James Harden is that dude at the gym who ruins the game with too many suspect calls.
We all understand that the Houston Rockets superstar is trying to manipulate NBA rules to dethrone the Golden State dynasty. But Harden also belongs to the brotherhood of hoopers who play for the love of the game. I’m talking about those of us who wake up at 5 a.m. for that Tuesday-and-Thursday-morning run, or rent out the school gym late nights after the kids are in bed. Who keep sneakers and a ball in the car at all times. Who arrive at the playground Saturday morning with at least three homies. Because if we lose, we ain’t getting another next until next week.
In our basketball universe, there are no refs, but there is a set of unwritten rules. And while we admire Harden’s revolutionary skill set, we know that anybody who tried to get those calls around our way might have to knuckle up.
“I’ve played pickup basketball all over the country, and one thing that’s universal is the game typically regulates itself,” said my Saturday morning Pittsburgh partner Kevin Santelli (undersized post player, jumper is cash from 15 feet in, would foul his own moms to stop a layup).
“If you have that dude who’s not taking legit shots, waiting to hook your arm and go up and then call a foul, he might get away with one,” Santelli said. “But if you do that all the time, you better be the toughest dude in the gym. You better be ready to muscle up, because I don’t want to fight you, but it might go there.”
I can hear the Houston fans already: Comparing the Rockets-Warriors series with a YMCA game is like putting Beyoncé in a talent show. Harden is in a different universe from us mere mortals, and is therefore subject to a different calculus. Which is true.
However, anyone who plays ball recognized the arguments about Harden and foul calls that dominated the aftermath of Game 1:
We’ve all been part of those arguments, which in competitive moments can feel bigger than life. We’ve been furious and held grudges over foul calls, just like the Rockets and the Warriors. The subjectivity of fouls is one of the common threads lacing Hoop World together.
Hoop World hates it when that dude, who’s already a tough cover, starts calling ticky-tack touches every time you come near him. Or when she misses a clean look on game point, then calls foul after the ball clanks off the rim. Sometimes it really is a foul. But if you call too many, then nobody wants to give you any, and it sucks the fun out of a joyful experience.
“It’s disrespectful to the game,” said Rasheed Brinkley, my Thursday night nemesis in Philadelphia (former overseas pro, slashing guard, would and-one you to death).
“You could call a foul every time down the court if you chose,” said Brinkley. “I always felt I didn’t need the refs, I’m that good. That how my mentors taught me: Go do what you do.”
My man Flyin’ Myron Brown (played a few games for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1991 and then 10 seasons in Europe, still hoops three days a week) said that when he made the league, “you had to get mugged to get a call.”
“They already let Harden travel on his step-back, and now he wants a foul, too?” he said. “I feel like the way these NBA guys expect calls today, if they came to the playground, I could give them the business right now.”
Yeah, we know how the NBA is officiated. But things are regulated differently in Hoop World. If you kick your legs into somebody and call foul, “It starts with, ‘That call is BS.’ Then it goes to someone mumbling something to being said directly to standing and holding the ball and saying, ‘No, we’re going the other way. I’m not giving you that call,’ ” said Brooks Brown, a pickup warrior from Washington, D.C., and commissioner of the high-level morning run at Gonzaga College High School.
“Then everyone starts chiming in, then someone walks up in someone’s face, and then you’re like, ‘We’re too old for this,’ ” said Brooks (burly point forward, likes to sink game-winners driving to his right).
The way Harden pleads for fouls on jump shots can feel like someone calling offensive fouls in a pickup game: technically allowed, he said, but weak sauce.
“Everybody pretty much understands that gray area,” he said. “I feel like James Harden is in the space where he abuses that, and people think he’s better than that. Like, you can’t be that good and get all these soft calls, too. He’s the guy in the pickup game who doesn’t really get it – I’m calling my call even if it messes the game up.”
Harden might not make those kind of calls in his own pickup games. And right now, he’s is trying to win his first championship by any means necessary. He needs an edge to compete with the unfair amount of talent stacked up on the Warriors’ side. Hoopers understand that. I’ve reflexively made weak calls at the end of close games — ask my man Brooks why he punted the ball into the bleachers one Tuesday morning.
I also knew that I lost some respect with that call. To get it back, I let the next few fouls slide.
“I think Harden is a great basketball player, but what he ends up doing is counting more on the rules than his skills when it means the most,” said Will Strickland (played pro overseas, once fled gunshots in Brooklyn, New York’s, Tilden projects over a game of 21, never passed me the rock in the Goat Park league).
“The basketball gods will not honor disrespect in that way,” Strickland said. “Whether playing on the playground or the highest levels of the game, the rules won’t save you.”