The title of this post identifies a problem which I most definitely have never faced. My own basketball career reached its apex my freshman year of high school when I was picked to play in the full court game with the black kids in gym class. This was an accomplishment for a number of reasons, among them the fact that I was 14, my last name was McGowan and I still referred to myself as “Danny.” Oh boy was I white.
This was back at the start of the decade, when a new brand was threatening to change the way the game was played entirely. Remember how the XFL thought it could make football more exciting by altering a few rules, adding more cameras and asking cheerleaders to wear less? Well for a few years, AND1 actually accomplished this in basketball. They produced mixtapes that taught impressionable young ballers how to carry, travel and double dribble in style and almost everyone I knew sported their cutoff shirts, which had pithy phrases on them like, “Your girl handles the double team much better than you.”
Most importantly, everyone had a “move” and everyone wanted to use their “move” to embarrass their opponent. This probably explains the main reason I was allowed to play in the full court game in gym class. I was athletic enough to not disrupt the game, but I looked like the type of kid who would be fooled by some older, more talented player’s snazzy ballhandling. Basically, I was the perfect candidate to get a ball bounced off my forehead or put through my legs.
I remember being very frustrated by all of this. Not because I played with a target on my back, but because I was 14 and winning in gym class was still a goal of mine (A year later, that goal became trying not to break a sweat.). For the others, the score was secondary. They were fine with bricking a layup or making a bad pass so long as they did it in a flashy way, but winning was the only thing keeping me on the court.
So why I am I writing about some silly high school basketball memory? Because the only way to describe the one team I actively root for is insanely athletic, which, because it’s the only way to describe them, is code for having the ability to win in Rucker Park, but lacking the basketball IQ to win in the college ranks.
Anybody who knows me or reads this website knows that I’ve found a way to pick UConn to win every NCAA basketball tournament since 1994. I love Connecticut basketball. But watching them this season (yes it’s still early) brings me right back to my freshman year of high school. The Huskies have a bunch of guys who want to block your shot fifteen rows into the crowd and tear down the backboard with every dunk and break your ankles with slick crossovers.
They can do these things to just about anyone they play. What they can’t do is shoot the three or make a free throw, which just happens to be the two most important elements of college basketball. Playing against Duke in Madison Square Garden on Friday night, the Huskies missed every three point attempt they took and shot just 53 percent from the foul line. The result? UConn was down 20 with ten minutes to play and although the final score was much closer, the game was never seriously in doubt for the Blue Devils.
After the game, athleticism was all anyone wanted to talk about. This was because some ESPN radio host called Duke “alarmingly unathletic” prior to tipoff, predicting the Blue Devils would have major problems with the Huskies. There still aren’t many who would disagree with those thoughts now.
Use any cliché you want –they wanted it more, they had more heart – but the bottom line is Duke did all the little things right in order to win that game. They outrebounded Connectcut, outhustled them, made their free throws and knocked down open jumpers. In other words, Duke played like a young Danny McGowan while the Huskies played like the AND1 mixtape all stars.
This all begs the question: At what point does being too athletic hinder the rest of your game? In his bestselling book, “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell suggests that a person’s IQ stops mattering around 120, at which point their chances of intellectual achievement depends on a variety of other factors. I wonder if this theory applies to athleticism in basketball. When does a player’s ability to jump and run because less important than their ability to find an open man in the corner or knock down a three pointer?
Of course, the ideal player would be able combine his athleticism with a high basketball IQ. But those kinds of guys are few and far between. Their names are Kobe and LeBron and Carmelo. Not Stanley Robinson. It seems to me Duke has recognized this and is willing to sacrifice the guy who can jump out of the gym for a someone like Jon Scheyer, who has turned the ball over just four times all season.
Give Robinson credit for one thing though. He did offer the most intelligent post game comment of all.
"They're not very athletic," he said. "We're more athletic than they are. They were just smarter than we were."
Got that right.