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Basketball Origins

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on March 20, 2007

Branch McKracken,

(first in an occasional series)

In the last post, Michigan State’s Pressure Release Play, I didn’t mean to imply that Michigan State and Tom Izzo made this play up. In fact, it and most of what you see college and pro teams run on both offense and defense has been around a long time. Coaches learn from the coaches they worked with or played for, then copy, use and adapt what they learned. I think it would be interesting (and perhaps interesting to pursue more fully at some point) to know who first made up certain offenses (and defenses), and who had the greatest success and popularized a particular offense or defense.

For instance, I was first exposed to that hi-post, wing-goes-backdoor play when I was an assistant at Harvard. My boss, the head coach, Peter Roby, pulled it out when our wings were having a hard time getting open. (Roby LOVED demonstrating the bounce pass from the elbow; he used to do it not looking, back to the basket [not recommended].) Roby played (captain) for Gary Walters at Dartmouth. (Walters was later to be head man at Providence, and now Athletic Director at Princeton and concurrently, Chair of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.) My assumption always was that Robes got it from him. But from whom did Walters learn it? Well, he played in high school for Pete Carril and at Princeton for Butch van Breda Koff. But Roby also was an assistant at Stanford for Dick DiBiaso who had been an assistant to Digger Phelps at Notre Dame and Digger worked for Dick Harter at Penn. So, maybe it’s a Harter-ism? But wait, Roby also assisted Pete Gaudet at West Point and Gaudet had been on Mike Krzyzewski’s staff at Army and, of course, Coach K played for Bob Knight. Now that I think of it, Knight always, and much to his credit, attributed Branch McKracken the legendary Indiana player and coach from the 30’s for innovation in the game. Was McKracken the original 1-4 man? Hold it! Didn’t McKracken play for Everett Case? And where was Hank Iba during all this? Well, now we’re going way back. Who then is the original innovator, the one from whom most of this emanates? No idea, but the point is little under the basketball sun is new and coaches smoothly pass good ideas from one generation to the next like a baton. That’s it, I’m gonna check Rutherford B. Hayes’ (any relation to The Big “E”?) Inaugural Address and make sure he didn’t sneak something in there about beating pressure for easy scores.

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5 Responses to “Basketball Origins”

  1. Damian said

    I find it fascinating and inspiring that you were able to go to other coaches’ practices (as you’ve outlined before) while being an assistant at a potentially rival college. Speaks volumes to the giving nature of the game.


  2. John Klein said

    Just today I was talking to my son about Pete Carrill and the Princeton offense. We were talking about the chances of the Marist College women beating their next opponent. What was the exact quote from Mr. Carrill? I told my son it was,”The strong steal from the weak but the smart steal from the strong”.


  3. It’s from the title of his book: "The Smart Take From the Strong". I loved the book but the part I liked best was when he said the teams that gave them the most trouble seemed to be the teams that were “helter skelter”. At Harvard Basketball, we were nothing if not helter skelter. I swear, I am certain, he was talking about us. After all, we did manage to beat them four years in a row, sometimes telling our players to do things in games, run certain defenses for instance, that WE hadn’t even practiced. And if we barely knew what we were doing, how could they know and therefore be prepared for it? Impossible.


  4. Damian – – Another way of looking at it is, they weren’t particularly threatened by us! A lot of the “going to other teams’ practices” was a function of in those days, the start date for practices was a uniform October 15th for all Division One schools; however, the Ivies, in their never ending quest to be different, to stand apart, started a week later. Aha! The Harvard Athletic Department, to their everlasting credit, paid for the coaching staff to travel to different programs (“professional development”), with those programs coaches’ permission, of course, to “observe” their practices. I knew Coach K and his top assistant at that time, Pete Gaudet, (one of THE ABSOLUTE BEST people I ever met in coaching) from their association with Roby and my having worked Duke’s camps for years, so I went and watched Duke for a bunch of seasons. We also went to BC when Gary Williams was there (we lost by one to them a few weeks after that) and, as mentioned elsewhere, Providence when Pitino was coaching. For a young coaching staff as we were, it was invaluable, a coaching experience of a lifetime.


  5. Greg Herr said

    Helter skelter? That explains Harvard 105, Penn 97 at the Palestra when you were at Harvard. Wish I had been at the game, but eventually I had to leave Penn and get on with my life. Is there a game tape for that one out there?

    You and Adam seem to differ on how much confusion you can tolerate to bring the tempo of the game up. Maybe coaching high-schoolers (or NTLers), eventually you get tired of the turnovers.

    There’s also some odd sense of relativity at play here. When my wife comes to a game, sometimes I’ll ask her afterwards, “Did you see me running out there?” and she’ll reply, “I saw you walking.” Ouch.


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