Sunday, March 6, 2016

I'm back, and here is why I haven't been here

So hopefully you noticed I haven’t been posting much. And just as hopefully, if not just as realistically, you actually missed reading about The System and how my favorite teams fared this season.
I had a very good reason for my absence – I actually had a small hand in helping a team employ this amazing style of basketball!
In case you hadn’t heard, I kept statistics for my local high school, Richmond (Co.) Senior High in Rockingham, N.C., as it ran The System for the first time. I graduated from the school in 1987 and was a member of the basketball team for my final two years, so I had a particular pride in being a part of the transition.
How did we do? Well, before getting into my thoughts, I guess I will start with where we ended. Our final record was 18-9, which included a 7-3 mark in the Class 4-A Southeastern Conference. We tied with Hoke County for the regular season conference title and later beat the Bucks in the conference tournament championship game – we lost both of our games to them during the regular season, so they hosted the title game as the top seed.
That put us in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association state tournament, where we beat Greensboro Smith 87-80 in the opening round before losing the next game at top-seeded North Meck 109-84.
All in all, a good year. I should also mention we averaged 97.4 points, which was the second-highest total in the country according to MaxPreps. We actually led this stat for about a month until Findlay Prep, a private school from the Las Vegas area, passed us in the final week. In our 28 games, we topped 100 points 10 times, including five in SEC play, and we scored 102.3 points per game in the conference.
Our highest point total came in a 126-95 victory at home over Purnell Swett, and in the conference tournament championship game, we won by a final of 113-106. Four of our games featured a running clock in the second half when we were able to build a lead of at least 40 points. Our loss in the final game was our largest margin of defeat; in the other eight, the average deficit was 5.5 points.
Just as importantly to me, a guy who rode the pine a bunch during my brief career, we got it done with everyone contributing. In that game against Purnell Swett, seven of our players reached double figures. Of the 16 kids who dressed for our games at some point during the year, 15 of them scored at least 10 points in a game, and the other one had eight as his season high.
And in 11 of our 28 games, everyone who dressed scored at least a point. We had all 13 get on the board in the conference tournament title game.
Those are the numbers. Here are some of my observations as a System aficionado for nearly 15 years:

·       First and foremost, being a part of a team again was amazing. I went into this feeling a little bit like a (mad) scientist, really wanting to see us follow through all season to see what we could do. I had a detachment from the program, since I really didn’t know any of the players that well. But early on, our players and coaches became part of my family, and I a part of theirs. Seeing them succeed warmed my heart; seeing them struggle broke it.
·       I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the play on the court. Sure, we lost nine games, including seven in which we led in the second half. That doesn’t diminish the excitement I have when thinking about our season.
·       I loved how hard all of our kids played. Gary Smith, longtime coach at the University of the Redlands who co-authored a book on how to coach The System, once told me this was a big reason why he ran it. He always wanted his players to give maximum effort, and he wanted to control how the game was played. No style does that like The System. Win or lose, our games featured constant up-and-down action, with very little down time. We never needed to worry what the other team was doing, because each opponent had to play our game. As I said, it didn’t always translate to victories; still, it was a comfort to know we had the final say in what occurred on the court.
·        Our energy on the bench was amazing. I’d been on teams in the past where the players on the end of the bench easily got distracted during games, since they knew they had little chance to see any meaningful minutes. Heck, I’ve probably been one of those players. But since everyone on our sideline was at most 1 minute away from getting back out there, no one had time to get bored. It was incredible.
·       Having said that, I’m sure it was difficult at first for our better players to feel as if they were “giving up” playing time. It is a credit to them I never saw anything in practice or games except full commitment. By the end of the season, they were believers. I’m sure winning helped that a bunch, as did their ability to perform at a high level and score.
·       Overall, from what I heard and saw, the reaction to The System was overwhelmingly positive. Several of our home fans went out of their way to tell me how much they enjoyed it, even as they admitted they’d never seen anything like it. After our opening loss in the Robeson County Shootout, someone in the stands asked me if we planned to play that way all season. I told him we did. He attended our game the next night against the host school, and I saw him at UNC Pembroke when we beat Red Springs for fifth place two days later. He told me, “I just had to watch y’all again.” Later in the season, when we came out on the court for the conference tournament championship game, one of the Hoke fans asked me if I thought we’d score 100 points. I told him, “I hope so.” He was so giddy. It was almost as if the circus had come to town, which I guess is a similar reaction folks had to Grinnell College when coach David Arseneault created The System.
·        Sure, there were those who didn’t appreciate it, but I knew it was because they didn’t understand what we were trying to do. And I’d heard enough complaints from friends over the years when I talked about The System that I was able to give most of this new criticism the attention it deserved (that is, none at all).
·       That’s not to say we did everything perfectly all the time. Running The System takes maximum effort ALL THE TIME, and 90 percent or even 95 percent isn’t enough. When we struggled, it mostly was from a loss of focus from one or more of our players. It didn’t happen often, and when it did, it wasn’t for very long, but sometimes it was enough to keep us from being successful.
·       I love the quote from Denzel Washington’s character Herman Boone in “Remember the Titans,” when he was describing his simplistic offense: “It’s like Novocain; give it a little time, and it’ll work.” I saw this time and again with The System during our season. We had a stretch late in the season where three of four games came down to the wire, and we trailed by double digits in two of them. At Lumberton, we were down 41-22 in the second quarter, scrambled back within 46-43 at halftime, then pulled out a 90-88 victory. In home games against Pinecrest, one in the regular season and one in the semifinal of the conference tournament, we trailed in the final 2 minutes before rallying to win. All three of these come-from-behind victories featured great play from our “finishing shift,” the five guys we thought gave us the best chance to win. They played roughly the final 3 minutes, and we used strategic timeouts to help them get the rest that The System demands.  
·       Not sure if was because of The System, but our guys always seemed to step up when we faced changes in our roster. In our second conference game, at home against Purnell Swett, we were down to 11 players. We even talked about the possibility of playing some zone if we found ourselves in foul trouble and unable to rotate shifts as we wanted. No worries. We went out and won 126-95 with seven players reaching double figures, as I previously wrote. The next game, we also were down to 11 guys, and led throughout in a 102-92 home victory over Lumberton. It dawned on us that everyone played better knowing when their shifts were coming, instead of waiting to hear me call it out. Looking back, that seems obvious, I guess, but it was an eye-opener to me. Once we locked everyone in to his role, we went on a little roll late in the season, winning seven of our final eight games.

That’s it. I am sure I left out something very important, but with the wonders of the Internet, I always can go back and edited this.

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank head coach David Laton, coach Donald Pettigrew Jr. and coach Bryan Hinson for allowing me to be a part of all this. And, certainly, a huge shoutout goes to each and every member of our team, who respectfully accepted me into their group. It was a great ride, I’m just sad it ended so soon.