Here is the thing that I guess happened: When God was making all the humans, he grabbed a smidge of clay and started making me. While he was snake-rolling the clay between his palms he said to the angels, “Ha, dudes, check this out. See this guy I’m making right now? I’m gonna make him love basketball in his heart, but give him none of the physical attributes he’ll need to be truly great at it. Bet. Bet I won’t. Bet? Watch me. Hahaha.” And so that’s how I got on Earth.
These are my stats:
• Height: 5-foot-7 (5-foot-8.5 if I wear Nike Air Max shoes, which I purchased specifically to make me 5-foot-8.5)
• Weight: 165 pounds
• Vertical Leap: 13 inches
• Speed: Moderate
• Arms: Short
• Legs: Short, bowed
• Eyesight: Poor (needs glasses)
• Lifestyle: Mostly sedentary
It will not surprise you when I tell you that, despite a sincere devotion to the sport of basketball, I am not in the NBA. I’ve even applied over and over and over again at the beginning of each season to be a backup point guard for the Spurs via the Spurs Sports and Entertainment website, but I’ve never ever even received a phone call or email back. (Not even when Beno Udrih was the backup, which was truly dispiriting.)
So that leaves pickup basketball.
Pickup basketball is pretty much the greatest thing of my life. I’ve played regularly since sixth grade. Even now, 20 years later, stuck inside a body with knees made of glass and a belly made of carne guisada, I still play three or four times a week. I hope to play for my entire life, or at least until I die.
Quick sidebar: I have never been able to dunk. I’ve never even touched the rim. I would gladly trade 10 years of my life to dunk it one time in a pickup game. I get the ball at the top of the key, call for a pick, emphatically wave the pick off, back up a few steps while dribbling the ball through my legs, charge right, put the ball behind my back like Manu and cut back left, hit whatever guy is standing near there with a crossover to get back to my right (which I assume is my best dunking hand), raise up a few steps from the rim, then slam it over two big dudes while they both foul me. Everyone goes crazy. My heart explodes in my chest. I die right there. And on my headstone it reads: “Here lies Shea Serrano. He died as he lived: completing an and-1.”
At any rate, there have been a significant number of pickup games I’ve fouled my way through. Here’s a rec league team’s worth of my all-time favorite pickup players, along with their NBA counterparts.
7. Quoc, the Deaf Asian Guy
NBA Counterpart: J.R. Smith
There is a community center in San Antonio called Miller’s Pond. It’s near where I grew up, which is just a different way of saying that it’s not in that great a part of town. A tiny story that reflects that: One time I had come home from college for the weekend and was spending a Saturday at the community center. I was sitting on the bleachers waiting to play on the indoor court (they had an indoor and outdoor court) when this old Mexican lady came sauntering in from outside. She called to another old Mexican woman in the rec center’s office, “Mariela, someone got stabbed again.” Like, she was very calm about it. So was everyone else. SOMEONE GOT STABBED AND IT WASN’T EVEN A LITTLE THING. Even the guy who got was stabbed was just like “… dang.” That’s the sort of place it was. It was perfect.
One of the guys who used to play there was a deaf Asian guy named Quoc. It’s kind of impossible to describe how tough of a kid he was, save to say he was a deaf Asian person growing up in a neighborhood that was almost exclusively hearing-capable Latinos.
Quoc always got picked to play because he was especially good at getting into the lane, which made him an invaluable asset on the outdoor courts because making a jump shot on a double-rimmed outside goal is probably the most impossible thing on the planet. My favorite thing about playing with him is that sometimes he’d pretend like he didn’t know you were open and you couldn’t say anything to him about it. His deafness was the ultimate excuse to ball-hog. He’d just shake his head and shrug his shoulders and point to his ears and I’d always be like, “BITCH BUT YOU GOT EYES I KNOW YOU SEE ME.” He was a cool dude. I liked him a lot.
6. Gerald, the Supercharged Serviceman
NBA Counterpart: Nate Robinson
My father was in the Army and my uncle was in the Army and two of my other uncles were also in the military and, I mean, whatever, you get it, we have true American pride.* But so since they’d served we had access to the gyms on the military bases in the city. The gym at Lackland Air Force Base was ruled by this teeny-tiny hell-raiser named Gerald. Gerald was only slightly taller than a copy machine but he’d been gifted golden legs from God. Rumor was that he’d jump over any car in the parking lot that you picked out if you gave him $20, though none of my friends or I ever worked up the courage to ask him about it.
Gerald was the first person I ever saw dunk in a pickup game. I was 14 years old. That’s a thing you never ever forget. I couldn’t believe it when it first happened. He came charging down the middle of the court on a fast break, gathered the ball about three steps inside the free throw line, then grew wings and flew up to the rim and mashed it home. It’s hard to say exactly what happened after that because it was hard to see from all the tears I had in my eyes. I hope I see Gerald in Heaven.
*(Actually, they were all sort of backed into it. Three of the four joined because they’d dropped out of high school and back then you didn’t have to have a diploma to be qualified to have people shoot at you. The fourth joined because he’d seen the others go.)
5. Saul, the Gang Member
NBA Counterpart: P.J. Brown
This is a dumb thing and I know it’s a dumb thing, but still: Talking trash is maybe my truly favorite part of playing basketball. It’s just a thing that feels very good and natural. Sometimes I wish that weren’t the case (I’ve been in only a handful of fights in my life, and basically all of them were a direct result of something I said while playing basketball), but mostly it’s fine. Saul, a known gang member in our neighborhood, was the very first person who punched me for talking during a game. (I should’ve known not to pickle him because he was playing in those gangster Nikes that Eazy-E made ultra-popular.)
There was nothing particularly special about the encounter: We were playing on the outside courts at this school near my house, my team was giving his team the business, and so I was letting him know about it. I made some comment about how it didn’t matter that he’d missed so many days of school because I was teaching him all he needed to know, and I guess he was pretty sensitive about his attendance record because he punched me super-duper hard in the chest. His exact words: “You talk too fucking much, ese.” I cannot in good conscience recommend engaging in truancy trash talk with gang members.
4. Anthony, the Ageless Athlete
NBA Counterpart: Caron Butler
Anthony is the one player on this list who I still play with today, and the one I’ve played the most games with in all. He and I have worked together for nine years now, and have played together for all that time. It feels like I know where he’s going to be or what he’s going to do with the ball once he gets it without even looking anymore. (We’re like Stockton and Malone together, only except we’re way worse at everything.) He’s a short dude (5-foot-7), but everything on him is bigger than it should be (he can easily palm the ball, and he wears a size-13 shoe).
Plus he’s hyper-athletic. When we first started playing together it wasn’t uncommon for him to jump up and snatch a rebound off the rim just because he felt like it. Now, he mostly sticks to fadeaway jumpers in the post or, if he’s feeling flashy, off-the-dribble 3s. He’s going to live to be a hundred. He’ll have doubled up Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record by then.
3. Brian, the Cousin
NBA Counterpart: Anfernee Hardaway
Brian is a cousin of mine. Now, I don’t care to get into the exact details, but just know that Brian’s home life wasn’t all that wonderful growing up. So when he was in the ninth grade (and I was in the seventh), he came to live with my family and me. He was there for about a year, and it was the best thing. I didn’t have a brother, so he was that for me. He was tall (6 feet, which maybe makes him the tallest Mexican in Texas) and handsome and athletic and popular (all things that I was not).
So for that whole year he lived with us, all we did was play basketball and talk about girls (he talked about girls he’d French kissed and I lied about girls I’d French kissed). He beat me in probably 7,000 games of 21. I don’t know. It was hella frustrating. Even after he moved back home, he still came over and we’d play and play and play. In total, we probably played together regularly for five years. When I came home from college and we played and I FINALLY beat him, it was like I’d won the goddamn championship of the universe. Nobody’s ever felt better about anything.
Sidebar: One day, Brian brought home this girl named Lisa. They went into the room that he and I shared and listened to Green Day (Dookie) and made out. I was hiding in the room under the covers on the top bunk the whole time. Total creeper move.
Sidebar to the sidebar: That’s how cool Brian was: HE CONVINCED A GIRL TO MAKE OUT WITH HIM ON A BUNK BED.
2. Q, the College Player
NBA Counterpart: Rafer Alston
I met Q in college. He didn’t actually play for the school’s team, but everyone assumed he did because he would crush the school’s guards in open gym games. He was incredible. He was super quick and very strong and could jump into the stratosphere and for some reason had a slight New York accent (despite being born and raised in Texas). I challenged Q to a one-on-one game one day because I’d decided he couldn’t be as good as people said he was. That was the first time I doubted that I’d ever make it into the NBA.
He demolished me. It was so awful. It was like there were three of him. He was doing trick moves I’d never even heard of before. At one point, I think he may have somehow bounced the ball off the back of my head while I was playing defense. If I’m not mistaken, the game ended with me shouting, “Man, fuck you,” and then kicking the ball into the parking lot behind the basketball goals. That’s a little thing called sportsmanship.
1. Adrianna, the Girl
NBA Counterpart: Allen Iverson
Adrianna remains the best female basketball player I’ve ever played against. I met her when I was in the eighth grade (she was in the seventh). She was fast and smart and could dribble and could shoot and was all of everything you ever wanted to be in a basketball game.
Her attack was three-pronged:
First, if she got even a tiny amount of separation from you, she’d let her jumper go. It made visible energy waves whenever she released the ball, that’s how pure her shot was. It felt like she shot fucking 90 percent from the field. Have you ever had a girl hit a game-winning jumper on you in front of a group of dudes watching and waiting to play next? You might as well commit suicide, man.
Second, in addition to being a female Reggie Miller, she also had a ludicrously quick first step. She accelerated like a Ferrari. The only thing you could do once she got past you was grab her by the ponytail or whatever. And really you couldn’t even do that because if you did she was gonna turn around and punch you in the mouth, which was worse than giving up the layup (but still not worse than her hitting a game-winning jumper on you).
And third, SHE WAS A GIRL, bro. And, again, I was in the eighth grade. Basically all she had to do was brush up against me and I’d get a boner. You can’t play like that. It’s basketball, not bonerball. That’s the real reason they don’t let girls play in the NBA.