in the center of the ball, halfway between the bottom and the middle, while my left hand was relegated to a spot alongside the ball, merely guiding its path. And then, of course, I had to jump. But I had to jump, while beginning to push the ball, and releasing it only at the top of my jump. You might be surprised at how hard it is just to execute the motion—let alone putting the ball in the hoop—if you’ve never done it before. It was incredibly awkward. My first attempts looked much more like the seizures of an epileptic frog than like the graceful jumpers I’d seen my older brother drain hundreds of times.
But the very hardest change was the mental one. Or rather, more precisely, the hardest change was the fact that now there was a mental aspect. For the first time, I had to think about what I was doing with a basketball in my hands. The physical motions of the jump shot certainly were awkward. But I felt absolutely out of my element thinking at the same time, trying to coordinate the rapid-fire list of instructions I had internalized with the still unfamiliar and uncomfortable motions of my body. I felt intensely self-conscious and judgmental. Before this I felt one with my body and the ball. I dribbled. I passed. I shot. It went in or it didn’t. I don’t even remember thinking I was good or bad or that I’d done something well or poorly.
A separation now grew within me. My mind knew what it was supposed to do and what my body was supposed to. And my body would gamely, but highly erratically try to follow along. Running alongside this was an annoying mosquito buzz of self-assessment, usually critical and rarely constructively so. This split weighed on me. It introduced a dimension of experience and tragedy into what had been for me a completely innocent and joyful activity. Of course, I didn’t think in these terms at that age. I just felt, for the first time in my life, ill at ease with a basketball in my hands. And so also for the first time in my life I felt unhappiness on a basketball court.
Not only that, but my accuracy plummeted. I could barely hit the court with my new jump shot; forget about putting it through the hoop. And I wasn’t even doing it with one of those big, muscly, hairy guys with body odor in my face. Coach encouraged me, told me not to worry about it, that this happens to everyone when they learn a jump shot and that soon, if I kept at it, I’d be more accurate than I had been before and in a greater variety of game situations. But I had almost no faith that this jump shot thing had been a good idea.
Almost no faith. But a lot of other things wound up working much the way that faith is supposed to work. Whether it was the desire to please someone I respected, a prideful aversion to looking like an idiot, or some kind of stubbornness within me, I don’t know. I know it wasn’t some sort of Rocky-esque heroic determination to succeed, grounded in a solid belief in what I was doing.
Whatever it was, semi-depressed, I stuck with the jump shot. I shot hundreds a day. I took extra time in the gym after practice. Then after dinner, I’d go out to the garage, retrieve my ball out of the big wooden box my dad had built for our sports equipment, switch on the lights, and shoot jump shots. I no longer just dribbled aimlessly around the driveway, heaving set shots at the hoop. I no longer played out the last seconds of a championship game culminating in my hitting the winning bucket at the buzzer (or, if I missed, in getting fouled and sinking the winning free throws or, if I missed those, getting another chance because my opponent had stepped in the lane prematurely).
I wasn’t just playing any more. I was practicing. Five spots: baseline on either side of the hoop, each wing (a 45-degree angle from the baseline), and right in front of the hoop. I did what Coach told me to do. I shot from those spots, beginning just five feet or so away. I tried to shoot 100 shots from each spot. Sometimes I made it to 100. More often, I’d yield to despair and discouragement and pack it in after about 50, angrily slam the ball into the wooden box, and storm upstairs to my room (having sullenly grabbed a handful of chocolate chip cookies), where I’d eat and rage silently in self-pity at the injustice of having to change my shot.
But then, after a few minutes of sulking I would take my other basketball, and just lay there in bed, practicing the arm motions of the shot, practicing my follow through, the ball just rising with backspin in a straight line for a few feet before descending back into the open palm of my right hand. I still don’t know how that works. What made me pick up the ball and do that? It could have been—it could be—so many different things. Just contingencies of the moment I guess.
All the while, I was growing physically stronger and little by little I didn’t have to think so much about the motions. I still practiced constantly. But I made up little games for myself. Make three in a row from a spot and then move to the next spot. Make three in a row from all five spots and then back up a couple of steps and do it again. Then as a treat I would let myself take a few dribbles to one side or the other and then pull up to shoot the jump shot. Or I’d toss the ball, with backspin (so that it would bounce back toward me), step to it and catch it like a pass and then square up to shoot.
It felt like an eternity at the time (imagine how time felt to Adam and Eve after they got in trouble with God; imagine time suddenly becoming part of your experience), but looking back it probably wasn’t more than a month or so before the bulk of my time spent in the driveway looked a lot like it always had. Sure there was some structured practice at the beginning, but mostly I’d dribble around the driveway, counting down the final seconds in my mind, evade an imaginary defender, and then pull up, rising over his helpless teammate, and effortlessly swish a jump shot to win the championship game.
The striking thing to me is that it is still with me. I love to get into pickup games, especially full court. But sometimes, when I can’t find a game, or just because, I take my ball and go to the gym or the playground and I practice my jump shot. I’m not 13 anymore, trying to get better to impress a coach, or make a team, or get to the next level. I have no hopes of that sort.
I’m 47, my ankle is wrecked and my knees often hurt and there is no next level for me. But I still start on the baseline, five feet away, and take five jumpers. I still check and correct my mechanics when shots go awry. I still work my way around the perimeter, gradually increasing the distance until I’m working my way around the three-point line. One hundred, 200, 300 shots. I don’t really find myself imagining game-winning shots anymore. I think I’m probably a better shooter than I ever have been, though I don’t think that even matters to me too much. But I find that I take a deep, comforting pleasure in the feel of the ball, the sight of the rim above me, the breaking of a sweat, the entering into a rhythm and, above all, the sound of the ball rustling the net. I love this practice that has no purpose other than itself, this practice that has become play.