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My contribution to The How-To Issue is How To Complete A Layup.

As the commissioner of a basketball league for book people, I meet a lot of enthusiastic nerds who have no idea how to play basketball. There are a few basic skills I tell them to start with. The basic layup is the primary offensive skill. As a side note, it’s even easier to learn basic defensive skills, but that’s more of an in-person how-to.*

I am going to assume complete basketball ignorance here, without judging, which is why this post begins with a video of a layup. What Allen Iverson does after stealing the ball is a layup.

We’re going to learn to complete a basic layup on the right side of the basket because it uses more of the right hand than the left, and most people are right-handed, so it’s a little easier. But know this can be completely replicated on the left side, by just changing the words “right” and “left” in this guide, and should be, by both right- and left-handed people.

The layup uses two fundamental basketball skills: dribbling and shooting, so as a quick reminder, you are not allowed to move your feet in basketball without dribbling, or bouncing the ball against the ground. Generally the rule is that you cannot go more than one step without doing this, but the rule is slightly bent for layups, and for all professional basketball players who make more than $3 million a year. 

Okay. So this is what you do.

1. Start at the right-hand top of the key (this is the top of the large rectangle facing the basket, and it is called a key because it is shaped like the little cards you get to open your room in a hotel**) with a ball in hand.

2. Step towards the basket with your left foot while dribbling once with your right hand.

3. Collect the ball as it comes back up from the dribble, controlling with both hands, as your right foot hits the ground.

4. As your left foot hits the ground, bring the ball up and across your body. Instead of letting your left foot land on the ground and stay there, you should land on the ball of the left foot and sort of launch yourself right back off it. Shoot the ball, using your right hand to launch the ball and your left hand to protect and guide it.

4a. Aim for the square painted on the backboard. If there’s no square, aim for the spot on the backboard where it would be. (Imagine the rim flipped straight back on a hinge and then traced around. That’s basically where it would be.)***

4b. Did you know that a standard basketball rim can accommodate two basketballs passing through it at exactly the same time? It can. I mention this because a lot of new basketball players think it looks very small and combative because of the angle. But there’s plenty of room in there, so be confident.

5. Once the ball goes through the hoop, try not to look to proud of yourself, hustle back to play defense, and keep an eye out for teammates reaching a hand in your direction, because that means they want to give you a high-five for your accomplishment.

Please note: this should all be done in about two seconds. 

Possible mitigating factors:

1. You might want to, or have to, start your layup further away from the basket. Make sure you keep dribbling in that case, and do your best to make sure you are on your left foot when you get to the top of the key. (You cannot stop dribbling and then start again, as an FYI.)

2. It is rare to attempt a layup with no defensive pressure in a game situtation (although you should practice that way at first, to get the hang of it). There are a few things you can do about this; my favorite is to pump-fake, which is when you cut the fluid motion of the layup and instead land squarely on both feet at the end, PRETEND to shoot, then pull the ball back and wait a tick while your defender jumps to block your shot, and then once they land ineffectually and are off-balance for a moment, shoot. This is very satisfying when it works.

3. A defensive player might strike your body in some way, probably an arm, while trying to keep you from making the layup. If they do, you have been fouled, and play will stop. Depending on the circumstance, your team will either get to re-set the offense or you will get to shoot some foul shots. This is generally a good thing and many people will try for a layup up with this exact intent, which is called “drawing a foul.” Sometimes if you feel you have messed up your layup in some way when you’re in the middle of it, it’s good to try to draw a foul, to salvage something from the situation.

3a. If the defensive player only hits the ball, though, that is legal and called a “block.” It’s a little embarrassing, but it happens to everybody from time to time, so shake it off when it happens to you.

I am happy to teach you this in person any weekend morning this summer at the courts at American Playground in Greenpoint. Good luck!

*In a nutshell, though, in case you have a game tomorrow: keep low, keep your thighs as parallel to the ground as possible, move on the balls of your feet, look at stomachs instead of faces, and keep your hands in the air.

**Kidding! It is actually called the key because it used to look like a skeleton key, as it does in this stellar video of a up-and-coming teenage Wilt Chamberlin. But it’s been widened twice (in the 50s and then the 60s in response to the domination of a few very good big men, since you are not allowed to be in the paint for more than three seconds at a time, and then they had to move around more, which supposedly made the game more fair. The 60s widening being due in part to Mr Chamberlin.)

***Though you may have noticed while watching basketball on TV that the backboard seems more like a decorative touch than a part of the court—as a people, we like the swoosh, I guess—the basic layup should rely heavily on the backboard, which is why it’s such a good place to learn on offense. Or as a former coach of mine liked to say: “Do you think God invented backboards just so you could ignore them, Anderson? Huh?”

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