Pass the Ball, Kobe

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2013)

“Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” Vince Lombardi

When I lived in Seattle in 1977, I played basketball almost every day in a gym at Seattle University, the alma mater of the great Lakers star Elgin Baylor who took the Seattle Chieftains (now the Redhawks) all the way to the NCAA championship game in 1958 before turning pro that same year. As a resident of Seattle, I was invited to use the gym and swimming pool of that esteemed university for a small annual fee, which made me feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

I usually played my two hours of basketball in the afternoon, mostly half-court games, but some full court, too, the players coming in all sizes and shapes and ages and colors, some quite good, many mediocre, a few dreadful. It didn’t take me long to get to know the excellent passers and the ball hogs, and whenever I assembled a team to challenge the winners of the game in progress, I picked good passers over great but selfish shooters every time. And when my team of passers played any team led by a ball hog, no matter how good that hog was, we almost always won. The winning formula was simple. Double-team the ball hog, fight hard to garner his misses, make good passes, and make open shots.

I bring this up because much is being written these days about the terrible season the Los Angeles Lakers have had so far, and how Kobe Bryant, one of the supreme ball hogs in the NBA, has actually started passing the ball to his teammates, and lo a miracle has occurred and the Lakers are winning again. What I find amusing about this startling development is that most of the so-called basketball experts continue to blame the coaches and other players on the team for the Lakers lack of success, when Kobe has clearly demonstrated that it was Kobe who was keeping the team from succeeding.

Anyone who has watched the Lakers play this year knows how deadly dull it can be, as it was in that Seattle gym, to watch one guy work so very hard to get a shot off over two or three defenders while his talented teammates stand around stifling their yawns and waiting to see if the ball hog’s shot will go in or not. And because Kobe is a super superstar, no commentator has ever dared shout, “Oh come on, Kobe. Pass the ball to that guy standing unguarded under the basket or to that guy standing alone at the three-point line. What? Are you blind?”

No, he is not blind. He is arrogant and out of touch with reality and told day and night that he is a living god, a brand name, a basketball genius, and superior to any but a few other humans who have ever lived.

What I especially like about this latest development in the storied history of the Lakers—the ball hog finally starting to pass the ball to his teammates—is that millions of people, mostly men, in America and around the world, are witnessing the repeated verification of an important truth about basketball and life, which is that when we share the ball (wealth) and the opportunities to score (thrive), then the team (everyone) wins.

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” Babe Ruth

Another sharing-versus-hogging basketball drama that unfolded last year was the storybook emergence of Jeremy Lin from the ranks of the unknowns into the bright lights of Madison Square Garden where he took over at point guard and led a moribund Knicks team to seven straight victories, and only got his chance to play because the Knicks’ superstar ball hog Carmelo Anthony and the hogacious Amare Stoudemire and two supposedly better point guards were injured. Lin won those seven games and many more by involving all his teammates in the scoring and by following two of the fundamental rules of good basketball: pass to the open man and don’t pass up an open shot. Now that the ball hogs have recovered from their injuries and resumed control of the Knicks, their new coach is urging his gunners to share the ball and play some defense, and so far they seem to be following those dictates to good effect.

Meanwhile, Lin, a threat to ball hogs everywhere, is now playing for the Houston Rockets and playing second fiddle to James Harden. Lin’s down-to-earth statistics in Houston seem to confirm the opinions of many basketball pundits who were skeptical of the phenomenal success of this untried unknown nobody in New York. “See,” the pundits crow, “Lin’s superstar performance for the Knicks was a cosmic fluke.” But Lin was no fluke. The fluke was that Lin was able to expose the NBA system of building teams around a few superstars for what it is: an inferior brand of basketball and a reflection of what is so deeply wrong with the American pyramidal way: a relatively few people hogging most of the money and resources to the detriment of everybody else, and ultimately to the detriment of themselves.

“Great teamwork is the only way we create the breakthroughs that define our careers.” Pat Riley

As it happens, a growing number of NBA teams are abandoning the build-it-around-a-couple-of-superstars strategy for the socialist game of spreading the wealth among all the players on the team, with the so-called bench players (the non-starters) becoming more and more important to teams’ short and long term success.

I vividly remember the last time the Golden State Warriors won an NBA Championship way back in 1975, the year I wrote the first drafts of my novel Inside Moves which celebrates a mythic version of that fabulous squad. Despite the presence of perennial all-star Rick Barry, the 1975 Warriors may have been the most egalitarian team the NBA has ever seen, a team virtually no one expected to make the playoffs, let alone annihilate the mighty Washington Bullets in a four-game sweep of the championship series. But the Warriors of that year were the kind of team that many general managers and coaches are trying to build today—multiple platoons of excellent players taking turns playing great defense and pass-it-around offense for the entire game, with the very best players taking the court for the waning minutes of close games.

Part of the reason for this change in design is that many of the smaller market teams simply cannot compete with the big money teams by imitating the star-centric game plan because they cannot afford to get and keep the premiere superstars in their no-big-television-deal markets, and so to survive in the league they must play a more egalitarian brand of ball. And another reason for this strategic change is that basketball has reached a point, after a hundred years of evolution, where the average NBA players of today, culled from the ranks of tens of thousands of very good American college players and hundreds of international professionals, are among the best basketball players to have ever played the game whether they attain superstar status or not. To relegate players of such enormous talent to standing around while the anointed ones strive to pump up their point totals is both absurd and counter-productive, and the better coaches will have none of that stupid old way.

This year’s Chicago Bulls, for example, deprived of their superstar ball hog Derrick Rose due to injury, are playing fantastic ball by sharing the wealth among ten players and kicking the butts of star-based teams while they await Rose’s return. At the beginning of the year, many pundits doubted the Bulls could make the playoffs without Rose coming back for the second half of the season to save the team, but the Bulls are doing just fine without him. If Rose does come back and can share the rock, so-called, with his comrades, the Bulls could go very far, indeed. But if Rose comes back and tries to play his redundant watch-me-drive-the-lane-and-try-to-score-over-three-defenders brand of ball, the Bulls will fall in the first round of the playoffs.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Anaïs Nin

One of my most cherished basketball experiences took place in 1969 in my final year of college at UC Santa Cruz where I was something of a gym rat and played on an eccentric university team that included two professors, one of whom had played on a very good Duke team in the early 1960’s and had a long range bank shot (25-30 feet) that he almost never missed. Why were we allowed to have professors on our team? Because we competed in the local industrial league, not against other colleges, hence our team featured students, professors, and a maintenance man named Tony who was so tall he could dunk the ball standing on his tiptoes.

I was nineteen and loved basketball almost as much as I loved girls. I fancied myself to be one of the better players on campus, which was not saying much, but it was saying something. So one day I was shooting around with my friend Scooter when these two guys we’d never seen before came into our gym and challenged us to a game. I was as tall then as I am now, a shade under five-foot-ten, and Scooter was five-eight on a good day, and he, too, thought he was a pretty good player. The shorter of our two challengers was six-two and had amazingly long arms, while his pal was six-five and built like Hercules. Despite the physical mismatch, and knowing nothing about these strangers, Scooter and I agreed to play them.

“You want to warm up?” I asked, passing the ball to Hercules.

“No need,” he said, sneering sardonically.

“Yeah,” said his long-armed partner, snorting imperiously. “We’re good to go.”

And I thought to myself You arrogant assholes. We are going to kick your snooty asses.

Which is exactly what we did. We passed brilliantly, shot flawlessly, and beat them by plenty the first game and barely beat them the second game. And what made our victories especially delightful was that as we played, it became obvious that these guys were both really good; yet we had magic momentum and the gods were kind to us and we played out of our minds, and somehow we beat them.

Come to find out these guys were newly enrolled freshmen at UCSC, the big guy a high school phenom from South Lake Tahoe where he averaged forty-plus points a game his senior year and turned down a scholarship to Stanford, while his partner had been a star at a big Catholic high school in San Francisco. They both thought (rightly it turned out) that they would soon become kingpins of the UCSC gym, but they weren’t so sure after Scooter and I defeated them.

I played with and against those two guys many times over the next nine months, and every now and then Hercules would say to me, “I still can’t believe you and Scooter beat us. It just…it doesn’t make any sense. We are so much better than you.”

“But we didn’t know that then,” I would reply, smiling at memories of our great triumph. “And by the time we knew, the deed was done, and you had lost, and we had won.”

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