Pro basketball players aren't like you and me. Shaquille O'Neal palms a basketball like it's a Brussels sprout. Ricky Davis bounces around like he's made of vulcanized rubber. Gilbert Arenas can walk on water.
Last week, I figured out how to reduce the NBA playoffs to a human scale. Like most people, my basketball expertise comes from playing pickup basketball. In a pickup game, you don't know anyone's name or background. Since there aren't any uniforms or color commentators, the only way to relive your performance is to seize on easily identifiable traits. I can't believe I had to guard the sweaty guy. Or, I totally crossed over the guy in the Michael Jordan jersey.
If you stare at pro players long enough, they start to look less like superheroes and more like the guys we've all hooped with at the YMCA. Ricky Davis isn't one of the NBA's top bench players. He's that annoying guy who thinks he's the team captain. The cagey old man who backs you down into the paint? You might know him as Chicago's Adrian Griffin. The guy who has more wristbands than points? Ben Wallace.
In the run-up to the NBA Finals, you won't see Steve Nash dish to a guy in jeans, and Ray Allen won't be hounded by a defender who refuses to take his watch off. But here's a list of some of the pickup archetypes you'll see in the next month.
The Guy with the Funny Shot Who Can't Miss: Shawn Marion, Phoenix Suns
Shawn Marion doesn't shoot a jump shot, exactly. It's more like a jump spasm—dribble, dribble, twitch. And it goes in! Every time I watch Marion, I think of Nick "Butter" Brown, my childhood teammate who dropped out of competitive basketball in seventh grade before becoming a pickup sharpshooter of the "How the hell?" variety. In a league full of players with mechanical, one-handed releases, Marion's shot is a homegrown monster. So ugly. So miraculous. So butter.
The Guy Who Wears Too Much Protective Gear: Rip Hamilton, Detroit Pistons
It starts with ankle tape that peeks over the sock line. Then it spreads upward: a knee brace, an elbow wrap, a wrist support. Does your hypochondriac friend really need to play in shin guards and a fitted plastic face mask? Probably not. But those protective goggles might come in handy if there's an earthquake.
The Guy Whose Dad Brought Him To Play: Damien Wilkins, Seattle Sonics
His uncle Dominique is a basketball legend. His dad Gerald played in the NBA for 13 seasons. What's Damien doing in the league? His pops didn't have time to take the station wagon home after school..