Thursday, April 9, 2009

American Recession

HBO Real Sports aired a pointed criticism about the quality of basketball that America is producing. The special went on to discuss the reason(s) that Europe and other countries are surpassing America in terms of developing our young basketball players. Many critics have voiced their opinion on this subject and now it is my turn.

Like most lessons in life, I learned mine the hard way. Like a baby learning to walk by constantly falling down, I fell on my bottom and it hurt. Like a child learning to ride a bike, I crashed to the pavement without knee pads and a helmet. My head hurts! Or at least, that is what it feels like with the whipping that I took Friday night. The chastiser was not a school principle's paddle(for those of you old enough to remember school discipline) or my father's belt. This whipping came at the hands of some teenage Japanese girls and it hurt my feelings more than any corporal punishment could have.

BJ League, Palo Verde Holdings, and Sports Vault in cooperation with TeamXpress brought a Japanese National team of 13-15 year old girls to Austin last week. The Japanese team won a National tournament among 750 teams for the right to play in this event. To my dismay, the event was shown live via the Internet on I will never be the same.

I arrived at the gym at 5pm for the 7:30 game. To my surprise, the Japanese team was already at the gym and was warming up. When I say warming up, I mean WARMING UP! These young ladies were doing intensive defensive slides, dynamic stretches, full court sprints, box out drills, unique flexibility exercises and rapid fire shooting for 2 hours strait. BEFORE THE GAME! I yelled at my wide eye 12-13 year olds to not watch what the opposition was doing and ignore their constant cohesive chants in their native tongue. I told them to concentrate on our warm up and show no fear. Yeah right! I was admiring the discipline, focus and energy these little girls were displaying 2 hours BEFORE tip off.

My scouting report was on point if I may say so. I viewed the game they played the day before against an All-Star collection of girls from Houston. Houston is a hotbed of talent on the girls basketball scene. The Houston coaches brought a few 6'0 plus 15 year old to show the Japanese kids how to play. Yeah, it sounded good! The Houston team gave up 90 plus points to this team. One of the Japanese players hit 12 three pointers and had 40 points against them. Their best player went for 25 and constantly penetrated into the paint. With this knowledge, I stayed up all night making sure my scouting report was to the T. "Do not let the three point shooter touch the ball", I said. "Forget sound defensive help position and face guard her." "DO NOT HELP AND STAY WITH HER!" My report said that we should get the ball out of the the net and inbound it fast. Their press was impressive. "Lets inbound the ball before they set up", I preached. We work on this all the time in practice so I was confident; for about the first 3 minutes of the game that is. That pressure was so intense it was ridiculous. Never mind that I prepared my girls by playing 6 games against boys last month. Long story short, a 40 point thrashing was the result. I'm still embarrassed!

Some interesting things that I observed and learned from that game include:

  • These kids practice 4-6 hours a day, six days a week. They were not more individually talented than my girls but were so much more skilled. All that practice allowed for them to move as one single unit. It is torture getting American players to show up for 2-3 practices a week.Their mental toughness was evident as I was informed that their marathon practice sessions are conducted in gyms with no luxuries like air conditioning and heat. Their press really made me feel like one of the coaches that had to face UNLV's Amoeba defense in the early 90's. Helpless!

  • Their coach did not even sit on the bench with them. He sat a few roles above them and gave commands like a military leader. His commands were immediately implemented. These players showed a deferential respect for their coach. No parents were coaching from the sideline. His voice was the only voice. More amazing was the fact that he did not supervise his team the 2 hours that they warmed up. He was on the other side of the gym watching another game. These teenage girls policed themselves and made sure that they were ready to play.

  • The players were relentless! Besides the 2 hour pregame routine, I found out that they had already practiced for a few hours that morning! These players swarmed my players with active hands. They obviously are allowed to hand check and grab a lot in their country and this allowed them to be the aggressor. They are Hitters! I heard Michigan St. Coach Tom Izzo say that there are two types of players, hitters and avoiders. These players hit. They crashed the boards like Little Dennis Rodmans. They embraced contact.

  • They are smart! All the repetition makes the game easy for them.If you sag on defense, they all can shoot the NBA range jumper. When you take the jumper away, they dribble in straight lines and get to the rim. If you deny passes and over play, they backdoor like a Pete Carril team. They move without the ball using a 5-Out open post offense. They use flare screens, wing exchanges, down screens, double screens and misdirections. Their man defense was almost rhythmic. They moved as one. They will allow you to shoot the three(as one of my players went 5 for 10 for three point range) but realize that long shots equate to long rebounds. They double down on the post players like killer bees. A great coach once said that "a good man defense looks like a zone defenseand a good zone defense looks like a man defense". They took that philosophy to heart with the way they helped off of the ball. They run like crazy since they play with a shot clock.

As you can see, I was thoroughly impressed. I will admit that my team is young and is finding it's identity since losing my best player but we are a good team. We immediately drove from the thrashing to an event in Houston and lost in the championship game to girls two years older. A few girls that we played in Houston already made their varsity teams as freshmen. This Japanese team was just that good.

I think the dedication and attention to fundamentals that other countries are undertaking will continue to expose American players. Here is a few examples.

  • Why is a kid that finished her High School season in March, already playing club ball in April? I am as guilty as any since I am a club ball coach and this is our system in America but this makes no sense. What happened to getting better in the off season through resting your battered body, lifting weights and working on your individual skill set. If Micheal Jordan rested, strength trained and added things to his games in the off season, why are our girls not following the same pattern. It worked for him.

  • Where is little miss Larry Bird that shoots thousands of shots a day? Where is the Lady Magic that dribbles a basketball everywhere? The answer she is texting her friend or monitoring her Facebook or something.The fact of the matter is that if she wanted to shoot for hours, would her high school coach make her gym available? What happened to great players having keys to the gym and shooting all night.

  • Why so many games? Does a piano player perform in more recitals than she practices. No, she practices until her fingers ache and hones her craft. She then goes out and displays to the world that she has practiced until she was ready to showcase her hard work.

  • We don't develop bigs like other countries. Detlef Schrempf, Dirk Nowitzki, Hedo Turkoglu and Yao Ming are just a few of the bigs that have been able to play away from the basket and shoot with consistency. American coaches pigeonhole our young bigs by dumping them into the paint and restricting their development.

In the following video from HBO REAL SPORTS, Coaching great John Thompson speaks about the European Players being the new Black players. He is referring to the historic transition of the game of basketball going from predominately white players to black players. He goes on to say that the European players are displacing the Black players because of their dedication to the sport. I am reminded of an interesting thing that I read in Pete Carril's book, 'The Smart Take from the Strong'. Coach Carril goes on to state that poor Jewish ball players were dominating the game in the early 40' and 50's in his neighborhood. It was not the fact that they were Jewish that made them good ball players but the fact that they used basketball as a means to an end. Just like Black players have used basketball to better their position in life and get educations, the Jewish players of old did the same thing. The European players are hungry. They work constantly on improving their games and as a result, they have closed the gap on America. Race has nothing to do with success in basketball. In my ignorance, I failed to educate myself on how advanced the Japanese basketball scene was. Whether you are White, European, Jew, Black or Japanese, the fact remains that the nothing substitutes for passion, hard work and education. Americans have to learn to work hard and smart if we are to remain in our place as the best basketball players in the world. After seeing what I saw on Friday and understanding how hard others work, I think we may never be able to hold that crown again. Share it, yes. Own it, probably not. Not when others are working while we are resting. Indeed, THE SMART TAKE FROM THE STRONG!