(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Coming Full Circle -- A Tale of Basketball Arrival

When I was a kid in Philadelphia, I rooted very hard for all Big 5 teams, but particularly my parents' alma maters, Penn and Temple. Temple had good teams (although their best had arrived a decade or so earlier), and Penn had great teams, top-10 teams, with players named Bilsky, Wohl, Calhoun, Morse, Littlepage, Hankinson. I didn't know much about Princeton, except occasionally hearing my father say that they had this crafty coach who was very good. That's all I knew, and, in the early-to-mid-1970's, that was about enough, because the Quakers dominated the Ivies at the time.

I also thought that Penn was where I'd end up, because it seemed like a good place, my parents both had degrees from there, it was close to home, it had the magical Palestra, it had a good business school, and what more could anyone ask?

Except that for some reason I ended up at Princeton, with, believe it or not, the blessing of my Penn alum parents. Naturally, my Penn friends thought that my parents' support was heresy, but parents being who they are they love their kids for their decisions. And, quite frankly, it was they who encouraged me to leave the reservation, so to speak, and migrate about 45 miles to the north. To this day, it's not along the lines of Nixon's recognition of China, but for me it was a pretty long journey, an entry into a new world.

Part of it, of course, involved switching basketball allegiances at an interesting time -- Penn's ascendancy to the Final Four and then Princeton's resurgence. The antichrist, Pete Carril, became the major apostle, and I learned a lot about the game from watching his teams, listening to him and reading what he said. I also learned the magic of the back door play.

Carril would later write that his father used to say "the strong take from the weak, but the smart take from the strong." It's a great quote, and it provided the foundation for his coaching philosophy (Sun Tzu also might have offered similar wisdom). Carril wouldn't go at a higher rated opponents' strengths -- that was folly. But he would figure out a way to have his clubs play tough defense, take the opponents out of their game, and, to quote baseball Hall of Fame outfielder Wee Willie Keeler, he'd "hit 'em where they ain't." And no more where they "ain't", so to speak, was in defending the back door play.

Carril put a cherry atop a sterling career after he decided to retire in 1996. The Tigers played Penn in a playoff game at Lehigh, an unlikely event given that the Quakers had beaten the Tigers twice during the regular season. The Tigers didn't look particular good in either game, but as friends and I were leaving the Palestra, we thought that Carril might have had to go against Penn's strong 3-guard offense by playing freshman forward Gabe Lewullis on Penn's senior guard Donald Moxley, who scored something like 17 points in the season finale against the Tigers. Well, Carril did just that (showing that we had learned from him), and Moxley went 0-12 in the playoff, Lewullis scored in double digits, and the Tigers upended the Quakers to win the Ivy title. After the game, an elated Carril wrote on the locker room's blackboard, "I'm so happy. I'm retiring."

And then he and the Tigers became a big story. Even bigger, because the Tigers' first-round opponent was defending national champion UCLA, starring Toby Bailey and captained by Ed O'Bannon. The Tigers were in Indianapolis, and they kept the Bruins close. With under a minute to play, center Steve Goodrich threaded a perfect pass to Lewullis, who lost O'Bannon on a great v-cut, ran through the back door and scored on a layup. The Tigers upset UCLA, and they were the talk of the college basketball world (two days later, an Eric Dampier-led Mississippi State squad thumped the Tigers and sent them packing, with Carril quoted afterwards as saying, "we didn't honor our victory over UCLA."). Truth be told, the strong played smart against the smaller, less athletic Tigers, and Carril retired, his legend very much intact as the wizard of doing more with less.

Fast forward to this past weekend, where my 5th and 6th grade basketball team had its first-round playoff game against a team we beat earlier in the season by 41-20 (we could have scored more if our guards hadn't thrown the ball away a bunch attempting fast breaks). Our opponents had won a play-in game on Thursday night, and they were primed for us. My fellow coach and I were a bit nervous, given that we didn't have a practice the week before and because our team tends to come out of the gate like a house on fire, missing makeable shots because they're so eager. We went into the post-season as the #4 seed (out of 20 teams).

Before the game, I talked with the players, and I said this. "Hey, we had a great season. We finished the regular season 8-2, and we lost to the #1 seed by 6 and the #3 seed by 1, so we're up there with everyone. Let's remember to honor our season by playing a great game today. So, let's defend, call out picks and switch, let's rebound hard, and let's take makeable shots and not try to do things by ourselves. If we play together and have fun, we can win this thing."

And we did play well together, leading 18-8 at the half, 28-14 after 3 and winning 33-24 in a game that wasn't as close as the score would have indicated. It was a good solid game, but one play brought it all home for me.

It took place in the third quarter, where our lightning quick if sometimes out of control point guard threw a bounce pass to a post player at the right elbow. My son made a great cut on the player guarding him (one of his best friends) and was wide open at a 45-degree angle to the basket. The post player turned and threaded a beautiful bounce pass, which my son caught mid-stride. He then put the ball up off the glass, which it kissed softly before going through the hoop. It was a great play, just as we had practiced it for the past several weeks, and my son brought it home for me what a beautiful game the game of basketball is.

Now, we weren't playing against a bigger team or a stronger team, but we were playing against a feisty team that tended to overplay on defense. And, there we were, taking advantage of where they were not, and we executed on the famous Princeton "back door" play. I smiled with no small measure of satisfaction that we've been able to finish this play, and, of course, I took some extra enjoyment that my son was part of the play's great execution.

It's great to see the kids pay rapt attention, especially when they sense that our plays can help us score more points than if a guard were to try to do it all himself. And, no, we're by no means perfect. Some kids try to do too much, a few forget the plays, and a few throw chest passes when the play demands a bounce pass. We try to fast break (Red Auerbach would appreciate us on occasion), out of a theory that if we get there first with more boys we'll have a better chance to score than when the other team has set its defense. But in the end, it's this play that has the referees nodding their heads and parents at both ends wondering how kids this age can perfect two straight passes for a basket.

Coach Carril said many things in his day, from "play to win" to "basketball reveals character" to "there's a great correlation between high SAT's and slow feet." But what he stressed -- time and time again -- was unselfishness and precision. More often than not, his teams did what he taught, with terrific results. I don't know how far this team will go in our playoffs -- there are a couple of teams with more size, strength and speed, but I do know this -- with the back door play and kids willing to play hard, anything is possible.

Because at the end of the day, the smart do take from the strong.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's amazing how different your life is today because you decided to "migrate about 45 miles to the North," isn't it? In ways both big and very small.

11:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

SportsProf--A very nice post. My best to you and your family. I enjoy visiting here from time to time. When I do, I try to catch up on the previous posts I had not yet read since the last visit.

Princeton alum

11:49 AM  

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