With the Yanks done playing and busy counting money by the fireside this winter, I exercise my grumble a few times a week watching Georgetown basketball. Pacing back and forth in front of the TV, ignoring more pressing responsibilities, so I’m ready for total immersion again in the spring.
Tuesday night, the nationally-ranked Hoyas toppled more highly-ranked Missouri in Kansas City 111-102 in OT. If I had read the boxscore without seeing the game, I would have thought it was written by a Tolkien fan playing a joke. But I saw it, so I know better. I was geeked and up way past bedtime thinking about it.
The game was an instant classic, a Georgetown 3 pointer at the buzzer tied the game at 94 and forced overtime. 188 points in regulation! And then the Hoyas ran riot in the extra session pouring in 17 more points in five minutes. It was beautiful basketball. As I jammed my eyes shut trying to force myself to sleep, it occurred to me that the style of their play was as much a part of the excitement I was experiencing as the victory itself.
“Beautiful basketball” and “Georgetown” may seem a strange juxtaposition for those not intimately familiar with the Hoyas’ recent history. Their current coach, John Thompson III, is the son of the legendary John Thompson Jr., who imposed a dominating team on America in the 1980s, centered by Patrick Ewing. “Hoya Paranoia” spread far and wide, less about the winning, more about the way they played, the way they shunned the media, and of course, for some, the color of their skin. Blocked shots and big dunks were the tools. Intimidation and fear were the by-products. But few, if any, thought to associate “beauty” with their style.
Heck, for some, the face of Georgetown in the 1980s is not Patrick Ewing nor John Thompson Jr., but snarling Michael Graham. A guy who played only one season for Georgetown and averaged only 14 minutes per game. He was a freshman learning the ropes for much of the season, but played exceedingly well in the NCAA tournament and iced the title game with a monster jam, which graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. The next week, his face and shaved head was waiting in mailboxes for sports fans across the country. It’s hard to imagine someone doing less and leaving a bigger imprint on the national sports scene.
The son of the father is not necessarily the father. JT3, as he is known, played at Princeton under Pete Carill and coached there before coming to Georgetown, and he brought Carill’s famous offense to the Hilltop with him. The “Princeton Offense”, for the unitiated, requires floor spreading, back-door cutting, precision passing, and dead-eye shooting. There may be “plays” or “sets,” but as Webber’s Sacto Kings showed (Pete Carrill joined them an assistant after Princeton), a team can interalize the philosphy without the existence of a playbook.
A lot of the time the current Hoyas have four players on the floor who can nail a three-ball 40-50% of the time. If they go big, they still have three shooters on the floor at all times. What this means is that defenses must pick their poison. If they play aggressive man-to-man defense to deny the shooters, they are ripe for the back-door cut. The execution of the back-door cut, pass, and lay-up is one of the most satisfying asthetic plays in sports. (Let me clarify – the Princeton offense produces lay-ups. The Georgetown offense is just as likely to produce a thundering dunk depending on which guy is making the cut.) Like exposed clockworks, everything meshes together.
If the defense sags to prevent the interior pass for the lay-dunk, the three point line is left unguarded somewhere around the arc. Georgetown is incredibly quick to find that soft-spot. If the team gives up and plays a zone, it’s bombs away. If Georgetown is patient and confident with the ball, they will get a good shot nearly every time. It’s a pure pleasure to watch.
They probably won’t win anything, though. Winning the Big East Tournament isn’t that much less challenging than winning the NCAA title. Maybe they’ll win the Big East regular season crown, but that’s a grueling slog and hard to imagine them surviving the physicality of the Big East without better big men.
That’s not really a knock. Georgetown employs a great offense, but they are far from a perfect team. Because winning is so unlikely, even for elite teams, the fans must invest in something else. Maybe it’s the academics vis a vis the graduation rate of the players, maybe it’s the achievement of alumni in the NBA. For me those things matter, but the consistent style of play is the biggest draw. When I turn the game on, I expect to see that coherent, pleasing style in action in search of victory.
It is fun in and of itself to see the system become a natural extension of the play. Freshman start off looking like dancers two beats behind, but by the end of the first year, they’re in step with everybody else. It’s tied up with winning, of course, because proper execution leads to points which leads to wins, but sometimes the means become the ends, separated entirely from the final score.
There is a player on the current team named Henry Sims. A very likable guy, by all accounts, who just couldn’t get it in his first two years. When he kicked ass the other night, the reaction from the fans was truly moving. They were psyched that the prospects for the season improved, because honestly, nobody was counting on him this year, but much more than that, they were happy for him that he put in his work and found success.
It would be like being psyched that Nick Swisher learned how to bunt. Actually no it wouldn’t, not for me at least. It is partly because the Yankees make clear their intention to win at all costs, and partly the nature of baseball itself, but I don’t pay attention to style in baseball. Unless winning counts as style.
The Yankees are built to win. Winning is good for business, good for the franchise value. They’re not out to create an identity that unifies fans through the losing years. Their job is to eliminate the losing years. To fill the trophy case. That relegates style to an afterthought. We have commenters here that prefer style over victory (or maybe more accurately, victory with style?). Some prefer the speed game, or the hit and run, or the pitchers’ duels to the patience and power mix the Yankees have displayed much of this decade.
I honestly don’t care at all, as long as they win. When Brett Gardner was a useless out-machine in his debut in 2008, I hated to watch him play. Now that he is a valuable contributor, I don’t mind to see him out there, though his style is exactly the same now as then.
And that’s the other thing, Gardner has style, as does Arod, and they can coexist on the Yankees. Baseball has individual style oozing out of every at bat and pitching change. But it’s theme music. It’s background – extraneous to the play. Rickey and Reggie and their homerun trots. Papelbon and his spasmodic gyrations.
Why do we fetishize the double play and hitting the cut-off man? Because it’s a rare moment of interconnectedness in a game of individual platforms. The game of basketball is fluid and dynamic in ways baseball can never be. But don’t Oakland A’s fans take pride in Billy Beane’s roster construction the same way Georgetown fans take pride in the back-door pass? I think fans of the teams that don’t have a great chance of winning and need to focus on process more than results, will hang their hats on the GM. Look at the following Jack Z developed in Seattle with a few shrewd moves.
And when you don’t expect to win, but you have a GM or style that gives you hope for the future. And if your team gives you that, you’ll probably be back. What do you say, do the Yankees have style? Does it matter?