If you grew up liking to watch players like Oscar Robertson, Pete Maravich, and Larry Bird, you might have a tough time learning to love (and understand) the new culture and terminology of basketball.
It used to be a simple game, I swear.
I grew up loving basketball because I was mesmerized by players like Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, and later…Pete Maravich and Larry Bird. These were guys who could just flat shoot the basketball and if you were a kid you wanted to pick up a ball, go to the hoop you had in the barn, and practice until you could wrap the net around the rim on four out of five shots. You wanted to shoot…like them!
Basketball was simple back then, and simple for the people who watched to understand. You could either shoot, or you couldn’t. Defense amounted to stationary players standing with their arms up in front of the shooter, and a respectful distance between them, at that.
You rarely ever saw full-court pressure in the early days because players weren’t as athletic as they are now. And again, the emphasis back then was on one’s ability to shoot the basketball. If you couldn’t shoot at least 80% from the free throw line that was an embarrassment; and you might not even make the team.
People understood the game, terms like “pick and roll”, fast break, man-to-man and zone defense. It was easy to spot and recognize. Compare now to the jargon of our day – “junk defenses”, box-and-one, triangle-and-one, and matchup zones; and try to determine as you watch…which is which.
If you were fouled in the 60s while in the act of making a field goal you had an attempt at a “three-point” play, meaning a free throw as a bonus. Now, from the minute contact is made the shooter starts screaming “and one”, which for the longest time it had fans over fifty shaking their heads. “And one what?”.
It’s all changed now. The game is faster, faster, frantic, and so physical at times it looks like roller derby. Setting a screen for a shooter is no simple matter anymore. Now there’s “ball screens”, and “down screens”, and screening the screener…a series of screens to ultimately set up an open jump shot that the shooter misses 70% of the time.
Coaches everywhere tell me they love it. They talked incessantly to justify it. Former Centerville coach and my college baseball teammate, Jim Staley, told me last year that basketball has never been more fun to watch, players have never been more skilled, and shooting has never been better.
And yet…at the end of last season our scorebook percentages told a different story. Of the sixty games we saw, scored, and wrote about on PPM, the average game had 26 turnovers.
On average the winning team shot 44% from the field – and 68% from the foul line.
And in those 60 games last season…by season’s end only three players we saw on a regular basis finished with an average of 20 points per game. And yet, the game has never been better?
For sure, it’s never been harder to understand.
At the end of last season I took the time to ask some who watched on a regular basis if they understood…when is a foul a foul? Most said they had no idea – that when they played the game, or watch the game back then, if you made contact with an opposing player it was a foul. Not anymore!
I asked…what do they miss most about basketball and the way they remember it? Most said they missed seeing players whose shooting and overall skills were so entertaining you were afraid not to attend the games. You might miss something.
“People used to respect the skill it took to put a basketball through the a hoop. You know, there’s only a few inches of clearance,” said former Springfield South coach Wayne Wiseman. “They’d talk about, and compare, players that could shoot.” Wiseman’s basketball lineage goes all the way back to the old barnstorming Waterloo Wonders of the Depression years, who won state titles for tiny Waterloo High School in southeast Ohio by their ability to make “set shots” from half court.
“It was a game of skill back then,” he added. “Now it’s a game of roughhouse.”
I asked…do they understand terms like “transition” (fast break), “box-and-one”, and “the triangle offense”?
Most answered in the negative, but added, “I know when the ball goes through the rim. That’s about all I need to know.”
But is it? And does basketball have to be so necessarily technical?
ESPN televised a Knicks game this week and the commentators kept talking about former coach Phil Jackson and the “triangle offense” he made famous with Michael Jordan in Chicago, and later with the Lakers when he had Kobie Bryant. I seriously could not watch and recognize anything that resembled a triangle.
I called a couple of area coaches and asked them to explain.
“It’s when you have three players on the strong side of the court (side where the ball is) and they form a triangle between the rim and the ball, creating different options for shots,” explained one.
But another added, “It’s all just pick and roll, more theory than triangle.”
I went back to watch and I never did find the triangle. It was as he said…just pick and roll.
Like everything else in the 21st century we’ve made the game of basketball harder to like because it’s harder to understand, like learning to operate your 4K television with all those channels and remote controls – or a Keurig coffee maker.
Like the man said, “I know when the ball goes through the rim. That’s all I need to know.” And if that’s the case, turn the sound down on your TV.
You’ll just get more confused if you listen.