By Gary Gray, 15, Sunland Christian Academy
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Gary says that street basketball is the true basketball.

I was a scrawny 6-year-old who grew up in Chicago watching the Bulls, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Forget all other sports, all the kids wanted to be basketball superstars.

I was obsessed with Michael Jordan. I remember my mom told me that you could find anyone’s number in the phone book. I used to look through the phone book for hours trying to find Michael Jordan’s phone number. When I couldn’t find it, I just dialed any seven numbers. When someone answered, I’d ask, "Is this Michael Jordan?"

Obviously, I always had the wrong number.
I wasn’t the only one in my family who loved basketball. My mom played it as a child and taught me how to play. I started playing with other kids at the community park at least four nights a week during the school year. During summer break we played every day.

A year later I started playing at my local recreation center. Since I was only 7, I was amazed at how big the recreation center was. I never thought in my wildest dreams that a basketball court could be inside a building. The recreation center had a distinctive smell to it, sort of like hot rubber. I guess it was from the shoes hitting the floor so fast and hard and from the basketball smacking sweaty hands. Speaking of sweat, that’s another thing it smelled like. It’s probably natural, because there were about 10 sweaty bodies constantly running around.

The atmosphere on the courts was carefree. Our biggest thrill of the day was when we actually made a shot. It wasn’t competitive back then. We celebrated wins over ice cream at the Dairy Queen and practically bought the whole place out. We were just kids having fun. I didn’t even realize there were different ways to play basketball. I just played.

I got good at it, and my confidence grew. I played it all the time until sixth grade. As soon as junior high came, I stopped playing basketball and focused on school. That was until my mom put a hoop in the backyard. At first I played with my friends. But then I just played by myself. I’d be outside practically all night. I shot around, practiced moves and even exercised outside. These sessions got me back into the game.

When high school started, I tried out for the team and made it. We worked hard. Every week we did 300 push-ups and 300 sit-ups on our own. Our coach said we should distribute the exercise throughout the week and not do it all at once. He encouraged the sit-ups to maintain stomach power, because it gives you so much control when you’re playing basketball. Most people think your legs get tired from playing ball, but it’s the stomach. If we didn’t want to do the sit-ups and push-ups, we could practice dribbling and shooting more. But most people didn’t do that, because it’s so tiring.

All that street ball made a difference

As I played my first season on the team, I started noticing something. I had the best statistics for every game that we played, including shot percentage per game. I averaged 88% for the season, which is pretty good. The funny thing is, I had no idea why this was happening. I knew that I had played on the streets for a while, but had I actually gotten better than the other guys?

Pretty soon I found out what happened. While I took time off and picked up the street style, others had picked up what I call schooled style. You know what that looks like. A schooled person stands like a robot and takes 15 minutes to shoot the ball. Whenever you touch them, they cry foul. They wear their best gear for a simple pick-up game. My friends and I also refer to the schooled style as stopwatch, because lately we’ve seen a lot of kids on the courts with their dads on the sidelines acting like their personal trainers. "Move your hands. Run faster. Don’t dribble above your waist," the dads commanded.

Next year, I don’t think that I’ll play for my school. It’s too frustrating to play with those guys. They come to practice with their fancy moves and gear. They don’t know what the game is all about. I don’t like coaches either, because they act like drill sergeants. They stand there with their hands on their hips like they’re in the army, and all their players wear matching headbands.

In Chicago, I played with kids who taught themselves how to play the game. We didn’t have special diets. No trainers, fancy shoes or screaming coaches. We just played. It all felt so contrived at school that I thought I was going crazy. I wondered if those kids ever got tired of their trainers and their drills.

One time my cousin Billy and I planned to play ball in my backyard. He wore his best Nike gear while I wore a regular tank top and shorts. To make a long story short, I beat him. Bad. I wanted to show him that he didn’t need to look good to play well. That’s why I’m not going to try out for the school team this year. I’m going back to street ball and 10 kids having fun on the court.

It’s just us, the ball, the court and the net. But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself. After all, I’m just one kid playing the game.