by Jerry Richardson 2/9/15
2/7/2015, Coach Dean Smith died at age 83. • As a young know-nothing, very-wet-behind-the-ears basketball coach, there were two college basketball coaches that I studied like you study math for an exam. Of course that included the legendary John Wooden (1910 – 2010) who was nicknamed the “Wizard of Westwood” who coached UCLA to 10 national championships in a 12-year period. An Unprecedented career and his coaching record will probably never be equaled, at least in my lifetime.
I studied and tried my best with my meager understanding of basketball to emulate one of Coach Wooden’s very effective defensive systems. His system that I really admired would occur when his team would apply, after a UCLA score, a full-court zone-press, often with traps (that’s when you surround the ball-possessor with two or maybe three people); but then in addition…and here’s the difficult part…when the ball crossed half-count into the front-court, Coach Wooden’s players would revert, rather smoothly and very effectively, to a half-court man-to-man defense—UCLA players had to quickly look around, spot their man, and quickly match-up with him. If you don’t think this is difficult to do or to coach a team to do it is because you have never tried it.
I believed, and still do, that Coach Wooden was more of a master of basketball defenses than he was of basketball offenses. Shucks, on offense Coach Wooden always seemed to have a Lew Alcindor type—Alcindor later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—who could put the ball in the basket if you’d just gave it to him; and Coach Wooden made sure that his players did just that.
The college coach, whose offensive tactics and strategies that I studied the most and hardest, was Dean Smith (1931 – 2015). Coach Smith built the North Carolina Tar Heels’ basketball program into a formidable, national basketball power.
Smith coached the men’s basketball team at the Chapel Hill-based University of North Carolina for 36 years, winning national titles in 1982 and 1993, and 11 times reaching the Final Four of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. Among the game strategies he helped popularize was the four-corners offense, which enabled his teams to run out the clock when holding leads. The offense helped prompt the NCAA to adopt a shot clock in 1985.
—Coach Dean Smith dies at 83
Coach Smith’s offensive tactic and strategy—it was both—that most fascinated me was his well-known and much discussed and cussed four-corners offense. The coaches whose teams played against it hated it because they knew they were in serious trouble if and when North Carolina went to the four-corners.
I loved it!
And the reason I did is because I am not a tall guy (5’9”) and I have an admitted resentment for the advantage of tall players in the game of basketball. The four-corners offense did a lot to mitigate the natural advantage of height in basketball.
As I have already said, the four-corners offense was both a tactic and a strategy; that is partly what made it an often fearsomely effective weapon on the basketball court.
The tactic was simplicity in itself.
First, all of the North Carolina players on the court during the four-corners had to be, as much as possible, excellent ball-handlers and better than average free-throw shooters; it didn’t matter whether they were short or tall, their ball-handling skills and foul-shooting skills were the key.
Four of the players would each go to a corner of the front-court (the scoring end for the offensive team) and the fifth player would roam around in the vicinity of the top-of-the-key waiting to spring-quickly to receive any pass suddenly thrown to him.
The aim of the tactic was, in essence, to play a game of keep-away by players dribbling and passing until one of two things happened: Either a North Carolina player was fouled and he shot free shots; or a defensive player was jockeyed out of position and a pass was made to the open North Carolina player who went to the hoop for a lay-up or a very close jumper. There wasn’t much variation possible with this tactic; but it demanded Spartan-like discipline and superb ball-handling skills of the players executing the tactic.
The strategy was also simple.
North Carolina would only go to the four-corner offense when they got a lead of, usually, at least 4 or 5 points. Also it was important for Coach Smith to judge the relative strength of the team he was playing relative to the strength of his own team. It boils-down to this: If the opposing team was very strong playing a classical offense and North Carolina was having some trouble defending against that classical offense, then a 4 or 5 point lead, if it could be attained, would often trigger the four-corner offense.
Fast-break teams, using what I call run-and-shoot offenses, absolutely detested this style of slow-down play because it completely broke the rhythm of their accustomed pattern of offense. Fans, sometimes on either side, who desired to see fast-paced, high-scoring action, were often not very pleased with this offensive maneuver. In fact, fan disapproval had a lot to do with the demise of all slow-down tactics in basketball. What can I say; games are ultimately played for the fans, are they not?
But those few of us who appreciated smart strategy and disciplined tactical execution, and who wanted to see a taller and often clumsy-on-defense opponent have to play a demanding defensive game loved the four-corner.
The four-corner was more difficult to defend than you might imagine.
The spread-out nature of the offense and the willingness of the offensive team to hold the ball, and the rules that permitted it, necessitated a man-to-man defense against it. If the team on the floor couldn’t play good man-to-man defense they were in trouble and the coach of that team would often have to substitute-out better offensive players for better defensive players—an obvious disruption to the teams’ offensive plans.
In addition the four-corner offense usually resulted in more fouls than normal against the defensive team—this offense could be absolutely devastating against a team that was poorly prepared to cope with it.
Of course, the four-corner offense and any other form of deliberate slow-down offense was killed—like it was Dracula or something—by the NCAA shot-clock rule adopted in 1985. I didn’t like it then and I still don’t. If you want to see nothing but high speed, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am action in a game, just go watch a roller derby.
A lot of skilled basketball talent was effectively invalidated by that rule change. And the biggest recipients of the invalidation were short (non-tall) guys who have a difficult time executing a classical basketball offense against considerably greater defensive height.
So, with the ever-increasing efforts to privilege fast-action and height in our modern sports:
All hail to the tall guys; all hail to the run-and-shoot offenses; all hail to the modern copycat versions of Phi Slamma Jamma: Up and down the court we go, if we can’t dunk it, woe, woe, woe. Defense, de-fense, de-fen-se? What the heck is that? Oh, right, it’s that unavoidable, nobody-really-knows-why-its-necessary, unwanted-time between the awe-inspiring, glorious, crowd-pleasing, erotic slam-dunks.
If Dr. James Naismith were alive and witnessed a game of basketball today, he would no-doubt not recognize it as the game he invented, because of course it isn’t.
Among the players Smith taught were future Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Billy Cunningham. His coaching disciples included Roy Williams, North Carolina’s current coach, who himself has led the Tar Heels to two national championships; and Larry Brown, the only coach to win NCAA and National Basketball Association titles.
—Coach Dean Smith dies at 83
Many people, including unknowns such as myself, will fondly remember Coach Dean Smith and his genius for creating and employing the unconventional basketball offense known as the four-corners offense. But certainly a more important remembrance, and one of the best compliments paid to Coach Smith was made by Roy Williams, the current men’s basketball coach at North Carolina who said:
I’ve always felt that he’s the best there is on the court, but he’s even better off the court in what he gives to those people who come in contact with him.
That is Coach Smith’s true legacy: What he gave to people off the court.
© 2015, Jerry Richardson • (7481 views)