Long before the “Princeton offense” made one think of constant motion, it meant exactly the opposite: slow and excruciatingly considered -- the athletic equivalent of grandma comparing yogurt prices.
In 1926, the Princeton team huddled before each play, literally gathering around to talk in secret, right there on the court. There was no shot clock back then. The opposing team could only watch and wait. And the huddle threatened to spread throughout the sport.
Little remains known about the basketball huddle, how popular it became, or even exactly how it was used. “I’d never heard of it,” says Matt Zeysing, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s historian. Princeton’s athletic department doesn’t keep records that far back. But in December of 1926, the move was scandal-on-SportsCenter-worthy. Papers nationwide ran stories about it, and debated its merits. “It will slow up the game and consequently take away many of the thrills of basketball,” one Y.M.C.A. director complained in the Hamilton (Ohio) Evening Journal.
What inspired Princeton? The answer, it seems, comes from football. Gridiron teams had experimented with the huddle for decades, but by the 1920s, it was fiercely dividing the sport. Fans had no time for it—they were there to see action, not a bunch of guys standing around making decisions. “That ‘gather-round system’ for determining the next play … has caused the excited spectators on the losing side to pull their hair with impatience,” said a 1926 wire story that ran nationwide. But coaches were increasingly seeing the advantage. Western teams were the earliest adopters, but the scourge of advance planning soon expanded. The first eastern team to pick it up, say 1920s newspapers: the Princeton Tigers.
The school’s head football coach at the time, Bill Roper, blamed the fans for forcing his hand: He implemented the huddle “because the noise made by the crowd made it impossible for the linemen to hear the quarterbacks’ signals,” one columnist wrote. Princeton’s basketball coach, Al Wittmer, was clearly inspired. Or maybe he used it as a sign of solidarity. Either way, history can’t fault him for trying: If one young sport could introduce the huddle to its advantage, why not another? Sportswriters of the time called basketball a speedy game, but in retrospect, the huddle was hardly its biggest speed bump. There was no inbounding of the ball after a made basket, says Zeysing. After every score, teams walked back to center court, the centers squared off, and the ref tossed the ball up for a tip-off. Consequently, the game never had rhythm, and many final scores were totally lopsided -- oftentimes the losing side had fewer than 10 points. It wasn’t that the team couldn’t shoot; it’s that one team had a taller center, and the other just never got the damn ball. This went on until the mid-1930s -- and by that time, almost assuredly, Princeton’s huddle was long gone.