A voice of summer and fall

Today would have been the 100th birthday of a sports announcer you may not have heard of recently, but could be heard all over your TV — Lindsey Nelson, as chronicled by David J. Halberstam:

Beginning in the 1950s, Nelson graced play-by-play television and radio microphones nationally and locally for four decades. He is one of only four men to receive the Pro Football Hall of Fame‘s Rozelle and Baseball Hall’s Ford Frick Awards, (Curt Gowdy, Jack Buck and Dick Enberg).

In New York, Lindsey will always be remembered as one of the three initial voices of the Mets. In the rest of the country, Nelson was known for his football broadcasts. He did tons on network television and radio, and was used often by NBC and CBS on both the NFL and college football.

From 1962-78, 17 Mets seasons, Nelson was joined on both radio and television by Bob Murphy and Ralph Kiner. They were a beloved threesome. Nelson said, “We never had a cross word.” The Mets broadcasts were structured and predictable. Kiner clutched his cigar, Murphy his cigarette and Nelson his inanimate object, generally a pencil. Each called their innings with a seductive charm.

During their early overlapping years in the Yankees booth, Red Barber pontificated, Mel Allen emoted happily, Phil Rizzuto brought a neighborly warmth and Joe Garagiola blamed the Yankees demise on “termites in the bat rack.” Nelson said, “We didn’t have to be funny. Our jokes were down on the field.” The Mets were notorious for futility until the late 60s.

The Mets trio out-survived eight managers from Casey Stengel who rings a bell with everyone to baseball’s Joe Frazier who rings a bell with no one.

While Nelson was excellent on radio, his strength was television. Lindsey said, “On television, you simply write cutlines for the pictures. On radio, you paint the whole canvas with words, pace and information.”

On television, the Mets were an immediate hit. When Lindsey learned that the Mets were planning to carry 120 of their 162 games on the tube their first year, Nelson took advantage of the growing number of color television sets. He started wearing garish and lurid sports jackets that he bought off the rack. It drew attention away from the staid air crew at Yankee Stadium. You’d mention Nelson and many would say, ‘Oh, the guy with those loud jackets.’

When Lindsey was honored with the Frick Award, the Hall’s spokesperson Bill Guilfoile aptly said of the jackets, “They clashed with his soft southern drawl.”

Nelson said that the two New York baseball teams “were a clash of competing cultures. The Yankees represented dignified efficiency and the Mets represented futility but were unwilling to recognize and admit it.”

When Nelson was a Mets announcer, NBC-TV’s World Series coverage always included an announcer from the participating teams. And so when the Mets inexplicably won the 1969 World Series and got to the 1973 World Series …

Like other human beings, Nelson dealt with family issues. His older daughter, Sharon, was born retarded. His beloved wife Mickie died suddenly while on vacation in Spain. His longtime Mets statistician Art Friedman said, “Lindsey couldn’t handle booze. He had been on the wagon for twenty years. But when Mickie died, he was off the wagon for a while. One drink and he was out”

Nelson was very private. Kiner said, “As friendly as we were, I never felt I really knew him.”

After the 1978 season, Nelson left the Mets unexpectedly and joined the Giants broadcasts where he followed legendary announcers like Russ Hodges, Lon Simmons and Al Michaels. After three short seasons in San Francisco, he told a writer, “I have been a stranger in a strange land.” He was gone. It was the last baseball he did.

Longtime Notre Dame fans remember the years when live college football on network television was limited. So on Saturday nights, Fighting Irish games were shown in a recorded, condensed version of one hour. Lindsey voiced them and is often heard saying, “As we pick up the action later in the quarter…”

Nelson passed at age 76 in 1995, after suffering for years from Parkinson’s. Like many other early network television sportscasters, Lindsey was a member of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. He grew up during the depression and served the country in the European theater during World War II in a correspondent’s and communication role. He was always fascinated by the military. In his seasons doing the Mets, he was known to often have a military related book with him on airplanes and bus trips.

In one of the great coincidences in sports broadcasting history, Nelson and legendary announcer Jack Buck were both injured in the Battle of the Bulge.

Nelson was born and reared in Columbia, Tennessee and was hardly a child of the privileged. His dad was a traveling salesperson and Lindsey’s mom was in his words, “the greatest influence on me.”

As a student at the University of Tennessee, he “devoted every waking moment to thoughts of the Vol fortunes on the gridiron.” He tutored athletes in freshman English, spotted for the radio announcer and was a stringer for newspapers. In other words, he got hands-on experience early.

When the Vols advanced to the 1940 Rose Bowl, Nelson, a student at the time, traveled to Pasadena and served as a spotter for NBC Radio’s Bill Stern. Ted Husing and Stern were then America’s top two sports announcers. In his early years on-air, Nelson considered himself a protégé of Stern. Their play-by-play styles were somewhat similar. Both were upbeat, called games enthusiastically and did so with a sense of urgency.

Nelson was chosen to be a spotter for the former football game between the reigning NFL champion and the College All-Stars at Soldier Field in Chicago. He was going to be paid $5, back in the days when $5 was pretty good money. So he rode the bus from Tennessee to Chicago, where upon arrival at the All-Stars camp he found out that the broadcast had been canceled because NBC decided to carry a speech by Vice President Henry Wallace. So Nelson was in Chicago with all of 50 cents. His choices with 50 cents were lodging or food, so he bought a copy of the Chicago Tribune “because it was the thickest paper in town,” found a spot in Grant Park that night, laid ou the paper on the grass and slept there that night, bought breakfast the next morning and then hitchhiked to Tennessee. The fact I once slept on the floor of a hotel room covering a state baseball championship pales in comparison to that.

After the war, Lindsey returned to Knoxville where he broadcast minor league baseball and University of Tennessee football games. In 1950, for that matter, Nelson met Vin Scully who was in Knoxville to cover the Alabama-Tennessee game for CBS Radio. Scully had begun doing the Dodgers the summer before. Lindsey was also an announcer for the Liberty Network which recreated baseball games. In one thirty-day span, he recreated 62 games. It’s nice to be young!

A big break came in the early 50s, when he was hired by Tom Gallery who was the first ever administrative director of NBC Sports. In a hybrid role, Lindsey did lots of supervisory work for Gallery, called college football games and beginning in 1957 teamed with Leo Durocher on NBC’s Game of the Week. He also was the play-by-play announcer for the network’s NBA broadcasts.

Nelson went through mostly ups in his career and a few downs. On network TV, he did Cotton Bowls year after year, the Rose Bowl and two World Series when the Mets qualified, in 1969 and ‘73.

Here is a down:

In his wonderfully written autobiography, Hello Everybody, I’m Lindsey Nelson, he writes “Networks have a unique way of dealing with situations in which they have people that they have decided for some reason or other not to use. The weapon is silence. You just don’t hear from anybody.”

Bob Costas labeled Nelson, “a cheerful chronicler.” One of Nelson’s later assignment was doing the NFL on CBS Radio. Lindsey would always paint an environment of infectious enthusiasm. Fans got a sense that he’d rather be nowhere else other than the ballpark. I can recall a game he did from old Candlestick when the Niners were dominating the NFL. Lindsey: “Wherever you went around San Francisco this morning, the subject of conversation was this 49ers team. Whether it was the hostess turning over the tables at a restaurant, the cab driver or the doorman, they all wanted to talk about Joe Montana and today’s big game.”

He never changed. Early in his career as he was just beginning to surface on the national scene, Variety wrote, “Lindsey Nelson has been touted for many years as one of the tip-top grid casters. Precise, methodical and efficient, he may not have the color of Bill Stern, the heartiness of Mel Allen, the analytic powers of Red Barber or the glamour of Ted Husing, but as an information purveyor who’s right on top of the play, he’s almost prescient, the peer of any and the superior of many.”

As time evolved, Nelson developed his own friendly personality on-air and was loved by many throughout the country.

The baseball stadium at the University of Tennessee is named in Lindsey Nelson’s honor.

Packer fans of, uh, long experience are familiar with Nelson’s work:

 

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The church of baseball

Kenny Herzog:

The skies are partly cloudy and temperatures comfortably in the 70s as the sun sets on Gallatin, Tennessee, on a Monday evening in late April. In other words, perfect baseball weather.

Accordingly, Brent High is doing what he does most often on nights like this: watching kids play, in this case the local Lipscomb Academy middle-grade squad. High is an alumnus of the private, Christian institution and even used to call play-by-play for the team’s games, in addition to driving the creation of Lipscomb’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter 22 years ago. And he has never wavered in his belief that sports and spirituality soar on the same plane. It’s a mindset that also makes him uniquely qualified to assess whether the culture and doctrine of Christianity has become increasingly influential in American baseball, including at the major-league level.

“I think the last five years, maybe going back 10, a lot of the most successful on-the-field athletes have been outspoken [about their Christian faith],” High observes. “It’s almost become not only comfortable, but maybe even encouraged for the guys that do have the platform to use it.”

High might have a little something to do with that. The Nashville native and father of two is reasonably famous in his own backyard and beyond as a co-founder of Third Coast Sports, which aims to spread the message of Christ by partnering with sports teams and entertainers and staging popular Faith Night events at Major League Baseball venues.

“For a guy like me, who does have the heart for it, in addition to understanding the business side, that’s a double win,” he exclaims of any symbiosis between MLB and the Christian church. “Not only do I have a happy team and happy sponsors, but the ministry side of why we exist is being activated when guys like Charlie Blackmon for the Colorado Rockies gets up there and boldly proclaims his faith right after he’s gone 3-4 in the game with a homer and a double.”

Starting in the mid-2000s, Third Coast began partnering with MLB clubs including the Rockies, Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals on what would grow into Faith Nights. They were essentially a scaling up of grassroots promotions High conceived of while serving as VP of Sales for Milwaukee Brewers AAA affiliate Nashville Sounds between 2003-’05. The events — typically occurring inside a team’s stadium after the conclusion of a game — are equal parts outdoor megachurch service (often featuring testimony from home-team players, such as the aforementioned Blackmon, along with John Smoltz and Lance Berkman, to name a few) and Christian rock concert. And they have translated to big business over the past decade-plus for MLB.

“You’ve gotta put yourself in the shoes of these executives at these teams we partner with,” says High. “They care about one thing: butts in the seats. If they can have realtor night, scout night, little-league night — if it can move ticket sales, they’ll host it.”

Third Coast and MLB’s partnership is an emphatic confirmation of what High describes: that Major League Baseball, more than any other major American professional sport, has mirrored the mainstreaming of evangelical Christian influence in particular on our culture at large. (High prefers to eschew labels, saying he simply follows “The Way.”)

Throughout MLB’s 150-year history, there have been stars who practiced the gospel as religiously as their on-field fundamentals. New York Giants legend Christy Mathewson is still hailed among the similarly pious as “The Christian Gentleman.” Longtime Dominican-born player/manager Felipe Alou (whose brothers, Matty and Jesús, and son, Moises, were also successful major-leaguers) famously converted from Catholicism to an evangelical strain of Christianity. And the list goes on. But none of them had social media.   

That’s why in early 2018, Eastern Illinois University Political Science professor Dr. Ryan P. Burge conducted an analysis of players’ Twitter accounts across MLB, the NBA and NFL, finding that nearly eight percent of subscribed MLB players referenced a New Testament passage in their bio, fully double the percentage of NFL players and more than sevenfold that of NBAers. And that eight percent (a number that increases when expanding to broader allusions to Christ himself) isn’t exactly a compilation of mid-level roster guys with nothing to lose by laying their faith on the line. Perennial All-Stars and bright-up-and-comers alike ranging from Clayton KershawAdam Wainwright and Matt Carpenter to Trevor StoryBen ZobristScooter Gennett and Steven Matz all ostensibly use their public platform to evangelize. Which is their want and Constitutional (some might say God-given) right. But is this marriage of missions — winning and wooing potential religious converts — anathema to the wider, secular appeal of baseball, or more problematically, alienating to non-believers?

“Baseball, historically, has acted as a secular religion in the United States more than any other sport, almost a sacred space,” argues Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation and host of the Edge of Sports podcast. Back in 2006-’07, Zirin contributed a series of Nation columns regarding the Colorado Rockies organization’s fairly unabashed Christian ethos. He was wary of the team’s mixing sports and spirituality then, and is equally uneasy about how evangelical value share seeped into the game since. “It’s cliché,” he continues, “but [baseball]’s acted as the great sports-as-melting pot, a place where people come in as specific ethnicities and emerge as heroes, from Joe DiMaggio to Jackie Robinson to Roberto Clemente. It always has had an air of equity, and when you start imposing Christian dogma on this space, there’s something about it that rings more tinny, false and dangerous than other sports.”

As it turns out, turn-of-the-20th-century Protestant leaders might have agreed with Zirin. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the concept of Muscular Christianity — essentially, a social construct within the church focused on raising generations of strong and athletic men — took root in Protestant communities, coalescing into an organized movement via the YMCA. But it was not especially concerned with placing its young disciples on a track for professional acclaim.

“The difference between the Muscular Christianity of the late 1800s and the Muscular Christianity of today is I don’t see that social gospel component,” says Clifford Putney, author of Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America 1880-1920 and current associate professor of history at Bentley University. As that earlier iteration of Muscular Christianity fell out of favor post-WWI, Muscular Christianity evolved into a resource for coping with material success among athletes rather than a manual for how to be righteous without it. “Today, the [Christian] players are very concerned about maintaining equilibrium amidst their stardom,” adds Putney, “so it’s a very therapeutic thing.”

And in the latter half of the 20th century, it was also a locker-room taboo. Rob Maaddi, author of Baseball Faith: 52 MLB Stars Reflect on Their Faith and host of ESPN-syndicated Christian sports-talk radio show Faith on the Field, recalls being stunned by an anecdote from his inaugural guest, Philadelphia Phillies Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.

“He brought something to my attention I had never realized,” explains Maaddi. “In the late ‘70s, early ‘80s when he played, Christian ball players in the clubhouse were considered sissies. The perception was if you’re a believer, you may be weaker or someone teammates can’t count on it.”

Schmidt was not alone in his day. The late Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter was likewise notoriously ostracized for his Christian lifestyle while a member of the rowdy New York Mets teams of the mid-1980s. But over the ensuing two decades, baseball weathered the steroid-era crisis and lockouts and a general erosion of its fanbase’s good faith (no pun intended). Optically, it made sense to put a spotlight on players who might be lower-wattage than Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa but embodied a familiar, understated decency that would comfort purists.

At the same time, groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action — ostensibly more robust variations on the YMCA’s Muscular Christianity of yore — were proliferating in pockets of the country where evangelical and other churches of salvation were prominent, mainlining pastoral practices into ball fields and locker rooms. While MLB was losing ground to the NFL and NBA in urban areas, it had tapped into a well of talent as well-versed in conversion to Christ as they were technique for shagging flies.

“There are a lot of organizations that are even founded as Christian-based travel baseball-organizations that are gonna be about more than just teaching baseball,” says High, who highlights Cross Hit Sports Academy and Make A Difference Baseball Academy as examples. “Some of these teams that are playing at the highest level and ranked in the top three, five, seven teams in the country at their age level, they’re making [Christianity] part of what they teach and do. When you’re talking about the South, the South is traditionally more of a Christian population where baseball is played. Just look at the top 25 rankings right now in the NCAA.”

Taylor Rogers, a faithful Christian who was a minor-league pitcher in the San Francisco Giants organization from 2009-2013 and is currently an Advisory Board Member for his local Austin, Texas, chapter of MLB’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, doesn’t view all this as an insidious conspiracy. But he does reflect that at the most formative stages, MLB has backed itself into something of a self-fulfilling corner.

“You look at the guys my age and a little older who had success at the collegiate level and then the professional level, and the rise of select travel teams [and] individual lessons kind of created a gap in the game where people who were excelling and had access to those programs were moneyed Caucasian people for the most part, and I think it became a very suburban sport. And that happens to be, demographically, largely white evangelical Christian. You start catching all your fish in one pond, and all those fish start to look alike.”

Rogers is quick with the caveat that programs like RBI are, in his view, having their desired effect and planting the seeds for future diversity. (And in fairness, Albert Pujols, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Aaron Judge are among those who identify as devoutly Christian but don’t fit the white-guy mold; additionally, per statistics provided by MLB for this story, 41 percent of active Opening Day players were non-white.) The reason that should matter to any baseball fan, no matter their religious affiliation, is it could help repopulate the league with more dynamic personalities. Even if you’re ambivalent about the implications of MLB being in bed with megachurches, most onlookers can agree that the game might benefit from some swagger to even out all the aw-shucks humility in press conferences and media scrums. Only one — one! — MLB player (Bryce Harper, who is Mormon) made the cut in ESPN’s World Fame 100 index of the planet’s most transcendent athletes for 2019. It’s a conundrum that’s bigger than whatever eggs MLB might have in the Christian church’s basket.

“You look at Trevor Story, Matt Carpenter, guys like that, and there may be a little bit of a humble, act-like-you’ve-been-here-before mentality,” offers Maaddi. But on the whole, he asserts that, “I don’t know that has to do with faith as it is the baseball culture. Showmanship in football and basketball is different. You’ve got guys trash-talking in the trenches, and when they score a touchdown or get a sack, they celebrate. In baseball, they’ve always had the unwritten rules where if you show up a pitcher, expect to be plunked, or go in with your spikes high and there might be a fight there. I think it has to do with trying to break down years and years of these codes that Major League Baseball has followed. I don’t know how long it will take.”

Baseball’s slow march toward loosening up and diversifying — whether or not those two things are mutually exclusive — is a work in progress. But in the interim, Third Coast founder High points enthusiastically to that great catalyst for parity: the open market. Beyond acknowledging the bottom-line good sense of MLB going all in for Faith Nights and letting the Christian kids play, he puts some onus on competitors and communities from other sects to seize similar opportunities for preaching and profit. “From the business standpoint, go try to convince a Major League Baseball executive to have a Muslim Night or Jewish Night or Satanic Night or whatever,” High advises. “It’s all about how many congregations are within a five-hour radius of my stadium that I can actively market to with the expectation that I’m going to move enough tickets to make it worth my while.”

High alludes to the roughly 2,000 Christian churches within said range of Nashville, where he originated his Faith Nights with the Sounds. By comparison, a comprehensive 2002 report tallied the number of active Jewish synagogues in the entire country at that time as under 4,000. A separate 2010 report concluded that, as of the turn of the aughts, there were narrowly more than 2,000 Muslim mosques across the U.S. The Church of Satan, of course, does not operate individual chapters or facilities as a fundamental tenet of its beliefs.

MLB does not provide data on religious demographics, but according to Jewish Baseball News, there are less than 10 active Jewish players. And so far, there has only been one Muslim player in MLB history, and he is now retired. It’s hard to see how they’d collectively help foment a fervor on par with Faith Nights, but easy to imagine where fans who celebrate varying faiths — or none at all — might, to Zirin’s point, feel a sense of remove when their team’s standout hitter motions to the heavens after a come-from-behind win and then sticks around to spread the gospel. For that matter, some Christians might as well.

“I’m troubled as a Christian by the whole, ‘I prayed and my batting average went up five points’ kind of thing,” says Shaun Casey, Director of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and former U.S. State Department Special Representative. “There is a sense sometimes that Christianity gets marketed as a solution to all your life’s problems. I have a number of Muslim friends. I never picked up a whiff of, ‘Allah helps me in my field, Allah helps me in my hitting.’ I think there is a stream across American Christianity [of], ‘Yeah, Jesus helps my batting average.’ I just think that’s a bad version of what Christianity’s really about.”

MLB does, to its credit, try and cover as many bases (pun intended this time) as possible by sanctioning league-wide “Heritage Nights” celebrating Jewish, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, African-American and other cultural blocs that complement its recent PR blitz touting unprecedented diversity. For example, the San Francisco Giants’ annual Jewish Heritage Night occurs in partnership with Chabad SF and the Jewish Community Federation and is highlighted by a pregame parking-lot party and limited-edition merch, with partial ticket proceeds set aside for the city’s overall homeless population.

This scans as slightly divergent in scope and charitable intent from, say, the Kansas City Royals’ July 27 Faith and Family Night (the “and Family” addendum is often affixed to avoid appearances of faith-based exclusivity), which is sponsored by Hobby Lobby, the for-profit craft-store chain that adheres to Christian values and was a successful co-plaintiff in a Supreme Court case asserting its right to abstain from providing employees with compulsory contraceptive coverage. The Royals’ site advertises that “players and/or executives” will speechify during the event, which will take place after the game inside the team’s 37,000-plus-capacity stadium and close out with a performance from Christian-music superstar Matthew West.

For some, the idea that MLB offers any kind of level playing field in the pursuit of inclusive representation is hard to swallow, and underscores Zirin’s opinion that the league can’t have it both ways. “I think it is a false equivalency,” says Tom Krattenmaker, a USA Today columnist, author of Onward Christian Athletes and communications director at Yale Divinity School, of likening Heritage Nights to Family Nights. “They’re very different in terms of scale, but also in the degree to which the team is facilitating an evangelism experience. It’s a gray area. They’ll always be able to say nobody’s forced to listen.”

Krattenmaker draws parallels between the swelling evangelical footprint within MLB and evangelicals’ growing influence on societal mores, despite their relative minority status within the total Christian consortium. As recently as last year, the total number of Americans who identify as evangelical was at 15 percent, down eight percent from 2008. Yet in the 2016 presidential election, they accounted for more than a quarter of all votes cast in the nation. If evangelicals’ political motivation was to preserve a particular idyll of American life resistant to modern demographic shifts, MLB’s M.O. might be to sanctify itself as the now-and-forever Eden for pro-sports Puritans.

High assures that’s far from the truth, and that when Third Coast approaches individual organizations about Faith Nights, they often “deal with a lot of hard-headed people” skeptical of the promotion, a leeriness that abates, he says, “when they make half a million dollars.”

Rogers, the former Giants minor-league pitcher and present RBI Austin Advisory Board member, reiterates that MLB rosters represent “an incredibly diverse group of people as a whole.” Still, he recognizes that a conspicuous slice of star players wears its Christianity on its jersey sleeves, and furthermore that “it’s not only accepted but smiled upon to be a good, wholesome, baseball-playing Christian.”

As much as anything, it’s symptomatic of baseball’s prolonged existential crisis. Does the game — and its function as the engine of a multi-billion-dollar enterprise — risk demystifying its quaint, national-pastime appeal as a concession to modernity, or get lapped as it upholds a peculiarly devout status quo?

For now, Rogers places his bets on the latter. “There’s safety in [MLB] putting out that image, just like [how] in basketball, there’s safety in being kind of a bombastic personality,” he explains. “A lot more people who yearn for Mayberry still watch baseball. Baseball has to become more interesting. It needs people to shed a light on diversity in the game. It needs people to market the diversity in the game. Tell me why a guy like Mookie Betts, with a name like Mookie who’s an absolute stud, how can you not make that guy a household name? It basically does the work for you.”

In his estimation, the disconnect between MLB and millions of would-be followers can be overcome with old-fashioned agnostic ballyhoo. “Twenty-five years ago, when I was idolizing Frank ‘The Big Hurt’ Thomas or Randy ‘The Big Unit’ [Johnson] or Nolan Ryan and The Ryan Express, these people were cartoon characters, larger than life,” he says. “The stories are there. The diversity is there. If you want to see baseball with a pulse, go to Latin America. And yet, here we are, playing it like gentlemen. That’s just the image we’ve created for baseball, and I think it’s a shame.”

Postgame schadenfreude, Bahstan Edition

The Milwaukee Bucks lost game one of their NBA Eastern Conference semifinal.

And that was the highlight for both the Boston Celtics and their former player-turned-commentator Paul Pierce.

First, the Celtics, reported by the Boston Globe:

The Celtics’ locker room was as quiet and sullen as it had been all year. Players dressed quietly at their stalls, or soaked their sore legs in ice buckets, or scrolled through their phones.

But none of the players talked to each other. They didn’t mention Giannis Antetokounmpo. They didn’t think about their missed opportunities. They didn’t talk about what comes next.

About seven months ago, they’d started on a journey that they believed would lead them to the NBA Finals. And if some bounces went their way and some young players continued to rise, maybe they would even win it.

No one envisioned an end like this, with the Bucks crushing them so thoroughly in Game 5 of the conference semifinals, 116-91, on Wednesday night that the Milwaukee fans were able to spend the better part of the fourth quarter reveling and partying while the most important players on both teams just watched from the bench.

No Ma(dnes)s

The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament starts today.

Unlike previous years, I am participating in no pools and making no picks, other than this: Wisconsin and Marquette will lose in the first round. UW has unfortunately devolved into a team that isn’t particularly fun to watch and can’t score, so if they don’t play the best defense on the planet they lose. (Shades of Dick Bennett.)

Marquette’s basketball team is as overrated as its university, and on principle I want Marquette to lose every game the Warriors — I mean Golden Eagles — play. (I feel the same about the Big 10, unless a particular result benefits UW.)

Other than that, I really have no interest in the tournament. Part of it is that I haven’t been following college basketball this year because I had more and more important things to do. (That is, announcing games instead of merely watching them.) Part of it also is that I resist doing popular things because they’re popular.

Part of it is the fact that very little of the tournament is on free TV anymore. Generally UW (of course) gets the shaft and is placed on truTV, which no one gets as part of their cable or satellite package. CBS/Turner somehow screwed up by placing Friday’s game on TBS, but it won’t matter since as I previously pointed out UW is a one-and-done. The tournament is streamed online, but Wisconsin’s rotten Internet service makes that a bad option as well.

Part of it is that I am getting tired of the corruption of the NCAA and college generally, as seen by people getting into college who don’t deserve to get into college. (Does that mean athletes who can’t cut it academically, or “students” whose parents pay others to inflate their applications? Yes, and more.) All human institutions are corrupt, of course, because all humans are flawed and cannot be redeemed.

If I watch any of the tournament besides UW’s first-round loss Friday, it will be an accident. Wake me up when it’s time for the Brewers to not go to the World Series again.

 

This makes me smile

As I wrote here last week, I have practically overdosed on high school and college sports on the radio this winter.

Last week, I announced six games. The previous week, I announced five games and then an entire day of high school wrestling.

I thought I was done with high school sports, until I was assigned to do something I have never done before — an Illinois high school boys supersectional game between East Dubuque and Chicago’s Providence–St. Mel, which you can hear yourself at 5:45 Central time on SuperHits106.com.

While doing a little research on East Dubuque’s opponent, I found a list of Providence–St. Mel’s famous alumni, which includes Lee Loughname, trumpet player for my favorite rock group, Chicago.

As you can imagine, this news does …

… and makes me think of other songs of Chicago’s that have been used as sports bumpers, or should have been:

The problem sits in the stands

Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

I sat in the stands of the soccer stadium. And I seethed.

My assignment — in 1997, as a new reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — was to cover a high school girls soccer game between Whitefish Bay and Shorewood. And I could barely concentrate on what was happening on the field because of a couple of idiots in front of me in the stands.

I couldn’t believe it. These were “adults,” presumably parents, shouting degrading insults to the opposing team’s teenage players, and screaming obscenities at the referees. They cussed and screamed, not once, not a few times, but for the entirety of the game.

It was impossible not to hear these middle-aged cretins. My blood was boiling.

As a reporter, it wasn’t my first bad run-in with people in prep sports. I would go on to deal with condescending coaches in all-star meetings and stage parents who called the paper to complain there was never enough coverage.

Parents complain there isn’t enough coverage? That has never happened to me. (Sarcasm off.)

I don’t know what the full story is with former Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy or those parents caught on camera at the youth wrestling match. I just know we don’t have a new problem now; we have always had this problem. Hateful, ugly, loathsome comments coming from fans and parents in the stands toward the players and officials is an issue at every level of sports.

I’ve covered future Division I basketball players whose parents sat in the front row of their high school games, motioning to them to shoot all game, as if no other coaches or players existed.

I covered a game in Racine where the student section was so ugly to the opposing team I couldn’t help but mention it in a story, even though I knew it would make the home school angry.

I covered a game in Mukwonago where parents followed referees to their cars, complaining all the way.

Youth sports, I decided, was rife with clueless parents who, at best, didn’t understand the game they never played themselves, or, at worst, lived their uneventful lives vicariously through their children.

Then I went from observer to full immersion. I became a mom to kids who play sports.

I saw a youth coach (also a parent) re-insert a player in a game after the kid hit his head so hard he had to leave the game, dizzy. Twice. When I confronted the coach, he said he did it because the game was tied. This was fifth-grade basketball.

I’ve seen parents stalk the sidelines, calling out their kid by name, overriding the coach with their own instructions. The players who became distracted, and then confused and conflicted. Do what the coach wants and deal with parents at home? Or do what the parents want?

Every game — every game — I hear parents whine about calls, or what they perceive to be non-calls, and I sometimes yell: “You should have had that, ref! You’re making a whopping $15 a game!”

I can’t help it. I’m done with the parents; I’ve been done with them for years.

I stay as far away from them as possible when I go to my kids’ sporting events.

At all times.

In all games.

Unless I get to know them (just a few), I can’t trust them.

I avoid the middle of the stands. I sit on the edges. I walk around the perimeter. I hide in the corners and put on my headphones. Anything to tune out the endless complaining.

I even try to park my car away from everyone after I once heard a man lambaste two kids in the back seat of a car at Uihlein Soccer Park, in what only can be described as verbal abuse.

I know this has made me look anti-social, or even aloof. I don’t care.

Here’s my thinking:

If you have never officiated a game …

Or coached a kid …

If you have never played a sport …

Or if it has been decades since you put yourself on the line of competition, why are you even talking?

Other than to encourage, to be positive, to be uplifting?

I really don’t get it. That’s not just my child out there, that’s a group of kids and teenagers just trying to navigate their way to adulthood in a healthy way. Also, those kids on the other team are my kid’s future collegiate classmates, coworkers and community leaders.

Are they not, in a way, all of our kids out there? I’m rooting for all of them.

And without the refs? We have no games.

Look. I’ve messed up. I’ve failed, too. I’ve said too much on those drives home from games and practices. I’ve criticized and second-guessed. After investing thousands of dollars in my kids’ sports, and untold hours of driving them to practices and games, organizing my life around the youth sports schedule, it takes herculean restraint to hug a child or high-five a teen and just say, “good job,” win or lose. And to say, “respect your coaches and don’t talk back to officials.”

But my goodness, can we hold up a mirror to our histrionics – and see what our kids see, and listen to what our kids hear, and understand?

We need to stop.

This has gone longer than Nickel’s career, though berating officials after games was rare in the 1980s, but, based on my own observation, not unheard of.

This was a topic of discussion on Steve Scaffidi’s show on WTMJ in Milwaukee Thursday morning. One suggestion was made to ban excessively obnoxious parents from games. The problem is that while the home school can do that, since presumably high school administrators know their own school’s parents when they see them often, that’s harder for the opposing high school to recognize parents who aren’t theirs.

Scaffidi said we have become a nation of complainers. I’m not sure about that. I do think that as kids get into travel and all-year sports their parents’ sense of perspective can become warped. Youth sports does indeed cost parents “thousands of dollars in my kids’ sports, and untold hours of driving them to practices and games,: requiring parents to organize their life around practices, games and tournaments.

And to what end? According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, out of 8 million high school athetes, 480,000 of them — 6 percent — go on to play college sports. That’s one player per 15-player basketball team. Less than 2 percent of high school athletes play at an NCAA Division I school that offers scholarships.

Parents acting like two-year-olds at games creates a self-perpetuating cycle when it comes to high school officiating. There are nationwide reports of officials getting out of officiating because they’re tired of verbal abuse wherever they go. That probably results in worse officiating, which leads to more verbal abuse, which leads to officials leaving the game, which leads …

I’m not sure what you do about this. As I’ve written here before, we decided early on that we were not going to be those parents. I might complain briefly about a call, but coaches and parents don’t grasp the sport if they believe games are decided by individual officials’ calls. Kids don’t learn anything good when their parents intervene with their coaches over playing time. We wanted our kids to learn about the intangibles of sports — being on a team, having a role on a team (which may or may not the role you want), sportsmanship, etc.

 

Fun with microphones

This time of year is crazy busy for sports announcers. (Which is why I’ve been posting infrequently recently.)

Consider my own recent and anticipated future schedule:

  • Feb. 11: Boys regular season game, scheduled several times due to weather.
  • Feb. 12: Girls regional quarterfinal game. (In my mother’s hometown while my parents were where I live.)
  • Feb. 13: Women’s basketball tournament game in Menomonie, four hours north. (By bus, which rolled back into town at 1 a.m.)
  • Feb. 14: Valentine’s Day? No, regular season boys finale.
  • Feb. 15: Girls regional semifinal.
  • Feb. 16: All day broadcast of the state individual wrestling tournament.
  • Feb. 18: Girls regional final game in La Crosse.
  • Feb. 19: Boys regional quarterfinal in La Crosse, same high schools. (Which should have been a doubleheader, but I’m sure some Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association rule prohibits that.
  • Tonight: Girls sectional semifinal game in Madison. (Don’t tell Paul Soglin.)
  • Tomorrow night: Boys regional semifinal game.
  • Saturday: If the local team wins tonight, a girls sectional final game in Elkhorn in the afternoon, and whether or not that game takes place, a boys regional final game somewhere.

Maybe this kind of overscheduling (which gives the lie to the phrase “part-time”) leads to bad judgment reported by Sports Illustrated:

A high school basketball announcer in Indiana has resigned after ruthlessly criticizing a player who dunked in the final seconds of a game.

The incident occurred on Friday night in a game between Fort Wayne’s Homestead High and Norwell in the small town of Ossian. The Homestead Spartans, the visitors, were well on their way to victory when senior Trent Loomis dunked in the final seconds. He hung on the rim for just a moment and was given a technical foul by an overzealous ref. That’s when the announcer went off.

“Loomis gets two, but then he gets tech-ed up for being a jackass,” the announcer said. “Stay classy, Homestead. May you lose in the first round like you always do. Typical Homestead attitude. No class whatsoever. What else is new? Congratulations, you didn’t even cover the damn spread.”

Wellscountyvoice.com, the site that broadcast the game, apologized for the outburst and said the unnamed announcer had resigned his post.

The whole thing is just so absurd. How could an adult ever think it was OK to go off on a kid like that, especially for something as mundane as hanging on the rim for half a second? Judging by the last line, maybe he had a little money on the game. Do they really have spreads on high school games in Indiana?

SPEAKING OF ANNOUNCERS BEING JERKS

A Kansas radio host is in hot water after he was seen on camera at Monday night’s Kansas-Kansas State basketball game taunting a Wildcats player by pointing to the box score.

That’s Nate Bukaty, announcer for Sporting KC and host of The Border Patrol on 810 WHB. The moment quickly became a widespread meme and his co-hosts showed him what it’s like to be on the other side.

Bukaky later tweeted that (1) he was watching the game as a fan and not a broadcaster and (2) he “thought I was having [a] bit of fun, but that’s not how it came off,” and he apologized.

The unnamed former announcer evidently figured out he’d gone too far since he resigned two hours after the game ended. It looks like a classic case of an announcer getting too wound up in the team he’s announcing. In such a case, the announcer is serving neither his listeners nor his employers (and by extension advertisers who pay money to sponsor the broadcast.)

To the southwest of Presteblog World Headquarters Iowa football and basketball announcer Gary Dolphin has had an interesting year, starting with this:

Longtime Iowa radio broadcaster Gary Dolphin has been suspended from calling the team’s next two men’s basketball contests after critical comments that were inadvertently aired during Tuesday’s Hawkeye win over Pitt.

The announcement was made by Learfield Sports Properties, which broadcasts Hawkeye sports events.

Dolphin, in his 22nd season as the Hawkeye play-by-play announcer, apologized on air after Tuesday’s game when it came to his attention that his words during a commercial break were heard by radio listeners.

Dolphin was talking with his broadcast partner, former Hawkeye player Bobby Hansen, about how well Pitt’s freshmen guards were playing in the first half.

“How do we not get anybody like that?” Dolphin said. “It’s just year after year after year. Go get a quality piece like that. Just get one! They’ve got three or four.”

Hansen, who was not suspended, seemed to agree with Dolphin, echoing: “Go get a key piece like that.”

But Dolphin compounded matters by singling out Iowa junior guard Maishe Dailey. Dailey had four points and one turnover Tuesday.

“We get Maishe Dailey,” Dolphin said in a tone of disgust. “Dribbles into a double-team with his head down. God.”

After the game, Dolphin told the Register: “We want them to win so bad, sometimes we get frustrated when they’re not playing well in certain stretches.”

Iowa rallied to beat Pitt 69-68 and remain unbeaten on the season. The No. 15 Hawkeyes open Big Ten Conference play with a 7 p.m. home game Friday against Wisconsin before traveling to Michigan State for a 5:30 p.m. game Monday. Learfield will announce Dolphin’s replacement for those games later.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta was made aware of Dolphin’s comments during the game and had a statement ready to be issued as soon as it was over saying he would “evaluate the comments” after listening to the audio.

In a news release Wednesday, Barta said: “Gary knows we are extremely disappointed in the comment he made about Maishe Dailey and the impact his remark had on our players and staff. The two-game suspension is a result of those comments, as well as some ongoing tensions that have built up over the past couple of years. This time away from the microphone will allow a chance to work through some of these issues. I truly appreciate the time and energy Gary puts into promoting Hawkeye athletics.”

Dolphin is also the play-by-play voice of Iowa football. He hosts the weekly in-season call-in shows for Hawkeye football coach Kirk Ferentz and men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery.

“We unfortunately encountered a technical error at our network broadcast operations center that allowed off-air comments to be aired during a portion of the first-half commercial break,” Learfield Vice President-Broadcast Operations Tom Boman said in the news release. “We thoroughly reviewed the situation here at our Broadcast Ops center to ensure this doesn’t happen again, and we’ve also been communicating closely with Gary Barta and his administration, the entire broadcast team and our local Hawkeye Sports Properties staff.”

That led to the speculation that there is a feud between Dolphin and Hawkeyes men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffrey, and that that feud led to this:

Back in November, Iowa Hawkeyes’ multimedia rights holder Learfield suspended long-time Hawkeyes’ radio announcer Gary Dolphin for two games after remarks of his criticizing the team’s recruiting and the play of some specific players (guard Maishe Dailey in particular) were picked up on a hot mic. That proved controversial, though, as one Iowa booster even launched a radio ad criticizing Dolphin’s suspension. Well, Dolphin’s now been suspended again, for the remainder of the season this time, and what’s at issue is what he said about Maryland player Bruno Fernando after Tuesday’s Hawkeyes-Terrapins game, comparing him to King Kong. Here’s audio of that via Chris Hassel (the former ESPN anchor who now works for CBS Sports HQ and Stadium):

Hawkeye Sports Properties, the multimedia rights manager for University of Iowa Athletics, today announced it has suspended play-by-play announcer Gary Dolphin indefinitely through the remaining basketball season. The decision follows an inappropriate comment made by Dolphin during Tuesday’s broadcast of the Iowa men’s basketball game against Maryland.

Gary Dolphin issued the following statement: “During the broadcast, I used a comparison when trying to describe a talented Maryland basketball player. In no way did I intend to offend or disparage the player. I take full responsibility for my inappropriate word choice and offer a sincere apology to him and anyone else who was offended. I wish the Iowa Hawkeye players, coaches and fans all the very best as they head into the final stretch of the season. I will use this as an opportunity to grow as a person and learn more about unconscious bias.”

For the remainder of the basketball season, Jim Albracht and Bobby Hansen will serve as the radio announcers for Iowa’s men’s basketball games.

Dolphin may not have meant anything related to race with his comments, but comparing an Angola-born basketball player to a gorilla-like monster is obviously going to take some flak, especially considering the long and troubled history around references comparing black people to primates (something that cost Roseanne Barr her TV job last year). And while Dolphin has a lot of supporters from all his years calling Iowa athletics (he’s in his 22nd year calling the Hawkeyes’ football and basketball games), and while many of them are insisting that this couldn’t possibly be racist, someone who’s been broadcasting this long probably should know better than to bring up primates. (But, he also should have known better than to say “jigaboo” in 2011.) To Dolphin’s credit, his statement does recognize that his remark was inappropriate, and his desire to learn more about unconscious bias is positive. But that doesn’t suggest that he didn’t deserve punishment here.

Whether the rest-of-the-season suspension is appropriate can be debated a bit more, and there’s no clear guideline for just what punishment is appropriate for racially-associated remarks. Those have sometimes led to suspensions and sometimes led to job losses, but other times, an apology alone has proven enough for the employer. And something noteworthy here is that Iowa athletics director Gary Barta is again not offering much comment; Barta was criticized the last time Dolphin was suspended for referencing “ongoing tensions” in a release and then declining all further comment, and the Hawkeyes have now put out a statement attributed to no one, with Barta again declining further comment. Here’s that statement:

“The University of Iowa athletics department supports Hawkeye Sports Properties decision to indefinitely suspend radio play-by-play announcer Gary Dolphin.

The University of Iowa athletics department values diversity and is committed to creating a welcoming environment for all members of its campus community.”

… In terms of the overall cultural and broadcasting landscape at the moment, it definitely seems reasonable to suspend Dolphin for these comments, and he should have known better than to make this reference. Whether a suspension for the remainder of the year is appropriate can be debated, but there’s no clear answer there. But it is disappointing to see Barta and the Iowa athletics department again doing everything they can to avoid really commenting on this or answering questions. Yes, this decision was supposedly made by their radio partner, but it’s unrealistic to think that the athletics department wasn’t involved or at least consulted. And they should be willing to defend their position here. Instead, we just get an unattributed statement and a “No further comment,” and that’s not the best way to handle anything, much less a sensitive broadcasting situation.

The Des Moines Register then reported Wednesday:

Longtime Iowa broadcaster Gary Dolphin will return from his suspension for Iowa’s spring football practices, and will be on the mic for both football and men’s basketball games next season, Hawkeye Sports Properties announced Wednesday.

Dolphin was suspended from men’s basketball broadcasts twice this season, most recently after referring to Maryland star Bruno Fernando as “King Kong” following a Feb. 19 game. He has been replaced by Jim Albracht for the remainder of this basketball season. …

Dolphin accepted his punishment, saying in a university news release: “During the broadcast, I used a comparison when trying to describe a talented Maryland basketball player. In no way did I intend to offend or disparage the player. I take full responsibility for my inappropriate word choice and offer a sincere apology to him and anyone else who was offended. I wish the Iowa Hawkeye players, coaches and fans all the very best as they head into the final stretch of the season. I will use this as an opportunity to grow as a person and learn more about unconscious bias.”

But the decision did not sit well with a large portion of the Hawkeye fan base. Nor did Barta’s refusal to speak about the reasoning for it. That unease has remained for five days.

Dolphin was previously suspended after making disparaging comments about Iowa guard Maishe Dailey during what he assumed was a commercial break in a November game. …

“When one of our own attacks one of our players the way he did, it’s inexcusable,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after that episode.

McCaffery has not spoken about the latest suspension. The No. 21 Hawkeyes are 21-7 after a loss at Ohio State on Tuesday, with three regular-season games remaining.

McCaffrey may have declined comment because he’s got his own issues, as the Register also reports:

Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery has been suspended for two games following his post-game tirade directed at an official.

Iowa announced the suspension on Wednesday afternoon, shortly before athletic director Gary Barta was expected to appear in a media availability. Those games include Saturday’s home finale against Rutgers and the March 7 road game at Wisconsin.

The release said the Big Ten supported Iowa’s decision and that University of Iowa would also be fined $10,000 as a result of McCaffery violating the league’s sportsmanship policy.

The Toledo Blade’s Kyle Rowland and others observed McCaffery cursing out an official following Iowa’s 90-70 defeat against Ohio State on Tuesday. McCaffery was heard repeatedly shouting expletives and calling the official a “cheating (expletive)” and a “(expletive) disgrace.”

In the prepared release, Barta said, “Following the basketball game at Ohio State, Coach McCaffery made unacceptable comments to a game official in the hallway headed to the locker room. Fran’s comments do not represent the values of the University of Iowa, Hawkeye Athletics, and our men’s basketball program.”

“Fran immediately accepted responsibility for his comments and understands the severe implications of his remarks. Fran fully understands this suspension and penalty imposed by the Big Ten Conference. Fran continues to have my full support moving forward.”

McCaffery said in the release, ““I am in total agreement with the suspension by Iowa Athletics and the fine levied by the Big Ten Conference. My comments directed toward a game official were regretful. I apologize to Big Ten Conference officials, Iowa Athletics, my players and staff, and the tremendous Hawkeye fans. This behavior is not acceptable and I take full responsibility for my inappropriate comments.”

Both events came together during the Wednesday afternoon press conference reported on by KWWL-TV:

Hawkeye Sports Properties announced today that it will reinstate play-by-play announcer Gary Dolphin beginning with coverage of football spring practice. Dolphin will also return for the 2019-2020 football and men’s basketballs seasons.

Dolphin has served as “Voice of the Hawkeyes” since 1996. Dolphin was suspended on Friday through the remainder of the men’s basketball season for an inappropriate comment during the February 19th broadcast of the Iowa men’s basketball game against Maryland.

Dolphin and University of Iowa Director of Athletics, Gary Barta, [held] a press conference at Carver-Hawkeye Arena this afternoon.

In the news conference, Gary Dolphin said (despite rumors) there hasn’t been any attempt to get rid of him as an announcer. Barta says he will remain the Hawkeyes’ announcer because “he would never intentionally hurt someone.”

Barta told those at the news conference that he apologizes for the department’s delay in talking about the suspension. He said there were many conversations over the weekend and they delayed media until today to not take away from the team’s game last night.

Barta said the program can move forward and use it as a teaching moment. He says he recognizes that Dolphin’s comment (whether intended or not) can be offensive, especially in the eyes of a black athlete.

Dolphin said he did ask for a shorter suspension and he was unhappy but he doesn’t think it’s unfair to sit out the rest of the basketball season. He said he’s focused on looking forward.

Dolphin said he has a “good” relationship with head coach Fran McCaffery. Dolphin said he apologized to McCaffery Thursday night per a phone call for “being a distraction to the program.”

Coach McCaffery apologized during the news conference saying his emotions got the best of him. He said he was defending his players and he won’t stop defending them.

 

Basketball on fast forward

The Washington Post heads to high school:

The 99th free throw of the game clanged off the rim and was rebounded by the opponent. It was then passed ahead to midcourt, where an outlet man, the team’s point guard, was waiting.

Before he could turn his eyes upcourt, he was swarmed by a pair of Lake Braddock players, jostling him with a fervent trap. Panicked, the guard threw a pass to no one, and the ball bounced into the bleachers as the home crowd groaned at the sight of another turnover.

Most eyes in the gym turned toward the scoreboard, which told the crowd that this bizarre, hellish high school basketball game was almost over. There were 8.7 seconds remaining, and Lake Braddock led West Springfield, 122-81.

After the game, Bruins Coach Brian Metress said the 122 points were a team record, the latest sign that the basketball experiment being conducted at Lake Braddock was working.

“We just said we’re going to press and run, and we’re going to press and run like nobody ever has before,” Metress said. “When you come to watch us, it’s like the circus is in town. It’s a totally different game.”

For the past two years, Metress’s team has played an up-tempo, chaotic style that has been broached only by a few bold coaches across all levels. They press constantly, make or miss. They shoot three-pointers at an unprecedented, reckless pace. They sub out four or five players at a time, every minute or two.

To give themselves a chance to win, the Bruins elected to turn basketball on its head. And with the team sporting a 19-3 record heading into the start of postseason play Wednesday, it’s becoming clear that the system has worked.

Standard basketball was abandoned about two years ago when Lake Braddock began the 2016-17 campaign with a 1-4 record. Metress and his staff decided they were tired of losing games in the 40s and 50s. They thought: What if we just decided to score as many points as possible? If we’re going to lose, let’s lose in a shootout.

So the team threw out all of its strategy midway through the season, and developed the tenets of a new style before a Christmas tournament. The Bruins would pick up their opponents with a full-court press on every possession, make or miss. They would swarm the ballhandler at every opportunity, looking to force turnovers and get quick baskets. They would shoot without pause, firing three-pointers from all over the court and never waiting for the perfect look at the basket. They would sub out players constantly to keep them fresh. And they would run. A lot.

“We wanted to approach a game so that [the opponent] has never practiced or prepared for it and they’ve never been in a game like that before,” Metress said. “We just took it to the utmost extreme.”

When it works, the system is freewheeling and fun. It opens up the game so playmakers like guard Quentin James can get easy looks at the basket. The senior has flourished under this style. Last month, he became the school’s all-time scoring leader, passing former North Carolina star and NBA player Hubert Davis.

“We’ve never really had a problem with anyone buying into this system,” James said. “Because the fact that everyone has the green light, what high school are you going to go to where everyone is allowed to shoot the ball without consequences?”

But Metress and his players are the first to admit that, when the system doesn’t work, it’s ugly. In one loss last year, the team shot 6 for 68 from three-point range. Even when the Bruins do win, the up-tempo style is not always aesthetically pleasing. It produces a lot of turnovers and fouls, hence the 99 combined free throws in the win over West Springfield. Opponents and their fans often grow frustrated at the Bruins, as games run long and leads are toppled in seconds.

The system has faltered less and less this year. After mixed results the previous two seasons, the Bruins have wreaked havoc on the rest of Northern Virginia. They have topped 100 points seven times, and all of their final scores are considerably higher than the area’s average. As a rule, they never switch out of their style and they never adapt to an opponent. If a team wants to beat Lake Braddock, it must run, too.

Lake Braddock’s coaching staff wasn’t the first with such a system. Basketball teams are scattered across all levels with a similar style, frustrating opponents with a relentless press and constant threes.

In the early 1990s, David Arseneault Sr. installed a similar system at Grinnell College, a small Division III school in rural Iowa. The Pioneers had gone 25 years without a winning season, and Arseneault needed a remedy. So they started pressing constantly. They shot threes from all over the floor. They subbed more like a hockey team than a basketball team. And they have been running some form of that system since. Arseneault’s son, David Jr., now coaches the team.

“The best way to describe how we play is if you were to imagine a game in which a team is down by eight to 10 points with a minute and a half left. And then take away the intentional fouling,” Arseneault Jr. said.

The “Grinnell System,” as it’s called, has become the face of a growing movement of teams looking to speed the game up, force a lot of turnovers and score a lot of points. Arseneault Jr. said he has heard about “countless” high school teams that run something similar, and there are a few college teams that do the same. Just last month, D-III Greenville (Ill.) beat Fontbonne (Mo.), 200-146, with a similar style. The Panthers attempted 91 threes.

Did someone say Grinnell?

“I think basketball is definitely moving in that direction, from a pace standpoint and from a three-point shooting standpoint,” Arseneault Jr. said. “I don’t even think we’ve reached the tipping point yet. I would actually like to see my team taking more threes.”

Before taking the head coaching job at Grinnell, Arseneault Jr. spent time as an assistant under his dad and then served two years as coach of the Reno Bighorns, the Sacramento Kings’ G League affiliate. The Kings appreciated Arseneault’s love of analytics and had an interest in him running a modified form of the Grinnell system. For each of the two seasons Arseneault Jr. spent in Reno, the Bighorns led the G League in scoring.

While no NBA team has taken their game to the extremes of Grinnell or Lake Braddock, Metress said that the fun, fast, three-point-heavy style that has been popularized by the Golden State Warriors has made it easier to sell his vision to his players.

“When most high school coaches tell you to look at a basketball game, they say don’t watch the NBA because that’s not relevant to how we play,” James said. “But the fact that I can turn on a Warriors game or someone in the NBA and see them running the same stuff we do in our system is pretty cool to watch.”

A little more than two years after Brian Metress sat his team down and told them the Bruins would be trying something new, Langley Coach Scott Newman had a similar talk with his squad. The Saxons had started the season 2-11. After a 40-24 loss to Yorktown, Newman knew it was time for a change.

“We just couldn’t score the ball,” Newman said. “And we had kids that were athletic and could run and would benefit from going fast, playing hard and thinking less.”

So Newman quickly installed a system similar to Lake Braddock’s: a constant press, a quick trigger, a big rotation of players. Like the Bruins and Pioneers, he needed something that could help his team survive. This style of basketball, while shunned by purists, could be a potential equalizer.

“I don’t think I would have ever had the guts to do this if I felt like we had something to lose,” Newman said. “[This type of system] will take people that are willing to take a leap of faith.”

When asked about the benefits of his new style, Newman pointed to the same things that Metress and Arseneault Jr. did: It gets more players involved, and they seemed to be having more fun.

“Every once in a while you get somebody who says it’s not real basketball,” Arseneault Jr. said. “Which is fine. I understand some people have the ideal way they think the game should be played. But I think there are so many different ways to play the game. And that’s what makes the sport so special. You can have fun with it.”

The young Saxons are still adjusting to the new style, but have gone 3-5 since making the switch. Newman said he has heard from more fans and parents saying the team is fun to watch. There is optimism around the program and its future. Originally, the coach assumed they would make a return to normalcy next year, when the team would be older and more talented. But now he is having second thoughts.

“The kids are having so much fun playing this way,” he said. “It seems a little hard to believe that we’re going to go back to the way we used to play.”

As you know, I have announced several Grinnell–Ripon College games over the years. They are a blast to watch. They are … not a nightmare to announce, but those games take a lot of work, to the point where you’re saying, “Five more on the floor,” when the next wave of Pioneers comes in. Up-tempo games are more difficult to announce because everything’s faster than when a pair of half-court teams lay. It’s easier on TV, where you can get away with just saying the players’ names.

Grinnell figured out a mathematical measure for how they need to play besides the scoreboard. The senior Arsenault had a group of math students analyze their games and came up with this formula for success, which failed to produce a win only once (due to 16-percent field goal shooting, and if you’re shooting 16 percent, you’re not going to win regardless of system):

  1. Shoot at least 94 shots per game, which averages to one shot every 12 seconds.
  2. Shoot 25 more shots than Grinnell’s opponent.
  3. Shoot three-point shots on at least half of their shots.
  4. Generate at least 32 turnovers per game.
  5. Get offensive rebounds on at least one-third of Grinnell’s missed shots.

I imagine high school teams could reduce points 1, 2 and 5 by 10 to 20 percent (whether 18-minute halves, like Wisconsin, or eight-minute quarters, like other states) to come up with the correct numbers for themselves.

Irrespective of the big question of whether you have enough shooters to play this style, Wisconsin’s 18-minute halves would seem well suited for this. One reason Wisconsin went to halves was to make teams play more offense to prevent lengthy stalling attempts by teams at the ends of quarters. (See Bennett, Dick.)

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