Post Magazine: Off the Rim

Hosted by Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 15, 2005 1:00 PM

Kevin Merida has played pickup basketball all over town for more than three decades. He's played in Southeast and Northwest, he's played with congressmen and gym rats, and he has learned that you can tell a lot about a guy by the way he approaches the game.

Merida, whose essay "Off the Rim" appeared yesterday in The Washington Post Magazine's Sports Issue , was online Monday, Aug. 15 to field questions and comments.

Kevin Merida is an associate editor of The Washington Post.


Indianapolis, Ind: Hello,

Your essay on pickup basketball was great. I wrote my dissertation, published three journal articles, and coproduced one documentary on pickup basketball. What you said about basketball revealing character is right on target. So, here is my question, "What does your pushing a guy (was that a foul?) so that he cannot catch the ball reveal about you?"

Thanks, Jason Jimerson Franklin College

Kevin Merida: thanks, jason. great question. it was a foul, perhaps. but what i left out of my article--context that had been included in an earlier draft--was the refs were calling the game loosely, allowing a fair amount of contact. the guy i was guarding had been using this to his advantage, pushing, hooking, i decided i'd take advantage of the officials' liberal allowing of contact. perhaps what it reveals about me is the desire to use mind over body in competition. or something like that.


Richmond, Va.: Kevin, your article was a good read this morning online. Thanks. I think that the 'character evaluation' that you spoke of could be found in most, if not all, sports. Y' can tell a lot about someone by how they play golf, etc. What sets basketball apart?

Kevin Merida: i agree with you--you can tell a lot about people no matter the endeavor, provided you pay attention. there is a lot more going on in basketball than there is in golf, which is essentially a game of solitude at its core. there is nothing but noise in basketball, raw emotion you can see and hear.


Washington, DC: Hey Kevin, GREAT article. I consider myself a gym rat/basketball enthusiast also. I almost felt like I was reading an article about myself. I'm a 42 yr. old native of Detroit, Michigan and have lived in DC for the last 20 years. I have played in every league from the YMCA men's league to the Urban Coalition. Your article reminded me most of the lunch time run at the YMCA downtown, where doctors, lawyers, and many other professionals gather to enjoy some pretty competitive games from around 11 am to 1 pm, Monday through Friday. Are you familiar with the games played there?

Kevin Merida: i am familiar with the lunchtime games at the ymca, though i've never participated. i do remember the urban coalition runs from my youth.


Bethesda, Md.: I liked the article a lot. I have played a little basketball -- nothing like the author -- and I still play a ltttle although I am 65 and on coumadin. I also agree you can learn a lot about people playing ball with them. I was intrigued with the denoument: "a little forearm nudge to the small of his back"! Why is that not a foul, even if playing no harm, no foul? A little knife in the back? All's fair in war and basketball? What kind of defensive approach is that?

You can learn a lot about a person...

Kevin Merida: i figured that would be a question for me--the forearm nudge part. regrettably, i didn't have enough background about the tenor of the game to hopefully make that "foul" make some sense to fellow ballers. i saw it as playing the game the way it was being played out there, including by the guy i was guarding. one of the things coaches teach you is to pay attention to how the game is called. it's a lesson the us olympic team, which got clobbered in athens, apparently didn't learn. how else to explain tim duncan fouling out of two games? a guy who never fouls out of nba games.


Washington, D.C.: Kev, great story, but what about Downey's four point play when you guys were down by three?

Kevin Merida: i am guessing this question comes from one of my awesome teammates from that tournament. in fact, is that you, tom? (smile)...but really, tom's 4-pointer was a signature moment. i think i saw a clip of it on "sports center" later that night. certainly, when i ran into stephen a. smith weeks later, he was still raving about it.


New York, N.Y.: Who do you consider to be the best player from DC? Who is the best player you have played with/against?

Kevin Merida: best player ever from d.c.? that is an extremely difficult call. adrian dantley? elgin baylor? dave bing? so many greats, and then there are those who are not well-known, perhaps, by the larger basketball world but who are legends in d.c...turk tillman, duck williams, jo-jo hunter, etc...the best players i played against/with were stacy robinson (a parade magazine all-american) and archie talley (who led the nation in scoring at salem state and was drafted by the knicks).


Philadelphia, Pa.: Kevin, Great article. They say to never judge a book by its cover, and that really applies to basketball. You never know who is really good, and who isn't. Because of its global popularity, basketball is also a great way to get to know people from all over the world. When I was at Maryland, we would get to know the newer students by inviting them out to play. It was alot better than having a department get-together, and for the students from far away places, it was a great way to meet everyone and become friends.

Kevin Merida: basketball, indeed, is a great social experience. i know a guy i went to college with who has an annual barbecue/3-on-3 tourney at his home as a bonding event, bringing families together.


Bethesda, Md.: Dear Kevin:

Great article. I've played in the Jelleffs games and in the downtown Y game mentioned by another on-liner. My comment has to do with most gym rat games where there are no clocks or referees. When I think about how I play, I think in terms of how I might use the same technique you discussed, but without a ref, that call isn't made. The next time down the court, I'd give my guy a clean look or a step. I think that's the only part of being a gym rat that you didn't talk about; the notion of guys who call silly fouls or other guys who understand how to foul in pick-up ball.



Kevin Merida: i am with you, bethesda, on that one--i hate silly, petty foul calls. i think sometimes these calls reveal an insecurity about one's skills, and at other times an inability to accept that someone has gotten the better of you. i think all you can do is be true to yourself and your game--and let the rest take care of itself.


Miami Beach, Fla.: Great article. Summertime pick-up basketball is like pick-up soccer around the world. Same honest conversations, same questions asked when you see dizzying skill levels (the why, where, and who of pick-up legends), and the emotions that only sport can create. One thing I didn't like: you cheated at the end and should've called your own foul ... if you can't still hang: get on court "B" !

Kevin Merida: ouch, miami beach...but hey, let me know where you play and i'll pay a visit and we can settle it down there on the court (smile) i stated earlier on this question, i don't consider that cheating. i consider the forearm nudge the kind of contact that the refs had been allowing all game. and i did it subtly, like all of the best contact. if you watch the pro game or watch any high-profile summer league ball, you see just how much contact is allowed. i don't have a problem with that. you just have to figure out how to make that work to your advantage. one of the most famous examples of subtle contact was "the shot," as michael jordan's last second jumper over bryon russell of the utah jazz has been dubbed. at first glance, it looks like a brilliant crossover by jordan that had russell stumbling. but on closer inspection, jordan did a sweep of his hand and pushed russell to clear some space for him. now, THAT was a foul. but the refs are never, ever gonna call that in that situation...what i did was like picking a piece of lint off a guy's jersey, compared to that jordan contact.


Silver Spring, Md.: Great Article Kevin, I am about your age and loved watching summer league at jellefs, i played high school and that was one of my great accomplishments, you see i was the only asian in the whole interhigh, keep up the writing...thanks

Kevin Merida: hey, keep up the playing. you ever play at martin luther king playground in silver spring?


Indianapolis, Ind.: Do you think that younger players focus more on individual moves, while older players emphasize team play?

Some of this difference may be due ability and age. I used to jump over people, then I used to go around them, then outsmart them, now I watch (Ruptured patella tendon September 13, 2004). But I also think the high school, college, and pro basketball emphasize individual prowess over team ball.

What do you think?

Kevin Merida: i agree about the decline of team play. a lot of this has to do with the celebration of spectacular offensive moves, as seen on espn's "sports center." some of it has to do with rise of all-year-around basketball (via aau and other tournaments in which kids are scouted and tracked at very young ages). and some of it has to do with the commercialization of street ball, notably the "And 1" mixed-tape tour. those guys are today's globetrotters, and kids everywhere are expressing themselves--or want to express themselves--on the court with flash and moves that wouldn't even be legal in a refereed game.


Arlington, Va.: Enjoyed your article. I often compare my profession (consulting) to pick-up basketball. I think the experiences of earning the respect of people that don't know you are similar. My question: have you noticed a deterioration of the intelligence of the game? The NBA seems to reflect more pure athleticism and less intelligence. (The NBA Finals this year were a welcome exception). Does this translate to the pick-up game?

Kevin Merida: well, i'd like not to draw a bright line between athleticism and intelligence. plenty of athletic players are also intelligent players. i think lebron james, one of the league's most athletic players, plays with considerable intelligence on the court, even though he is very young. high basketball for the nba, look at the nba champions of late--namely the pistons and the spurs. two teams who play like teams. and even phoenix, known for scoring bunches of points and running and gunning, was led by a point guard who brought excitement back to the assist.


Silver Spring, Md.: Sports are the true equalizer, transcending race, color, status, and often times experience. I have seen many players give their all during pickup games, that I would much rather have on my team than some of these former "super star" players from around the area.

Kevin Merida: couldn't agree more. it's becoming a modern cliche now, but larry brown is onto something when he talks about playing the right way.


Westminster, Md.: Hi Kevin,

Terrific essay. It brought a flood of memories back from my pickup days (my back keeps me from playing anymore; now I ride a bike). Love the section about sizing up the competition; most of us who've played a lot can tell within 60 seconds who can play and who can't. One of my favorite methods was to see how well a player could use both hands to dribble; if he had a very dominant right or left hand dribble, it was all over for him if I was guarding him. I'd overplay him so much to that side that most of the time, he'd give up halfway through and mostly just run up and down the court after that, not calling for (or wanting) the ball anymore. For me, defense was every bit as fun as offense.

Kevin Merida: yeah, i agree. defense is a very underrated part of the pickup game. for a lot of guys, pickup is not fun unless they're scoring. but i enjoy a good defensive duel. the challenge of guarding a really good player--not to mention the workout--is satisfying.


Tampa, Fla: Enjoyed your insights, Kevin.

My question's about trash talk. I play at a park whose diversity rivals roll call at a U.N. meeting. Ballers yap incessantly, often heatedly. Yet, I'm always amazed that the fights are few. Where's the threshold?

Also, how would you characterize trash talkings role in the game? Thanks.

Kevin Merida: i am not a big trash talker, though i have been known to talk a little trash when it's called for. the threshold for me, whether i'm involved in it or not, is that it be in the spirit of fun, good natured, not personal, not ugly, not threatening. i don't particularly like games at this stage of my life where the tension is so high it no longer becomes fun...though i've certainly played in my share of intensely competitive games.


Silver Spring, Md.: Kevin, no I played most at georgetown playground, turkey thicket in NE, a group of us used to drive around open gyms and play, these days its 50 and over leagues and once in a while hoop it up....

Kevin Merida: i love hoop-it-up! i am sorry that the number of hoop-it-up tourneys seems to be on the decline. none in this area, i believe, for the first time in years.


I have been known to talk a little trash when it's called for: LOL. Are you trying to be funny? Do you realize how that sounds?

Kevin Merida: let me clarify: when i talk trash it is friendly trash talk and to people i know. so it's in the spirit of good-natured ribbing. so maybe it's not really trash talk, as you envision it. now, if someone i don't know starts talking trash to me, i make a decision if it's worth responding to--sometimes i do and sometimes i don't. my instinct, generally, is just to play and let my game do the talking.


Kevin Merida: thanks to all who submitted questions...i'm out of here. catch some of you on the court someday.


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