Thursday, March 12, 2009

A basketball player sent on the court with rusty fundamentals is a good bet to fail

Got an early copy of James Johnson's soon-to-be-released book "The Dandy Dons."

It chronicles the University of San Francisco basketball teams from the mid-1950s that were coached by Phil Woolpert and featured Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. USF won the NCAA championship in 1955 and 1956. [Coach Woolpert later coached at my alma mater, USD.]

As a side note, Phil's son, Paul, has had a long and successful career in the CBA and D-League.

Here's a good excerpt from the book:


When practice opened in the fall of '53, Woolpert was ready. So were the players, but they didn't know what the coach had in store for them -- in practice or during games. Woolpert had a plan: First he was going to use defense to break up the opposition's attack before it could get set. On offense he wanted to use a balanced floor, with his players working the ball around the court until they got the right shot.

Woolpert had always been a strong advocate of defense and he saw an opportunity to develop his players into an aggressive defensive squad.

"I can't see just standing around and letting the other fellow shoot. To me, it's common sense to try to stop him from scoring. There is a science and a skill to defense. It's what makes the game interesting, not a race from one end of the court to the other for one more basket."

He was also fond of saying, "We figure to have the ball only about half the time in a game, so in practice, we work on defense half the time."

Woolpert was without a doubt a defensive-minded coach. In Woolpert's system, if you couldn't defend, it was unlikely you would get much playing time. He disdained "jackrabbit basketbal," once remarking about the up-tempo offense becoming popular then: "It just isn't good basketball. I wouldn't know how to go about coaching it. You can't expect to execute scoring playing when you're running up and down the court like madmen."

Practice included what Woolpert called the "hands-up" drill. The players would line up with their feet in position, bend their knees, and put one hand high above their heads and the other one out to the side. Then they moved quickly forward or backward, to the left or to the right, at Woolpert's direction.

It was the same drill that Hall of Fame coach Pete Newell used when he was at USF and in 1959 when his Cal team won the NCAA title. Most players introduced to the hands-up drill lasted about three minutes before they begged for mercy, but eventually they could go twenty minutes nonstop. That kind of stamina paid big dividends during the season.

Woolpert was also a stickler for making his players pick up the fundamentals of the game -- dribbling, passing, footwork, and shooting. "A basketball player sent on the court with rusty fundamentals," he said, "is a good bet to fail in his operations."

In addition to sound fundamentals, a team needed talented players and a simple offense and defense. Woolpert believed that regardless of what offense a team used, "the essentially important need is for simplicity and efficiency of operation. If the players know what they are doing, and why, and are impressed with the importance of each move in an overall pattern, the chances of that pattern creating good shot opportunities are excellent."