One Ball, Two Games

After watching the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, I have decided that the game might have a future again, if it embraces its past as finalists Butler and Duke seemed to do. I had long ago given up on the sport even though it occupied many hours of my youth developing, among other things, a sense of discipline and self-respect. I remain convinced basketball is one of the most difficult and, if played properly, most artistic of team sports. In my admittedly passé and romantic contemplation of the game, I find the NBA’s version of the sport brutish, selfish, and inelegant. My criticism goes beyond the big money, and gun-toting, over-commercialized superstars. In the NBA they simply don’t play the game properly, but Butler and Duke (most of the time) did.

The critical difference is this: in the NBA the game ‘flows’ around one or two players. Offenses are designed to have the supporting cast (including the most important object: the ball) operate as subjects of the superstar who is the principal attraction. In the NBA defenses are designed to, well, they’re not designed as far as I can tell; they are exercises in random motion. To NBA players defense is what the team not in possession of the ball does to occupy their time until it’s their turn to play offense again. (The referee assures frequent transitions in possession and adequate protection of the superstar.) In the men’s NCAA championship game both teams played real basketball, where the flow of the game occurs around one object: the ball. And, they had obvious defensive assignments designed to interrupt the flow of the ball to affect possession. There were two teams playing as composite entities, not a circus-like exhibition by the guy with the most sponsorships.

At 13:02 left in the game, I declared (via text) that the game was over. It was clear to me Duke would prevail even though the game was and remained close to the end. Here’s why. Butler’s star player, Gordon Hayward, had been quiet most of the game; working very hard without the ball, playing defense, opening the game up for his teammates, but statistically quiet. At 13:02, Duke is up by a few points. Butler’s Coach Stevens calls timeout. I certainly do not know what directions Stevens gave his players, but it marks the point in the game that Butler, obviously growing wary of the clock and inability to punch through Duke’s marginal lead, shifts their strategy away from real basketball toward the star-centered NBA version. As the clock wound down Butler played the rest of the game around Hayward – not around the ball. They gave it their all. They got close, but Hayward couldn’t beat Duke – only Butler could have. Butler has much to be proud of. But, as is too often the case, they may have beat themselves.

Coach Krzyzewski knows basketball. He will never leave college ball. He knows better. His players are routinely criticized for becoming failures in the NBA. They don’t know how to play that game because they play the real one – the one invented by James Naismith who was tasked with coming up with an indoor game to exercise otherwise rowdy students through the seasonal oppression of New England winters in 1891. The one made famous in the modern era by the Wizard of Westwood, Coach John Wooden at UCLA. If coaches like Krzyzewski and Stevens honor the tradition of the game, maybe, just maybe, basketball is back. In one small measure, America (and I) would be better off.