Ask anybody who’s played basketball with me. My game is not based on any offensive superstar the way most ballers are. People back then tried to practice the shoulder-shimmy into the turnaround jumper that Kobe and Jordan had perfected, but I never had the shot to do that. People these days try to copy the inside-out crossover and pull up 3 of Steph Curry, but I never had the handles to do that. Certain guards love the drive-and-no-look pass that Nash made popular, but I never had the vision for that. Certain big men try to copy Hakeem and Pau with the dropstep up-and-under, but I never had the feet for that.
So no handles, no shot, no vision, no footwork. Why even bother stepping on the court?
Growing up, in the few times I lucked into a roster spot in some organized team sport, the coaches always said to me: “Daniel, you have heart.” Most times it can be construed as having that gristled intangible that elevates regular Joes into special team gunners. Sometimes it’s used as an explanation for understanding the greatness of chicken-legged greats like Tom Brady and Joe Montana. But in my case, “having heart” just meant I was on the court because I was willing to run back to defend fast breaks. I don’t remember sniffing a single minute during the championship game of my youth basketball team. Nor should I have, my form had more in common with Sakura from Street Fighter than Klay Thompson of the Golden State Greatest Team Evers(1).
Shooting hadoukens that either miss the rim or ping harmlessly off the backboard was enough to tell me that shooting isn’t my thing. Neither is passing the rock five feet from the intended target, or dribbling a clumsy crossover off my $20 Shaqs(2). But hell, I don’t mind tracking back to defend the hard charger on a fast break. So fuck it, be Tony Allen instead of Ray Allen.
Here’s the thing though, to play good defense, you need good feet. You need to move your feet to mirror the steps of your man. You need good eyes, ones that focus on center mass, so you can tell the difference between an up-fake or a shot, to know when a dribble is a set-up for a crossover. You need good hands, to capitalize on sloppy dribbling so you can force a turnover.
A good defender is also a good cynic. In almost every team sport, the most effective offense lies in misdirection. Sure, if you’re transcendently talented like Dirk Nowitzki, you can pop a one-legged fadeaway in your defender’s face all day, without even trying to sell anything else. But for the rest of us mere mortals, scoring is based on shaking your defender(s) so you have an opening to shoot. Being cynical is absolutely imperative if you want to be good at defense. You can’t be sold on overexaggerated motions, you can’t invest too heavily one way or the other, you have to stick to the basics. It’s about letting four or five fake motions go by, and making your move when your assignment finally makes theirs.
A good defender is also strong. If an offense relies on misdirection, a defense relies on resistance. Always apply pressure to your assignment. Put a forearm on his back if he’s trying to establish position. Step up to the ballhandler and make him go around you. Take away every easy route, and dare someone to beat you the hard way. Pressure is what breeds mistakes. It’s why the moneymakers are seemingly immune to it, because mere mortals forget all of their fundamentals at the first sign of contact.
Most importantly, a good defender is a good underdog. When I line up next to someone who dropped 10 on the last team, I can’t believe for a second that he’ll score on my plodding, clumsy, non-athletic ass. Being in a defensive position already gives an advantage to the scorer. It’s up to me to stop him, not the other way around, and I can’t stop him if I don’t think I can. Sure, he has better handles, a better shot, more spring in his step, more speed in his legs, and more strength in his body. But he’s still not going to beat me.
Because good feet, good hands, good eyes are all important in creating a good defender. But the biggest determinant in good defense is having a good heart. Knowing that despite your limitations, you came here to do work, and you’ll be damned if some fancy motherfucker is going to take yours from you.
So I make my bones on the court with my defense. It’s not the best. It’s not perfect. I get scored on all the time. It happens, because that’s the way the game works.
But it doesn’t take away from what I love about ball. Defense encapsulates everything that’s brought me here. I’m not the best at anything, not even writing(3). But I’ll be damned if I’m going to be denied what’s mine because I didn’t try hard enough.
True story: I wore $20 Shaqs that had no laces on them for my entire junior year of high school. If you want to give your son a hard knock life, no matter how affluent he actually lives, give him $20 basketball shoes to wear every day.