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The Past Was Fast

Nov. 12, 2012
Nov. 12, 2012

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Nov. 12, 2012

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The Past Was Fast

In 1990, Loyola Marymount and LSU played a legendary warp-speed game—257 possessions! 289 points!—the likes of which big-time hoops will never see again

An envelope, a portal to the past: Inside was evidence of the lost art of scoring. The return address belonged to Ben, a generous reader who had e-mailed during the off-season to ask if I was interested in anything from his college-game DVD collection.

This is an article from the Nov. 12, 2012 issue

Out slid a stack of 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. 14 LSU on CBS—was "epic." It only had one overtime but 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. It would be Gathers's final national TV appearance; he would be gone from the world in 29 days. 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: "Shah-KEEL-ah-NEEL" or "Shah-KEEL-the-NEEL."

Those pronunciations did not endure. Nor did the style of LSU's white Converse hightops or Loyola's white Reeboks, or the brand of sports drink served on both benches, a regional concoction called 10-K. I wondered if any ex-Tigers 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, scoring at prolific rates. Oklahoma, the team atop the final AP poll, broke the 100-mark 15 times that season. Eventual national champion UNLV did it 16 times. This was the last great period of score-sheet 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 61--59 slugfests, I immersed myself in a 22-year-old game and came away lamenting the death of triple digits.

SATURDAY, FEB. 3, 1990

Pete Maravich Assembly Center, Baton Rouge

To get themselves on CBS, Loyola Marymount's extremists acquiesced to an extreme itinerary. "When we first saw the schedule," Lions guard Tom Peabody recalls, "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. on Friday, practice in the afternoon, play LSU at 1 p.m. on Saturday, leave immediately on a return flight to L.A., land around midnight and host San Francisco at 5 p.m. on Sunday. As daunting as it seemed, Westhead says 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 win was to out-System the System, to let virtuoso guard Chris Jackson (later Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) and his giants run. 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, a tireless worker who was obsessed with becoming a lottery pick. He knew the crowd included some two dozen NBA scouts, all of whom adored Shaq and most of whom were still debating whether Gathers's running-based, devoid-of-a-jumper game—even though he had led the nation in scoring and rebounding the previous season—could work in the NBA. "It was critically important for Hank to do well against Shaq," Peabody says. "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 his doctors to get his dosage reduced. When CBS color commentator Quinn Buckner stated that Gathers's 44-point effort against St. Mary's two days before the LSU game was due to his having "gone down on his 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 last month as "a young deer, sprinting everywhere." Shaq stole the first post entry to Gathers. He blocked Gathers's first shot against him, and the second. The third, to be fair, O'Neal only deflected, but he fully rejected the fourth and the fifth. Gathers sneaked in a few fast-break dunks amid the block party, but that didn't make it any less painful to watch.

All this drama came before the second TV timeout, during an 8½-minute stretch that featured 28 possessions per team and ended with LSU leading 27--23. That was the beauty of the speed game. So much action, yet so much room left to develop the plot.

Contextual Timeout No. 1: Points and Pace

Naturally, the first graphic CBS displayed 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 up-tempo." They would finish the season averaging 122.4 points per game, a D-I record that still stands.

Up-tempo did indeed have a different meaning in 1990 than in 2012. Possessions per game is the truest measure of tempo, and a side-by-side comparison of the five highest-scoring teams in the final 1989--90 and 2011--12 AP polls (chart, right) shows a striking contrast in that regard. In 1989--90 four of the top five scoring teams averaged more than 80 possessions per game; in 2011--12 just one broke 70.

The averages for all D-I teams follow this pattern of deceleration. Statistician Ken Pomeroy (www.kenpom.com) used the NCAA's historical data to plot tempo-and-efficiency trends over the years; the chart at right shows the path since the establishment of the three-point line in 1986--87. The stark reality is that the 2012 season was the slowest and lowest-scoring in that era. And there is no easy explanation for this trend, no singular root cause. To blame it all on the 35-second shot clock, introduced in '93, would be folly, since teams were scoring more when they had 45 seconds. Lowering the clock even further, to 30, would push the tempo a little but is unlikely to affect the physical, restricting manner in which current teams play defense.

When John Adams took over as the NCAA director of officials in 2008, his biggest priority was to restore "freedom of movement" to college hoops, which he believed had become more bruising even than the NBA. Adams has made strides, but the freedom one sees in LSU-Loyola—a game that flowed like a river after a rainstorm—is still not evident in 2012. Modern defenses are fine-tuned to restrict fluidity. For an example, look at the highly influential Pack-Line scheme that Dick Bennett used to pull off NCAA tournament upsets with Wisconsin--Green Bay (in 1994) and Wisconsin (in 2000); its containment principles of walling off fast breaks and cutting off drivers have spread to such schools as Arizona, Xavier, Virginia and Butler. "Packing" has become far more common than full-court pressing or even half-court pressuring.

The post-Loyola era also saw a rise in popularity of methodical offenses, sparked by Pete Carril's famous final victory at Princeton—a 43--41 (!) upset of defending champ UCLA in the 1996 NCAA tournament. Hybrids of the Princeton offense spread to schools such as Georgetown, North Carolina State, Vanderbilt and Northwestern. Kentucky's John Calipari has referred to his Dribble Drive Motion offense as "Princeton on steroids," and Bo Ryan's surgical Swing Offense at Wisconsin exhibits Princeton-level patience with more emphasis on post feeds. There's higher awareness in 2012 of the value of each possession, and coaches have been more than willing to sacrifice pace for higher efficiency.

Dale Brown is not fond of this Control Era—"There's too much conservatism among coaches now," he says—and wonders if heightened TV and media exposure have played a role. There is no room anymore for scrutiny-free tinkering, and in an age of one- or two-and-done for elite recruits, there's pressure to get players on the floor immediately, at a speed they can more easily grasp. To run is to give up a degree of control, and to really run, as Loyola did, training like a track team and taking years to perfect the System, is to risk losing games and losing players.

"Plenty of coaches agree in the off-season that they're going to run more next year," Westhead says. "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."

An Impossible Transcript

On Feb. 3, 1990, no one dreaded the speed game more than Debi Polito. She was the play-by-play typist, a fifth-grade teacher who freelanced at 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 shortly after the game. "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 can 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 the point at which "Fryer gets three" —Loyola guard Jeff Fryer's trey 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 serves as an accurate record of scoring runs. There is the one Jackson and Roberts led into halftime, putting LSU up 72--58. (The combined 130 points at the half are more than were scored in any of the past three entire NCAA title games.) And Kimble ignited a run 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 by double digits with 4:43 left, at 126--114. But they were far from comfortable.

The play-by-play sheet tells the story of Gathers's game: demoralized on page 1, redeemed on page 5. He never stopped hustling and scored nine points in a rally that helped tie the game at 134 by the end of regulation. Gathers then put up the first four points of overtime. 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's response to his early drubbing. The game's most-remembered individual stat was Gathers's final point total: 48.

As Kimble puts 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 [to Shaq], 'You did a great job blocking the first five shots, but good luck trying to stop the next 30.'"

In an epic, though, there is room for a final plot twist. Up 138--134 in overtime, the Lions pressed, created a turnover and—because the System was so hard-wired in them—Fryer hoisted a long-range bomb within four seconds. Loyola didn't need a three, and the lane to the basket was open ... but the Lions never passed up open threes.

This one missed, and momentum flipped. LSU converted the long rebound into a Randy Devall three-pointer, 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 for a wrap-up to make sense of things. The network 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.

Contextual Timeout No. 2: A Possessional Overlay

Unlike Debi Polito, I had the luxury of pause and rewind buttons, and I set to charting the full game in a spreadsheet. Polito's lone advantage was in 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.

The possession count is staggering. In regulation LSU had the ball 116 times and Loyola 115. Each team had 13 more possessions in OT. LSU's possessions averaged just 11.3 seconds, Loyola's 9.7 seconds.

How does that compare to 2011--12? To be fair and not pick on one of the many games played at the speed of golf, I went searching for the highest-tempo games between two ranked teams last season.

It turned out to be Kentucky's win over Louisville in Lexington on Dec. 31, 2011, in which each team had 78 possessions. That game was not notable for being fast. 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 possession was 16.7 seconds, and Louisville's was 14.1.

The graphic on the next page shows the first-half possessions from Kentucky-Louisville overlaid with the first-half possessions from LSU-Loyola. Such is the gap between the old and the new concept of up-tempo. I was reminded of a nugget that colleague Seth Davis tweeted in the lead-up to the 2010--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, respectively, in the past two seasons, a far cry from Loyola's 103.0. Accommodations must have been made.

Epilogue

An incomplete list of events that transpired after the final buzzer of LSU-Loyola:

• The Tigers celebrated briefly, then went to their locker room and wilted. Says Roberts, who was 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 the Baton Rouge airport, then boarded a commercial connecting flight back to Los Angeles—where they scored 157 points in a win over San Francisco the next day.

• Gathers's heart gave out on March 4, when he collapsed during a West Coast Conference tournament game. He was declared dead less than two hours later in a Los Angeles hospital. The team attended Gathers's 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 after the season to take over the Denver Nuggets, but the System didn't work in the NBA. Denver gave up an NBA-record 130.8 points per game in 1990--91 while scoring 119.9. The Nuggets went 20--62, and Westhead was sacked after one more year. In '93, Westhead was hired at George Mason and attempted a reboot, but that didn't work, and he was done after four losing seasons. One of his 70 losses with the Patriots came on Dec. 3, 1994, in Baton Rouge. He assumed no one there would remember him, but numerous stadium staffers approached Westhead before the game to tell him LSU-Loyola was the best show they'd ever seen.

• In a phone interview last month, Brown, who retired in 1997, insisted 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.

In fact, the fastest team in Eugene is on the gridiron. Coach Chip Kelly's no-huddle, up-tempo offense—which at one point had a play-call placard with an image of Westhead—is the most talked-about scheme in the nation. Who would have predicted that the football mainstream would become obsessed with up-tempo 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 says, "I'll pick up that tape and revel in the mood of that day." His video coordinator cut a five-minute edit of fast breaks from that game, and his Oregon players viewed it earlier this month. "They marveled at it," he says. "I marveled at it."

I told Westhead 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?"

"To really run, as Loyola did, training like a track team and taking years to perfect the System, is to risk losing games and losing players.
"Says Westhead of the memorable game, "When I'm not happy, I'll pick up that tape and marvel in the mood of that day."

Tempo Leaders*

1989--90

View this article in the original magazine

LENGTH IN SECONDS

FIRST-HALF POSSESSIONS

1990 LSU--LMU

2011 KENTUCKY--LOUISVILLE

PHOTOPhotograph by STEVE FRANZUNSHAQLED Gathers (44) had five shots swatted by O'Neal in the opening minutes, but the stat sheet shows how the Loyola star made amends as the game galloped on.TWO PHOTOSLSUSPORTS.NET (SCOREBOOK)PHOTOGREG NELSONPACEMAKERS The most up-tempo matchup of elite teams last season, between Kentucky and Louisville (above), had a combined 131 points—just one more than LSU and LMU put up in the first half of their 1990 meeting.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERPHOTOTWO CHARTS