Archive for the ‘leadership’ Category

With So Many Good Candidates, How Can an NBA Team Fail to Land a Quality Coach?

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

Turnover is a word often heard in bakeries and coaching. During my formative years, the former was discussed a whole lot more than the latter. During my three decades as a college coach, while bakeries still held a place in my heart, the coaching version vaulted to the top of the list. (Once I retired, the order switched). My “turnover” interest was of the college variety. This post, however, will discuss the NBA picture. Although the NBA is the highest level of basketball, it has always been the anti-role model for hiring coaches.

Businesses improve in nearly every area as time moves along. There are more studies performed and successful models to emulate. You’d think someone would have discovered a method for the hiring process. In fact, someone actually might just have the key (San Antonio would be a place to start) but, in such a business, nobody is sharing secrets with the competition. Out of bounds plays and defensive coverages maybe, but selecting the right leader (or leadership team) is definitely off-limits. Not only has the process of hiring not improved, it has regressed to epic lows.

Currently, the Nets, Knicks, Rockets, Wizards, Timberwolves and Kings either have openings or an interim in place who most likely will not be hired permanently. Throw in the Suns, who fired their coach in mid-season and that makes seven openings in a league which only has 30 such jobs.

Hot names as far as potentially new hires are former NBA head coaches: Scott Brooks, Jeff Van Gundy, Tom Thibodeau, Mark Jackson, Sam Mitchell, George Karl, Mike D’Antoni, Vinny Del Negro, Jeff Hornacek, Kevin McHale, Lionel Hollins and Mike Brown – each of whom has been fired at least once from a previous head coaching stint.

If teams are interested in dipping into the college ranks, these current college coaches’ names are always bandied about: John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Sean Miller, Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self, Chris Mullin and Kevin Ollie.

Occasionally, an NBA assistant is tabbed to move over a spot. If a team is planning to take that route, the following have been mentioned: Sam Cassell, Luke Walton, Nate McMillan, Mike Woodson, Ettore Messina, Adrian Griffin, Juwan Howard and David Fizdale.

For the ball club looking to make history – and hire the first ever female head coach, Nancy Lieberman and Becky Hammon, current NBA assistants, are viable options.

That’s an awful lot of excellent candidates – and there’s a better than average chance, someone who is not on the above list will fill at least one of the openings. In reality, it probably isn’t that difficult to find someone who could please ownership. The problem is hiring one who will please the fans and the players (which also means the players’ agents).

23% of the NBA coaching jobs will change from last year to this one. The Lakers are rumored to release Byron Scott shortly. If they do, the number changes to nearly 27%. When you think about it, that’s a remarkable statistic – yet next year’s number will undoubtedly be in the same neighborhood. Why? Why can’t bright, highly successful millionaire and billionaire owners ever get this right? In truth, the NBA franchise is not the actual business of the owner. It’s more his “toy.” So, often, he leaves the hiring decision of who is going to coach to others “more qualified.” More than anything, though, it’s a numbers game.

You see, there are 1230 NBA regular season games each year (30 teams, two play at a time, 82 games per club). This season, between the Spurs and the Warriors, their combined record was 140-24, yet:

“Every year the overall NBA record is 615-615.”

How Did Teams Ever Win Before Analytics?

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

Charles Barkley is known for blunt, honest analysis when making comments for TNT on their NBA studio show. He pulled no punches with his feelings on how to build an NBA team using analytics. Chuck is usually a black and white guy on hot button topics. He loves something or he hates it.

Analytics has entered the world of professional sports, first in baseball with the publishing of the book, Moneyball. An idea is only as good as its success rate. The Oakland A’s won without spending the money other MLB teams did (because they didn’t have it and they weren’t allowed to take a sabbatical), mainly by using a different evaluation tool, one that had never been used in baseball.

Baseball, more than any other professional sport, leans on – and clings to – tradition. The “eye test” was baseball’s best method of evaluation and the teams that drafted best usually were the ones who had the most talented scouts. In most cases, these were old timers, lifers, who’d been around the game for decades, could look at a prospect and compare him to some major leaguer from the present or past. The A’s modernized the way teams scouted, eschewing the old model, while upsetting “true baseball people” in the process. A different set of stats were employed.

Success is an interesting dynamic. Most often, people and companies that achieve it have done so by, to use the term that’s become so popular it’s now a cliche – thinking outside the box. Once that person or company carves a niche in the market, most folks study, i.e. try to copy, what the successful newcomer is doing. Yet, didn’t that group rise to the top by not copying what others were doing but attempting something different that, for whatever reason, they felt should work?

Obviously, there’s a balance between trying to duplicate someone else’s ideas (remember the movie, Multiplicity?) and incorporating some of what they do with the elements of your organization that you like. Arguably, the most successful NBA franchise over the past 20 years has been the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs got good when David Robinson, not exactly chosen due to analytics, was selected with the #1 overall pick in the NBA draft. They got real good when another #1 selection, Tim Duncan, joined the squad.

Other players on the Spurs teams throughout the years will tell anyone who will listen (and many of those who will not) that those two guys – with their skills, demeanor, unselfishness and work ethic – combined with the coaching prowess of Gregg Popovich and his staff, are the reasons behind the Spurs’ lasting success. An organization like the Spurs is one that will take advantage of anything that will increase its chances of winning. They bought into analytics – without changing any of their core values – and incorporated ideas such as the corner three-point shot is the game’s most efficient and keeping players, especially aging ones, rested.

What many people, certainly including Barkley, have a difficult time grasping is, are those two concepts about analytics or, simply, common sense? Because the three-point line is so much father back than in high school or college, it needed to be tapered or else it would intersect with the sideline. Therefore, the line becomes parallel with the sideline 14′ from the baseline, making the corner three a shorter shot, yet still worth three points.

As far as resting older players, an NBA year is 82 games long (not including exhibitions), with back-to-back contests on several occasions throughout the regular season. It is played by the best athletes in the world and takes a physical toll on a player’s body, whether it’s fighting through screens, getting hits on drives to the basket, having masses of humanity in a confined area near the basket, fighting for the same rebound or just the pounding from running up and down the court. Wouldn’t it stand to reason, since the most important thing is winning in the playoffs (which come after the regular season), that the best players be rested rather than bruised and beaten down? Maybe if home court advantage is at stake (or if the team is trying to break the all-time records for regular season wins – and its core is made up of young guys), an exception can be made but, keep in mind, if an owner feels the chances of winning in the playoffs is compromised, coaches and front office people had better keep their resumes updated.

In addition, a couple of measurements analytics can’t give are emotion and chemistry - which, combined with talent, comprise a winning team. Ironically, in a survey done regarding analytics in professional sports, the lowest rated NBA organization was the New York Knicks, while the top rated one was the Philadelphia 76ers. It appears that can be used to prove analytics works – or it doesn’t.

While it certainly is useful in many instances:

“Just remember, you can’t spell analytics without A-N-A-L.”

The More We Learn About Jackie Robinson, the More We Admire Him

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

My back pain has reached a level I haven’t experienced in quite a while. Because of that, I didn’t leave the house – and wasn’t sure I’d be able to post something today. Then I watched the first part of Ken Burns’ four-hour documentary on Jackie Robinson. What came to mind was a blog I’d done nearly eight years ago. It is being reprinted here with some alterations – with (my) permission. However, a trip to the doctor in a few hours will most likely shut me down for a couple of days, so expect the next post on Friday, April 15 (a day that does not evoke such wonderful memories for many).

If you were a kid growing up in New Jersey in the early ’50s, you rooted for one of three teams – the New York Yankees, the New York Giants or, my favorite, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although my father was a die-hard Yankees fan, he was a good enough sport (and good enough dad) to take me to Ebbets Field, home of my beloved Bums (my father always claimed I was brain washed by my mother’s side of the family, all of whom hailed from Brooklyn).

The first time we ever went to Ebbets Field, I was four years old. My father was a toll collector for the New Jersey Turnpike and my mother was a secretary, so disposable income at our house wasn’t exactly plentiful. Yet, somehow, my father scraped the money together for a couple of train tickets (by far the most economical means to get to the city) and two game tickets. We were watching the game from the nosebleed section (which was totally fine with me – hey, I was at a Dodger game!) To be perfectly honest, Ebbets Field was such a bandbox, any seat was a good one – unless you got stuck behind a pole.

I can remember many of the fans in our section being black and one guy, when he saw me, asked, “Hey, lil’ fella, who ya rootin’ fuh?” Now, one thing you’re going to get from a four-year-old kid is an honest answer (lying doesn’t become part of a youngster’s makeup until a few years later). I looked up, wide-eyed, and said, “The Dodgers!” This was shortly after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier and the country was still divided on the race issue (we’ve made progress since but it’s hard to believe that at this time in America . . . well, that’s another subject for another time). “Hey, get this kid a Coke – and a hot dog. Get his old man a beer.” We were subjected to the royal treatment.

I didn’t know why, but I figured out I must have given the right answer. We might have gotten chauffered back to Jersey if they would have asked who my favorite player was because Jackie Robinson was my childhood idol. All I saw was a guy who could hit, field, run bases, was strong and handled himself with so much class and dignity. I’m pretty sure I had no idea what class and dignity were at that point in my life, but I knew I wanted to be just like Jackie.

Don’t get me wrong: Erskine, Newk, Labine, Black, Spooner, Campy, Hodges, Gilliam, PeeWee, Cox, Amoros, the Duke, Furillo, all had their baseball cards on my bedroom wall, but it was Jackie’s that was front and center. Naturally, being a Jewish kid, Sandy Koufax soon jumped to the head of the class but not until years later. These Dodgers were the guys who won the first ever World Championship for the Dodgers in ’55 (a few years after this game). I can still remember the ground ball to PeeWee Reese who threw to Gil Hodges for the final out in Johnny Podres’ 2-0 shutout of the hated Yankees in Game 7 that begat a roar from my house (the neighborhood boys on either side of our house as well as the twins across the street were all Yankee fans. I’d finally gotten my chance to gloat.

The following year (my birthday is in June), my aunt, a good athlete and pretty big fan in her own right, mailed a birthday card with a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the club requesting all the guys sign it for her eight-year-old nephew who “lived and died” with the Dodgers. They did. I can say in all honesty that opening that card and seeing all those signatures was, without a doubt, the major highlight in my life to that point. It remains ensconced in the top 10 to this very day – which says how much it meant to me and how I’ve lived less than wildly memorable existence. Somehow in the 20+ relocations I’ve made through the years, that card vanished – which easily places it in my top 10 regrets of all-time.

At that time, as I mentioned, I completely idolized Jackie Robinson – for his superior talent, the way he carried himself and because he was the best player on my favorite team. As I read about his life, I found out about how remarkable an athlete (football, basketball, tennis and track, in addition to baseball) he was, how intelligent he was and how courageous he was. He’d attended UCLA and starred in numerous sports there. Further research into his life explained his ultra-competitive and resolute nature. What had impressed me most was that Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Dodgers recruited him to be the first player to break the color barrier, not merely because of any of those traits listed above, but more so because he knew Jackie had the mental makeup to withstand all that was about to be leveled at him and, rather than physically fight back, retaliate by thoroughly defeating his opponents in the best way he could to make a point for all of mankind and especially, for his people. The documentary reveals how difficult that was, independent of his demeanor.

When I became a teenager and Jackie’s career was on the downhill side, his exit was the classiest move of all. The Dodgers traded him to the Giants, and rather than play for the bitter rivals, he retired. He walked away and never looked back. In my mind, he remains to this day without a peer.

If ever a line was appropriate for one person, Maxwell Anderson’s quote defines the legacy of Jackie Robinson:

“There are some men who lift the age they inhabit, till all men walk on higher ground in that lifetime.” 

Tyler Summitt’s Story Is Tragic

Friday, April 8th, 2016

For the period 1980-87 I was an assistant men’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee. Back then it was the only school where it was necessary to mention be which hoops program you were part of. Since then UConn might be also fall under that category, although their men’s squad has several championships to their name so the difference in success between the two isn’t as vast a gap.

Pat Summitt was in her heyday, actually just at the beginning of the peak of her career (1987 was her first championship team), but few coaches I’ve worked with were as cooperative as Pat. Our staffs were quite close. It wouldn’t be unusual for me to get a call mid-week from Pat, alerting me to the fact it was a big recruiting weekend for them and wondering if our two groups could tailgate together? I’d  respond that since the weekend was just as important for us, a joint tailgate would be a terrific idea. A UT football weekend is a major selling point – an event - to a prospect – in any sport.

As far as practice times, it was simple. From October 15 (the first official day of practice), the Lady Vols had the 12:30-3:00 slot. Our time was 3:30-6:30. Occasionally, they’d be having a bad practice, the kind a head coach feels the need to continue. Never once in the seven years I worked there was Pat’s team on the floor one second after 3:30. In such a situation, she might summon a manager and tell her to find another gym for the ladies to continue but she respected the parameters set up prior to the season. On the other hand, none of our guys would ever consider wandering down at 3:20 or so to shoot on a side basket, lest they be stricken with the infamous “Pat stare.” It was a mutual respect.

I recall once we’d lost a very winnable game on the road and our head coach, Don DeVoe, was incensed. Following the game, he called for a practice the next day, Sunday, usually an off day for the team. As we were walking up the hallway to the main court, we could hear balls bouncing. “Damn,” Don said. “I forgot to check with Pat; I bet they have the gym.” Sure enough, when we got to the floor (in the old Stokely Athletics Center – the new state-of-the-art Thompson-Boling Arena was still a couple years away from being built) and there are Pat and her troops.

The first thing Pat said was, “Tough one yesterday, Don.”

Don responded. “Yeah, Pat, I totally forgot to check the schedule when I called for practice today.”

Pat simply said, “I completely understand. We’ve all had those games.” She called over one of her managers and told her to find another gym on campus – or close by – then instructed her team they’d be practicing there. The move was totally unnecessary but was done to save face for the men’s program.

Pat Summitt was the ultimate team player. Most, if not all, of the readers of this blogspace are aware of the fact that Pat was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Friends have told me that, although, she “has her days,” the disease is definitely progressing. If ever a negative could become a positive, it would be if Pat’s condition makes it unable for her to understand the gravity of the situation her only child, Tyler, faces.

Pat is closer to Tyler than anyone in the world. He was a fixture in the Lady Vols’ program from the time he was an infant. It wasn’t surprising he became a coach (having been a walk-on with Bruce Pearl’s men’s team before deciding to coach on the distaff side). After a couple years as an assistant at Marquette, Tyler was selected to coach the one-time powerhouse Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters, a program that had since fallen on hard times. He was all of 24 – two years older than his mother was when she was named the head coach at Tennessee (after the head coach abruptly quit).

His mom’s top assistant, Micki DeMoss, came out of retirement to give Tyler needed coaching and recruiting wisdom. While Tyler, who had married his high school sweetheart, learned so much from his mother, apparently he picked up a trait from his father as well. The Summitts divorced after 27 years of marriage. Those who knew the story attributed it to Pat’s husband’s wandering eye.

The latest news flash is that Tyler Summitt, having just completed his second season as head coach at La Tech, has resigned because of an affair with one of his players. The young girl is reportedly pregnant. Independent of the effort parents try to make on their children, temptations abound. Far be it from me to pass judgment on anyone, however, in this case, Tyler Summitt seems to have fallen prey to the late Robin Williams’ philosophy:

“God gave man two heads but only enough blood for one to work at a time.”

If this situation weren’t so sad, it might be funny.

It Wasn’t Like North Carolina Was Unaware of Villanova’s Switching Defense

Thursday, April 7th, 2016

Going into the NCAA championship game, many commentators (especially those who were former players or coaches) remarked that North Carolina’s post players were so much bigger than Villanova’s inside guys. In addition, the Tarheels had more of them. Therefore, the wisest move for UNC would be to pound the ball inside. Whether or not observers ever played or coached, most all of them fully understood this concept. Usually, the closer in the shot is taken, the greater percentage it will be successful. Also, it serves the dual purpose of getting your team into the bonus sooner as well as placing your opponents’ big guys into foul trouble.

This strategy was no secret to fans, especially considering how many people were getting paid to talk about it. Two studio shows, at the arena, the crew actually working the game on the television side, the “homers’ crews” and all the radio stations, as well as print media gave fans as much information as they could handle. And then some. Throw in those on social media (not the lunatics but people who have a working knowledge of the game) and there aren’t too many aspects of the game, as in the only college men’s game left, a fan isn’t subjected to. And that’s just the ones educating English-speaking fans.

What made Carolina’s height advantage that much more of a factor is that ‘Nova’s defensive philosophy was to switch all screens (at least 1 through 4, meaning everybody but their only true “big man” – and often they’d even switch with him). What this means is that if UNC’s power forward were to screen for its point guard, Villanova would wind up with a 6’3″ player guarding somebody 6’9″. That’s giving up a half a foot! 

Why, then, wouldn’t North Carolina, with such a height advantage, roll that mismatch down to the block? The answer is rather obvious: they would. And they did. Just like the analysts said they would do. When this offensive execution took place, it wasn’t as if Jay Wright and his staff said, “Damn, their guy is six inches taller than ours – and he’s five feet from the basket.”

Seth Davis remarked at halftime that Carolina needed to take advantage of their mismatches and get the ball inside. Good observation but, even with his alma mater (Duke) bias against UNC (if you think that’s a myth, get a copy of John Feinstein’s new book), he had to realize Roy Williams had the same feeling.

Then why would Ol’ Roy not instruct his guys to exploit Ryan Arcidiacono guarding Brice Johnson – if for no other reason than Johnson was regarded as the Tarheels best offensive weapon? I watched the same game as Davis, and everyone else, and that thought went through my mind when I saw the switch. But upon a closer look, it wasn’t that easy. The little guy with the big name was totally fronting Johnson and working his butt off to make it look difficult to throw the ball inside. More than that, however, was the fact that the defender on the ball knew his buddy was in trouble and pressured the ball handler to make the pass that much more difficult. Then, because the Wildcats had played that way the entire season, the other defenders would slough off their men to shade the area where the passer wanted to enter the ball. It was executing a game plan at its finest.

A couple of times UNC would try to initiate the pass from straight on, lobbing it over Arcidiacono, a bad angle for such a post entry. The result was usually a turnover. There would be more weakside help when the ball was on the wing so, in essence, Villanova did whatever was necessary to force North Carolina to either force the ball in (a move that proved unwise) or beat them by passing to other open men who had better opportunities because their defenders were so consumed helping with the mismatch.

It was a good game plan that worked. Could Carolina have done something else to free up their big-on-little advantage? Perhaps. If they had been able to shoot better, would that have given them the victory? We’ll never know. After all, it was a one possession game so any one of numerous moves (or calls, as fans of the squad that comes out on the short end swear) could have swung the outcome the other way.

There is one old coaching adage anybody who’s ever owned a whistle will tell you when such a debate ensues:

“Whoever has the chalk (grease pen) last wins.”

One Man’s Opinion on Syracuse’s Upset of Virginia

Tuesday, March 29th, 2016

For those who had Virginia moving on in their March Madness bracket, here’s an explanation (no more or less right than anyone else’s), of how a #10 seed prevailed over a #1. Let’s eliminate the thought that Syracuse’s press suckered Virginia into playing much faster than they wanted. That idea can be readily dismissed for several reasons. First and foremost, the ‘Cuse went to the press because of one reason and one reason only; they were desperate. They were behind, nothing seemed to be going right for them and the outlook was worse than bleak.

Next, give little consideration that UVA was stymied by the pressure. On many occasions they threw the ball over the top or before the trap could materialize and had great opportunities to score. Had Tony Bennett instructed them to thumb their nose at two- or three-on-one situations and pull the ball out, he’d have crucified by media and fans alike – even if they’d won. They played scared would be the cry heard far and wide. True, Virginia did lose the poise they’re famous for but, for anyone who even thinks of bringing up the word “choke,” you should have your “fan privileges” revoked. When confronted with the press, the Cavs initially attacked it beautifully. Just didn’t finish. Hey, it happens. Except that when it happens in a game to go to the Final Four, everything is magnified and nerves can get shaky. But choke? Way too harsh.

Continuing the synopsis of the game it would be a vast oversight not to give a ton of credit to Jim Boeheim to employ a strategy the Orange didn’t use on a regular basis. Sure, the game wasn’t playing out how he had envisioned but kudos are necessary because many a coach would have stuck with the game plan and implored his troops to do a better job of getting good shots or working harder on defense. His experience – or gut – possibly afforded him a leg up in this contest.

Tony Bennett will have nightmares for quite a while over this one, especially with his club having beaten Syracuse earlier – and having entered the tourney as a #1 seed. Yet don’t think for a minute we won’t be seeing him in a (or several) Final Fours down the road. His teams have always been the definition of synergy. The kids who were denied every basketball player’s dream – a trip to the Final Four – are ones who deserve sympathy but, as a learned friend of mine used to say about such disappointments:

“If this is this worst thing that ever happens to you, it will be a wonderful life.”

When Players and Coaches Dread Post Game Pressers

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

For those people who have never been part of a college basketball team that competed in the NCAA Tournament, whether as a player, coach, manager, trainer or any of a number of new positions that have been created, you’ll never know the feeling of exhilaration, ending in complete despair (for all but one team). March Madness is the ultimate of such an experience.

When a team wins its conference tournament, and with it, an automatic bid to the Big Dance, the euphoria begins. The next step is during Selection Sunday – those squads finding out which opponent they’re about to face as well as when and where. There are other teams that are certain to get their ticket punched, most of which play in the power conferences. However, there are always teams who have to sweat it out, i.e. those who are “on the bubble.”

Once the field is set, every team prepares for its next opponent. Independent of how much of an underdog it might be, every team feels it can win (even the #16 seeds who visualize their club being the first #16 to beat a #1). Some teams get hit with reality sooner than others, as the score gets out of control early and their deficit increases. However, every year there are some games that come down to a final winning shot – at the buzzer (or was it just after the buzzer)? Now that there is instant replay used, the drama is greater – for the viewer. For the participants, it’s nothing short of excruciating.

Possibly, the only thing worse than losing in such a shocking manner is the post game press conference. While there are media members who ask questions designed to explore certain strategies, intended to enhance the viewers’ appreciation for the game, there always seem to be other scribes who feel it necessary to ask probing questions that will elicit an emotional response from a young man who just lost.

What the people who pose those questions fail to realize (or, worse, who understand exactly what they’re doing) is the magnitude of the situation. Unless someone has poured his heart and soul into an event, he will never endure anything quite like it – with the possible exception of the death of a loved one. No one
connected with the program thinks the journey is going to end – no matter the odds. (On an even more somber note, imagine how crushing it is for the overwhelming favorite who loses). Then, often in an instant, it’s over. Done.

The season, the dreams, the goals and, in many cases, the career. The finality of it is devastating. Then, there are (usually three) players who are requested by the media to show up and face the cameras for the post game press conference – way before the magnitude of it has had time to sink in. (Of course, the head coach must attend, too). Questions directed to high profile players whose teams were just eliminated as to whether they’ll be returning to school the following year. Regarding a controversial call, asking what they (players or coach) thought of the referee’s decision (knowing it’s a trap question but hoping for “headline” response). Posing a question to a coach about the possibility of taking another job. Or, as the nation saw, asking a player from Baylor – which had just been upset by Yale – how the Bulldogs managed to outrebound his ball club (for the record, more fans than not thought the answer was spot on, considering all that was going through his head at the time).

Every guy who’s interviewed thought, before the game, his team was going to win – and advance. You know the first round losers had packed for a second game. Even those double-digit underdogs who, deep down, felt it was an insurmountable task, clung to the hope of a major upset – the kind the tourney witnesses every year, if for no other reason than how hard they worked. Then, when it’s finally over, your feelings are – and there’s no better word to describe it – numb.

On a personal note, I’ve been on staffs of teams who won highly improbable games in dramatic fashion – and lost some in the same manner. In the 1992 NCAA Tournament our USC team was a #2 seed in the Midwest which resulted in a relatively easy first round victory. We watched as the game preceding our next challenge resulted in a major upset. What this meant was if we could get by a #7 seed, we were confident we’d be one game away from the Final Four.

One of our guards hit a shot with 3.2 seconds left, putting us up by two. After the ball was kicked out of bounds across from their bench – with 8/10ths of a second left – we denied the inbounds pass so well the referee was on the verge of calling a five-second violation. At the last moment their freshman forward popped out, caught the ball and without looking at the basket (his post game description of it), threw in a three-pointer. The first three-pointer of his career!

So, when I see these post game press conferences and some of the questions that are occasionally asked, one emotion goes through my mind:

“Empathy”

Jubilation vs. Frustration

Saturday, March 19th, 2016

A weekend of March Madness puts this blog space on the back burner. See you on Tuesday, March 22 when we return.

Two late games, both decided by last second shots – one that counted, one that (barely) didn’t – illustrated to fans how harrowing the game of basketball can be. Four teams waited all day – and a good part of the night – to play in the NCAA Tournament, knowing that if they came out on the short end, not only would the game be over, but their season. What was more frightening was, for seniors, the end of their careers as well.

Texas vs. Northern Iowa and St. Joseph’s vs. Cincinnati were as compelling NCAA Tournament games as any that were scheduled for Day 2 of this year’s March Madness. UT is led by Shaka Smart, arguably the most coveted coach over the past 3-5 years. Since they do everything bigger in Texas, most notably coaching contracts (his for at least $21.7 million over the next seven years), the Longhorns won the battle for the services of the coach noted for his frenetic style of play and ability to gain players’ trust, leading to the most important factor in winning: buy in.

The opposing head coach was Ben Jacobson, someone who would have been a hot commodity in the profession except for the fact he signed a 10-year contract in 2010 at $450K per, only to have UNI tear it up five years later for another 10-year deal – at double the salary (affording him and his family a very comfortable living). The battle of millionaire coaches was so exciting coaching contracts were never mentioned. Texas jumped out early, only to see UNI go on a scoring spree to take an 8-point halftime lead.

So it was UT’s turn to put on a spurt. Immediately after halftime, they reclaimed the lead, only to see the game go back and forth in the final moments. A free throw gave the Panthers a two-point advantage until the Longhorns answered with a short jumper with a couple seconds remaining. Texas gave token pressure, UNI did not call a time out and everybody settled in for overtime. Even after they inbounded to Paul Jesperson, there was no thought of the game doing anything but continuing for at least another five minutes. Of course none of the Longhorns wanted to foul him, so when he took a crossover dribble, he had an open look at the basket – from just beyond midcourt. The shot went in.

Was it lucky? Steph Curry provides such highlights on, seemingly, a weekly basis and tells us he actually practices such shots – and has video evidence to prove his claim. Unless Jesperson called “glass,” luck had to play a major role in it. Watching the video of Northern Iowa and Texas players, could only be described as “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

The ending of the UT-UNI contest had nothing on the St. Joseph’s-Cincinnati game as far as excruciating excitement goes. St. Joe’s (as a Jewish kid growing up, I remember asking my Catholic friend if it was blasphemous to call a saint by his nickname) hit a shot to put them ahead, only to see Cincinnati score at the buzzer. Or was it after the buzzer?

Try to imagine your season continuing or ending being based on a video review by the referees. Whichever way it turns out, it’s anticlimactic. In this case, the ball was above the cylinder before the horn sounded (the basis for the rule of whether a ball is goaltended or offensively interfered with). Unfortunately, the rule for whether or not a shot is good is, “has the ball left the shooter’s hand(s) before the horn?” The ball was clearly in the UC’s player’s hands when the horn sounded (and red light around the backboard lit up). But only by the minutest of smidges.

In my 35-year coaching career, I can recall similar game situations, both good and bad. Although they seem to balance out:

“The losses sting way more than the wins feel good.”

Especially at tournament time.

Coaches Get Conservative at Tourney Time

Friday, March 18th, 2016

When the NCAA Tournament comes around, body parts get a little tighter. That’s true for coaches, too. One area where coaches play it closer to the vest is when their club gets ahead. Some head men get a lead and forget that there’s a shot clock. They pull the plug on the offense and hope the clock runs out before the lead does. It’s almost like the coach, who has done a good enough job to get the team to the tourney is now worried about not “playing it by the book.”

The danger in this strategy is, once you tell your guys to “run clock,” you’ve pulled the plug of your offense. Should your opponent get a few stops, hit some shots (especially threes), your lead shrinks (maybe disappears) and what was tight before nearly slams shut. Once you’ve made the decision to “take the air out,” there’s no turning back, i.e. don’t think about saying, “OK, guys, let’s go back to running our offense.” You might as well say, “I chose to do this because I believe you guys can shut them down.” The momentum has virtually come to a stop and only a defensive stand, or your guys making free throws or, the toughest possibility to accept because you have no control of it – your opponent fails to make open shots, will move you to the next round.

Instead of simply “running clock,” a coach I worked for used to say, “OK, we’re in great shape. We need four more points (arbitrary number) to win this game. Let’s be patient but we still need to score some more.” That put the thought in the players’ heads that, although we’re going to “hold the ball,” we still need to keep in mind that we do have to score. Just make sure the number you pick assures a victory, i.e. if in doubt, go higher.

Another conservative move is when coaches pull their guys after getting a couple early fouls. Or the star picks up his third just as the second half gets underway – and the next sound heard is that of the horn, sending your stud to the bench. While I’ve not done a statistical analysis on this, it seems as though many “protected” players don’t ever foul out anyway – so why not roll the dice and let your best player . . . play. Don’t you think he knows how many fouls he has? In reality, this is a situation that should have been practiced at some time during the season.

A real life example happened in 2001 when our Fresno State team beat Cal in an 8-9 match up (we were #9) and had to face powerful #1 seed Michigan State a couple days later. Our big dog (pun intended) was Melvin Ely (a future lottery pick who eventually enjoyed a 10-year NBA career). Big Mel got two quick fouls but Jerry left him in the game. Sure enough, he picked up his third foul in the first half. Still, Tark left him in as well as started him in the second half.

Mel picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, but stayed on the floor. Eventually he did foul out but it was after the game, for all intents and purposes, was over (the final score was 81-65 Spartans). Later I heard from people in Fresno who were watching the game that the commentators kept talking about how much of a gamble Jerry was taking. In fact, he was asked in the post game press conference about his thinking behind ignoring the foul trouble and going with his meal ticket.

Jerry explained it in vintage Tark. “Our only chance to beat Michigan State was if Melvin had a really big game. I didn’t think there was any way we could win without him.” When pressed by a media member if he ever thought of taking Ely out, his reply was even simpler:

“He wasn’t going to do us any good sitting next to me.”

LeBron Figured Out the Secret of the Lakers’ Win Over the Warriors

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

Of the zillions of websites on the Internet, Yardbarker is one that gives readers a plethora of information. How much of it can be believed? Their subtitle – REALTIME RUMORS, GOSSIP, OPINIONS AND HUMOR FROM THE BEST SPORTS BLOGS – tells people what they can expect.

One story that made yesterday’s “Top 10″ was LeBron James warning his Cleveland Cavs teammates. The warning? “His main message was that this (Wednesday-Sunday in Los Angeles) is a business trip,” said J.R. Smith. “Are we going to have fun?” Smith, someone knows a thing or two about partying asked, no doubt, rhetorically. “Absolutely, but . . . ” But nothing, J.R. Why do you think LeBron was talking to you guys? Could it be because he saw what the Lakers did to Golden State?

Anyone saw that game, which LA (the Lakers, not the Clippers) didn’t just beat the defending champs – and overwhelming favorite to repeat – will attest to the fact they embarrassed them. In fact, in terms of the difference between the record (from a percentage standpoint) of the losing team and the winning team, it was, ignominiously for the Warriors, the greatest upset in NBA history. “How could this have happened?” wondered hoops fans (and gamblers who dumped a load of cash on GSW).

Duh. For those folks who have never visited Los Angeles, there are a lot of distractions in the city, some real, others . . . enhanced. If everything’s bigger in Texas, everything’s cooler in LA. Other cities have waiters; in Los Angeles you get actors. In some restaurants you sometimes see real actors, especially if your income is in that upper 1% we keep hearing about in the current political campaigns (the neighborhood where NBA players reside – although, unfortunately for many, only for the length of their careers). Another plus about sunny SoCal is it’s an easy trip to pack for since the weather is always the same.

The Cavs began by beating the Lakers, 120-108, on Thursday. A more impressive win came on Sunday when they won big over the Clippers. Clearly, partying didn’t get in the way of their job. A couple of days off in Los Angeles is, often, a trap for a bunch of millionaires who live, during the season, i.e. winter, in Cleveland.

All LeBron really had to do was show video from the Warriors’ afternoon game against the Lakers. It was as if, for Golden State only, the hoop was moving (or that there were several of them), the sheets on the floor at the scorer’s table that the players use for better traction covered the entire court, the game was being played at altitude and the Dubs were using a medicine ball. A friend of mine was watching the game. He called me during the third quarter and said he empathized with the guys from Golden State – even though it was only the sixth time all season they’d lost:

“The Warriors look like a bunch of fraternity guys the morning after a rush party.”