THROWBACK THURSDAY – “Basketball is an over-coached and under-taught game.” Hall of Fame Coach Pete Newell said this several years ago. Even though the game is still the same, this teaching aspect and the lack of it is getting worse and worse each year.
Take a look at the photos above. The one on the far left is of me bombing at grade 6 that typical two-handed throw. Get it up there by any means necessary from the foul line. We didn’t even have the three-point line. I would have had better luck kicking the ball from behind the arc given this form. My dad didn’t know how to change that shot. He didn’t even recognize how wrong it was even through end of grade 8 (the middle photo where I am pushing the ball from the foul line). It wasn’t until the end of grade 8 in August that year after my first summer of AAU that a boys’ high school coach came up to me in an all-boys’ open gym in Williamsville, NY.
“If you ever want to be a real player,” he said, “You’d better learn how to shoot.”
Coach Mike slayed me with that line, but he did not leave my side. He spent five minutes showing me one drill that I had to do with one hand close to the basket. He said, “Do this drill for two weeks from this spot. You can play pick-up, but don’t shoot at all when you play until your mind remembers the new shot. Work on other aspects of your game. Don’t play much. Just work on your defense and passing and then get out and shoot. Two weeks. This spot.”
My family had just moved. I had no friends. Our house wasn’t entirely finished, but dad did make sure he got a hoop up in the driveway. I was so upset by what Coach Mike said after what I thought was a great summer where I was put on the B team in the spring and starting for the A team at our first nationals where we lost every game by at least 40 points. And he was telling me I couldn’t play? That I wasn’t a real player?
So I did the drill – that damn, boring drill – for hours a day. I worked on my L and my form and dreaded every second of it and my new home. I went back to Coach Mike two weeks later. He stopped as he saw me practicing the drill he told me to do.
“Good,” he said. “Take one step back and do it for another two weeks.”
He walked off.
Coach Mike spent maybe 10 minutes with me and he changed my career more than any coach had up until that point.
For some reason, my mind was open at that moment. Maybe it was because I had no friends, no sense of place, no idea what I was in store for. Maybe I also knew that the girls I’d played against that summer were shooting the ball differently than I was – the good ones were anyway. I also knew that for some inexplicable reason, I was that kid who started writing down drills in her notebook starting in grade six. I also remembered every drill taught in the basketball camps I attended.
What Coach Mike told me was not only how to shoot the basketball. He basically told me that if you want to be good – if you want to be great – if you want to be exceptional – every detail matters. You get under the hood and understand what parts do what, how they are connected, when the engine is at its best all to get the car in top shape. You do this for 5-7 players, then you have a real team. If your elbow is out when you follow through, it’s going to stay out. If you don’t jump when you practice your shots, but you jump in games, you will fail as a shooter. You remind the individuals and the team to slow down, go back to the basics and get back under the hood as regularly as possible.
Now we have coaches who are driven by money, ego, travel and AAU. They are approaching kids and telling their clients (not players) what they want to hear. “Wow, you have such a great handle,” or even better, “Wow, your nine-year-old kid is something special.” That right there is the most effective line to deliver to a parent who doesn’t know hoops or skills or excellence in training, but think they do.
What do I do? I saw an 11-year-old girl on Sunday who is an exceptional player who can handle with any boy in our league. She’s a spirited, feisty kid who will not back down to anyone. I went up to her mom and the coach both of whom I know well, and I said basically don’t let yourself underperform. Learn to shoot the ball right. Learn what it means to have a real hoops IQ, which is rarely taught in the ugly world of NYC hoops. Learn what it means to shoot the ball properly. And don’t get a big head. I told her that if she ever wanted to see me for the training she needed – even briefly, I’d be happy to help – as long as she understands that I teach the truth.
The bottom line is that I was telling her the same thing I was told years ago – you’re not as good as you think you are. Katie Smith, next up on the podcast, said the same thing. Her mom and dad always reminded her of the great players around the country. They kept telling her the right thing after dad insisted she did things properly – that she practiced the right way.
She did want to be a great player, as I did, and as this 11-year-old girl does right now.
So you get under the hood on the details you are being taught by great teachers, and you do the work.
Below are three photos in order. My grade 6 two-handed push, my grade 8 push, my new shot end of grade 9 – still not mechanically right – too much over the shoulder/head and the seated bend is off – but it’s at least ball park 1990, not 1970. Then I put one in from Northwestern – a shot of me shooting from behind the 3-point line.
Nothing worth doing ever comes easy. I wish that I’d learned the drills in grade 5-6. That’s when we start pushing and expecting better results. Most kids often do not have enough will or hours to change their shot at the end of grade 8. Steph Curry’s father made him stay home an entire summer end of grade 10 to change his – and he’s lucky he did.