Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My way of saying Happy New Year (or why I came to love The System)

I never really thought about it until recently, but December and I have quite the relationship with The System. In fact, all the important dates of my infatuation with this tantalizing style of basketball celebrate their anniversary during this month. It’s similar to Christmas, except without Santa Claus, or carols, or ugly sweaters, or a tree decorated with crafts and lights … well, at least we all receive gifts in the form of 3-pointers, steals and high-scoring games.

But I digress. With the month (and the year) winding down, I figured I’d share my stories.

My first view of The System came in December 1988, when Oklahoma traveled to little-known (at least to me at the time) Loyola Marymount, where a national cable TV audience watched the Sooners roll to a 136-103 victory. That was Dec. 17, 1988, to be exact, and watching that game fascinated me as no other one ever had.

Was it the full-court press? Yes. Was it the amount of points scored? Yes. Was it the freedom with which both teams played? YES! The Loyola Marymount Lions, with coach Paul Westhead and stars Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers, became my favorite team, and I watched whenever I could.

I still remember several of their televised games – a loss in overtime to Shaquille O’Neal and LSU, a rout of LaSalle when Westhead, Kimble and Gathers celebrated a return to their Philadelphia roots – and recorded many of them. And as so many did, I fought off tears when Gathers collapsed and died on the court during the 1990 West Coast Conference tournament, then celerated when LMU reached the Elite Eight of that year’s NCAA tournament.

The second-round victory against reigning champ Michigan still is one of my favorite games, and I have a DVD of it that I watch frequently.

Then when Westhead left for the Denver Nuggets, Kimble graduated and everything sort of fell apart, I still followed the Lions with new coach Jay Hillock. He was fired after two seasons, and with his departure, I accepted that The System was gone forever.

Fast forward to 2002, when I was working with The Associated Press in Atlanta. I was perusing the sports wire one day when I came across a story about a tiny NCAA Division III school in Iowa which put up numbers similar to Westhead’s team at LMU. Only this team did it a different way, with five-for-five substitutions every minute and a reliance, an emphasis, on 3-pointers.

On Dec. 11, 2002, Grinnell College played a Division I school for the final time, losing to Drake 162-110, and with the Internet as my companion, I had a new favorite team.

I left the AP in 2006 but that did nothing to quell my enjoyment of watching coach David Arseneault and his Pioneers. In 2008, I reached out to Coach A for the first time and wrote a piece for my local newspaper on this frenetic and amazing way of playing the sport I loved. So what if no one in Rockingham, N.C., really cared? My mission was to share the news of The System with anyone who would listen.

This blog came about early in 2009 and became another outlet for updates on Grinnell. With my 40th birthday coming up later that summer, I got the OK from my wife to make the pilgrimage to Iowa – in December, of course – to see The System in person. The trip to Iowa was amazing, even if I did happen to pick one of only two losing seasons in the past 10 to visit. Grinnell lost both games during my stay, but it hardly mattered.

Coach A spent nearly two hours with me and a travel companion, a buddy from home whom my daughter, Libbie, dubbed “Iowa Tim.” And I got to spend time with Dave Arseneault Jr., as well; at the time, he was less than a year removed from his career as a point guard on his father’s team and seemed unsure of what his future held. Now, of course, Dave is the head coach of the Reno Bighorns in the NBA Development League, the affiliate of the Sacramento Kings, where he is implementing Coach A’s version of The System.

I chronicled my adventure for “Basketball Times” magazine, and during my research for the article, I got to know many other coaches around the country who believed in The System. They followed Coach A’s philosophy and I discovered it was spread amongst colleges, high schools and even middle schools.

One question I often get is how is what LMU did different than what Grinnell and others are doing now? There are a couple of major differences in the philosophy, and neither has anything to do with Xs and Os.

Westhead used his best players for the vast majority of the game. Kimble, Gathers, guard Jeff Fryer and forward Per Stumer (who had great hair!) each averaged more than 30 minutes of run. As you likely know, the Grinnell System is predicated on five-for-five substitutions every 45-to-60 seconds. This enables Coach A and his disciples to continue an all-out assault for a turnover even in the halfcourt.

Westhead’s teams pressed hard in the backcourt but retreated into a sagging man-to-man defense once the ball crossed the time line. At Grinnell this season, no one plays more than 21.1 minutes each game, and 12 players get at least 10. So you can run and press, but to be considered a “Grinnell” team, you have to distribute the playing time across your roster.

The quest for 3-pointers is another area of contrast. In 1989-90, when LMU reached the final eight in the NCAA tournament, Westhead’s squad shot 23 3-pointers per game. Grinnell is AVERAGING 58.4 attempts so far through 10 games this season. Remember, one of The Formula stats for The System is to shoot at least half your shots from beyond the arc.

None of this is to say one approach is better than the other, or that The System is the only way to play the game. I joke about it being the best, but most people understand any style can be successful if you have a committed coaching staff and roster.

For example: I can’t stand watching the Virginia Cavaliers play, with coach Tony Bennett instructing his squad to slow the pace. Through 11 games, they allow their opponents to score about 46 points a game on about 60 possessions in each one (Grinnell averages about 100). They play so methodically it ruins what I love about basketball. Yet Bennett has his team undefeated and ranked in the top five, so it’s certainly hard to argue with the results.

I will admit I become a little defensive when people question whether the Grinnell System has been or could be as successful as other methodologies.

Ed Isaacson, who writes an NBA draft blog for a Website called, was an early naysayer of Reno’s style of play, wondering via Twitter why any team would use it since Grinnell never has won a national championship. His reasoning appeared to be that this was the only validation for success.

Has the Princeton offense ever won a national championship? Has the Triangle offense that Phil Jackson forced upon the New York Knicks this season ever won anything without Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant or Shaq as one of the players? What a horrible criticism.

And for the record: in the 25 years before Coach A took over at Grinnell, the Pioneers were 106-437 (.195), including a record of 0-22 in 1979-80. His record in the 25 seasons since is 329-247, a relatively gaudy winning percentage of .571 and an incredible turnaround in the history of the program.

Regardless of what Isaacson or anyone else thinks, I always will support The System and the teams and coaches who make it look so fun. I would encourage anyone who still has an open mind to watch Grinnell play, or the women’s teams at Sacramento State, NCAA Division III North Central College or NAIA Division II Olivet Nazarene. Each of those teams plays the vast majority of its games live on the Internet, and Grinnell and Olivet Nazarene have an on-demand feature for previous ones.

While you watch, don’t worry about the score, or who won or lost. Watch the effort of the players on the court. Watch the bench, where their teammates are passionately cheering for them. Watch the coaches, particularly Coach A, who often passively watch their teams play without constant instruction. And watch and listen for the fans, who cheer each steal, 3-pointer and other great plays with great zeal.

The System isn’t the only way to play. It just is my favorite.

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