Coach Obsesses About Basketball “Requirements”, Has Words

[9-minute read]

Just down there, in the He Said/She Said section of this here site, is the latest quotation that got me to thinkin‘…

Bonus points if you know this guy. Hints: HoF player and coach; *not* J. Naismith!

The citation is from James Naismith, in 1892, weeks or months after he scribbled down the 13 Rules of the game he had just invented. He was far too humble to call it “The Naismith Game” or anything like it, so he called it “Basket-Ball” “because there’s a [peach] basket and a ball, so…” I saw a reference in something I’d read to what might have been the second thing he wrote about his new baby, this sport he’d been asked to design in order to give young Christian men — it was invented at the YMCA’s International Training Centre, after all — a way to keep in shape during a Massachusetts winter. (And this, from a Canadian! Perhaps there was no ice rink at the Springfield YMCA? Maybe he held an anti-hockey grudge? Or — horrors! — he didn’t know how to skate?) Anyway, this was the reference, a copy of which hangs in the Naismith Museum:



“Agility, accuracy, alertness, cooperation, initiative, skill, reflex judgment, speed, self-sacrifice,

self-confidence, self-control and sportsmanship.”

There are 12 qualities that he wanted the game’s disciples to know and strive for. And I couldn’t help noticing how close they come to alphabetical order! (So yes, I’ve given Coach Naismith a little editorial help in what follows.) In the interests of obsession and whimsy, let’s think of them not only in this (improved) order but also with my (mainly) approving comments on Dr. Naismith’s “requirements” after each one:

ACCURACY. When modern hoopswise guys talk about “athletic ability” and the physical prowess of prospects and pros, they routinely ignore this one. They favour sprinters, long-armed discus-throwing types, jumpers and other track’n’field demonstrations of “athleticism”. Even 128 years later, we need to be reminded that hand-eye coordination, the ability to make that leather globe go through an elevated fruit bucket (or between flailing limbs to an open teammate) is fairly important, too. Cooz. Earl the Pearl. Nash. Steph. KD. Luka. Accuracy.

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ODY: Week 11. Cryin’ the Blues

Thanks and congrats to those of you who read all the way through last week’s long and sentimental entry. Even Old Dogs miss their Mums. (And their Dads, too, although that is not news for this wrinkled puppy.) It was another week of plugging along in the OD Year, and although some of my practices weren’t as inspired as I would like, I am fairly astonished to report that I’ve played guitar for 77 (and still counting) consecutive days. (May discipline be contagious: today’s Day 3 of my new stretch ‘n’ strength routine.) And PERISH all thoughts of what I can’t yet do…

I have been thinking about my peculiar way of going about learning to play, which is slow and inside-out. I haven’t been as interested in the quick score, the easy song that I can play and say “Whoo-hoo!”, as I have been with trying to really understand what I’m doing and develop a solid base of skill. I’d like to be more hungry to attempt and master new elements of guitaristry, but I want to win Tortoise Style. My old high school football mentor, Coach Woody, had a dismissive term for those who started fast, pedal-to-metal but couldn’t really sustain their interest and commitment. “Sprinters,” he’d snort. With ankles like mine, speed is no longer an option, so I’ll enjoy this ponderous pace and whatever milestones (hmmm, metre-stones?) I can reach. Eagerly. Son Ben, the IA, has some concerns about my GG’s group teaching method, with its emphasis on learning some of everything over our ten weeks together, giving us enough “so that you can teach yourselves the guitar after we’re done”. The IA is not a fan of this approach. He thinks there’s way too much material, and not enough short-term objectives to reach and be inspired by. I can see that point, and I want to get smarter about really mastering a few fun and recognizable tunes. Still, I like the depth of the foundation I’m getting, and I’m in this for 365. We’ll see.

I heard an interview last week with Dunstan Prial, an American journalist, talking about his 2006 book The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music. I was fascinated, especially by Prial’s description of a 73-year-old, nattily dressed Hammond shuffling to a Carnegie Hall microphone in 1984 to introduce Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble. Vaughan, that blazing comet of the blues guitar, was only the most recent discovery and protégé of Hammond, a list that started back in the ‘30s with a black guitarist named Teddy Wilson and a white clarinettist named Benny Goodman. The list went on. Count Basie. Pete Seeger. Aretha Franklin. Bob Dylan. George Benson. Bruce Springsteen… For Prial, Hammond had a brilliant ear, not only for musical genius but for the great social milieu in which it might be heard. And in a business noted for bottom-line, flavour-of-the-month heartlessness, it was intriguing to hear of Springsteen’s gratitude for the warmth and inspiration of Hammond, and his lament that such a culture no longer exists for young artists.

Can’t tell you too much more about the book, but I picked up the Double Trouble recording from Carnegie Hall, and how would you explain this? (How do I?) Hammond introduces the band, bullied to shorten his remarks by an impatient audience. (Even Prial, who was there that night, wondered who IS this old guy?) Then Stevie and the lads launch into “Scuttle Buttin’”, which Prial described as “a lightning storm of circular blues scales played at earsplitting volume”. My throat tightened, my heart raced and my eyes leaked. OH, MY. On the Six Nations Reserve near where I grew up, there is a widespread embrace of the blues. (Aboriginal experience and an identification with the blues! Go figure, eh?) And among a lot of the young men I used to coach and teach, there was a near-worship of Vaughan. Though I’ve always liked the blues guitar, and am a particular fan of the great and tragic Roy Buchanan, I’d never gotten all the way into SRV. I knew about “Pride and Joy”, of course, but hadn’t really heard the licks in a hungry-eared way. But wow. Where’s all that weeping come from? I love the feeling in the blues, the plaintive longing that is so haunting in Roy Buchanan alongside his explosive, note-bending creativity and speed. And perhaps my own learning has helped me understand a little better what these guys are doing, and to know at an intestinal level how much they had to sacrifice, how fiercely they needed to love, in order to be able to Do That Thing. 

And maybe I was choked by the certain knowledge that I will never be able to play like that. I adore skill, dig virtuosity. The democratic note in punk-rock philosophy – hey, anybody can play, and everybody should! – is a fine thing, though it sometimes goes so far as to be perversely snobbish about skill. But I admire excellence and I WANT it, though it chills me blue to be so savagely reminded – but hey, thanks, Stevie Ray, and God bless — how far away I am from it.

Hockey Fright in Canada

Let me be the 7,758,901st to join the national hand wringing in Canada over the desperate fate of Canada’s Olympic men’s hockey team. Let’s say, first, what it’s NOT about.

It’s not about Wayne Gretzky’s choice of wives or assistant coaches. The possible existence of a betting ring involving an NHL coach (Rick Tocchet, not the Wayner) is a serious matter for the integrity of league play, but it has nothing to do with Canada’s performance in Turin. And now for a few suggestions about what is going on.

Europeans play great hockey, and it is a generally more highly skilled brand than Canadian kids are encouraged, coached or, I daresay, even allowed to play. (So long as Don Cherry’s anti-finesse opinions are taken as gospel in Canadian hockey circles, a genuine commitment to skill development has serious obstacles. The kind of Canuck chauvinism that he quivers with makes learning from what the European system does well more difficult than it ought to be. They have not hesitated, it seems to me, to learn from the best of Canadian hockey – and there’s a lot to love. And emulate.)

If having the best team win is your object, the Olympic “lose and go home” system after the round robin is not a good system. The nature of the hockey beast – especially that dominating presence, the Hot (or horseshoes-up-his-hind-end) Goaltender – does not lend itself to one-game eliminations, although it does allow for vastly inferior teams to ice the occasional miracle, which makes for sappy but popular movies. (See: Lake Placid, men’s hockey. The United States got to have its cake and eat it, too, being the sympathetic underdog and still getting the golden glory. Perfect! Sweden’s defeat of the American women, despite being outshot by more than 2 to 1, is the karmic companion for the Americans. Sweden’s turn to make the movie.) Hockey is best played in elimination series, but I’m flaying a dead giraffe. That’s the Olympics. Deal with it.

It’s too early to tell if the Gretzky Gang, though, have chosen the right players. Our two most mobile defenders are hurt, it’s true. With four years between Olympics, we may have favoured experience too much; it downplays the experience gained by the youngsters in between Games, not to mention the eroding skills of vets who were on top in ’02. It seems certain that we would have been loyal to Lemieux and Yzerman had they not had the grace to bow out. On that big surface, with all that youth and speed, Canada would have been hobbled by them, I’m sorry to have to say about such wonderful players. Like a lot of people, I wish that Staal and Crosby were there; watching the young Russians, with their furious speed and skill, is breathtaking when they’re going well.

I repeat: it’s too early to tell.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SKILLS, STUPID: Hockey, Learning & Heart

(This article was written in January 2003, just after the Canadian Junior Hockey Team had lost the gold medal in the World Championships of that year. They lost to the Russians, which is no shame, but...)

Silver is silver, and we can still bask nationally in the sun of Salt Lake, but there was something in that oh-so-close loss to the Russian juniors that was irritating.  Our man Fleury was superb in goal and probably won his M.V.P. award on the strength of that last game, and the Canadian boys were plucky but overmatched.  It really wasn’t that close.  The thing that got to me, though, was the tearful commentary of one of the lads, trying to figure out what had happened to him, his mates, his nation.  “We gave everything we had, we played with lots of heart…”  Ugh.  Heart.  When will we realize that’s not enough?

Of course they played with heart.  That’s a given, isn’t it?  Yes, and our Canadian men fought with brilliant heart at Dieppe, too, but we remember equally the criminal lack of preparation with which they launched themselves against a mighty foe.  Please don’t mistake me, I don’t equate the two enterprises; I just wonder, with the 30th anniversary of the Summit Series having just passed, when Canadian hockey men will finally admit that we can learn about Our Game from people who don’t come from Kingston, Ontario?  Captain Scottie Upshall did (“that’s a great team over there, they must be doing some things right in Russia”), and it’s astonishing, from where I sit, that we still teach our young players that heart is pre-eminent.

The situation in other sports is instructive.  Holger Osieck, a German, was brought in to coach our national men’s soccer side.  He deplored the Canadian style of play, which involved a lot of long hopeful kicks and furious running—can you say “dump and chase”?—and immediately required ball-control strategies.  Not only that, he had asked for and been granted the authority to dictate his methods to the feeder elements of the national program; there is a unity of purpose here that is strikingly absent in Canadian hockey.

Last summer’s World Championships of basketball provide an example that Canadian hockey-lovers should recognize.  The Americans entered their “Dream Team” in Barcelona in 1992, their college all-star teams having lost in ’72 (“we wuz robbed!”) and ’88 (“oh-oh, they’re catchin’ up!”).  The youngsters were vulnerable, but when they sent Michael, Larry, and Magic, it was no contest.  Until, ten years later, it was.  The national hand-wringing after NBA players fell so clumsily last summer was eerily familiar to Canadians.  ESPN commentator Jay Bilas, a former Duke University star, was most eloquent.  Even when the Americans still had their chance to win (after losing to Argentina in pool play), Bilas was sounding the alarm.  We can’t just throw all-star teams together.  We need to prepare.  Our kids aren’t learning skills.  They play too much and practise too little.  The Europeans have better fundamentals…Sound familiar?  Their first wake-up call came in 1972, when the Soviets won Olympic gold in Munich, but their true dominance of basketball remained unquestioned.  Last summer, for American hoops, was a closer analogy to the periodic bouts of Canadian dismay that began in ’72.  Our experience in self-examination allows this prediction.  American basketball chauvinists will prevail.  They’ll learn some small technical lessons from Indianapolis, but dismiss it as an aberration.  Shrill voices will occasionally demand a fundamental rethinking of the way “our game” is approached.  They will be ignored.  And the rest of the world will continue to improve…

The Americans could learn a lot from our experience as the erstwhile “first nation” of hockey (or England’s in soccer, for that matter, which finally, desperately, hired Sven Goran Eriksson as its first foreign national coach; imagine that happening in USA Basketball, or Hockey Canada!).  But they won’t.  We haven’t learned.  Our pride in the Canadian Way to Play is quaint, but it is increasingly relegating our top athletes to “role player” status, while the NHL imports its dazzle.  What’s worse is that we’ve accepted this so completely, even romanticizing it as the demonstration of genuine passion, true “heart”, and the virtues of “old-time hockey”.  Amazingly, even the careers of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux have not removed a rather defensive attitude of suspicion toward players, Canadian or otherwise, who are distinguished by their skill and cleverness.  Gretzky seems poised to act as the national face of hockey, and his insistence on a game of puck movement and speed for our Olympic teams bears great promise.  Are Canadian youngsters, and especially coaches, more likely to hear that quadrennial voice, or Coach’s Corner on Saturday evenings?

Hint—yesterday’s National Post had this headline on its front page:  “Oh, stop crying already! Canada still rules hockey”.  Accompanying stats in which Canada had a record superior to the Russians (leading NHL scorers, Olympic wins, world junior wins) was an article peppered with the observations of, you guessed it, Don Cherry.  We were missing players that their NHL clubs wouldn’t release, and so on.  For all the truth contained in the article, it’s a reminder of how defensive Canadian hockey types can get, a sort of emotional left-wing lock.  This shouldn’t be a dark period of national self-examination; Lord knows we have more serious matters to debate. But let’s hope that we teach our kids to better know and love the wizardry and speed of the game.  The heart will follow.