Kara Callahan, a former professional ballet dancer, is having a little trouble with a move called the Hardaway crossover. Howard Eisley, the starting point guard on the Boston College basketball team, demonstrates. Controlling the ball with his left hand as he moves down the court, he dribbles under his right leg to his right hand and then quickly bounces the ball in front of his body to his left hand before gliding to the basket for a layup, landing as softly as Baryshnikov finishing a grand jetè.
"Tim Hardaway of the Golden State Warriors does that all the time," says Steve Bzomowski, addressing Callahan and 23 others, including me, who have come to Deerwood, a resort in the Berkshire mountains in western Massachusetts, for two days of intense instruction at a Never Too Late Basketball Weekend. Bzomowski is a former assistant coach at Harvard and the founder of Never Too Late, one of the first serious basketball camps for adults.
Fantasy basketball camps have been around for years, but they generally cater to wealthy, middle-aged fans who pay dearly for a chance to gab with big-name heroes like Dave Cowens and Oscar Robertson. Bzomowski's name isn't much of a draw, and his clinics put more emphasis on shooting the basketball than on shooting the breeze. Here campers are bombarded with instruction while spending more than eight hours on the court between Saturday morning and Sunday noon, all for the reasonable price of about $225.
At the camp's orientation meeting on Friday night we take turns telling the other campers why we are here and what we hope to accomplish. Steve Ratiner, a 43-year-old poet and teacher, plays frequent pickup games and hopes to learn how to repeat moves he sometimes does by instinct. "Some things I find myself doing intuitively, and I know that's good," he says, "but I think, How did I do that?"
Callahan, 27, and her boyfriend, Alex Hou, 24, are both graduate students at MIT and basketball beginners. "I noticed on the registration form there was nothing below Novice," says Callahan. Though they had been longtime fans of the game, Callahan and Hou had never thought of learning to play until they went to a friend's house for a picnic and shot baskets there. Shortly after that Hou saw a Never Too Late flier on a lamppost, and they signed up. "I wanted to do more than just shoot baskets," says Callahan. "I wanted to pick up some moves."
I had come to Deerwood, a mile down a dirt road that crosses the Appalachian Trail near Great Barrington, Mass., to become Bobby Hurley. I figured that if one short, whiny white guy with a bad haircut could play against the Dream Team, then there was hope for me.
We were all just the kind of unschooled basketball freaks Bzomowski had in mind when the idea for Never Too Late Basketball was born, in 1991. That year Harvard coach Peter Roby resigned, and the NCAA cut back the number of assistant coaches allowed at Division I schools, leaving Bzomowski out of work. "I thought, What does Steve B. do now?" he says. "Write the great American novel? Open a restaurant?"
Then one day he got a call from a lawyer who played in a Boston recreational league and who wanted some individual tutoring in the game's techniques. Bzomowski's wife, Carrie, thought that there might be others out there like that lawyer—late converts to basketball who had never been coached in the fundamentals. She suggested that he offer a kind of Hoops 101 class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and see what kind of response he got. The 10-week course filled up quickly with players of all skill levels and ages, including women. Bzomowski found himself enjoying the change from the rigors of Division I coaching and discovered that the rewards were not so different. "It felt like being at Harvard when you'd had a great practice," he says. "These people, they want it."
Sometimes there was satisfaction unimaginable in college coaching. "An overweight woman came to the class, and she told me, 'This has changed my life. If I can learn the form and make a 10-foot shot, I feel better about myself. It's like a religious experience for me.' As a coach, that means a lot to me."
This summer Bzomowski expanded the Never Too Late concept to include five weekend-long basketball retreats at various resort areas in the Berkshires and in the White Mountains of Vermont. His advertising methods included taping fliers to city lampposts and placing notices in the sports sections of a few New England newspapers. For his staff he recruited three players with whom he had worked before—Eisley, who will be a senior at BC this season, and two former Harvard players, Brian Mackey and Mike Minor.
On Saturday morning, after a breakfast of muffins, granola and fresh fruit, we were ready to hit the blacktop, two freshly paved full courts where we had played a brief, erratic pickup game the night before. The first session covered ball handling in the open court, graduating from the inside-out dribble to the Hardaway. During one of my layups I heard Bzomowski yell, "Unless you are dropping the ball down into the basket, use the backboard." At 5'9", with a vertical leap closer to my shoe size than to my age, I am not ever likely to meet that initial condition, so I banked the ball from then on.
Throughout the day we gathered for lectures by Bzomowski and for demonstrations of various moves by the staff, the most impressive of which was a shot fake followed by a one-dribble layup from the top of the key, executed by Eisley. After discussing a particular technique, we would break up into groups at each of the four baskets and run drills.
Bzomowski was an affable, energetic leader, throwing out good-natured quips at the staff. When demonstrating post position, with Mackey playing defense, he began by saying, "Let's imagine that Brian is a really good defensive player...." He also declared that the taciturn Eisley would later give a lecture on trash-talking.
By Sunday morning our legs were weary, but our game had improved. Callahan may not have been able to master the Hardaway crossover, but during a shooting session she was nailing baseline jumpers with perfect BEEF (balance, eyes, elbow, follow-through) technique.
At the very end of the camp, when we divided into teams and played games, I got my reward: I faked my man all the way to the Appalachian Trail, then tossed in a jumper that was all net. We were making V-cuts to set up in the low post and screening away to free a teammate for a jumper at the free throw line. That ragged Friday-night pickup game seemed light-years away.
At the final meeting, at noon on Sunday, Bzomowski handed out awards. (Callahan, predictably, won Most Improved.) When he asked if there were any questions, one camper inquired, "Is it too late to buy a T-shirt?"
"Thanks for the setup," Bzomowski said. "As we all know by now, it's never too late."
Iris Davis was a happy camper after learning to make shots like this over taller foes.
Bzomowski (below) used Eisley to make a point and told the author (above) how to make two points.
Former SI reporter Jay Jennings is now a senior editor at Tennis magazine.