FAMILY SUNDAY – My father was the third commentator in our family room if you sat down to watch a basketball game with him. I remember mostly watching the Celtics games with him. He’d be in his recliner or on the corner of the couch just feet away from the beer we had on tap in the family room. (Note that I did not know this was not normal until I told a bunch of football players in college that my family, as well as the Harkins and the Flanigans, all had beer on tap in their family rooms. They all started laughing.)
My mother wasn’t a fan of chips or beer, so my dad often went out to the store prior to the game and bought some, then sat down in his game-ready position. Dad’s eyes would lock onto our TV and he’d start rattling away everything he was seeing. He was big into position and using your body. He used to play me in the driveway and back me in just to toughen me up, and it worked. Dad used to say he could get both elbows above the rim. I didn’t believe that in full, but after watching how hard he worked in the over-30 league, I knew for sure that he was an animal on the boards. He leaned forward when he shot, and he never did so with great confidence. So that led to a lot of gutsy plays involving rebounding and breaking up plays. He sat on that couch and talked about position, boxing out, and movement without the ball.
He told me to watch everything Larry Bird did.
And that’s what I did when I watched my cousin Pete play tight end in the NFL for 12 years. Everything he did, I imitated, when I played touch football with my brothers outside, up until the point my father said no more football for me.
I did it when I watched Bird. I watched him in the huddle. I watched how emotionless he was. I watched how few words he had to say. I watched his expressions. I knew he was an introverted yet cocky man. I saw how unafraid he was to be off the ball, away from action. He’d wait until his defender’s eyes shifted too much toward the ball and in one step, he’d be in the driver’s seat. I saw how crafty Bird was at always being one play, one pass, ahead. He always knew where his teammates were, what they were doing, what they were thinking, and what they were capable of doing. Bird knew how to give the ball to the player in the spot that made the player look great.
Case in point was his steal and dish to Dennis Johnson without looking at him.
My dad was my coach through 8th grade. I have on video a game where we played against a six-grade team playing a 1-3-1, and my father having no plan at all of how to beat that junk D in a small gym. But we tried like heck.
There’s one piece of advice I give my players who are exuding a higher IQ or are showing an appetite for seeing the layers of a beautiful game.
I tell them to go to a high school, college or pro game and either watch a player in your position the entire game and/or watch the action OFF the ball. Too many girls do not go to enough games. Too many boys go and just watch the ball. I tell the kids to watch a player that is in their position. Watch how they create off the ball. Watch where the player is defensively off the ball. Watch how they get an advantage with one or two steps on the fast break as the rebound is being secured.
If you want to bump it up one other level, do it yourself as an adult. Watch a player or two the entire game and/or play a game of REWIND & REPEAT after a spectacular set on offense. That’s a game where you hit the pause button and you ask your kid and yourself all the movements that led up to such a beautiful display of teamwork.
Even one player stepping out two steps higher on offense – just two steps – opens up a gap for the player to seal the final movement of scoring.
It’s rare for most fans to recognize the credit that should be given to the player who created the space, timing or position off the ball, or how they did it a few seconds before the ball arrived even if the ball didn’t hit their hands. It’s a fast game of chess out there. The greats know how to make the great plays and they know how to let the great plays happen without getting in the way.