The 2008 NCAA men’s basketball tournament concluded on April 7, 2008 with the Kansas University Jayhawks defeating the University of Memphis Tigers in overtime after key players for Memphis missed game-clinching free throws during the final minutes of regulation. This should not have come as a surprise for anyone paying attention to the tournament. John Calipari’s Memphis team had been repeatedly criticized throughout the tournament for their abysmal team free throw percentage during the regular season. Some thought that the criticism was excessive, but considering free throws are supposed to be a fundamental skill of basketball, a collegiate team competing for the national championship should be able to shoot greater than 61.4% from the line.
The Tigers’ free throw percentage was just one of many ways the team was symbolic of a greater trend within all of USA basketball: a decline of fundamental skills. Most notably, Coach Calipari’s dribble drive motion offense can be said to symbolize all that is wrong with the development of elite basketball players in the United States at our contemporary moment. The dribble drive motion offense is a perfect fit for the skills many of the highly touted elite high school basketball players bring to the collegiate level, allowing it to symbolize what is wrong with previous development. Coming from a cultural emphasis on playground basketball and pick-up games, many players learn how to penetrate an entire defense and shoot the deep ball, skills that are deemed impressive and flashy on the streets. In the playground context, fundamental passes, flawless footwork, moving without the ball, or a key defensive stop are ignored in comparison to a great dunk, “breaking ankles” off the dribble, or a game winning three. The dribble drive motion offense takes exactly those principles, emphasizing primarily lay-ups or three point shots as the preferred method of scoring, and looking for movement initiated by outside dribble penetration. To be perfectly clear: this is the best offense to utilize the strengths of the players that Coach Calipari recruits and with that talent, I would do the same thing, despite my criticism of it.
So what? Who really cares about the dribble drive motion offense?
Team USA’s bronze medal finish at the 2004 Athens Olympics was considered an utmost failure. With the 2008 Beijing Olympics around the corner, coming home with the gold in men’s basketball is all that is on any USA basketball aficionado’s mind. Team USA lost, arguably, due to their inability to defend the ball movement, unselfish play and fundamental shooting of international teams. On offense, the reliance on driving to the basket to create offense and a history of playground basketball results in instinctively looking for one on one opportunities, passing solely to get the assist, and zero off the ball movement. This type of offense is the most easily defended. By relying on an initial drive to begin all offensive movement, the dribble drive motion offense easily slips into the stagnant one on one play that was seen by Team USA in the 2004 Olympic games. In recognizing that one on one play is a strength of current top talent in USA basketball, we are setting ourselves up for failure when other teams internationally have acquired similar levels of athleticism combined with basketball knowledge as they have now (and had in 2004). Without knowing how to play solid team defense or without a complex understanding of off the ball movement and other fundamentals, international teams will continue to beat the most recent collection of US professional players.
During the Final Four weekend, CBS—the broadcaster of the event—aired an interview with prominent figures in NCAA men’s basketball about the decline of fundamental skills in players born in the United States. The solution, looking solely for Olympic glory, was suggested that college coaches be permitted to spend even more time with their players in the off-season to make up for a lack of fundamentals coming into the college arena though it was admitted that changed need to also happen at the youth and high school AAU levels as well.
Though I disagree with allowing college coaches more time with their players in the off season because I believe this will increase the levels of exploitation NCAA Division I college athletes already experience and further de-emphasize the importance of success in the classroom, making changes at the youth and high school level seems most appropriate. Unfortunately it is not that easy. These programs are not developed in a vacuum and more than anything they face the cultural pressures of an advanced capitalist system where major corporations such as Nike and Adidas have invested a lot of money in promoting the “next big thing” as demonstrated by their sponsorships of the major summer circuits where much of basketball recruiting takes place. In promoting the “next big thing” the American consumer demands flash, style, and amazing athleticism that they are used to at the professional level, from these high school athletes. Who cares about learning or teaching fundamentals when there is marketing potential on the line?
In addition, the “Hoop Dreams” mentality that is still prevalent in many US cities promotes the idea of the playground basketball court as a home away from home. Someplace where kids want to go because the game that goes on at that location represents a world beyond the race and class oppression that comprises their daily lives. In this way it can also be a good thing, providing an alternate location to avoid street violence. Unfortunately, combine that with the possibility of a contract with the And1 Mixtape Tour, or other streetball teams, if the college scholarship falls through, and there is very little imperative to actually become fundamentally sound, until Team USA once again fails at the international level.
My eternal thanks goes out to the Kansas team for defeating the dribble drive motion offense and symbolically much of what is wrong with USA basketball. Led by a player, Brandon Rush, whose largest criticism was being too unselfish this season, KU demonstrated a greater level of team basketball. Lest there be a misunderstanding, Kansas, too, does not exist in a vacuum and many of these larger problems could also be seen in pieces of the Kansas game, but for one night, in the context of their opposition, it was good enough.