Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
John Wooden's true legacy
Slate has posted a piece on John Wooden this morning in which Tommy Craggs establishes the following:

1. Writers say silly things about Wooden (the coach has been compared to Christ).

2. Wooden speaks in a quaint sepia-toned patois ("dunkshot").

3. Wooden was a bit of a control freak (prescribing his players' food intake right down to the correct number of celery stalks).

Well, I don't see a problem here so far....

1. Writers and other people say silly things often. And it's precisely those figures most worthy of our adulation that, paradoxically, have the silliest things said about them.

2. The former UCLA coach was born two years before the Titanic went down. Come interview me when I'm 96 and see how many "dunkshot" equivalents I mutter.

3. Wooden was a bit of a control freak. Those recur fairly often in his profession.

Yet Cragg's piece, it would appear, aspires to more. For this is meant to be one of those haul-down-the-statuary exercises that Slate, probably the most consistently outstanding provider of content online or in print, does so well. (The locus classicus in this vein was perhaps David Plotz's brilliant deflating of the brief but intense popular historical attention paid to Lewis & Clark.)

So, in Craggs' account, this awe that Wooden inspires is not merely a case of overkill. It's something more....

This would be merely risible if there weren't something uglier lurking here. To sportswriters, he has always offered a perfect foil for whatever pernicious elements happen to be ruining basketball at the moment. They always look to Wooden, a fixed point from which to plot the sport's fall from some imagined (and, let's be honest, whiter) state of grace.

Wooden, "the basketball moralist" in Craggs' telling, has bequeathed to us "a boring and blinkered way of watching a basketball game."

Damning charges, surely, if true. So let us be clear. I, like Craggs, want my basketball to be fun. I, like Craggs, think it's the acme of Monty Python-level childishness for the NBA to worry about whether or not Ben Wallace wears a headband.

Where Craggs errs, however, is in conflating biography with legacy. Wooden in 2006 can be quoted to sound like a cranky old guy, surely. But his triumph was precisely to achieve demonstrably masterful leadership (winning 10 national championships is fun!) in that most improvisational and leader-impervious of sports, basketball. (This is the germ of truth in corporate America's otherwise daffy over-the-top genuflecting toward Mike Krzyzewski. It's probably not a good idea to make any sports coach your model of leadership. But if you're going to head down that road, it's at least more plausible to make a basketball coach such a model. A basketball coach leads without having to dictate precise instructions--the play-call in football, the pitch in baseball--immediately preceding every discretionary increment.)

And as for being a basketball moralist, aren't we all? If you shoot with three defenders on you, you've made a choice that is not just tactically flawed but morally dubious: putting your own welfare above your team's. Such is the antipode of the Wooden legacy.

There is no play in sports that combines athletic skill, tactical intelligence, and an exemplary moral valence the way an assist does in basketball. (An assist even elicits a different sound from a crowd. It's not an explosive cheer like a dunk. It's a note of surprised delight--an "ooohhh"--that says something more adulatory and enduring than: wow, you jump high!) Baseball fans glimpse rare displays of cross-player teamwork in the turning of a double-play and football fans wax ecstatic when a wide receiver (!) blocks downfield for the good of his teammate. But while it may be a rarity in other sports, this kind of selflessness in motion is the very warp and woof of hoops. At its best basketball's a symphony of altruists--and no one has ever spoken to this quality better than the conductor emeritus himself, John Wooden.

In the 2004 edition of the Wooden Tradition, Illinois played Gonzaga in Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Illini, featuring four African-American starters and without question the most prominent headband in recent college basketball history, prevailed in a fast-paced game that showcased a flurry of threes (the archetype of post-Wooden disruptive innovation) and dunks. If Wooden were really the hoary old blinkered troglodyte Craggs would have us believe, he would have decried the "dunkshots" and baggy shorts and exhorted Deron Williams and Adam Morrison to eat their celery.

Instead he said this: "I thought that was one of the finest performances I've seen in a while, especially in the first half."

For Wooden, it's about the game, however numerous the headbands or baggy the shorts. Would that it were true for basketball fans and writers.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
After yesterday's blogging holiday I need to catch up on the weekend's results....

The weekend in Big Ten hoops--Friday!
Iowa beat Iowa State 77-59 in Iowa City. Rarely will you see such excellence in rebounding joined in time, space, and uniform with such woeful ball-handling. The Cyclones were absolute monsters on the offensive glass (20 offensive rebounds out of 37 possible) but they handled the ball like it was a biohazard, giving the rock away 26 times in a 68-possession game. Mike Taylor, last seen in this space pretty much single-handedly beating Minnesota in Minneapolis, committed eight TOs all by his lonesome. Adam Haluska led the Hawkeyes with 18 points on 14 shots. (Box score.)

The weekend in Big Ten hoops--Saturday!
Wisconsin beat Marquette 70-66 in Milwaukee. Goodness Tom Crean's team struggles to put the ball in the hole. This one wouldn't have been this close if not for a highly uncharacteristic 22 Badger turnovers (most unforced, though Jerel McNeal did execute the prettiest straight steal I've seen in a very long while, much to the sorrow of Kammron Taylor). Marcus Landry scored just 11 points but don't be fooled: he was a man possessed, blocking four shots with notable emphasis. Alando Tucker led Wisconsin with 28 points on 22 shots. (Box score.)

Kentucky beat Indiana 59-54 in Lexington. The Hoosiers needed no less than 72 attempts from the field to get those measly 54 points--only their beastly offensive rebounding (22 in 51 chances) kept them in a game where they suffered through their worst shooting of the year by far. D.J. White led IU with 23 points on 19 shots. (Box score.)

Purdue beat Missouri 79-62 in West Lafayette. Until further notice it would appear the following words can be put into auto-text: Carl Landry was a beast. He shot 18 free throws and, while he only made nine of them, he led the Boilers with a 23-12 dub-dub. Purdue shot just nine threes in this game, choosing instead to feed Landry in the post. It worked. (Box score.)

Seton Hall beat Penn State 69-59 in East Rutherford, N.J. The Nittany Lions led by 12 in the second half and shot significantly better than the Pirates in this game--and lost by 10. The host team had many offensive boards (21 out of 51 possible) while the visitors had many turnovers (21 in a 71-possession game). End of story. Geary Claxton had his best game of the year so far, posting a 29-11 dub-dub. Alas, Ben Luber and David Jackson recorded six turnovers each. (Box score.)

Michigan State beat BYU 76-61 at the Palace in Auburn Hills, MI. Not counting the laugher against Youngstown State, this was the best shooting displayed by the Spartans this season. Drew Netizel (22 points with seven assists and no turnovers) and Goran Suton (a rare ascending-numbers 10-11 dub-dub) were a merely normal 11-of-27--the rest of the team was 18-of-30. The "rest of the team" included an encouraging 15-12 dub-dub from Marquise Gray. (Box score.)

Ohio State beat Cleveland State 78-57 in Columbus. Greg Oden made his first start and scored 16 points on 8-of-8 shooting in 22 minutes. Othello Hunter posted a 17-11 dub-dub in 13 notably active minutes. And Ivan Harris had...10 rebounds? Zounds! Wonders never cease in Columbus. (Box score.)

Illinois beat Illinois-Chicago 71-66 at the United Center in Chicago. Notably anemic play on the interior for the Illini (a 41.0 2FG pct.?) and good outside shooting by the Flames (10-of-22 on their threes) turned a 15-point Illinois halftime lead into a close game down the stretch. Rich McBride led the Illini with 13 points. Brian Randle played for the first time since the season-opener and recorded nine points and nine boards in 16 minutes. (Box score.)

Northwestern beat Western Michigan 77-75 in OT in Evanston. Both teams shot very well in a game that truly was close throughout (neither team had a lead larger than six points). Craig Moore made 6-of-9 threes and led the Wildcats with 26 points, while Kevin Coble added 25. (Box score.)

Michigan beat Delaware State 70-43 in Ann Arbor. Dion Harris made 4-of-6 threes and led the Wolverines with 16 points. Brent Petway posted a 12-10 dub-dub. (Box score.)

Arkansas-Little Rock beat Minnesota 67-66 in Minneapolis. Steven Moore drove the length of the court and sank a runner with 4.3 seconds left to give the Trojans the win. One might ask how you can lose a home game where you shoot better than the opponent and turn the ball over just nine times in a 62-possession game. The answer would be defensive rebounds, specifically the lack thereof. UALR hauled in 18 offensive boards out of 31 chances and it won them the game. Lawrence McKenzie made 4-of-8 threes and led the Gophers with 24 points. (Box score (pdf).)

Programming note
I'll be out for a few days. Today's post will be the last one until next Tuesday.

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