Posts Tagged hoops
Posted by Keith Spillett in Articles I Probably Shouldn't Have Bothered Writing, Basketball Coaching Nonsense, Blithering Sports Fan Prattle on February 1, 2011
Last night, Paul Pierce put together a game that will certainly go down in the annals of the Boston Celtics as one of the most warrior-esque performances in that franchise’s history. After receiving numerous injuries, Pierce returned to the game against the Miami Heat and scored 37 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to lead the Celtics to a 121-119 overtime victory. What made the game special was not just Pierce’s fabulous numbers, but the amazing series of setbacks that Pierce overcame to lead his team to victory. In the postgame press conference Ray Allen called Pierce’s performance “amazing” and said that he was “a true warrior”
About 3 minutes into the game, Ray Allen stole the ball from LeBron James and threw the ball the length of the court to Pierce. Pierce went up for a layup and was hammered to the floor by Udonis Haslem. The team doctor brought Pierce back to the dressing room and after a series of x-rays determined that he had a fractured orbital bone in his face. Grasping the importance of the game, Pierce put on a plastic, Rip Hamilton mask and returned to action with 3 minutes left to go in the quarter.
Upon his return to the floor, Pierce scored 6 quick points. He threw in a great slashing layup to tie the game up at 27. Unfortunately for Pierce, he landed off balance on his right ankle causing a severe sprain. Pierce was carried off the floor to the locker room by several teammates and it looked like he would be lost for the game. Three minutes after Pierce went to the locker room he miraculously ran out of the tunnel and on to the court just in time for the beginning of the second quarter.
Pierce faced more suffering in the second quarter. While taking a jump shot, Pierce was shot in the back by a deranged Heat fan in the 8th row. The shooter, Karl Lee Wiley, was arrested immediately by security. Pierce, who was lying on the court in a pool of blood, was carried on a stretcher to an ambulance. As the ambulance was driving away, Pierce burst out of the back and ran towards the court. With 2 minutes left in the second quarter, Pierce checked back into the game. Coach Doc Rivers was truly impressed. “I’ve had players play through injuries before, but I’ve never seen a player overcome a gunshot wound and go back in the game. Paul is a true warrior.”
The second half was also quite difficult for Pierce. While drinking contaminated Gatorade before the half begun he contracted a severe case of dysentery. Pierce spent much of the next 10 minutes shaking and running to the bathroom. He became delirious when he was in the locker room and claimed that he saw Larry Bird, Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale walking through the door. Yet somehow, Pierce was able to get his symptoms under control and return with 6 minutes left in the third quarter.
Pierce continued to play an inspired game. He went up for a monstrous dunk to cut the Heat’s lead to 9 with 7:22 left in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, his fingers got hooked on the webbing of the net and he was stuck, hanging by one arm in the air. Doctors, worried that Pierce could die from being suspended in mid-air for too long, immediately amputated the arm allowing Pierce to be freed. Pierce was again rushed to the locker room by the medical staff. But, it a moment reminiscent of Willis Reed’s injured return to the court during the Knicks championship game in the 70s, Pierce came out of the tunnel with only one arm and checked back into the game with 2 minutes remaining. Showing no effects from the terrible, arm amputation surgery he had only moments earlier, Pierce quickly fired in two three pointers to tie the game at 107 and send it to overtime. “He’s simply a warrior,” said Celtics Forward Kevin Garnett, “and this was the most warrior-like performance I’ve ever seen.”
During overtime, Pierce suffered a severe concussion, a brain aneurysm, a broken leg, was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and a contracted a severe staph infection. With 3 minutes remaining, Pierce’s heart stopped and he collapsed on the court. Medics pronounced him dead on the scene and began to cart him off the floor, but somehow his heart began beating again and he returned to action. On a night where nothing could stop him, Pierce threw in a jumper from the corner with 2 seconds remaining giving the Celtics the victory. Shaquille O’Neal added 19 points and 12 rebounds as the Celtics pulled ahead of the Heat for the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Division. Pierce expects to play tomorrow night when the Celtics travel to Sacramento to face the Kings.
My basketball team got beat by 31 points last night and I am still alive. It was a long, cold night, we got the bus back at nearly 10 o’clock and we committed 15 fouls in the first quarter, which must be a record in the state of Georgia. I have a vague fear that people watching might think that the team is losing because I am a bad coach and I have no clue what I am doing. I worry that there is something I am missing, some vital piece of information that could allow me to dramatically change our fortunes. Losing games has the painful side effect of bringing to the surface dormant feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. These are hard things to avoid.
In spite of this, I really don’t feel that bad about the whole thing. Losing is not something I am proud of, but it is something that I have become less afraid of over the years. What I am about to say is heretical in the world of coaching and probably will elicit eye rolls from folks who worship at the altar of the “Church of the Winner”, but losing is really not all that bad. I’ll even go one step further into the nether reaches of coaching apostasy…I had a great time at the game last night and my players did as well! How is this possible?
A good deal of the culture of sport is built on the mistaken belief that winning actually means something beyond the basic fact that Team A scored more points that Team B. I have often been told that character wins basketball games. This is absurd. If a team has character and scores less points than the other team, they still lose. You could put together a team of sociopathic axe murderers and put them against a team of people who have run into burning buildings to save the lives of children and if the axe murderers put the ball in the basket more often they are going to win.
I have been told that winning is a product of hard work and determination. Another patently ridiculous statement. I have coached players who were extraordinarily committed to every aspect of the game but cannot keep up with disinterested natural athletes. Working hard may make you a better player but it can only close the gap so much. Hard work and determination are great character traits to have and will serve one well in life, but once the players step on the court it can only carry you so far. In order to get at the heart of how insane this idea is imagine for a second two basketball teams. One is a highly talented team who wins many of their games, some by embarrassingly high totals, and another is a minimally talented team who gets beat soundly on a regular basis.
Which team really shows the most determination? The team that often loses has to deal with the hopelessness and sadness that losing can create. Sometimes people are angry with them because they have not performed well. Sometimes they feel embarrassed or ashamed because they lost. Yet they keep coming back game after game. During the 2007-08 season, the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders men’s basketball team went 0-29. Can you imagine how much determination they must have shown to keep playing and working hard day after day?
The all time weakest sports cliché is the one where people think winning is a product of discipline. Bobby Bowden perfectly summed up the problem with this statement when he was asked if discipline was the key to winning. He responded by saying “if it was, Army and Navy would be playing for the National Championship every year.”
Maybe all of these positive attributes can be put together to create a culture of winning. They may help you, but when your team walks out of the tunnel and the other team has a significant advantage “height, speed, natural strength, etc.” there is only so much you can do. We don’t remember the story of David and Goliath because it is a regular occurrence; we remember it because it is the exception to the rule.
I once heard a football coach asked what he liked most about his star running back. He replied, “The kid makes me look like I know what I am doing.” I have stolen that quote and used it repeatedly over the years because I believe that it is instructive in understanding what I actually do for four months of the year. I try to teach skills and technique, but some players are able to get it and some are not. The great players often pick things up after a few repetitions and the ones with less ability may spend their entire time in high school working on one skill that another player could pick up in a half hour. Those with a set of attributes that gear them for success in the game will make them me seem as if I am a brilliant coach, those without the winning attributes will make me appear like I don’t have a clue about how to teach the game. If winning is the goal and my self worth as a coach is derived from it how on earth can I feel anything but anger towards those who don’t perform well and favor those who are successful?
Last night, while we were driving down to the game the girls on my team had a blast. They sang along to pop songs on the radio, they told hysterical jokes, wore funny hats and laughed uncontrollably. We showed up at the gym and were baffled by the bizarre conditions. The locker room looked vaguely like something out of the Saw films. The gym had no heat in it and it was a balmy 40 degrees at game time. We got on the court and the other team scored the first 17 points. None of the players put their head down and no one was angry. Our center hit a jump shot to get us on the board and the bench went crazy. My point guard picked up her third foul in the first quarter because of a bit of ill-advised gambling on my part. She came over to ask me to keep her in the game and I informed her that she had three fouls. She looked over at me and said “But I get five!”
We laughed about that one the whole bus ride home. Another girl on the team asked me if she could coach the next game. I told her she couldn’t and she looked at me without a hint of irony and said, “Coach…let me shine!” Great line! We laughed about that for a while, too.
We stopped for gas and snacks and two of the girls bought matching day-glow hats that made them look like a pack of tropical Skittles. Sitting on the bench with me was a young man who is the assistant coach of the boy’s team. He played for me when he was in high school and he loves the game so much he has decided to try coaching. He is a great person and is a tremendous coach one day. I have been lucky enough to get a chance to coach with several athletes that played for me in high school and it is an unbelievably wonderful feeling.
I guess I should have been acting dejected after the game. Smiling while your team is losing seems like an act of betrayal, but it isn’t. It is an act of love for the game and your players and an act appreciation and reverence for how much fun a game can be. I have never been one for oft repeated bromides about how winning isn’t what’s important, but I have to wonder what type of person I would be to be surrounded by all that joy and life while sadly brooding about not winning a basketball game. Think of what I could have missed.
Vince Lombardi once said, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” Well Vince, I don’t want to teach my players to be good losers, I want them to be the best losers that ever stepped on the court. I want them to experience elation every time they play basketball. I want them to look back with an incurable fondness and veneration for every moment of the season. If I could choose one thing to teach every player who puts on a uniform it’s to love the game without reserve and to play like that everyday.
Back in May I got the opportunity to attend a basketball coaching clinic at the Harrah’s Casino in Tunica. The clinic featured some of the top college coaches in America including George Mason’s Jim Larranaga, LSU’s Trent Johnson, Virginia Tech’s Seth Greenberg and the one and only Robert Montgomery Knight (his friends call him Bobby). Myself and about 1,000 other coaches were herded into an auditorium converted into a gym for three days in order to find out the secrets of how to lead young men and women towards becoming championship caliber athletes. Anyone who has ever been to one of these clinics before knows the drill…coachspeak followed by coachspeak followed by the occasional substantial and interesting point followed by more coachspeak and more coachspeak. By coachspeak, I mean the repeated uses of expressions like “the short corner” or “attacking the elbow” which are meaningful to most coaches but come across like some mysterious hybrid of Swahili and Mandarin Chinese to the uninitiated. The one astute point in the midst of the coachspeak is often fantastic, which is why I highly recommend these clinics to other coaches, but the hours upon hours of coachspeak can take it’s toll on even the most fervent hoops junkie.
I am not a very good note taker, but I decided I was going to try to get down as much of what was meaningful as possible. This worked for the first 5 or so hours. I have lovely, detailed sketches of out of bounds plays and wonderful points about how to properly position my post players when they are down on the block. After a certain point, I began to drift away from the land of normal coaching thought. Too many things that were not basketball began to assert themselves into the clinic. The words character and discipline began to rear their ugly heads. Coaching has developed an odd fixation with these ideas over the years. They are somehow indicative of the deeper meaning of sports. If you are a good coach, your team wins. If you are a great coach, your teams win and develop discipline and character. You cannot win without discipline or character. You will be tested; under these circumstances discipline and character will show. The pantheon of great athletes all had discipline and character. Blah, blah, blah. My problem with this formulation is that there is very little discussion over what these terms actually mean. We are just supposed to know.
My mind was spiraling out of control. I had been reading a ton of Descartes and had recently listened to an incredible online course on Death by Yale Professor Shelly Kagan. These thoughts were ping ponging around my mind. They had begun to merge with my notes. Here is the mental chaos that ensued:
(For the sake of time and not boring the noncoaches out there, I have removed all of the traditional basketball and have all left the weirdo philosophical stuff basically untouched)
1. What is character and discipline but the denial of the self? Why must the self be removed or fought for someone to play the game well? Is the self such an albatross that it must be obliterated in order to achieve “greatness”?
2. Does the self even exist? How is it possible for the self to exist as something different from the body? Are there two of us in here? Am I the Ghost in the Machine and if so, who is that in here who keeps telling me to not do the things I want to do? Why am I so committed to not letting the Ghost play?
3. So…does the self exist? It must because we are asked to deny it. Discipline asks us to deny the self, so something must be asking us to deny the self. It must be the self. It is a similar formulation to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”. There must be a self otherwise what is there to deny the self. The question then becomes, why on earth would the self ask to deny itself? That is a bizarre idea that must lead to a good amount of confusion when someone first enters the “Church of the Winner”.
4. What is discipline? The self wants, the self says no. Why would it deny what it wants? Denial of short-term gratification for deeper long-term fulfillment. Losing the self in the team. But why would we want to lose the self?
5. Why does the self imagine? What set of circumstances would make it want to wish for more or different?
6. Here is a list of the things that have been labeled acceptable by coaches at today’s clinic:
Victory over other selves
Destruction of other selves in other uniforms on the path to victory
Adulation of other selves if the correct function has been performed correctly
Greed as long as it stays unadmitted
Here are the things that have been labeled unacceptable by coaches at today’s clinic:
Gluttony (in terms of food or comfort, but not in terms of success)
Destruction of other selves wearing the same uniform as you
Adulation of other selves when the correct task has been performed incorrectly
Adulation of other selves when the wrong task has been performed correctly
Obvious greed for the wrong things (cars, status among the wrong people, “bling”)
7. Here are the rules when attempting to gain victory over other selves:
A. Winning at athletic contests can show the superiority of the self that denies the self (but doesn’t admit it)
B. Cheating is wrong because it skews the game, thus defeating the illusion of the level playing field. How can we determine which self is better if we haven’t deluded ourselves into thinking that we have triumphed over another self in a fair set of circumstances?
C. Hard work represents a self more able to deny the wants of the self. Pope Jordan the Ascetic.
D. In work matters, the self that can deny some of the wants of the self (rest, gluttony for the wrong things, comfort) and can nurture other wants of the self (the unspoken enjoyment of adulation, greed for money or status, appearance of a lack of the self) will get almost none of what the self wants, but more than the self that doesn’t.
E. Terminology is the coin of the realm. Terminology is a tiki mask of legitimacy. It is the short cut to proof that one is the self that can deny the self. If I understand these absurd terms, I must have spent hour upon hour of self-denial in learning these hollow metaphors that make very little sense. My commitment to irrational details shows how willing I am to obliterate the self for “greatness”. The more the metaphor rings hollow, the greater the proof of the self that has given up more immediate opportunities for gratification in order to learn them. The sheer absurdity of the basketball cliché has a normative function.
F. Emotional and physical discomfort are goals to be aspired towards. The more we pretend we are experiencing them, the more we will be ready when they show up. A champion is one who has vowed to spend his or her entire life mired in this sort of discomfort so that when the moment of real discomfort arises, they will have a lifetime of awful experience to draw on…and then they can put the round ball in the round hole one or two more times than the self in another uniform who hasn’t put him or herself through as much pain.
G. Creativity is something that is both an expectation and a curse. One is expected to think thoughts that fit into a neat box, but in a slightly different way than the other selves. When a self creates something that doesn’t fit in that box and loves it enough to share it with others, the self will be ridiculed or snickered at for the heinous crime of self-indulgence.
8. The self that denies the self (and claims not to) feigns praise for the creator but really respects and admires the editor, the salesman and the promoter. Creativity requires a complete exposure of the unfettered self. The self that denies the self (and claims not to) is appalled by pure creativity because it is a reminder of the dull rituals it is shackled to in the hopes of further denying the self.
9. “Deny! Deny! Deny!” -a coach stressing the importance of defense.
10. If the self that denies the self (and claims not to) conquers other selves, it feels a momentary sense of relief and the joy of not being conquered and being exposed as a self that doesn’t deny itself. This is followed by a horrific realization of the more than 6 billion predatory selves that may be lying in wait; hunting for the same moment of relief and joy.
11. How does the conquering self know the difference between itself and the conquered self? The self needs an Arbiter in order to know it’s worth. Without the Arbiter, the self cannot tell the difference between Pyrrhic victory and a miserable defeat. So, an Arbiter is created. The Arbiter (a scoreboard, an official) is declared real in our minds (except for most of the time). We often declare the Arbiter wrong (the refs hosed us, the final score doesn’t reflect how the game went, etc.). Who even knows who conquered whom?
12. Many of us long for a time (long ago) when “the rules meant something” and could give us a longer period of relief when we conquered the other selves. We think that this time existed and that somewhere along the line the losers rose up through the sleight of hand of a group of morally relative sycophants who took our comfort in winning away. We no longer even feel like we can enjoy the illusion we have created.
13. The odd thing about this belief is that I’m not sure that this magical time of the primacy of rules ever really existed. Maybe all there ever was were a group of selves pointing backwards trying to find new a clever ways to conquer other selves.
14. Consume in the name of the past, in the name of progress, in the name of protection, in the name of peace, in the name of whatever allows us to remember to forget or forget to remember what we are.
15. “Why do we think of offense and defense as different things?” Great point, coach! Better than you even know.