Mark Thomson ’13 on playing ball across the pond

“Basketball is my favorite sport/I like the way they dribble up and down the court.” -Lil Bow Wow, “Basketball” (2002)

I remember the first time these words blasted out of my mini radio, set to Radio Disney (AM 1310), the summer before sixth grade. For a soon-to-be middle schooler with aspirations to be the next Allen Iverson or Jason Kidd, this song quickly became the soundtrack to my life. It didn’t matter that I shot the ball with both hands or that I had a physique that could most accurately be described as pear-shaped. According to Lil Bow Wow, anyone could be Like Mike.

And be like Michael Jordan, I tried. I played organized ball until the eighth grade. In several years of riding the Alameda Youth Basketball bench, I never scored more than six points in a game. Although I consistently had the dopest sneakers in the league and wore matching headbands and wristbands, I found out that no matter how good I looked on the court, I just wasn’t all that talented.

Finally, by the time I was about to enter high school, I stopped playing competitively. I resigned myself to the fact that my highest moment as a basketball player was that one game I banked in a three-pointer, split a pair of free throws, and scored a layup in garbage time. This all changed, however, when I came to Oxford University for study abroad a couple of months ago. Whilst playing pool at our student lounge, my mate Ryan casually mentioned that the St. Catherine’s College basketball team had a game on Saturday, Feb. 25. (Oxford is divided into 38 colleges that compete athletically against each other.) The season had already been going on for some time, but he told me that they needed bodies and asked me if I played basketball.

My heart skipped a beat. I feigned modesty and replied that I did. He asked me if I was busy at 7:00. I told him that I could probably make 7:00.

I showed up at the Magdalen School gymnasium two days later at 6:45, not knowing what to expect. Wearing my baggy Adidas shorts and some old Air Jordans, I looked around at the scene that was unfolding in front of me. The Oxford University team was practicing on the court, but there were four guys (all well over six feet) wearing St. Catz pennies near the bench, waiting for their game to start. Ryan had yet to arrive, so I was forced to walk up to one of them and introduce myself. “I’m Mark,” I said. “Ryan told me that you could use some players.” The tallest player, Abu, nodded his head and asked if I had ever played basketball. I told him I played intramural ball in high school and college (although I failed to mention that I rarely scored). He threw me an extra penny and told me I was starting at one of the guard spots. Swag.

Ryan arrived seconds before tipoff and our game against Green Templeton College started. At 5’ 7”, I was the shortest player on our team by four inches. A minute into the game, I found myself wide open at the top of the three-point line. After a second of deliberation, I decided to shoot. Clank. Off the back iron. I sprinted back on defense, determined to not shoot again. But minutes later, I again found myself open at the three-point line and shot the ball. Clank. This one was closer than the last one, though. I started to panic, but because the rest of the team was struggling to score, I realized they could hardly hold two missed three-pointers against me.

We were probably losing 12-5 after about seven minutes when Ryan passed me the ball near the three-point line. For whatever reason, I was weirdly confident. I figured I had nothing to lose by shooting. I squared up my feet and shot. Swish.

In my mind, the crowd went wild. In reality, our one spectator was probably checking her cell phone. I didn’t even try to hide my smile as we jogged back on defense. A minute later, I got the ball again. This time, I had a feeling the shot was going to go in before it even left my hands. Swish. I held my follow-through like I was Jordan shooting over Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. These six points matched my career-high. I imagined the chorus to “Basketball” playing as I backpedaled to our side of the court. They’re playing basketball! We love that basketball!

The referee soon signaled halftime, and we were up 18-16 with only another fifteen minutes to go. In the second half, I failed to score, and we ended up losing by a dozen points or so. Still, I was encouraged enough by my performance to show up to the next game the following week. This time, I wasn’t so effective. I started at point guard against University College (not to be confused with the Oxford University team) and missed all five of my shots. I’d like to say that they were all narrow misses, but then I’d be lying (three of them missed the rim completely). Despite my shooting struggles, we won by double digits.

With that win, we qualified for the playoffs and had a game against Balliol College a few days later. Because of some weird rules, this game was for third place. I didn’t crack the starting lineup (some actual basketball players showed up for this game), but I still played around half the game. We won handily, and I ended up not attempting a single shot. That said, I didn’t turn the ball over and played decent defense against Balliol’s point guard.

Although I still have a lot of room for improvement as a shooter, next season I plan on fully committing myself to being a better defender. After all, it’s defense that wins championships, and I think we’re capable of being a championship-winning team. Perhaps Jermaine Dupri put it best at the end of his “Basketball” verse: “Standing tall/Playing D with desire/It’s basketball.”