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Archive for December, 2008

The Harvard FT Shooters (NCAA History’s Best)

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on December 22, 2008

I know the answer to great team free throw shooting; learned it from Frank McLaughlin (my freshmen coach at Fordham), head coach at Harvard when the ’83-’84 Harvard men’s basketball team set the all-time NCAA Division I Free Throw record (that still stands today): 82.2%. 

Coaches employ many different methods to improve their teams’ free throw chances: every player has to come to the gym at 7am twice a week to shoot a hundred (which coaches then chart and post); make ten straight before you leave the gym at the end of every practice (got that one from Jim McDonald, former head coach at Kent State); shoot FTs when players are tired after tough drills (to mimic game conditions); pluck a player and make everyone run a suicide if the player misses; shooting games like S-W-I-S-H (+1 for a swish, -1 for a miss, 0 for a make that isn’t a perfect swish; +6 wins, players shot 2 at a time and switch). Harvard used none of these strategies.

How did they do it? Well, Harvard’s all-time leading scorer (1,880 points) and certified stud (30 pts versus Duke in the greatest loss ever at Briggs Cage), Joe Carrabino, tied for 2nd in the nation at 90.5% (with Chris Mullin, “Dream Teamer”, Basketball God who everyone in Boston saw play in his high school days in the old Boston Shootout long ago). Bob Ferry (who taught little brother, Danny, future NCAA Player of the Year at Duke  everything he knew) was 4th at 90.3%. Arne Duncan (everybody’s favorite Obama Cabinet hoopster) and Duncan’s co-captain, never-say-die cohort, Keith Webster, each shot 86.7%. (Pat Smith, point guard, and for whom career stats seem elusive, got to the line rarely but never missed.) At season’s end, a writer from a national concern called Coach McLaughlin wanting to write a story on how they did it. He asked what secrets there were, what magic applied, or at least what special or innovative shooting drills they used. McLaughlin answered, “we didn’t do anything, nothing at all; they’re just great shooters.” The writer wasn’t buying it; maybe it has something to do with the innate intelligence of the players, you know . . . Harvard??? “Doubt it”, Frank said, “there have been plenty of Harvard teams that didn’t break free throw records or even shoot particularly well. Sorry, but the answer is these guys just happened to be great shooters.”

So, there it is. Frank McLaughlin, an innovative, smart, schooled-on-the-NYC playgrounds coach who had been a great player (and great shooter) at Fordham could not and would not take credit for a great thing his team had accomplished. But thinking back on that group over the years, and witnessing other teams, college and pro, go through their ups and downs at the line, during games and over the course of a season, I’ve often wondered what else came into play that year. This: I think it was all in the collective head of that team: the psyche, the ego, the competitive spirit, the unique motivation each player possessed, and the intuition McLaughlin applied. 

Nobody wanted to be the guy who missed. Just as missing in games is contagious, making them was contagious for that team. It all started with the big guy, Carrabino. Joe Carrabino had an ego the size of the centuries old campus and nerves of – well, no nerves as we know them. How’s this for proof? He made 50something straight free throws in the last 4 minutes of games over his last 2 seasons. (Let us pause for a moment to consider that . . . carve a spot for Joe Carrabino at Mount Rushmore.) Ferry, low-key and fun-loving was a close second fiddle, if you can imagine being recruited by Dean Smith and UNC and then be the sweet second option at Harvard. Smooth, perfect shooting form/stroke, my take is he was quiet about it, but he had things to prove and one of them was: if Carrabino could make all his free throws, so could he. Duncan, of course, had lots to prove, like whether he belonged there in the first place. (That’s what happens when you play JV your freshman year.) Miss your free throws and your spot becomes suspect. Plus it would be just embarrassing, wouldn’t it? Webster, the youngster of the group, was like the kid brother trying to prove he could play with the older kids in the neighborhood. Competitive, tough and tireless as a dog on the hunt, son of a 600+ win college coach, Webster wasn’t going to miss many. And Pat Smith, tenacious defender, ball distributor, like Ferry a proud product of Dematha Catholic, the “fifth starter” had no choice but to uphold his end of the bargain. Okay, maybe he wasn’t going to score as much but if he made his free throws he would once again prove his worth. In the end, they made their free throws because the other guys were making their free throws. Sure they had the strokes, the good technique, but they also, individually, had the critical mindset: that at this one simple doable task, they would not fail. It was pride, ego, competition, individual and collective desire; it was contagious and important. And it was record breaking. And McLaughlin knew enough to let them be.

Note No. 1: how many coaches in the past 24 years have challenged their teams to break Harvard’s record, set that very specific goal? I think that simple step, that simple clearly defined motivation would get some team in the record book pretty fast, plus help win some extra games. 

Note No. 2: I think the presence of Ray Allen and his career 90%+ free throw percentage proved motivational for Paul Pierce last year. Pierce went from 76% in ’05-’06 and 79% in ’06-’07 to 84% last year, the year that Ray Allen and his gaudy numbers showed up. Pierce changed his set-up: a more methodical, more one-foot-directly-in-front-of-the-other, Jeff Hornacek type set-up plus an exaggerated follow-through to get the results he had to have to be in the good company of Allen.

Posted in notes: college & pro, shooting | Tagged: , , , , | 15 Comments »

Rondo Redux

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on December 21, 2008

Went to the Knicks at Celts game tonight. Glad to report Rondo eschewed ‘the move” tonight. Didn’t need it even once as he controlled the game, beating Duhon and Robinson off the dribble 4 straight possessions in the 2nd half. 26 points, 6 or so rebounds and assists. It’s good to know he reads this blog and follows so closely the advice given here. (Smiley face inserted.)

Fun and interesting game, by the way. From Nate Robinson hanging from the rim with two hands during just about the entire Celtics’ starting five introduction to David Lee swatting a well-after-the-whistle shot by Eddie House to Quentin Richardson yapping non-stop to a follow-up rebound one-hand tomahawk by the super-diminutive Robinson (who has got A-T-T-I-T-U-D-E). Because our seats are close to the visitors’ bench, witnessed the Knicks’ respecting and listening to D’Antoni during time-outs. There’s gonna be a good club in The Apple before very long. Right now they have no size and no defender in the backcourt.

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The Rondo Move That Rankles Me

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on December 19, 2008

I love Rondo, I really do. The way he pulls down rebounds he has no right to have even a hand on; his nose for loose balls that is better than anyone since Jason Kidd in his prime; the clean strips of pro ball handlers at halfcourt (so nakedly embarrassing); his ability to get anywhere he wants with the dribble; his never changing demeanor. Still, he does one thing that just sort of irks me and I don’t know exactly why. It’s that fake-behind-the-back-pass that he invariably does three or four times a game. 

I’m not quite sure why it bugs me. It’s a fairly common playground move, been around 20-30 years: you stick the ball (helpful if you have big hands or a sticky ball – Spalding TF-1000s are good for it) between your hand and forearm and go to make the behind-the-back pass and just pull it back. Maybe it’s because I’m surprised that NBA defenders, players who HAVE TO had read in the scouting reports – “Rondo loves to fake the behind the back pass with his right hand; don’t go for it, you’ll look stupid” – but they still go for it. Didn’t these guys listen when being taught the fundamentals – play the ball handler’s bellybutton? Hasn’t that been taught since time immemorial (in other words, since when I was a kid)? That move, that fake is akin to the fake two-handed pass, the one when the defender’s in your chest and the ball’s over your head and you put the ball with a pass fake behind the defender. When the defender turns around, you shoot and, more importantly, make the defender look stupid. That move, that fake pass is now passé, went out with Bird and the wee shorts. But that’s the whole idea: make the defender look really stupid. I kind of feel like the “fake-behind-the-back-pass” falls into the same category. It always elicits ooohs and ahhhs from the crowd like the Globetrotters sticking the ball under the guy’s shirt. I understand it’s occasionally effective, but I’m adamant in my belief that against a fundamentally sound and alert player, it would not or should not be. Maybe that’s what really bugs me: NBA players’ lack of fundamentals exposed. Also, since it’s a boutique move shouldn’t he reserve it for special occasions, not wear it out, save it for when it’s really needed?

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Where Does Rondo Rank?

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on December 18, 2008


Augie Picks One Off

Augie Picks One Off

There’s been a lot of talk recently here in Boston about the emergence of Rajon Rondo, talk that places him among the top point guards in the NBA. Celtics’ teammates are pushing for him to be a possible “fourth Celtic” at the All-Star game. Last week, pre-game, Tommy Heinsohn, Celtic broadcaster said Rondo was the top point guard in the East and among the top three in the league. Of course, Heinsohn (great player in his time and innovative coach) is famous (or infamous) for being a “homer” and is prone to hyperbolic parochial projections. (I remember he once declared that Vitaly Nikolaevich Potapenko – for whom they traded away the rights to Andre Miller – would be a top-five NBA center. Always easily influenced, the next day, in a field near my house, I declared, Augie, my Brittany Spaniel, in the top three frisbee catchers nationally.) 


Undeniably, Rondo has come a long way. His first year, he split time, actually backed up, at the point with someone who wasn’t even a point guard: Delonte West. (What is a point guard? Someone whose DNA instructs them to get in the lane and draw defenders for the expressed intent of dishing to the open man. This is what they are bred to do. Delonte West who I love as a player was not wired this way.) Next year (last year) he found himself in heaven, a sort of probationary heaven. Surrounded by three future Hall of Famers, his job was to play to his skills, not try to do too much, move the ball, distribute the ball, disrupt defensively, gather bonus “effort stats”, set and control tempo (whether fast or slow). If he could do this, and he certainly could have assumed lots of pressure and succumbed to that, then life would be good. He pulled it off; he was, at minimum, instrumental in their championship success (even dominating the clinching Game Six versus the didn’t-know-what-hit-’em Lakers).

Still, when it comes to ranking players, it comes down to this: who would you trade for him, straight-up? Rather, let’s put it this way: what coach would trade – let’s say for the remainder of this season and the whole following year, enough time to blend – their point guard for Rajon Rondo? (Putting aside fan hysteria, player popularity, etc. The only criteria for the coach would be: can Rajon Rondo do more good things for my team than the point guard I have now?) His ranking would thus be one below the number of coaches who would not trade for him. So, in no particular order:

1. would Byron Scott let go of CP for RR?

2. Coach Popovich says au revoir to Tony Parker?

3. the Suns trade Steve Nash, two-time MVP, straight up for Rajon?

4. George Karl trades Chanucy “Big Shot” Billups to the Celts for the former Kentucky Wildcat?

5. Mo Cheeks Tony DiLeo trade Vitaly Potapenko, I mean, Andre Miller for Ragin’ Rondo?

6. Rondo coveted by the even more diminutive Lawrence Frank for Devin Harris?

7. How about Derrick Rose in Green? Would Vinny Del Negro become the 7th coach fired this year?

8. What would Jerry Sloan do with RR instead of Deron Williams?

9. Baron Davis?

10. Jason Kidd/José Calderon/TJ Ford/DJ Augustin?

So, does Rajon crack the top ten? Maybe, depending on team’s needs. I love Rondo, but, really, if you’re talking top five or top three – I don’t know, anybody seen my Pooper Scooper around?

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Arne Duncan, Sec’y of Ed, The Basketball Player

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on December 16, 2008

Arne Duncan at Harvard HoopsIn every newspaper and blog announcement, in President-elect Obama’s introduction and even in a question in the press conference following the naming of Arne Duncan as the new administration’s choice as Education Secretary, there has been mention of Arne as a basketball player, a “co-captain at Harvard” and a former overseas player in Australia. What doesn’t come through in any of this is 1) how good Arne really was (and, to some extent, I’m sure, still is) and 2) what that means, if anything, in his new position. That’s a point, after reading my brief (and incomplete history) I will let you decide on your own.

I came upon Arne when he was entering his junior year at Harvard, so what I know of his first two years I learned from others. He apparently came to Harvard, unrecruited, as a gangly, thin, weak 6’2″ player with no chance at making varsity. Most Division I schools don’t even have tryouts and if they do, it is pretty much pro forma. Arne played where he could, which meant JV. According to Julio Diaz, then the 2nd assistant (and now an assistant athletic director at Fordham) and thus in charge of the junior varsity, Arne was a “gym rat” and averaged something like 30+ points per game is freshman year. Harvard then under head coach, Frank McLaughlin, was on something of an upswing and after Arne’s freshman year, he was given no promises – and might have even been discouraged – regarding making the varsity squad the next year. (Here’s a funny story: Arne, it should be noted, spent all his basketball playing time in inner-city Chicago, seeking out  and playing with the best. Inner-city in Chicago means Polish-Americans and African-Americans. Let’s just say Arne wasn’t playing with the Polish kids. Hanging in those neighborhoods, Arne developed a manner of speaking that belied his ancestry. He sounded like “a brother”. Following his freshman year, desperate to prove he could play Division I, Arne, having grown now to 6’4″, got on the phone with a bunch of Ivy league schools and their basketball coaches. Sometime later, pre-season, Tom Miller, head coach at Cornell was talking with Coach McLaughlin about this and that and, as an aside asked, “who’s this, Arne Duncan, who called asking to transfer?” McLaughlin apparently gave his description of Arne and Miller said, “but he’s a black kid”. And McLaughlin said “no, he’s a white kid”. And Miller said again, “got to be a black kid, I talked with him”. And McLaughlin had to explain, “no, he just talks like that because that’s where he’s from”! Later in his career, Arne dropped 26 points on Cornell at Cornell, letting Coach Miller know exactly who he was.)

Arne came back sophomore year and made the varsity. By the end of the year, he was 6’5″ and starting on a team that finished very strong, winning 8 of the last 10 and finishing 9-5 in the Ivies. The next year (my first year on staff), with all the players returning, Harvard started out strong (swept Penn/Princeton at Penn/Princeton, the only time that has been done by any Ivy team EVER) but faltered badly down the stretch; Duncan meanwhile had emerged as a solid Ivy player. With a head coaching change and a bevy of new players, Duncan took the next year off to – take your pick: 1) go back to Chicago to work on his Senior Thesis (which even elicited a mention by Alex Wolff in SI) or 2) give his body another year to mature, allow the young players a year to develop and, finally, play his senior year with his best friend on the team, Keith Webster (future Utah Jazz draft pick).

When Arne and Webster came back in the fall, somehow they got the keys to the gym. Many a night I’d come back from being on the road recruiting, midnight, 1, 2 am and they’d be in the gym working out, doing all-out, game-speed shooting and ball handling drills. This was not something that you’d see at Harvard. You know, libraries open 24/7, all-nighters every night. But down in Briggs Cage working out? Nope. Another thing I remember is in pre-season pick-up games, Arne never called a foul when a defender fouled him. Never. I think he saw it, calling the foul, as an excuse he did not want to use if something had gone wrong – missed a shot, lost the ball or something. No excuses. Play through it. Get the job done. Overcome the obstacles, nobody bailing him out. Excuses equated to failure and he just did not see things that way. He was a brilliant player, smooth, crafty, unfettered by any defensive scheme or outside pressure (he was the top practitioner of what I call “The Sixth Principle of Zone Offense”), teaming with Webster to sweep Penn and Princeton early season in our gym; even pummeled a Pete Carril Princeton team 78-54! Earlier in the season, Arne led The Crimson to a near upset at Boston College, a game in which we had a 9 point second half lead, but faltered in the end, 87-86. During one stretch, Arne scored 14 straight points by himself. I mean no one else scored from either team (one being a Big East team). Somehow, on our last possession, we neglected to run the play for Duncan. Our bad.

The season sort of went downhill from there; it was too bad. We lost a couple of games and the coaching staff didn’t/couldn’t figure out how to get the players going in the same direction as the coaching staff thought it should go. Duncan grew much closer to Assistant Coach Tom Thibodeau (now regarded as the top assistant in the NBA, with the Celtics, and seen as the “guru”  behind their defensive schemes). Duncan worked hard in the off-season with Thibs (as we called him) to prepare for CBA tryouts but ultimately played four seasons in the top-tier Australian Pro League.

The reason Arne Duncan was/is (after pro ball, he teamed with Craig Robinson – Obama’s brother-in-law and a great, great Ivy league player at Princeton – and two others to win multiple Hoop-It-Up National titles) a great player is because the game and what the game requires suites him to perfection. It’s cliché, but it’s team game; no way Arne Duncan gets any good at golf or tennis or, god forbid, downhill skiing. It’s the perfect game for someone who understands what working hard will do for you and is ready then to do that work. It’s a game that if you can see the possibilities where maybe others don’t see it – in the angles, in the subtle change of speed and change of direction, in the gaps and openings, in the beauty and satisfaction that comes with a shot made or a pass completed, in the pulling together, in the belief of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, in the knowledge that there are lots of ways to get the job done. Arne Duncan was not a great talent, but boy, did he understand and see deep into the game. I think he believed in the game and in his belief that he could be very, very good at it even while others might not have thought so. Isn’t that what great teachers, what great educators possess? The unwavering belief that their pupils can and should and will succeed.

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College Hoops In Beantown, 12/10/08

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on December 11, 2008

Northeastern vs Harvard. A low-major collegiate basketball game. A drizzly Wednesday night. Why was Bob Ryan there? Why were we there? I asked someone who Ryan talked to for most of the half-time, “What’s Bob Ryan doing here?” Turns out he considered Bryant at BC – “interesting because of the Timmy O’Shea  thing (local product, played and assistant coached at BC) but not going to be a game”. Thought about Yale at BU – “not going to be a game; Yale (2-6) is off to a bad start this year – ehhhh”.  So, as it was for Commissioner Ryan it was for me and my wife and a couple basketball friends, a nice little crosstown collegiate basketball battle. A phone call to get the tickets, a quick drive and an easy park to see what promised (and proved) to be a very interesting game between two teams that really, really wanted to win.

The Northeastern Huskies came in 4-4 including an impressive win at Providence. The Crimson, meanwhile, were presenting evidence stating that the long road back to respectability was about to begin, 4-2. A good effort at Colorado and two road wins gave that notion credence. Northeastern is coached by long-time BC Assistant, Bill Coen, and Harvard, of course, by the big-time, big-name, Dukie Tommy Amaker; a couple of guys looking to build (in Amaker’s case) or resurrect (in Coen’s) programs. Northeastern is led by a nice scoring junior two-guard named Matt Janning who scored his 1000th point last night. (Fourth quickest to do so in illustrious Northeastern Basketball history.) They also have some nice big rebounders. Harvard is blending new talent (four frosh saw considerable time, two of who were pivotal actors) with some talent left over from the Frank Sullivan regime, primarily their leading scorer, Jeremy Lin (he of the undeniable first step) and a guy who looks like he’s in an Amaker doghouse, the previously effective, and de facto team leader point guard, Drew Housman.

Harvard played man-to-man the whole game and, surprisingly, never pressured the Huskies in the backcourt. Northeastern mixed defenses up by going 3-2 (3-2 match?) with mostly man-to-man. They spaced most of the Harvard perimeter players in the halfcourt. Offensively, Harvard ran lots of screens and some nice pin downs for shooters resulting in clutch baskets. Lin went strong to the hoop whenever he wanted. (The thought occurred to me that some offensive schemes that created more space and movement for Lin’s drives would be nice.) Freshman, Keith Wright, once toughened, will be a very nice player; had a couple nice left-hand finishes. Likewise, Max Kenyi, gave the impression through his hard work on defense on Janning and fearless forays to the hoop, that he has All-Ivy written all over him.

Seesaw game. Harvard dropped three three-pointers in the last 90 secs or so to force OT. Big Kenyi deflection/steal late got them the ball for the last three. End of OT saw Nkem Ojougboh of NU drop a two footer in over the rim to force the second extra frame with 2.7 seconds left. The 2nd OT had Northeastern get second chance points, take advantage of foul situation and they made their free throws. There was only one dunk in the game: Lin on a baseline drive. It was one of those nice surprise-you sort of dunks. Got the 343 fans’ attention.

Faces in the crowd: David Lang, 6’6″ redhead out of Darien CT who started a bunch of games for us in the late 80s. Had a sweet up-and-under move; Harry Parker, the John Wooden of college crew; Tom Mannix, outstanding guard for The Crimson in the late 70s, early 80s; Fran Connolly, big-time (Elite Eight of the NCAAs) referee and my former landlord who, early in his career did a bunch of our games; we never mentioned to anyone that I lived in the same house as him (and we never got calls from ’em!); Charlie Diehl, former assigner of officials when I was coaching. (Once called the Harvard AD on me, saying I was “out-of-control” with the officials; I was.) The aforementioned Bob Ryan, true basketball historian. My favorite columns of his are the ones from The Olympics.

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