Contributed by Brett Ayers. Email the author at email@example.com
All good things do, sadly, come to an end. The Roman Empire, the Beatles, Bell Bottoms, even Donnie and Marie. So, too, we have been seeing the slow, but gradually increasing death of fundamental capabilities amongst American ball players.
I go walking down the street during a lovely summer weekend afternoon, strolling by the legendary West 4th street courts in New York City, or "the cage" as it is affectionately known. I sit and watch a game going on as on this shortened court, a kid dribbles the ball down using primarily between the leg dribbles which draws some oohs and aahs from a small crowd of onlookers. As he gets down across the half court and approaches the top of the key he begins to go into a series of herky-jerky dribble moves probably either palming and or caring the ball a good half dozen times during his routine. He has no idea what his teammates are doing or where they are. As he starts to make his move towards the hoop, even though his defender was off far enough for him to take the easy 17 foot jumper, he drives with his head down. If his defender decides to play defense on him and he gets off balance he will then most likely leave his feet to attempt some insanely off balance shot and or will try to make some pass to a teammate who might be cutting if he can spot them quick enough. The entire game is frozen with everyone staring at the ball while this goes on. During this one trip down court there were countless numbers of "fundamental" basketball rules broken.
A few months later I find myself walking down the streets of Spokane, Washington where I am from. I come upon a pick up game going on between kids of all ages. I stop to watch. I see a kid get the ball out of bounds, come down the court going between his legs and behind his back repeatedly without reason. He gets down, jukes, jives and goes basically one on five to only throw up a shot over his shoulder barely being able to see the rim. I shake my head and walk away.
Spokane, New York City; it simply does not matter, we have got ourselves a crisis. This year the crisis deepened with the NBA draft and the world championships. The word is out; native born American ball players do not know how to play basic, fundamental basketball anymore and furthermore do not know how to stop teams who do.
So, with the obvious stated and noted by writers, gurus and coaches from coast to coast what then pretell might be the solution to the problem. I think to understand what the solution is, you first have to understand the problem and what has been the cause and reason of this development. It can still be said, and with a huge measure of absoluteness, that American players are still on the whole the best in the world. Certainly they are the best athletes. But, here is where the problem arises. Athleticism in a somewhat properly called game will rarely, if ever, overcome good fundamental play by the opposing team. Hence you get what we got at the World Championships. People were clamoring from the ranks that we did not have our best there. Oh, we didn't? We had seven NBA all-stars and the guys we were missing, with the exception of Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen, are some of the worst offenders of traveling, shoving off, and poor defense in the entire NBA. (see Chris Webber, Shaq, Kevin Garnett, and Allen Iverson) I am not overly convinced we would have won it all with those guys had the rules of the game been even moderately enforced, unlike in the NBA.
This precipitous drop in the fundamental abilities and understanding of the game of basketball can be traced to two primary culprits. The first culprit is one that has been mentioned more and more and that is the long, drawn out, and multi-teamed summer play that kids are involved with. Kids now are playing with their BCI team, their AAU team, their Vegas team, their Church team and their high school team during the summer. They are often playing anywhere from 3 to 10 games a week saving precious little time and energy for working on the fundamental aspects of the game that will actually make them a better player. In the course of playing those games, most players will be lucky if they see the ball a total of five minutes of game time. Little can and will be learned and developed with such a ratio.
I can not remember the last time I saw a kid at the park working on his jumper, or saw a girl out on the black top doing some toss and shooting. Or a couple of teammates doing shooting drills together. I think it was during the Reagan administration that I last saw kids playing three on three instead of giving in and going to play what usually amounts to sloppy five on five in any kind of situation in the off season.
The second culprit in this ever dwindling supply of fundamental basketball players can be found in the approach and attitude of both players and parents. I started seeing this disturbing trend take shape in my youth. I saw kids and parents alike thinking that games, constantly, were the answer. Scholarships were more important than just playing the game for the love of it. Exposure started to trump learning how to shoot, throw a bounce pass to the post man or the finer points of reading your defender when on offense. Getting on a "recruiting" list was the priority of the spring, summer and fall and they would be @#%$ if a little thing like junior learning how to dribble up the court with his head up while reading what defense the other team is in was going to get in the way. The foolishness, and the misguided intentions are as much a bi-product of the attitude and thinking of the parents as they are of the actions and thinking of the young players. To many kids think they have arrived, and often it is not their coach who is telling them this, but instead it is parents, friends, girlfriends, guys working at McDonalds, and so on. European players on the other hand push themselves to not only spend the time mastering the basics, the fundamentals, but they take it a step further. They often challenge themselves to be students of the game off the court as well. Learning to think the game as well as react to it. Learning the "whys" of basketball far outweigh any physical development a player can do. The body will at times fail, or come up short. The mind on the other hand can always be sharp. (See Larry Bird and Magic Johnson)
Until kids start playing less games, once to three times a week is more than enough, and start getting back in the gym on hot August afternoons to shoot five hundred jumpers going at game speed and shooting them from their "game spots" this trend will continue in America. Until American players can get hungry again, until they can realize they will never arrive this trend will continue. Even the greatest, Michael Jordan, has not arrived yet. He is still working on it. Until both parents and players alike finally rise up and begin to send kids to/attend camps and the like that emphasize individual skills this trend will continue. Not sure how much longer folks will be willing to watch both the college and pro game with players who can not guard the backdoor; execute the backdoor but can darn well sure jump up and put their elbows on the rim.
In the spirit of Simon Garfunkel, Oh where have you gone John Havlicek!