Falling Behind The Times??

By Liam Canny
Updated: January 5, 2009

NEW HAMPSHIRE — High school basketball is dying. That’s right. It is passing away. In a word, it’s kaput, gonzo. Sorry, that was two words, but that is how desperate the state of the game at the grassroots level in America is these days.

During this festive season of sacred birth, new beginnings and holiday hoops tournaments, sounding the death knell on a game which is so deeply woven into the fabric of American culture seems blasphemous.

Sadly, it is true. The game of high school basketball in the United States, and in the Granite State more particularly, is past its prime for two reasons.

First, it is not in line with the American collegiate game. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is not in accordance with the international standards set by FIBA — the Federation of International Basketball Associations.

From Bahia Blanca, Argentina (the home of Manu Ginobli) to Wurtzberg, Germany (the home of Dirk Nowitzki) schools and club teams of all ages adhere to the agreed-upon international norms of basketball.

Indeed, this season, Canadian universities adopted the FIBA code for the first time ever. Now, the United States stands alone as the only country that does not play the game by the rules, the FIBA rules.

New Hampshire high schools do not prepare their student athletes to play the game at the collegiate level. It’s as simple as that. It is not because the coaching is poor. Without question, there are some terrific high school coaches in this state.

It is not because the players don’t work enough. On the court, the kids play hard. The problem is that the game is not played at the right tempo, for the right amount of time and with the right understanding. It is ill.

From the Patriot League to the NESCAC’s, every collegiate conference, league and division plays with a shot clock. Universally across the country, the shot clock is 35 seconds for the men and 30 seconds for the women. Yet, the New Hampshire High School Interscholastic Athletic Association refuses to follow suit.

To compound the problem further, the duration of all college games is 40 minutes. However, American high schools play games lasting only 32 minutes, with eight-minute quarters. That is the same length of time as quarters in middle school games.

Where’s the progression?

By comparison, and similar to the American collegiate game, FIBA rules mandate that all games are 40 minutes in length, with 10-minute quarters. The shot clock is set at 24 seconds. All over the world, young players hone their skills and develop their games in accordance with these guidelines.

The problem with the absence of a shot clock is that it hinders skill development. The shot clock instills an imperative to develop offensive skills with an eye to having players attack the basket. When the shot clock ticks, players cannot hide on the floor.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the skins of basketball purists cringe as they contemplate the arrival of a shot clock to high school ball. Hey, even the inestimable Dean Smith scrapped his vaunted four-corner spread. Change is a good thing. A cure is needed.

Of course, there is a major argument against a shot clock, which is that its absence means that lopsided games will not get too out of hand. Teams with large point advantages are not forced to score quickly.

Although this point has some merit, the organization of teams into the classifications S, M, I and L across the state is designed to get teams playing at the right level of competition.

There is another argument against the introduction of a shot clock, which is the added cost that comes with it. Are you kidding me?

In a basketball-crazed society, do high school athletic departments seriously think that they cannot find a competent, impartial volunteer to run the clock? Doubtful.

It is hard to think of an argument against a 40-minute game. What high school kid would say no to longer games? You can hear the kids’ thoughts now — especially those of the players down at the end of the bench. The coach gets more minutes of playing time in his pocket?

Bring in the rule change.

New Hampshire’s unwillingness to adapt its game is emblematic of a problem that is more pervasive. Regrettably, New Hampshire is not alone in its intransigence.

The National Federation of State High School Associations rules recommend, but do not mandate, a shot clock. In actuality, only seven states across the country currently use a shot clock.

American failure to adopt FIBA rules means that our style of play is vastly different to the international version of the game. Teams all over the world play a style that is predicated on three offensive principles: fast break, screen and roll sets and dribble penetration to open up outside shots. Players of all sizes can face the basket and shoot.

Gone are the days of motion offense.

It is this unwillingness to change that has translated into poor performances for the men’s national team. Yes, it is true that the United States men’s team has had astounding success at the Olympics in the past. In the 16 Olympiads in which basketball has been played, Team USA holds 13 gold medals.

There have only been a few blemishes.

In the 1972 Munich games, Team USA lost to the USSR in the finals in a game mired in controversy. The Americans took home silver. What was the excuse? The Soviets cheated.

In the 1988 Seoul games, Team USA won bronze. What was the excuse then? Those were our college players. What were the excuses in Athens in 2004 when the NBA pros came back with bronze again? There were none.

In Athens, Team USA lost three games on their way to the bronze. That was more defeats than in all previous Olympiads combined. Cracks in American dominance began to show. A disease had set in — one that started in the lifeblood of the American game, high school ball.

Most basketball fans would know this Olympic history; but how many know the USA’s record of performance in the FIBA World Championships? It is lackluster. How many fans know that in 2002, when the World Championships were played in Indianapolis, the United States finished a disappointing sixth?

Sixth in the heartland of American basketball?

Yes, sixth. In 2006, the USA finished third. How many basketball fans would be surprised to know that between 2002 and 2007, the USA men were neither the holders of the Olympic gold medal nor the defending world champions?

The much-deserved gold medal that Team USA won in Beijing 2008 was due mostly to a mind-set change on the parts of Jerry Colangelo, national director of USA basketball, and Coach Mike Krzyzewski, coach of the Duke Blue Devils. Colangelo and Krzyzkewski were the saviors of the men’s national team.

In interviews in the run-up to the Olympics, Coach K said things like, “over the years we have been a little arrogant about the game in that we said it’s our game. It’s not our game. It’s the world’s game. It originated here, but it’s the world’s game and we’re playing a different game when we’re playing international basketball.”

It was Krzyzewski’s wisdom, guidance and willingness to adapt to the international game that led the USA to gold again in 2008.

When I was 13 years old in 1980, I sat in at the back of the bleachers of the Nashua High School gym. I was watching what was arguably the best high school game ever played in the state of New Hampshire. Local basketball afficiandos more learned than I may disagree about that claim, but I doubt it.

It was the finals of the Nashua Holiday Tournament and my back was to the wall. I strained my neck and stretched my every sinew to see around the people in front of me. I had to.

The gym was packed to the rafters and, like me, everybody wanted to see every play. Holy Name High School from Worcester (Mass.), led by Dwayne McClain, played a Cambridge Rindge and Latin team that featured Patrick Ewing.

As a youngster, I marveled at the athleticism, size and skill of the players from both schools. They played the game better than anybody I had ever seen. McClain was graceful and elegant.

Ewing was gigantic and intimidating. Rindge and Latin won. Ewing had better teammates, but McClain was the better player. What a game. In 1980, that game was a harbinger of the future. It was like the ghost of basketball yet to come.

McClain and Ewing were truly heralds. Both would go on to become pros in the NBA. Ewing would make the Hall of Fame. In 1985, both players met again when the stakes were higher and the stage grander. Then, McClain served his revenge as his Villanova Wildcats upset Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas for NCAA national championship in Lexington, Ky.

Coincidentally, this final was the last college basketball game played without a shot clock. It was while they were watching their televisions, no doubt with an eerie sense of deja vu, that Nashua basketball fans realized what a treat it had been for them to have seen McClain and Ewing years before.

In 1980, fans were looking into the future. Now, fans filling the seats of the Nashua North gym to watch Holiday Tournament action will regrettably be looking into the past. For the American game to survive, high school basketball needs to change.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originated in the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph.