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Has the Basketball World Changed?

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on October 14, 2014

Years ago when I played lots of pick-up ball, it was, as often as not, a disaster. Constant arguing about calls; guys who did nothing but chuck the ball up; nobody playing defense; an empty soulless attitude and game. Of course, you learned where to go to find the better games, the games where real basketball was played. (Pemberton Street in North Cambridge was usually pretty good; Conway Park on Somerville Ave with the square metal backboards with the holes in them was a good spot, too, almost any day and any time.) Still, even those places could slide into scenes like the weigh-ins the day before a championship fight. I pretty much gave up on it all.

A couple of weekends ago we were in NYC for the Climate Change March and afterward, we were going to meet some friends and their kids at a playground; maybe 43rd St between 8th and 9th Avenues. There was a small fenced in basketball court (typical NYC cage court) and there was a game going on: 4 on 4. Couple Asian kids; a couple black guys; couple others of this and that thrown in. I stood back and watched a bit, just wondering what the game would be like. And there it was: ball moving, players finding one another under the basket, even a backdoor cut and layup. Next thing I knew, I had my fingers laced through the chain link fence, up close to get a better look and feel.

How did this come to be and is it the norm? And if it is the new norm, where did this come from? Was it the NTL Weekly Practice Programs and Weekend Camps?

Or maybe it was the move-the-ball and ye will find the open player on the way to the NBA Championship, San Antonio Spurs basketball?

Whatever it is, I’ll happily be looking for more of it. And can only mean good things for basketball and the world!

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A Conversation with Mark Jackson

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on June 2, 2014

(I rec’d this in an email the day after the Spurs put away the Thunder.)

After last night’s thrilling OT victory by the Spurs (an NTL team if ever there was), I called my good friend Mark Jackson to get his “take” on it.

“John,” he said, “Before the game, I told everybody who would listen and the rest of y’all that if the Spurs were going to beat OKC and advance to the finals, Tim Duncan was going to have to play Tim Duncan basketball. And guess what happened? The game was almost lost and then in OT Tim Duncan started to play Tim Duncan basketball (just like I drew it up) and they won.”

“So, John, do you know why the Spurs won?”

“Because Tim Duncan played Tim Duncan basketball?”

“Right! Anything else?”

“They got it done on both ends of the court?”


Then, I called up legendary NTL coach, Coach B., and asked him what he thought of the game.

“Timmy came to one of our first NTL camps. He was kind of a diamond in the rough. Almost useless in the post. On the first day of camp, I explained to the campers that the ‘great one’s use the glass’. Well, that must’ve stuck with Timmy because on championship Sunday he banked in a couple to help lead his team to victory. I don’t remember much else except he got top ranks for coachability. He was also the first and last to receive an award named after himself.

“Not everyone who goes to NTL camp can expect a hall-of-fame career in the NBA. It’s nice when it happens though.”

John Poplett, shoo-in for NTL Weekend Camp Hall of Fame, Chicago (laced ‘em up at NTL Lakeside many an April)

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A Basketball Confession

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on March 26, 2014

A dozen or so years ago, before Steve Nash’s NBA MVP seasons, a former player of mine at Harvard, Keith Webster ’87, said something to me that I still think about every now and then. Keith was a great player at Harvard: all-Ivy; 1000+ points scorer; came within a whisker, actually someone else’s guaranteed contract whisker, of making the Utah Jazz; son of a legendary coach and a student of the game. Keith also has worked the vast majority of our NTL Santa Barbara Weekend Camps the past 20 years. I consider him a very good friend.

So, circa 2000, just around the time people were really starting to be wowed by Steve Nash’s play, Keith, during a break at one of the camps, said, “you know, Coach, Steve Nash’s game reminds of me of your game, except you lack his toughness”. My first thought was: “I’m a better, more creative passer than Nash”. Second thought, the one that has stuck with me: “What’s he mean ‘lack his toughness'”? Keith is probably 3 inches taller than me and he’s got me by at least 30 lbs but I grabbed him by the neck anyway, and threw him to the ground. Well, actually, I didn’t, and couldn’t have, but would that have proved him wrong about my toughness? Didn’t I have a reputation, formed after college and in the million pick-up games I’d played since, of the guy most likely to get in a roll-on-the-floor, need-to-be-separated-from-the-other guy scrape? Furthermore, did I not utter a word, in the last pick-up game I played against Keith (a few years after he’d graduated and when I, at 39 y/o, was at my peak as a player), when he poked my crossover away and I separated my shoulder while diving for the ball so he wouldn’t get it? Not a peep came out through pain. (That shoulder still bothers me.) Wasn’t that tough? And how many times did I have to break my nose (2 and counting) to prove my toughness?

I admire Steve Nash’s shooting form. I’ve studied it and that form is what we teach at the Never Too Late Basketball Camps and Clinics: Elbow under the ball, opposite elbow up and out, shooting forearm straight as the walls around you. Up and out and follow-through. Here’s one question I’d have for Nash: did he start fights on the court in high school and college? Fights that he had no intention of finishing or continuing? I confess: My high school team had a center named Uriah Richards. He was 6’4″ maybe 6’5″ and with the hair, the ‘fro, looked 6’8″. I knew whatever I started, he’d finish; pick me up off the heap, toss me aside, and step in. Could this be what Keith meant? If so, Keith was right; I wasn’t tough but I sure liked everyone thinking so.

(He actually has said many things to me over the years that I think about every now and then – like once telling me that I had “the ugliest shot of any coach he’d ever known” to last year saying I had “perfect form on my shot from the waist up”. Note: I haven’t changed my shot since 6th grade.)

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Michigan State’s Pressure Release Play (with video)

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on November 20, 2013

For some beautiful reason, a reason that makes me feel good about the basketball public out there, this has been one of our most popular posts. One point I did not mention in the first incarnation is that Tom Thibodeau, head coach of the Chicago Bulls and an assistant coach together with me at Harvard in the late 1980s, put this play in for us after getting pressured out of our offense in a tournament in San Francisco.

Here is the the video, a shining example of how to diffuse pressure: Michigan State goes high post backdoor.

The original blog post:

Michigan State Pressure Release PlayIn a recent NTL Boston Advanced Clinic, we set-up a high 1-4 offense to introduce players to the “UCLA cut”. The point guard passes the ball to the wing and then cuts off a high post screen to the block. That cut is the UCLA cut. We talked about the issue of getting the ball to the wing if the defender was overplaying there. What to do? What to do? Here’s what we said:

“Bounce pass it to the high post and on the catch, the wing goes backdoor to get a bounce pass for the score. This ‘pressure release’ play is a play that has been around a long time and it’s one that teams like to use coming out of a time-out, if the other team has been overplaying or are all jacked up, for some reason. You make them pay for taking away your pass to the wing.”

So, there I was last night, watching the Michigan State/Carolina game in the 2nd round of The Tournament. Carolina, of course, is pressuring Drew Neitzel and all the other Spartans everywhere and, then, time-out with about 2:30 left in the first half. Feeling somewhat drugged from the previous six hours of watching hoops, I open one eye to see MSU go 1-4, bounce pass to the high post, bounce pass to the cutting wing backdoor for the score. I wanted to email and phone everyone in the clinic and say, “did you see that? Did you see that? That’s how it works!” Instead, I high-fived my wife, low-pawed the dog, got back into the game. State ran the same play at least three more times, all with varying degrees of success (and with an eventual new wrinkle or two). That play brought to mind the Michigan State/Princeton match-up in the first round of the NCAA’s in 1998 when Michigan State turned the table on The Tigers, and in the process totally demoralized them, beat them at their own game, by scoring off that same high post pressure release play backdoor for the last play of the half.

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A Passion for the Game, A Passion for People

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on November 19, 2013

IMG_5055.JPGIn the pros, I get it; it does not necessarily follow that to absolutely thrive you need to care as much about the people as you do the game. Yes, to build “team” you need trust, and you need some major level of trust to win. (Jordan had to trust Paxson; Bird had to trust DJ, etc.) But, you could be traded at any moment; so could your teammates. There’s that issue of the big contract you are trying to win, and your family, your reputation, your legacy. I think in the pros you are not playing – not loving – the game because of those around you.

College? Maybe a little tighter. You might room together, maybe take some classes together. Spend a year or two or four with the same crew. But is there a commitment to the game that comes directly because of who you will see on the court the next time you go there? College teammates are surely close but the reasons to play are many: yes, your teammates, but also the scholarship, the fans, your parents.

The regular pickup game is another story. Here’s one of those stories:

The Mayor and her people lacing them up.

We see this connection between a passion for the game and a passion for people every time we step on the court at Never Too Late Basketball, whether it be a weekend camp, clinic, or the Play Forever League. There’s a beauty to the game and the recreational player gets to feel that every time he walks onto the court, every time she huddles, every moment shared after the game to talk about, to relive, those moments. It’s a precious thing to play basketball for fun made all the more precious because the essence of this game is to share it – on the court and off – with others.


Posted in beautiful basketball, general improvement, without the ball | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The State of the Celtics (from the floor)

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on November 14, 2013

As of their first home game this year, their streak of sellouts stretching back to 2008 ended. I have been a season ticket holder for 15 years. Because of my lofty senior status (and the $$$ I have shelled out over those years) and their need to fill seats and to keep season ticket holders happy amidst the – ahem – rebuilding year, I got a call from the Celtic ticket office yesterday asking if I wanted two floor seats, 2nd row, under the basket near the visitors’ bench. Face value $575/seat. For free. I called my wife to see if she wanted to go. 90 minutes later she took this picture from our seats. Ainge At one point, she commented on how Ainge must be so wired into every play, every move, every gesture (it was interesting to see how many times players glanced ever so quickly and involuntarily at Ainge seeking, I dunno, affirmation? This includes former players like Al Jefferson and Ramon Sessions) and I said, “nah,” I didm’t think he looked it. After the way they played (89-83 loss to the team with the worst 10 year record in NBA history), it had me wondering if tanking is half the plan, and if it is, it allows Ainge to take a play or quarter off every now and again. What I saw was a GM not too concerned about losing. Image 2

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Sins of the Recreational Basketball Player (4th in a series)

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on November 14, 2013

Sometimes in a scrimmage in our NTL Weekly clinics in Boston or at our Saturday morning Play Forever League (PFL) or even at one of our Weekend Camps, I’ll see a player get a perfect in-stride, on-the-money pass which they then turn into a two points. That’s nice, but the problem comes when the player who scored ignores the fact that the basket would not have happened were it not for that sweet pass. It is a sin, a cardinal sin, a venal near mortal sin, not to say “nice pass” or slap five or do a face-to-face wiggle. Something.

My understanding is that the whole notion of reconnecting with the passer after the score started with Red Auerbach and the Celts of the 50s. (Yes, I know there are a lot of California people reading this but, I know they know, if they really think about it, that neither Pat Riley nor Phil Jackson invented the game or even one good thing about it). Red on Roundball‘s idea was that it built camaraderie, trust and encouraged the repetition of that good thing that just happened: sharing the ball; a virtue central to the success of any basketball team. Think about pick up basketball, especially with people you don’t know (the best pick up games): saying “good pass” reinforces that and it’s more likely to happen again. Which means you’re more likely to win which means you’ll be happier, too.

The dark or darker side is that person who just won’t say it. A basketball pariah; a troglodyte. A selfish, enabled, pathetic and lost soul who thinks we should all worship him. Or her. I don’t know much about Rick Barry except he was a prolific scorer and it seemed players, both the opponents and his teammates, didn’t like him. (I remember a game in the late 70s when the Celtics were at their worst; they had Sidney Wicks and Curis Rowe and they were playing the Warriors. Wicks decks Rick Barry, just lays him out. Boom to the chin and he’s down. Not one player from the Warriors – Barry’s team! – went over to pick him up or confront Wicks.) I have feeling Rick Barry never said “nice pass”.

Posted in beautiful basketball, general improvement, passing | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

A Bus Ride to Mecca

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on November 12, 2013

How many buses will we need? 30? 40? Who is with me? We are going to Terre Haute to stand before, to pay homage to, to relive that year, to youtube that journey – let us pause to wipe the bottoms of our sneakers, you are wearing sneakers, aren’t you? – the 17 foot (why only 17 feet?) statue of Larry Bird at Indiana State University unveiled the day, November 9, 2013, that the new Celtics, the sons of Brad Stevens, took down the Heat.

Read the article and tell me that you 100% agree with Bill Walton (and had you not read his quote that you would have said the same thing): “It’s a great day, not just for Indiana State, not just for the state of Indiana, but for the world.”

Chills. I got the chills.

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Of All the Things That Could Have Gone Wrong (Celts vs Heat, 11/09/13)

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on November 10, 2013

Yes, Jeff Green hit the three pointer at the buzzer (well, with about 0.2 secs left) to beat the two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat, but what are the things that could have gone wrong but went right for the Celtics? And what is the one thing that no one is talking about?* (see no. 5*)

1. Dwayne Wade could have made both free throws with 0.6 secs left putting the game out of reach;

2. Dwayne Wade could have hit the rim and the Celtics would have lost at least another 0.3 secs (the required time that would elapse on a time-out for a ball rebounded after a missed free throw). Possible that the ball would have been tipped and not cleanly secured meaning if he hits the rim, game over;

3. Chris Bosh could have tipped the long (50-55′) pass from Gerald Wallace. I watched many slow motion replays and it looks to me that he missed it by less than an inch;

4. LeBron James could have not bitten or stepped toward the cutting Jordan Crawford (who had rec’d a baseline cross screen from Avery Bradley and a stationary screen from Kelly Olynyk) thereby giving Green the extra step away that allowed him to free himself and catch and get the shot off (which he did with amazing efficiency);

5*. The ref could have called 5 secs. Wallace held the ball out-of-bounds for more than 5 secs after receiving the ball. Ouch!!! The rule says (Rule 8, Sec 3a) “The throw-in starts when the ball is at the disposal of a player entitled to the throw-in. He shall release the ball inbounds within 5 seconds from the time the throw-in starts.” I replayed it at least 6 times and it never came in under 5.21 secs. Live, I was counting it out, panicking; it seemed close. A referee counting it out in his head and swinging his arm each time in an approximation of a second five times is just another thing – a big thing – that cost Miami the game and handed a great win to a resurgent group of New Celtics.

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Harvard’s March Madness Win and the NTL Weekend Camps

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on March 22, 2013

Though I coached at Harvard for seven years, since then I haven’t always been a fan of the team or rooted for them, after all, by not giving me the head coaching job way-back-when, they essentially fired me. (Thereby waiting much, much longer to get to the NCAAs then the should have!!!) But after they gave Tommy Amaker the job, a guy I knew from when he was an assistant at Duke and I at Harvard, I started to warm up to the program again. His top two assistants have run many NTL clinics in Boston the past few years and do a great work. It’s been fun to reconnect.

So, other than liking Amaker and his assistants what made me excited about Harvard’s great win last night? (You did watch it, didn’t you?) Not their mascot; they don’t have one. Not their pep band; they are more like a chamber music ensemble. Nope, it was the way they played and the way they played is exactly what we preach and teach at the Never Too Late Basketball Camps. They won because of strict adherence to fundamentals, the same fundamentals that can help you play better and enjoy the game longer: excellent floor spacing and ball movement on offense; understanding and executing roles and responsibilities and goals on defense. Plus they’ve worked on sills. Plus they shot well, but a big reason they shot well is they shot in rhythm, never forcing a shot or taking a shot they don’t practice. It was beautiful.

After drills and skills and getting players to pay attention to the small stuff during those practice sessions, we run four sets of “coached scrimmages” at the weekend camps. By the time the Sunday morning scrimmage rolls around, we expect to see some of what we saw from Harvard last night: patience; spacing; a willingness to trust teammates and to move the ball; a belief and understanding of what you are trying collectively to accomplish on defense.

Plus we have a cool NBA style Three-Pont Shooting Contest, the winner of which this year will get the “Laurent Rivard Award”! (That kid can shoot!)

Posted in beautiful basketball, defense, general improvement, notes: college & pro, shooting | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »


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