Saturday, November 27, 2004

The Measuring Stick

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It's been four days since we played this game, and the delay in posting a recap is only partially because of the Thanksgiving holiday. Mainly I've just been trying to figure out how to sum it all up. In a nutshell, it was the best game I've ever been a part of. Now here's the long version:

Hamilton is a school only three or four miles to the north of LIndbergh, and the two schools serve essentially the same population. Many of our students start at one school and end up at the other before finishing their three years of middle school, either because of behavior issues or a simple change of address. Most of the boys on the basketball teams know each other, and many play together in different park leagues. Such familiarity certainly breeds contempt, and the Hamilton game is always highlighted on our schedule.

Let me flash back to last week for just a second. Before our first game, as I always do, I asked the boys if they had any goals for the season. One boy raised his hand and said something that sounded suspiciously like ass-kissing: "Play hard and have fun!" Anyone else? Bernard (more on him later) then raised his hand and said, "Win a city championship." In thirteen years, every single team has set this goal, so it was no surprize when Bernard suggested it. I ask my teams this question to provide a fulcrum for the rest of the season. From that moment on, whenever things start to look sloppy during practice, or whenever the team begins to lose focus in a game, I'll always have that ace up my sleeve. "Is that the effort we'll need to reach our goal?" It's extremely transparent, but it usually gets their attention.

Anyway, this was more than just a rivalry game, it was a measuring stick. The Franklin game showed us nothing, but this game would tell us if we could realistically reach for a championship. Hamilton went undefeated last year on its way to the city title, and a handful of the players from that team had returned for this year, so I expected them to be good, and I was right.

When the game started out, Hamilton showed us a 1-3-1 zone defense. This is a common high school defense, but somewhat rare at the middle school level since few teams have the athletes necessary to run it effectively. I had expected this defense from Hamilton, so we had prepared the typical counter, a 2-1-2 offense. Our preparation paid off, and the Hamilton coach quickly switched to a more conventional 2-3. Unfortunately, we hadn't installed anything to combat this, so our offense stalled. We were able to get enough points off turnovers to stay in it, but we lost our early lead and went into halftime tied at 25.

One highlight from the first half came in the closing seconds of the first quarter. We missed a shot with about twenty seconds left, and a Hamilton player grabbed the rebound. But as both teams were transitioning to the other end of the floor, the ball came loose and bounced right into Stephan's hands. He was at the free throw line, and there was no one between him and the basket, so he took two steps and took off. With the ball extended high above him in his right hand, he exploded up to the rim and hammered it down -- but the ball rattled out. He simply hadn't had enough momentum, and he had come up short. It hardly mattered. As the ball bounced away, the Hamilton crowd exploded in disbelief. The attempt, it seemed, was as good as a dunk would've been. The horn sounded seconds later to end the quarter, and when our team huddled up it took me a good thirty seconds to get everyone's attention. Our boys were so excited, it was as if we had won a championship. I can't imagine what will happen when he actually gets one down...

At halftime I quickly explained a motion offense to attack the 2-3 zone, even though I knew it wouldn't take. The boys dutifully paid attention as I diagrammed the various passes and cuts and post-ups necessary to disect the zone, but it typically takes several repetitions over several days of practice before a new offense can actually work during a game. It was no different here. They were able to set up in the right spots, however, and they understood that we still wanted to get the ball inside to Stephan, so we were back in business. (Stephan would score twenty points on the night.)

But the bigger adjustment was a defensive one. Our zone had gotten a bit loose, leaving enormous gaps that Hamilton was regularly exploiting for open jump shots. We were able to close those up in the second half, and even though we gave up 22 points in the third quarter, I still had the feeling that we were playing better defense and would end up winning.

We entered the fourth quarter down by two, but we quickly took the lead and held it for much of the period. Just inside the two minute mark, however, Hamilton hit a couple baskets in a row to take a two-point lead. I had a brief urge to take a timeout, but I was comfortable with how we were playing, and Bernard was making excellent decisions from his point guard position, so I let them play. We answered with four straight points of our own to reclaim the lead, and then we came up with a big defensive stop with just under a minute to play.

As Bernard pushed the ball up the court following the rebound, I was screaming for him to hold the ball, but the crowd was loud that I know he didn't hear me. Now here's the amazing part -- he held the ball anyway. I can't emphasize enough how rare this is. He was completely aware of the game situation and knew that they had to come to us, so he stood a few steps past center court and dribbled patiently as precious seconds ticked off the clock. It took about fifteen or twenty seconds before the Hamilton players realized what was going on and came after him, at which point Bernard and the two other guards, Tyaries ('T' for short) and Jesse, started playing keep away.

Bernard was finally fouled with ten seconds to play, and then things got a little weird. As soon as the referees lined the players up for the free throws, the Hamilton coach called a timeout. During our huddle, we emphasized that Bernard would make his two free throws and the game would be over. But as we were going over some of the other possibilities, I stopped to ask the officials if we were shooting a one-and-one or if we were in the double bonus. When the official went to check, he found out that we weren't even in the bonus yet; we'd be inbounding the ball with Hamilton's next foul sending us to the line.

As the timeout ended, the Hamilton coach got this news, and he wasn't pleased. He argued with both officials, telling them that he wouldn't have taken a timeout if he had known he wasn't in the bonus. (It could be argued that it was his responsibility to know how many fouls he had, but the officials HAD lined us up for free throws.) Since the refs were giving him no relief, I walked over and told him that since he had clearly been screwed, I'd take a timeout for him if he needed one. This calmed him down a bit, so we got on with the game.

Bernard inbounded the ball to Jesse, who had played a solid game up until this point. Even though he's only in the seventh grade, he's one of the better players on the team, and he would end up scoring seventeen points on this night to go along with his outstanding defensive play. He was fouled as soon as got the ball, and he headed to the line (for real this time) with a two-point lead and 9.8 seconds to play. The Hamilton coach asked me for a timeout, so I obliged, perhaps assuring myself of a place in the Sportsmanship Hall of Fame.

When play resumed, Jesse nailed both free throws, giving us a four-point lead. Hamilton inbounded quickly and ended up taking a wild three-pointer that wasn't close, giving us the victory. It was Hamilton's first loss in two years.

So where does this leave us? Before the game, I didn't really expect to have much trouble with Hamilton. I had talked myself into believing that we were one of the best teams in the city, and although that still might be true, Hamilton is certainly in that group as well. If were to replay those last two minutes ten times, we'd probably split five-five. I don't think we'll be pushed by any of the other three teams in our league, but there are at least two other teams in the city (Hughes and Stanford) that concern me based on their scores and what I've heard about them. The playoffs will be interesting.

For now, all we can do is focus on next week.