My Basketball Mentality


I just finished playing a game of basketball. We were down 2 - 13, and the game was to 15 (playing by 2s and 3s). We were one basket away from losing, and on my way to the basket, I get fouled, and I call it. Immediately, one of the guys from the opposing team yells out “What’s the point, you already lost, and now you’re calling touch fouls”. 

That was it. It was all I needed to turn on my smack talk. I proceeded to make a basket and then very loudly rally my team with phrases like “only 5 more to go and we win. Let’s get this one stop. We got this”. I could see the opposing team getting a bit pissed, and their shots were slightly off as a result. Great. Time to keep yapping. I had a pass to a teammate down near the basket, and he made a great move to score. Time to scream out in celebration again… a little louder than I usually would, and a little longer. 

We were clawing our way back into the game. 10 - 13. Anyone who’s played basketball knows which team has the advantage here. In basketball, like in most other team endeavors, momentum is crucial. The team that has momentum, has morale, and as a by-product is more energized, confident, and positive, which all lead to good things..

Eventually we lost because of a mistake I made. We all got together afterwards, both sides, and high fived each other for a great game. Everything was left on the court. 

After the game, a teammate mentioned how much fun he had, but also that it got quite intense, and he didn’t want to take part in the intensity and the smack talk, because he didn’t want to feel like he was in high school again. 

I thought about why I choose to take the approach of being hyper aggressive and talking trash at times. I don’t talk trash usually, but at times, it comes out when I feel like it’ll help our team win. I have a tendency to leverage mind games, on the court, to put my team ahead. It’s core to my style of play. 

This tendency likely stems from the basketball culture that I was raised in. I first learned how to play organized basketball in Hyderabad, India. 

I’m super grateful to have a personal coach who took it upon himself to train me so that I could play at the national level, all because he saw potential and a fire in my belly to get better. 

I picked up basketball skills from him, as well as the mental side of the game. In order to explain his mindset, I’ll first explain the mindset of most athletes in India. In India, If you’re a basketball player who’s represented your state at the national level a few times, you have a great chance of getting one of the government jobs allotted to sportspersons. These jobs involve working part time, and training for your sport for the rest of the day. You’ll represent that government division during tournaments, and for many, it is a way out of poverty, and a source of good income for their families.

I’ve played with people from across India who had this incredible drive to play as well as they could, and win at all costs. Because you see, if your team wins at the district level, your district would be overrepresented in the state team, with respect to the other districts in your region. And if your state won the national tournament, 5 players are selected from your state to play for India and the rest are divided amongst the other teams. 

So winning had a very real effect in determining the fate of the lives of the people from your home town / district / state. It wasn’t just about playing well for “having fun” or “the love of the game”. Sure those things might be a part of it, but for many that I played with, those were the lesser of the reasons to play hard. 

I wanted to win so that my teammates, and friends, could be selected, and so that we’d have enough “creds” to have a shot at the tryouts for those government jobs. 

This was more than just a sport for players, it was a path to a better life for themselves and their families.

With this context, you’ll understand when I tell you that we held nothing back. If there’s a chance to say something and bring the other team down, or to help motivate ourselves to play better, we'd say it.

From the things my coach taught me, 3 tactics stick out. I've never heard any of these strategies from another coach.

  • Don’t back off: Don’t back off from a physical stand-off. If an opponent walks up to you to pick a fight, walk towards him or her, stand tall, look them in the eyes, and wait out the 10 seconds until the ref comes to break it up. Don’t be dumb and throw a punch and get ejected. Stay calm, but DON’T BACK DOWN. If you give a sense that you can be pushed around, you’re in for a night of incessant verbal and physical abuse on the court.
  • If you need to, foul your opponent to send the message that you’re not to be messed with. There are many ways in basketball to deliver this message: one of the easiest ways is, on a rebound, land with both of your elbows out and turn to pass. During the turn, you can land a blow on the chest of the person closest to you while passing the ball. And if you’re good enough, you could even flop to make it seem like your opponent initiated physical contact, and get a foul called on them. Having only one elbow out, makes it seem like you intended to drive that elbow into your opponent’s chest. Make it seem like it happened as a result of circumstance. 
  • Do whatever it takes to win. Nothing is off the cards. If you want to flop[3], make sure you act well. Understand the angles that the refs have on the game, and flop when you know that the ref isn’t in a position to see if there was contact, and will base their decision off of your reaction to a supposed foul. 

And finally, no matter what you do on the court to win, once the game is over, you must become friends with everyone. This is something that threw me off initially, because I couldn’t quite understand the transition from someone hurling traditional Hindi abuse, that involved calling my sister (and I'm an only child btw) a whore, to them seeking friendship 20 minutes later when the game was over. But I loved it. These people were the ones that I felt closest to during my time in India. They had a level of drive that I was in awe of, and pushed me to find skill I didn't know I had.

My school friends didn't understand [2], why, at times, I brought so much aggression to the game, and why I'd be push them hard, so that we could win our school games. And I didn't quite understand myself at the time to be able to explain to them. I feel like I finally got something off my chest. 

I understand players who flop on the court, get aggressive, and have standoffs. I understand how that mentality is partly a product of the environments and circumstances they grew up in. They had to win.


[1] Talking trash in India is a bit different than what I see out here. In india, talking trash is usually directed at your opponents’ mothers and sisters. It gets intense, and quite aggressive. I’ve never actually seen that level of verbal abuse anywhere else...

[2] Note that my school friends were different than the basketball friends that I made playing in the competitive circuits in India. School friends mostly came from middle - upper middle class families like mine. And none of them chose to be a professional athlete, so I didn't see them in the athletic circuits.