Monday, January 25, 2010

Ever seen "The Twilight Zone?"

Well, if you have, you might know how I feel, because it's almost as if I starred in an episode Monday night. I had arranged a phone interview with Mario Malaby, the junior varsity boys' coach at Alhambra High School in Phoenix. And, yes, he runs "The System." Through the Yahoo! message board, I'd heard Coach Malaby's squad hoisted 51 shots in a half last week, an amazing total for any high school team, much less one filled with 10th-graders. I just had to talk to him and ask him about his squad.

I'll get to the heart of the conversation later. When I asked him how he heard about this style of play and why he got involved, it was as if I was interviewing myself. He said he was watching Loyola Marymount make its run in the 1990 NCAA tournament, and in his words, he became "infatuated" with run-and-gun hoops. His wife purchased the video "Running to Win," produced by Grinnell coach David Arsenault in back in the late '90s to help other coaches convert to "The System," and as Coach Malaby said, "It's funny, one video changed my life and the lives of some of my best friends."

Even though he coaches the JV team, he has complete autonomy and has played this way for about four years. This year's team is 4-7 despite putting up some outrageous statistics. "Our record for shots in a game is 101. Don't worry, we still lost by 20!" Coach Malaby said. "We've had games where we've shot 20 more free throws and taken 30 more shots and lost by 10. We just struggle to make shots."

He and his team have a difficult week ahead, with games at Perry High School on Tuesday and at home against North High School on Friday, two of the top teams in the state. Coach Malaby, who works at Metro Tech High School in the reading and special education department while also serving as the co-director of the Athlete Performance Department, proudly predicts an unpredictable week for his charges. "We're going to go at them like little bandits and get real nasty. We might win by 30 or lose by 90!"

Here's some other highlights from our conversation:

(What's been the most difficult part about this season?)

Coach Malaby: "It's hard to run 'The System' without a point guard. You want that point guard to pass the ball in 3-to-4 seconds, so he doesn't have to make decisions. This year, I don't have the shooters, I can't seem to put the ball in the basket. I have to improvise."

(How do teams slow you down?)

Coach Malaby: "Actually, the best way to slow us down is a three-quarters court zone press. Teams that play us full-court, man-to-man, we love that, and if you play zone, well, OK. That's kind of wussing out in my opinion. But the three-quarters court press just slows us down. To me, it's like a speed bump."

(Does the varsity team at your school with coach Mike Slifer run "The System?")

Coach Malaby: "I think next year, they might go to it. Right now, they're 0-18 playing conventionally. He's starting to buy into it. Right now, he thinks it's kind of crazy. He runs more matchup zone and a Princeton-style offense, 17 passes before shooting. That's a hard way to play. Paul Westhead once said that playing basketball 5-on-5 is hard. Playing 5-on-2 or 5-on-3 is much, much better."

(What is the feeling when your team goes on a spurt to take over a game?)

Coach Malaby: "It's euphoric. One time last season, we were playing a much more superior team and we were down 72-48 with 6:15 left in the game. We ended up winning 80-75, everybody got caught up in the trapping and subbing. When we finally pulled ahead, the 12th man on my roster hit the go-ahead 3 with 40 seconds left, and he hadn't scored all year on the freshmen team the year before. I was overwhelmed with goosebumps and told myself I'd better not cry. When we're going on those runs, it feels like we're a train that can't be stopped."

A big thanks to Coach Malaby for spending some time with me. I've asked him to update me on his progress this season, so hopefully, we haven't heard the last of the JV team from Alhambra High School. Good luck this week.

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