Holes to Hoops

Will kayaking make me a better basketball player?

— In honor of the pro basketball season that was, which could conclude this evening with a Miami Heat win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, writer-paddler-roundballer Josh Valentine asks the hard questions. As in, “What does paddling really do for my game?”

Photo Justine Crema

By Josh Valentine

This is certainly not a pitch to try and illustrate how basketball and whitewater kayaking are distant relatives on the family tree of sports. The differences are stark and obvious, between the team and individual, the objective, not to mention the arena in which each is conducted.

Stay with me here, for the common thread might be thicker than you think. I have been athletic my entire life, and while most things have come naturally and fairly quick, basketball has by far always been my most difficult sport to play.

My handle on the ball has always been suspect. Having oft relied on power and strength to carry me through in other sports, my drives and attempts to score were obvious, clumsy, and easily thwarted. It looked more like I intended to tackle the basket then put a ball through it. To put it mildly, I was rarely picked first.

It was through the mindset of a kayaker of all things that sudden changes in my game became evident. It doesn’t take anyone long to realize that all the power in the world does little when matched up against the rage of a river.

When first learning to roll, I instinctively lashed out with strength to try and right my boat. It was not until an older kayaker sternly reminded me to calm down, stop fighting, and start flowing that everything changed. With patience and grace, suddenly the kayak practically righted itself, and before long became second nature.

Approaching the river with the same mindset saw heavy, imbalanced, and aggressive paddling with little results give way to slight, deliberate movements that found me ferrying, cutting, edging, holding lines, and eddying out with poise and precision. Finally I decided that if I could flow on a river, then I could flow on the pavement too. Turned out the idea was not as far-fetched as it sounds.

Whereas my original instinct was to drive blindly and aggressively for the hoop with little avail, suddenly I found myself pausing and testing my surroundings.  The simplest, slight flicker of movement or adjustment of body position and my opponent was off-balance or fooled enough that I could move smoothly past him on a suddenly open line to the basket. Like an expert reading the river, I stopped thinking about the ball, instead looking two moves ahead, watching where I wanted to go instead of what I wanted to avoid. Sure enough, the ball followed.

That certainly didn’t make all the layups go in, but almost instantly I found that I got to the basket triple, even quadruple as much. Like a subtle stroke into the correct current, my game had grown light-years through simple finesse and basic manipulation of the environment around me.

Now I am no closer to becoming Kevin Durant than I am to becoming Tao Berman. But, I am getting picked a lot sooner. Who knows? Maybe with another whitewater season under my belt, I’ll suddenly start to develop a three-point shot.

Photo Justine Crema

Click HERE to read Josh Valentine’s piece on a formative conversation he had with the late, great Don Starkell.

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