It’s a Simple Game

In The Physics of Baseball, Yale professor Robert Adair describes the difficulty of hitting a baseball hurdling toward the batter at 90 miles per hour. He notes that:

the rubber on the pitching mound is 60’6” from home plate

the pitched ball is released approximately 4’ in front of the rubber so that it must travel on 56’4” to reach the plate

the initial velocity in the big leagues is 98 mph but  the ball covers the entire distance in four-tenths of a second at velocity of 90 mph

in the first 0.1 seconds the batter must see the ball and decide whether to swing

from 0.1 to 0.25 seconds the batter must decide where the ball is going and select how to swing the bat

from 0.25 to 0.40 he must swing the bat

Yet, the greatest hitter of all time, Ted Williams, was able to reduce all this science into a simple law that separates the strong hitter from the mediocre. Just as Einstein was able to reduce his theory of relativity to a single equation, Williams was able to distill the science of hitting in a single sentence: Get a good pitch to hit.

I have long wondered if we could do the same for the game of basketball. Beneath the reams of “X and O” strategy, coaching tips, and commentary, are there a set of immutable, timeless laws that define the nature of the game and govern its play?

For me, the journey to answer that question began quite innocently in 1963 as I followed hometown favorite, Loyola Chicago, to the NCAA finals and their dramatic come-from-behind victory over two-time, defending national champions, the Cincinnati Bearcats. It blossomed a short time later in the midst of my four-year stint as student trainer of Notre Dame’s basketball team where I witnessed first-hand the resurrection of a major college program during the Austin Carr era. It culminated during my early years as assistant coach at Loyola Academy in the powerful Chicago Catholic League.

Throughout, I was the undeserving beneficiary of a series of lucky, seemingly disconnected experiences that coalesced into an understanding of basketball and those timeless laws or principles that I had hoped to find. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, guided by a small cadre of mentors who already understood what I was about to learn: that basketball is a very simple game.

The beginning of my journey turned out to be as important as the end. I didn’t know it at that time but the 1963 national championship game contained all of the seeds for my own development as a basketball junkie and aspiring basketball coach. It featured two teams of contrasting style – one fast and high scoring, the other methodical and deliberate. In George Ireland’s Ramblers, I discovered the transitional nature of the game, the freedom to freelance, and a desire to exploit the open space of the full-court with up-tempo offense and pressing defense. Ed Jucker’s Cincinnati squad presented the polar opposite: a deliberate “walk the ball up the floor” offensive scheme guaranteeing a game of limited possessions and fewer points, but one of utter simplicity: a quick entry pass that immediately produced – without fuss or fanfare — a high quality mid-range jump shot or forced the defenders to contest a pick-and-roll maneuver very close to the basket. The contrast could not have been greater. (For a super read on this historic game, check-out Michael Lenehan’s Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963 — The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball.)

Interestingly, these distinctions disappeared at Notre Dame where the two schools of thought were strangely reconciled. Head coach Johnny Dee was devotee of the fast break and freelance nature of the game. His assistant, Gene Sullivan, complimented Dee’s up-tempo instincts with a half-court set called the isolation offense or “double stack.” Ironically, he based his attack on Jucker’s “Swing and Go” offense, attempting to create two-on-two situations that produced short mid-range jump shots and attacks “on the rim” with a minimum of passing. We ran the ball on every possession and if we failed to score in transition, relied on the stack offense to generate quality shots quickly.

Against a schedule ranked the second and third toughest in the country two years running, we averaged 93-points per game and produced four consecutive twenty-game winning seasons, a first in Notre Dame’s history. We never won an NCAA championship or even made it to the Final Four, yet in head-to-head competition we had victories over the following Hall of Fame coaches including the five winningest coaches of all time: John Wooden, Ray Meyer, Adolph Rupp, Al McGuire, Frank McGuire, Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Eddie Sutton, Lou Carnesecca, Guy Lewis, Johnny Orr, Gene Bartow, and Ladell Anderson.

At Loyola Academy, I was blessed again. Hired by Illinois high school coaching legend, Bill Gleason, I joined a staff of five assistants, two of them former head coaches. Unlike Notre Dame’s Dee and Sullivan who coached “intuitively,” Gleason was a stickler for tactical detail and denial defense – footwork, positioning, repetitive drilling, and pattern offense. Coaching and scouting on Bill’s staff in Chicago’s premier prep league rounded my perspective and cemented many of my early conclusions: managing tempo is critical; highly structured offensive patterns and plays almost always break down, reducing the game to freelance and spontaneity; effective teams exploit this reality by placing players in spots where their freelance abilities come to the fore; and lastly, aggressive, unrelenting defense contributes exponentially to offensive effectiveness.

Over the years these early lessons gave rise to ten fundamental laws or ordering principles that define basketball’s underlying structure. These laws are fundamental to understanding, coaching, and playing basketball. Once mastered they form a prism through which one can “see” the game, appreciate its simplicity, and master its subtleties.

In future posts I’ll develop a detailed “essay” on each of these and attempt to illustrate their inter-connectedness. For now, here’s a snapshot.

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