An envelope, a portal to the past: Inside was evidence of the lost art of scoring. The return address belonged to Ben, a reader who had emailed during the offseason to ask if I was interested in anything from his college game-DVD collection. He had an incredible trove of footage and was feeling generous.
Out slid a stack of burned Memorexes, each in a hand-labeled paper sleeve. Ben also included a note. It said that the Feb. 3, 1990 game I requested -- No. 20 Loyola Marymount at No. 16 LSU on CBS -- was "epic." It only had one overtime, but it required three DVDs and the sum total of the final score was 289. Two-hundred eighty-nine!. This was acceptable usage of "epic."
I didn't plan to watch the DVDs four times, but that's what happened. The "System" that Loyola coach Paul Westhead ran -- full-court pressing, fast-breaking on prescribed routes, shooting within seven seconds of gaining possession -- had considerable replay value. As did the duel between a rambunctious-and-lithe, 17-year-old Shaquille O'Neal and a scowling-and-sturdy, 22-year-old Hank Gathers, who would be gone from the world in 29 days, and was unknowingly making his final national TV appearance. When viewed through a 2012 lens, the broadcast has that big, ominous cloud hovering over it and many little quirks inside -- such as the ways CBS play-by-play man James Brown said Shaq's name, as if the O-apostrophe part did not exist: "shah-KEEL-ah-NEEL," or "shah-KEEL-the-NEEL."
Those pronunciations did not endure. Nor did the style of LSU's white Converse high-tops or Loyola's white Reeboks, or the brand of sports drink served on both benches, a regional concoction called "10-K." I wondered if there are any ex-Tigers who insist on its superiority to Gatorade.
But above all, I wondered why the game resembled absolutely nothing that I cover as an adult. I miss the fast basketball from my childhood. Loyola cannot serve as the emblem of that era -- even then, the 122-points-per-game Hank and Bo (Kimble) Show was extreme -- but other elite teams were paying little mind to the 45-second shot clock in '89-90 and scoring at prolific rates. Eventual national champ UNLV broke the 100-mark 16 times that season. The team sitting atop the final AP poll, Oklahoma, did it 15 times. That was the last great period of scoresheet-stuffing, and the sport has been decelerating ever since.
Another season of the Control Era opens in two weeks. To steel myself for a winter of 60-point scores, I ditched standard preview duties in favor of diarizing a 22-year-old game that hit the 140s. Present-day plodding inspired a lament for the death of triple digits.
To get themselves on CBS, the extremists acquiesced to an extreme itinerary. "When we first saw the schedule," Lions guard Tom Peabody recalled, "guys looked at coach Westhead and asked, 'Are you out of your mind?'" It called for Loyola to play St. Mary's on Thursday night in Los Angeles (a 150-119 win), fly to Baton Rouge at 7:10 a.m. Friday, practice in the afternoon, play LSU at 1 p.m. Saturday, leave immediately afterwards on a return flight to L.A., land around midnight, and host San Francisco at 5 p.m. Sunday. As daunting as it seemed, Westhead said that once his players were in the middle of it, "they weren't fazed at all. They were so accustomed to running every day that it didn't even enter their minds to get tired."
Meanwhile, LSU coach Dale Brown, always more gunslinger than tactician, was not one to let conventional wisdom -- that he'd be best-served by playing slow enough to let 7-footers Shaq and Stanley Roberts post up the 6-7 Gathers -- get in the way of good television. To Brown, the only honorable way to beat the System was to let virtuoso guard Chris Jackson (later Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) and his giants run with the System. Thus the game opened with a burst of mostly sub-nine-second possessions, giving Brown the discombobulating sensation, on the sideline, that he was "a sock tumbling in the dryer."
Amid the early chaos there was clarity on one thing, and that was who was winning the Shaq-Gathers battle. The stakes were immense for Gathers, an obsessive worker who was obsessed with becoming a Lottery Pick. He knew the crowd included 20-25 NBA scouts, all of whom adored Shaq, and most of whom were still debating whether Gathers' running-based, devoid-of-a-jumper game -- even though he led the nation in scoring the previous season -- could work in the NBA. "It was critically important for Hank to do well against Shaq," Peabody said. "It was the next step."
The next step, he meant, in getting over the setback of Dec. 9, 1989, when Gathers fainted during a game against UC-Santa Barbara, was hospitalized and later diagnosed with an exercise-induced heart abnormality. He missed two games and returned on Dec. 30 after being prescribed the beta-blocking drug Inderal. But because Inderal had a Kryptonic effect -- it made him too sluggish to thrive in The System, where max effort was essential -- Gathers successfully lobbied to get his dosage reduced. When CBS' color commentator, Quinn Buckner, stated that Gathers' 44-point effort two days prior to the LSU game was due to him "back[ing] off some of the medication," there was no mention of the risk involved. Nearly everyone was naive to the risk.
The only immediate, evident problem was the mercilessness of Shaq, whom Roberts described as "a young deer, sprinting everywhere." The first post entry to Gathers was stolen by Shaq. Gathers' first shot against Shaq was blocked. So was the second. The third was, to be fair, only deflected, but Shaq fully rejected the fourth and the fifth. Gathers snuck a few fastbreak dunks in amid the block party, but that didn't make it any less painful to watch.
What must be noted is that all this drama -- 28 possessions' worth, with LSU up 27-23 -- was packed into the first eight-and-a-half minutes. That was the beauty of the speed game. So much action, yet so much room left to develop the plot.
Naturally, the first graphic CBS displayed (at right) was a list of Division I's highest-scoring teams. Loyola was No. 1.
The Lions, James Brown said, were "giving new meaning to the word uptempo." They would finish the season averaging 122.4 points per game, a D-I record that still stands.
Uptempo had a different meaning in 1990 than it does in 2012. Below is a side-by-side comparison of the five highest-scoring teams in the final '89-90 AP poll with the five highest-scoring teams in the final '11-12 AP poll. To the right of each team's scoring average is its number of possessions per game, which is the truest measure of tempo:
The contrast is striking. In '89-90, there were four ranked teams averaging more than 80 possessions per game; in '11-12, there was just one ranked team that broke 70.
The averages for all D-I teams follow this pattern of deceleration. Statistician Ken Pomeroy recently used the NCAA's historical data to estimate decades' worth of tempo-and-efficiency trends; the full chart appears on his site, but below is the path from the advent of the three-point line ('86-87) to the present:
The stark reality is that the 2012 season was the slowest and lowest-scoring in the modern era. The 35-second shot clock can't be all to blame, because teams were scoring more when it was 45. Referees' allowance of overly physical defense has had a real impact. Coaches, warier of job security in a bigger-money era, have become more conservative. They have sacrificed pace for slightly higher efficiency. To run is to give up control, and to try to really, really run -- like Loyola did, training as if it were a track team -- is to risk losing games and losing players.
"Plenty of coaches agree in the offseason that they're going to run more next year," Westhead said. "Players' eyes light up, and there's kind of an approving smile on their faces. But between the first day of practice and the first game, everyone is over it. Accommodations have been made.
"The running game is too hard for the players. ... And if they aren't fully committed to it, it's doomed to fail."
On Feb. 3, 1990, no one dreaded the speed game more than Debi Polito. She was the play-by-play typist, a local fifth-grade teacher who freelanced LSU games at $20 a pop. As she smoked her final cigarette before tip-off, she was troubled by the fact that Loyola had scored 150 points two days earlier. "I thought, 'I don't know if I can do this,'" she told the now-defunct State Times of Baton Rouge, which ran a story about her nightmarish afternoon. "I don't know [if] the return of the typewriter is that quick."
Her concerns were well-founded. At the 3:14 mark of the first half, by which time she had nearly two pages of play-by-play -- and that was without notating missed shots, blocks, rebounds or assists -- her IBM Selectric went into a state of shock. "All of a sudden the ribbon kind of rose up in the typewriter," Polito told the State Times. "The whole thing froze. It wouldn't go forward. It wouldn't go backward."
Members of LSU's game staff could be seen on the broadcast sprinting off to find a replacement typewriter. When it arrived a few possessions later, Polito did her best to catch up. But the Selectric crisis left the official play-by-play sheet jaggedly formatted up through where Loyola's Jeff "Fryer gets three" with 2:52 left, cutting LSU's lead to 64-52.
Polito's transcript contained some unintentional comedy -- in particular the second-half sequence where "Coach Brown discusses something with officials!!!" is followed directly by "Technical called on Coach Brown" -- and despite all that it was missing, it served as an accurate record of runs. There is the one Jackson and Roberts led into halftime, putting LSU up 72-58. And the one Kimble ignited at the start of the second, cutting the lead to 76-72 in just 106 seconds. The scoring never ceased, and the Tigers found themselves back up double-digits with 4:43 left, at 126-114. But they were far from comfortable.
From that point on, the play-by-play sheet told the story of Gathers' second act: demoralized on page 1, redeemed on page 5. Mostly because he refused to ever stop hustling, Gathers scored nine points in a rally that helped tie the game at 134-134 by the end of regulation ...
... and proceeded to put up the first four points of overtime, too. Those were back-to-back buckets over Shaq, who finished with a triple-double (20 points, 24 boards, 12 blocks) that was overshadowed by Gathers' response to his early drubbing. The most-remembered individual stat was that Gathers finished with 48 points.
As Kimble put it: "I played with Hank for 11 years, and there's no better story about his heart and resilience than the LSU game. He said, 'You did a great job blocking the first five shots, but good luck trying to stop the next 30.'"
In an epic, though, there was room for a final plot-twist, and that was that Gathers' 48 points were not enough. Up 138-134 in overtime, the Lions pressed, created a turnover and -- because the System was so hard-wired in their DNA -- Fryer hoisted a long-range bomb within eight seconds. They didn't need a three, and the lane to the basket was open ... but they never passed up open threes.
This one missed, and momentum flipped. LSU converted the long rebound into a Randy Devall three, and that metastasized into a 9-0 run. Gathers never scored again, and Loyola walked off stunned after a 148-141 loss. CBS had no time to make sense of things in a wrap-up. It cut away to coverage of the third round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where viewers were promised glimpses of Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood and Don Johnson: a slow chaser for fast basketball.
Unlike Debi Polito, I had the luxury of pause-and-rewind buttons, and I set to charting the full game in a spreadsheet. Her lone advantage was being able to see the house scoreboards. CBS only displayed occasional time-and-score chyrons; during a game of that speed they felt like lifelines. I had to use a stopwatch to fill in the blanks.
Even if the overtime is ignored, the possession count is staggering. In regulation, LSU had the ball 116 times and Loyola had it 115 times. (Each team had 13 more possessions in OT.) The average time of possession is just as incredible: LSU clocked in at 11.3 seconds, while Loyola used just 9.7 seconds.
How does that compare to '11-12? To be fair, and not pick on one of the many games that were played at the speed of golf, I went searching for the highest-tempo contest between two ranked teams last season.
It turned out to be Kentucky's win over Louisville on Dec. 31, 2011, in which each team had 78 possessions. That game was not known for being fast. The stout defenses held the score to 69-62, and the possession count was driven up by the fact that 52 fouls were called. More than one writer described it as a "grinder"; Kentucky's average time of possession was 16.7 seconds, while Louisville's was 14.1 seconds.
This is what it looks like when the first-half possessions from Kentucky-Louisville are overlaid with the first-half possessions from LSU-Loyola:
The second-half overlay has the same degree of contrast:
Such is the gap between the old and new concept of uptempo. While making those charts I was reminded of a nugget that colleague Seth Davis Tweeted in the lead-up to the '10-11 season:
"Rick Pitino just told me Louisville is going to play offense like the old Loyola Marymount teams. Does Bo Kimble have any eligibility left?"
It was nice to know that Pitino had a hankering for the System, even if he wasn't being entirely literal. But his Cardinals have averaged 67.9 and 66.9 possessions per game the past two seasons -- far cries from Loyola's 103.0. Accommodations must have been made.
An incomplete list of things that transpired after the final buzzer of LSU-Loyola:
• The Tigers celebrated briefly, then went to their locker room and wilted. Said Roberts, who went 10-for-10 from the field despite not being in what anyone would've described as exquisite shape: "Everybody just laid on the floor in silence, thankful that it was over. Everybody but Shaq: He was still hyped, clowning and jumping around. He was a big kid, all excited that we just won on national TV, and we had to tell him, 'Leave us alone, man! Let us rest.'"
• Loyola showered, took a bus to Baton Rouge's airport, then a commercial connecting flight back to Los Angeles -- where they scored 157 points in a win over San Francisco the next day.
• Gathers' heart gave out for good on March 4, when he collapsed during a West Coast Conference tournament game and was soon declared dead in a Los Angeles hospital. The team attended Gathers' funeral on March 12 in Philadelphia, then played the NCAA tournament in his honor, upsetting New Mexico State, defending national champ Michigan and Alabama before losing to UNLV in the Elite Eight. The tragedy and subsequent, improbable tourney run was such national news that a nine-year-old me, having jumped on the bandwagon, was able to buy a Loyola shirt at my local mall in Wisconsin.
• Westhead left that offseason to take over the Denver Nuggets, but the System's defense didn't work in the NBA, yielding a record 130.8 points per game in '90-91. He was sacked by '92. A reboot attempt at George Mason in '93 didn't work, either, and Westhead was done after four losing seasons. One of his 70 losses with the Patriots occurred on Dec. 3, 1994 in Baton Rouge, where he assumed that no one would remember him. But multiple stadium staffers approached Westhead before the game to tell him that LSU-Loyola was the best show they'd ever seen.
• In a phone interview this October, Dale Brown insisted to me that Westhead was a revolutionary figure who could have changed the college game had he stayed at Loyola. Brown then asked, "Where is Westhead now? Is he still running?"
• University of Oregon, I answered. With the women's team, trying to replicate the success he had while coaching the Phoenix Mercury to an WNBA title in 2007. It has been slow going: His Ducks went 15-16 last season and averaged only 71.0 points per game.
The fastest team in Eugene is on the gridiron. Coach Chip Kelly's no-huddle, uptempo offense -- which at one point had a visual play-call placard that was an image of Westhead -- is the most-talked about scheme in the nation. Who could have predicted that the football mainstream would become obsessed with uptempo while the hoops world was marginalizing it? (To find a men's team running a true replica of the System, you have to go to Shoreline Community College in Washington, where Kimble helped install it as a volunteer assistant.)
• Westhead took a recording of LSU-Loyola along with him to Eugene. Never mind that it was a loss: "When I'm not in a happy mood," he said, "I'll pick up that tape and revel in the mood of that day." His video coordinator cut a five-minute edit of fastbreaks from that game, and his Oregon players viewed it earlier this month. "They marveled at it," he said. "I marveled at it."
• I told Westhead that I had a similar experience upon first watching the DVDs. It was hard to believe, sometimes, that the speed was real.
"Yeah," he said. "You see it and you're like, what was that?"