"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

I’ve Got Style, Miles and Miles

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?

Categories:  Bronx Banter  Jon DeRosa

Tags:  Georgetown  hoyas  michael graham

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1 The Hawk   ~  Dec 2, 2010 9:52 am

... so much style that it's wasted


2 Jon DeRosa   ~  Dec 2, 2010 10:16 am

[1] I caught the reunion show in October, I thought it was great.

3 Sliced Bread   ~  Dec 2, 2010 10:38 am

consistent style of play. Definitely something I look for and appreciate.
Through marriage, I've become a Syracuse basketball fan -especially the past 10-12 years. I love the zone D. I love how Boeheim manages to get undisciplined and overlooked athletes to win in such a competitive and talented division. The Big East is all Pitt, and Nova for now I suspect.

consistent style of play. I'm a NY football Giants fan, and I can't tell you how disappointing it is to see them struggle on defense in recent years. The one thing you watch for as a Giants fan is consistency, and execution on defense. I enjoy watching these current Giants but they're not playing my style of Giants football. Linebackers, linebackers, linebackers.

Do the Yankees have style? Yeah, lefty pitching is part of the Yankee style. Mo is Yankee style. A redass slugging catcher is Yankee style. Jeter's Yankee style. Arod being righty is not what I think of as Yankee style. Righties like him come through baseball very rarely, and even less frequently through the Bronx.

I'm just riffing here, but I'd say modern Yankee style (post renovation) is lights out lefty pitching (Whitey, Guidry, Andy, Boomer, CC ), and lefty slugging. Tino, Donnie, Reggie, Paulie, Robbie Good defense at 1st is a must for Yankee style. Even though Giambi could rake from the left side I didn't see him as Yankee style. Does Yankee style matter? Not so much, but I definitely appreciate it when I see it.

4 rbj   ~  Dec 2, 2010 10:40 am

I could never get into basketball. It's the flip side of soccer -- too much scoring, so each play/possession/score is devalued.

Hockey's o.k., and with HD I think it's easier to follow the puck now, but I'm just not that into it either.

How many days until pitchers and catchers?

5 Jon DeRosa   ~  Dec 2, 2010 10:59 am

[3] Though required to despise Syracuse, their zone is a great example of consistent style. When they have the horses, especially tall guards with long arms, they turn a simple 2-3 zone into a nightmare.

As for the Yankees, and MLB in general, I see your point, your ball park can dictate your roster construction and playing style. Very cool way that MLB teams can acheive style. And another argument against the cookie cutters.

6 Raf   ~  Dec 2, 2010 11:37 am

[0] What's great about baseball is that it's the most individual of team sports. There is no one setting a pick or blocking for you, it's just you and the pitcher.

We fetishize the double play and hitting the cutoff man because they are part of the fundamentals of the game. Be it a double play, hitting the cutoff, a well timed pass, a well executed hit and run, or block or pick and roll, we like seeing the game played the "right way," no matter the sport. Style helps, but at the end of the day we care about getting the job done.

7 Jahidi White   ~  Dec 2, 2010 12:21 pm

Another great article… good stuff!!!

The Yankees definitely have style, not in the same sense as in hoops with zone defense or the motion offense, or the run and shoot in football but in the professionalism that the Yankees organization (with the exception of the Jeter negotiations) and players (ex. Arod). There is something that happens to the players when they put on the pinstripes. A much different style then the recent Phillies teams or the Mets of the mid 80’s that were much more rough around the edges. But there are also different styles of play, the Cardinals of the mid 80's with Vince Coleman and Willy McGhee played a much different style then the load them up and wait for the 3run HR. One could argue that the fans do come back for that style that represents the fans themselves. Going to a game in Queens or Philly is a much different experience then the Bronx and as a Mets fan myself I am proud of that, just like attending a Georgetown game is a much different experience then a UCONN, Syracuse or Duke game. The styles of the teams and thus the fans that grow to love these teams have their own style.

Yankee fans have their own style; as long as the Yankees are winning the fans are happy. The minute there is a two or heaven forbid a three game losing streak Yankee fans want heads to roll, trades to be made, free agents to be signed. Yes we all want our respective teams to do well, but there seems to be a style that many, not all, but many Yankee fans possess. There seems to be a sense of entitlement with expectations for the Playoffs and World Series every year. Are there any other fans in baseball that talk about which Playoff or World Series tickets they can get with their season ticket plans in April? Am I jealous? Maybe, maybe not, I am not sure how I would react to even dream of having those expectations, but it is just not my style; I am drawn to the underdog, the scrapper, the conservative brunette in the corner…

Does it matter? Yes style does still matter in baseball. Style is attitude! Having the attitude and direction to play the game the right way is style. In baseball one could argue fundamentals are more important then any other sport and there is a style in that. There is something beautiful about watching the game played correctly; hitting the cut off man, moving a runner over, the sac fly, catching a ball with two hands. And nothing more depressing then watching it played without style, not getting a bunt down, striking out with a man on third and no one out, trying to catching with one hand...freaking Luis Castillo!!! OK maybe I am jealous…

8 Jon DeRosa   ~  Dec 2, 2010 1:41 pm

[6 & 7] Can't the fundamentals be executed w/ style? Ozzie Smith roaming around shortstop was fundamentally sound, but that's not what got him to the hall of fame.

And [7], let's talk again when the Mets become dominant and see if you still identify with the underdog. I know a lot of fans from Boston who used to identify w/ the underdog. Not so much anymore.

9 Raf   ~  Dec 2, 2010 2:01 pm

[8] Of course they can, you can't have one without the other. Once you get the fundamentals down, then the style makes it your own. It should be noted that Ozzie, Vizquel, Ordonez, etc, were rare birds, and could get away with playing the position the way they could. I don't or can't see Jeter, Ripken, Eckstein, etc playing short the same way, but they all played the position effectively.

I think Ozzie's defense was a big part of his HoF resume.

10 joejoejoe   ~  Dec 2, 2010 2:05 pm

Big East basketball used to be lousy with style. The Syracuse zone. The UConn press. It's hard to follow now that there are teams from Texas and Milwaukee in something with 'East' in it's name. The construction of the league itself had still but now it's just corporate puree like the rest of college sports.

The White Sox have style under Ozzie but now there is talk of signing Adam Dunn to slug for them. Style only goes so far in baseball. High OPS + pitching strikeouts is a successful expensive formula for winning but it works.

11 Jon DeRosa   ~  Dec 2, 2010 3:14 pm

[9] Oh yeah, his defense was epic. But it was the style that made the defense so notable and memorable. The extraneous stuff, like the flips, and the very integral stuff, the hi-light reel plays. For a lot of fans (and writers) to appreciate great defense, it helps to be tied up in a super-stylish package.

12 ebrine   ~  Dec 3, 2010 5:27 pm

Hoyas, Yanks and Pavement all in one place. Way to thread the needle DeRosa!

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