- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2001

All too many basketball coaches in the NBA and college ranks are undermining the game's quality of life.

In their quest to control every aspect of the game, they require their players to resist the urge to be spontaneous and creative.

The lords of basketball, from David Stern to the suits with the NCAA, are perplexed by a riddle. The athlete today is stronger, faster and quicker than the athlete of yesteryear, if not as skilled. So why aren't the games, on average, as entertaining as the ones 20 years ago? Why is putting the ball in the hole such a struggle at times? Why is uglyball sweeping the land?

You need only study the puppeteers pulling the strings from the sidelines. They usually are in a snit. They usually are battling all kinds of anxieties. Their world is coming to an end, and they want everyone to know it.

They understand all the game's complexities and nuances. But you, the player, do not understand. You, the spectator, do not understand. No one, it seems, understands the game's intricacies as well as they do.

Their conceit is fairly stunning, and fairly counterproductive, if a well-played game is the goal.

Basketball works best in a free-flowing, attack-oriented environment, either on defense or offense. You go after the opponent on defense. You push the ball on offense. You take the first open shot.

Rick Pitino has employed this philosophy since his days as a coach at Boston University, usually with impressive results, his present company excluded.

Pitino recognized, perhaps intuitively, that a cluttered mind on the court is an uncertain mind, and uncertain minds are prone to a higher number of bad decisions.

How many times do you see a team have numbers on its side in transition but then elect not to take the open 17-footer and instead wind up with either a turnover or a hand-in-the-face jumper after running its halfcourt set?

That is what overcoaching can do for a team. Don't attack a vulnerable opponent. Work the offense. Pass the ball around. Be smart. Be deliberate. In this upside-down version of the game, five-on-five basketball is somehow preferable to 3-on-2 basketball.

Tom Heinsohn, a broadcaster with the Celtics, told the New York Post the other day that he misses the fastbreak. It is as if, he said, no one coaching the game today believes you can win in this manner. Plus, he said, coaches are reluctant to allow players that much freedom.

Heinsohn, of course, knows otherwise. He has 10 championship rings, eight as a player with the Celtics and two as a coach, of which the fastbreak was a fundamental part.

With the old Celtics, it started with Bill Russell. His ability to make the quick outlet pass was essential. Wes Unseld followed Russell as one of the game's premier outlet passers.

You don't hear anyone discussing the game's great outlet passers today. That is because the fastbreak no longer is a priority with many coaches. Coaches don't really want their teams to push the ball, so the fastbreak is only utilized after backcourt turnovers or, in college, against the cupcakes on a team's schedule.

Coaches stress defense because they want to sound like everyone else. You know the spiel: Offense sells tickets, and defense wins championships.

And just you forget the "Showtime" Lakers of the '80s.

Here's an interesting number from Game 1 of the 1985 NBA Finals: 114.

The Lakers scored 114 points in the "Memorial Day Massacre," the Celtics 148. The Lakers won that series in six games, and with good defense, it should be noted, although neither team failed to score 100 points in any of the games. A team is almost prolific if it scores 100 points in an NBA game today.

The bump-and-grind mentality is equally evident in the college ranks. The all-knowing, all-controlling types, intentionally or not, wind up stifling the elements they should want in their favor: flow, rhythm and continuity.

Let them play, as John Wooden still points out when asked. Try to minimize the stress level.

Unfortunately, too many sideline maestros in the college game prefer the opposite approach.

With bulging eyeballs and veins, they push a zillion buttons instead of a select few and then are baffled by the lack of competence.


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