Monday, January 24, 2011


With the temperatures outside dropping to nearly her age, sixth-grader Grace sat on the gym floor as basketball practice ended and made this statement: "I really want some ice cream."

TigerBlog, her coach, looked at her and came back with this: "If you live to be 100 years old, always remember that it's never too cold for ice cream or too hot for soup."

Coaching kids - boys or girls - is not an easy proposition, and TigerBlog has had considerable experience in this arena. There are all kinds of issues for the youth coach, such as how competitive to make things, what messages are being sent, how to balance playing time, how to deal with parents whose ideas might be contrary to the coaches', how to deal with opposing coaches and refs, how to teach kids about the value of sportsmanship.

That last one is even more difficult when almost everything young athletes see on TV is the opposite of good sportsmanship. In fact, television seems not only to show but also to glorify the me-first, let-me-taunt-you nonsense that has infested professional sports, especially football.

Look at yesterday's Packers-Bears game. It was 14-7 Packers with the Bears backed up near the goal line with Caleb Hanie, their No. 3 quarterback, who had almost no NFL experience. What happens? He throws an interception to Green Bay lineman B.J. Raji.

And what happens next? Of course. Raji holds the ball out in front of him with one hand and starts to slow down as he nears the goal line. Luckily for him, he had to go 18 yards instead of 19, because Hanie caught him just after he got to the end zone and knocked the ball away. Had that been just before he got to the end zone and the ball had gone out of bounds in the end zone, it would have been a touchback for the Bears.

This is to get into the Super Bowl. And this is a defensive lineman who isn't used to carrying the ball. Is it asking too much to protect it and then hustle into the end zone, rather than showboat?

And can one of the TV announcers call Raji out on this, or is that asking too much?

How many kids watched the play and now want to emulate it? How hard is it going to be for their coaches to get them away from that mindset?

TigerBlog has tried to stick with the idea that teaching them the right way to play, physically and mentally, is the most important thing a youth coach can do.

TB isn't a huge fan of leagues that don't keep score of games, largely because everyone there is keeping score anyway and because it's important for kids to be learn how to win and how to lose. Too often in today's world, kids are rewarded for doing nothing other than being there, and the critical idea that you have to work to improve and ultimately be successful gets lost in that thinking.

For kids up through sixth grade, for TB the main goal is to get them to want to play again next year, because they had a good experience this year. For seventh/eighth graders, especially the stronger ones, TB thinks that that is the age when they should start to learn what it might be to compete on the high school level and therefore he tries to prepare them for that.

All of which brings us back to Grace and her eight fifth/sixth grade girls' basketball teammates. This is an in-house league, not a travel league.

TigerBlog, long ago brainwashed by the Pete Carril/Bill Carmody/John Thompson/etc. approach to basketball, had it in his mind that he could incorporate elements of Princeton basketball into his 5/6 grade team, including something as benign as layup lines. Instead of having the players dribble in and shoot the layup. TB has them pass from one line to another, receive the pass back and then shoot the layup.

For TB, isn't simply the idea of using pieces of Princeton basketball because of his Princeton connections. No, it's more because they are at their core based on simple philosophies - pass, cut, dribble, shoot, defend - and TB figured they'd be easy for 5/6 grade girls to pick up on.

Immediately, he ran into a few problems. First, the court is narrower than a regular court, which affects the ability to have good spacing. Second, for kids in this age group, boys and girls, dribbling is probably the toughest of all the skills.

TB backed off some of his thoughts of Princetonian grandeur early on, concentrating instead of trying to run a pick-and-roll or to free up the girl bringing the ball up the court by setting a pick for her as she reached the defense, which can't guard in the backcourt.

All that really ended up happening, though, was that the person who brought the ball up would get stuck 20 feet from the basket after picking up her dribble, and yet the girls would still try to set picks for her or, beyond that, simply run to the ball.

To counter this, TB tried to introduce the concept of setting a screen away from the ball and having someone curl off of that screen to get a pass. Here, though, the lack of spacing came into play; with so many players in such a small area, there are few clean passing lanes.

And then it came to TB the other night in practice.


When people think of Princeton basketball, they think of the backdoor pass for the layup, which comes when the defender gets caught up "ball-watching." Only after it is too late does the poor, exposed defender realize that the offensive player has already cut and is about to receive a pass for an uncontested layup or dunk.

Princeton - and Georgetown, Northwestern, Mercer County College and the rest - run this in a bunch of different ways. It could be that the person with the ball dribbles right at another defender and then makes the pass after the teammates cuts behind, for instance.

What all of these plays have in common is that they come without a screen. They're all done off of cuts. In fact, TB wishes he had $5 for every time he heard Carmody yell "hard cuts" during a game.

Another way that Princeton runs this is its center-forward play, which basically has a guard get to the ball to the center, who starts on the low block and then comes up to the elbow. The center than passes to the cutting forward, who comes from the wing as the center is getting the ball. Bang-bang.

Arguably the single most famous play in the history of Princeton basketball - TB is hard-pressed to think of another one that equals it - is Gabe Lewullis' layup against UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament.

The play came with the score 41-41, after UCLA had led a few minutes earlier at 41-34. Princeton came back on a long three-pointer by now-head coach Sydney Johnson and then layups by Steve Goodrich (great feed from Chris Doyal) and Johnson (after a Mitch Henderson steal).

As an aside, TB is pulling the play-by-play from memory. It's seared into his brain.

UCLA had two chances in the final minute, first when Johnson intentionally fouled Cameron Dollar, who then missed both foul shots, and then when Kris Johnson's short jumper bounced out and was rebounded by Goodrich. Timeout Princeton with the shot clock off.

As the clock went under 10 seconds, Johnson had the ball and made the pass to Goodrich, who came to the high post. Lewullis made one cut, doubled back and then reversed himself, getting the pass from Goodrich and converting the layup. When Toby Bailey's jump shot sailed long at the buzzer, Princeton had one of the great wins in NCAA tournament history.

But could the 5/6 grade girls execute the same basic play?

TB spent much of practice Friday night trying to figure out if they could. After about 20 minutes, he brought in some of the parents to play defense to see if the girls could make it work against them, and it had limited success, largely because Grace's dad was defending the wing better than Charles O'Bannon had in 1996.

Still, at the game Saturday, TB was ready to try. The first few times, it didn't work, because either the original pass went to the forward or because the forward cut long before the ball came up the court or because the pass to the center was dropped.

At halftime, TB drew it up again. Aileen was to bring the ball up. Grace was to the center. Gianna was to the forward.

This time, everything went perfectly. Aileen's pass to Grace was on the money, and Grace controlled it and turned to immediately pass. Gianna had made her cut at the right time and now had lost her defender, who was focused on Grace and the ball. The pass led Gianna enough, and Gianna caught it all alone and converted the layup.

Okay, so TB's team lost the game. Still, he couldn't help but get the feeling that he'd been successful in a few ways at that moment.

They'd learned how to run the play. They practiced it over and over until they could do it. They translated that into the game.

Most importantly, they'd been successful in doing so. Maybe, in some small way, it got them all to think "hey, if we work in practice and play as a team and I understand my role in all that, then we can get better as a team and I can get better as an individual." Maybe years from now, one or more or even all of them will still have that idea in their heads.

Maybe it won't just be confined to sports.

TB could be dreaming or making way more out of it, but he'd like to think that life lessons have come from less.

Coming next week?


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