Friday, August 13, 2010

From Somewhere, Arkansas to Springfield, Archetype

Growing up in Oklahoma during the '80s, there was no NBA franchise. Fortunately, we had cable. To double the fortune, our cable package came with WGN, which may as well have stood for What Great News, because that allowed me to be introduced to the Chicago Bulls.

Without a home state team to call my own, the Bulls at least seemed close enough in my mind. And with some kid from North Carolina -- who I distinctly remember a newscaster mentioning could be the next Doctor J -- I thought, "Why not? We (my dad and I) will tune in." Of course, to triple the fortune the Bulls later picked up this other skinny kid in Scottie Pippen, a much lesser known quantity, but from Arkansas, which was close enough to us. After all, I did have a friend who had moved to Oklahoma from there. The team was coming together.

Flash forward more than two decades, six NBA championships, multiple all league teams, and a gold medal later, and I find myself in a radically reminiscent state. Salivating with Michael's every move also meant being informed of his teammates. And the more I watched the Bulls, the more I was moved by Pippen. It was his development that intrigued me. A once fledgling, scrawny, timid athlete that matured into a bonafide, nourished, and all-around star. He battle migraines and Pistons and personal demons. He grew a 'fro and searched for his roots in cornrows and even went Mr. Clean. He dunked on Ewing. Ferociously. And he successfully jabbed at Karl Malone with a memorable line about mailmen not delivering on Sundays. He could do a lot. Glide. Dunk. Drive. And then, all of a sudden he could shoot. He could defend. And then he could do it all. He was everywhere doing everything.

Pippen's induction into the Hall of Fame this weekend forced a visit back to his accomplishments and how he captivated my mind. Below, a Scottie sojourn of sorts and ten reasons he was the man, even alongside Spike Lee's "main man."

  1. One of the first stories I recall hearing about Pippen was that he wasn't recruited to be a college basketball player. More, he became the team manager, just a six-foot-two child that would support and look up to the true players as he did his 11 siblings. And what's more, he was so weak that when first asked to take up lifting weights, he couldn't bench press the 45-pound barbell. Here's to becoming strong.
  2. Given the chance, he became a regular member of the team at Central Arkansas and averaged 4.3 points per game. He kept getting better, improved his game each year, and by his senior year was a top scorer with 20-plus a contest. A four-year player who learned the power of performance enhancement.
  3. Scottie learned to be tough, physically and even more importantly, mentally. His psychological progress as a player plodded along before our eyes. He developed from a wire of an athlete -- one who was able to accept a certain complementary role -- to one who was the best player in the league in 1994 (only to be snubbed out of official MVP honors though he was the All-Star Game MVP). Even after Jordan's first comeback, one which Pip publicly applauded, Scottie continued to prosper and elevate his game. In fact, his Win Shares per 48 minutes in 1996 (.209) and 1997 (.203) were career highs.
  4. For those who forget or weren't old enough to observe, Scottie became the leader in 1994. He led his Bulls to a media-surprising 55 wins (Pip played in 72 games that season and the Bulls won in 51 of his appearances). He took them deep into the playoffs. The Eastern Conference Semifinals to be exact. Game 7. Yes, the one people say would have seen the Bulls win if not for a glaring controversial call. Regardless, that season was his personal best with a personal best PER (23.2). And remember he didn't get another chance to direct the Jordan-less team through the post-season again.
  5. Players with versatility stand out to me. And Pip provided the Bulls with so much talent he may as well been called Multi Purpose. During the 1994 playoffs, his usage percentage was a lead-leading 31.9 while his regular season effective field goal percentage was above 50 percent, a sound accompaniment to his career best 4.0 steal percentage. And what doesn't appear on paper is how he directed the triangle offense and made his presence felt on defense.
  6. To speak even more about his defensive prowess -- a skill the league certainly kept track of to the tune of 10 All-NBA Defensive honors -- just picture a guy that can guard any position on the floor. The popular image is the one of him guarding Magic in the '91 Finals and completely disrupting the Lake Show. But what about post D? Wing stoppage? Just watch the video to appreciate. On-ball steals and passing lane thefts. Blocked shots. Chase down swats (before LeBron was even a teenager). And a defensive coach's dream: taking charges. He understood how to get it down in every was possible manner and relished the role. His steal stats and defensive ratings only provide a brief of glimpse of his mighty brilliance as a defender.

  7. What else could he do? Everything. And even more, some say, than Mike the Greatest. In David Halberstam's Playing for Keeps, the truth be told ... There was, though, one move Pippen could make that Jordan could not: If they both stood out of bounds under the basket holding the ball and leaped out on the court, Pippen, without ever touching the ground, could slam the ball through with his left hand, and Jordan could not ... I recall Jordan even talking emphatically about how Pippen could jam on people in traffic with his left hand while Michael had trouble executing the move.
  8. Even more impressive is a fundamental drill I learned about long ago that highlights Scottie's explosiveness, balance, and length. He was able to pick up a basketball from the court, free throw line distance away from the rim, and dunk it without a dribble. Immediately after, he could scoop up another ball from the foul line and replicate the motion. It seems nuts, but he could do it 15 times in 30 seconds. That's 15 slams in half a minute.
  9. The bank shot. Enough said.
  10. Despite all of his basketball accomplishments, his mind-blowing artistry, his overcoming adversity at a young age -- and even dealing with and coming to grips with his own poor decisions that may have lasted but a couple of seconds -- Pippen-haters don't want to believe in him. They say he was not a winner without the other guy. Well, the other guy was not a winner without him either. Scottie always had to prove himself, and that mission motivated him to become not only great but one of the best players of all time. The Knickerbockers were slammed by him enough to understand. How nice for Bulls fans to know Pippen was actually obtained via an original 1987 first round Knick pick until New York traded the slot to Seattle for eventually, uh ... Mark Jackson?! ... and years later, after Pip's tenure with the Bulls was up, he was dealt for not one, not two, not three. Oh gosh. Not four. Not five. But six players to Portland. Perhaps that is the true mark of greatness. Judging worth with a simple correlation: every player we trade for you represents one championship ring.

Monday, June 7, 2010

MT, A Masterful Discovery

After Rajon Rondo's dazzling display of leadership and basketball skills -- one that produced another postseason triple-double and big-time W -- he was asked about his team's approach after a disappointing Game 1 in Los Angeles. Citing "mental toughness" midway through the interview, he sounds so sure of the psychological element that helped his team tie the series as it heads back to Boston, that there must be a secret bottle of it -- MT, we'll call it -- somewhere. Perhaps the Celtics training staff concocted it on a day off or had it shipped from Beantown where more awaits on Tuesday.

Often eluded to in pre- and post-game discussions, yet often overlooked in preparation and real-time play because of limited time, ambiguity, or indifference, it's the aspect of the game that the greats hold so dear. Whatever Rondo did to consume it or feel that way, it's best that he holds on to the process.

A few days prior, Rondo's teammate Paul Pierce even conceded his thoughts on the subject, albeit suggesting the untouchable work of his foe-to-be:

"Once you master the mental part of the game, you become a master of the game of basketball," Pierce said. "There's only been one master in basketball ever, and that's Michael Jordan, but Kobe is pretty close."
That is a strong statement. One, because it addresses what Kobe has that no other contemporary can claim. Two, because it's a former NBA Finals MVP showing his sincerity all the while aware that he is not at that level himself.

The mental aspect -- the area that separates the good from the great, and in this example, the master from all the rest -- is regarded in this arena as THE skill to master. More than the quickest and most accurate jump shot, the deadliest drop step, the smoothest crossover, the swiftest slide into a defensive stance, one who can elevate his game -- and even more, his teammates' -- with his mind has the ultimate advantage.

Was Rondo speaking for his team as a whole, or was it simply the way he felt at the time of the question? Some may think not the former, as a couple teammates didn't even turn in sub-par performances. But Rondo spoke as a leader and one who certainly believed in his priorities, tasks that aided his team down to the last second. A strip, a swat, a tip, a jumper. Masterful work stemming from his mindset to keep on clawing. He had the hot hand in more ways than just shooting. And that mentality allowed him to look like a master, at least for a couple of periods.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Hot Shooting from a Seasoned Shooter

Despite research and debate that may negate that a "hot hand" exists in basketball -- as a player, coach, and sport psych educator -- I do believe in the phenomenon, but not for some existential sake. Rather, for pure basketball sake. Simply knowing that practice and performance sometimes fuse perfectly and allow a player to shine.

Ray Allen was hot in Game 2 of the NBA Finals. But not out of luck. His display cannot be contrived as a series of penny flips. Or a string of randomness.

Allen has the physical and mental aptitude to put together such an exposition -- an awe-inspiring record eight 3-pointers made in the finals -- and tonight he happened to be placed in situations that allowed him to knock the LA lights out. It's understandable that hot hands tend to cool quickly. As players knock down a couple jumpers, their self-efficacy (situational self-confidence) increases. Because of that seemingly advantageous fluctuation, they want the ball and the next shot. They believe they are rolling into the zone. And, more often that not, according to the research, they miss because the degree of difficultly shoots up as quickly as their next attempt.

Unfortunately for them, the next field goal try may be an off-balance jump shot. Or a contested 3-pointer. Or perhaps a fade away from the corner. Or a ridiculous leaner. All things considered, the shot isn't like the first two. If it falls through the net, they really are considered hot. If it misses, end of scorching streak -- just like the classic NBA Jam video game.

Balanced. Comfortable. In the flow of the offense. All ideas that coaches preach. Good shots born of structure and teamwork. Shots that put teammates in positions to rebound. Shots that place the other four companions in good spaces, and shots that are created because of good spacing.

These are the scenarios that Allen discovered himself in. Prime real estate on the ultimate stage. He practiced -- and always does practice -- those shots from those spots hours prior to tip-off. That is his ritual. His pregame habit, bordering on obsessiveness. Warm-up to a point of complete control. Put himself in the right frame of mind and his body in the right moments in time. Get balanced. Become comfortable. Make himself feel good going into the game.

And there he was. Ready. Not in foul trouble. Getting touches. Enjoying the moment. And soon to be in a record-breaking rhythm.

His 3-point attempts were smooth. They came from kick outs and transition opportunities. And quintessential set up situations from the offense. A drive and find. A pull up at the perfect pace. A misdirection and screen. Balanced. Comfortable. In the flow of the offense.

With Allen's conditioning level, shooting mechanics, and belief in doing what he does best, he demonstrated what it means to be hot -- and maintain the heat for a half by replicating the previous shot as best as possible. For a game that changes so rapidly with various defenses being concocted to try and slow the heat source, the variance in Allen's shot selection was minimal. And so he continued to remain balanced, comfortable, and in the flow of the offense.

Doc Rivers knew it. Rajon Rondo knew it. And they delivered the ball to the player who knew it. Simple as that.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

More Than Meets the Bloodied Eye

Ever since Yang Yang discovered the Steve Nash video and posted an article about the implications of team touches, it's been difficult to NOT notice Nash's knack for multiple -- if not hundreds, even thousands -- of high fives. In the Suns' series clinching game against San Antonio, it seemed like the entire Phoenix franchise greeted each member again and again with myriad handshakes -- too many to count -- and from multiple angles as players formed a spontaneously complex line of people from sideline to midcourt. It looked as if they were supporting each other for a parachute jump from a prop plane ... and really happy about it.

And it wasn't even the pre-game introduction. Just a regular time out.

It's even greater to think that Nash's natural adeptness for bringing teammates together appears to have infected GM Steve Kerr. After hyperventilating from Goran Dragic's dramatic fourth quarter outburst in Game 3, I observed Kerr graciously and emphatically grab Goran, practically suffocating him with a humongous hug, as the backup PG made his way off the court. And that was just moments after Dragic's teammates swarmed him in a monumental, though brief, celebration. (Brief only because they knew they still had work to do and the party was on the Spurs' floor).

"Wow," I thought. "The chemistry is contagious."

And now, as the Suns move on to a tougher, but hopefully bright series from their perspective, we'll see how team toughness translates. Jonathan Abrams' New York Times article about the Suns' toughness couldn't have come at a better time for Phoenix. It should be assigned reading to the entire team so the players can appreciate their work and feed the inspiration engine as it moves into Los Angeles.

To be successful as Phoenix has extends beyond getting stops and making shots. Mental toughness and chemistry are paramount. All facets of task and social cohesion are apparent in how the Suns play and in how they talk about one another, which are effects of the greater system. When the leader and 2-time MVP comes back in to play with one eye and then remarks, "I'm proud that we've been tough ... both mentally and physically", he speaks subtly about himself but much more directly to his teammates -- just as a true captain should. It's not about him. It's about the system, a fresh blend of fast offense and more focused defense under Alvin Gentry (who, by the way, hasn't had nearly as much success with any other franchise, but has managed to find the right fit in Phoenix). Beyond sport psych talk, the statistical numbers show a potent pace and much better shooting percentages than in previous Suns-Spurs series.

The group's belief in the system combined with experienced stars and players who accept their roles (i.e., D-stopper in Hill, passion in Dudley, poised point in Dragic) make for a true team. But it didn't just suddenly happen. They hung together off the court. From the New York Times:
“I really believe that chemistry carries out onto the court,” said Hill, a 15-year N.B.A. veteran. “We know each other, and when you spend time with one another, you know what each other’s about and you hold each other accountable during games. We have a situation where some of the parts are greater than the whole. It’s a special, unique environment.”
The cast of characters and their personality factors genuinely found a way to effectively interact, ingredients that substantiate Gentry's idea of team rhythm (again, see Abrams' article). Is it any wonder that one of Grant Hill's college coaches, Johnny Dawkins, hired Dick Davey, who happens to be Nash's former college coach upon the Dukie's head coaching arrival at Stanford? Perhaps it's more than meets the bloodied eye. The toughness factor is a product of cohesiveness that has formed from specific actions throughout the year and even beyond ... and the thousands of high fives happen to serve as adhesives that reinforce remarkable team unity.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cerebral Matter (Playoff Variety)

I know. It's been a while. But there is something about the NBA Playoffs that pushes the pen and inspires inquiry. Perhaps it's a couple long, long-range Lebron jumpers and an effortless triple-double. Phil's insistence of fortuitous free throws -- followed by Durant's rousing roundball retaliation(s). A KG elbow. Lapses and collapses and relapses. How teams respond ... or just give up games on the road because it's "all about protecting home court." Psychological teasing. Crowd pleasing. A Noah remARK that Cleveland "sucks" and how a new kid will boost the young Bucks (see last segment).

All that and then some. Mainly, it's D-Wade that provokes playoff prowess. After all, he is No. 1 in Finals performances. It's mesmerizing to watch Wade do what he did this past Sunday, even though we may have seen similar sequences from others before his 46-point outburst. The fiery compilation produced a memorable scene of him screaming at his shooting hand.

"We were just having a little conversation," said Wade, who had 19 points in the fourth quarter, including 4 of 4 from the 3-point line. "I was just telling him he was hot."
Was it a case of his hot hand? Or more of a hot head (a.k.a. mentally tough mind) -- a strong feeling of confidence that shots will fall -- as in utter enjoyment and efficacious rhythm that draws on zones of optimal functioning or scarcely achieved flow states? A proposed simple explanation from a Caltech Ph.D. conveys the value of confidence, an innermost feeling that can override any sort of statistical analysis or physical fiber:
When you're learning to perform a task for the first time, a "hot hand" type of belief is probably both factually correct (you actually are more likely to get it right if you just got it right a minute ago) and also adaptive (do it right --> more confidence --> do it the same way again, do it wrong --> less confidence --> do something different.)

The basketball players under discussion have skills that are more or less mature; they're not going to get measurably better at shooting over the course of a game. But maybe part of the brain doesn't "know" that. From the point of view of this learning mechanism in the brain, maybe the fact that you just sunk a few baskets indicates that you've learned something new about shooting, so it's time to positively reinforce that learning with a flush of confidence.

Or maybe there were other factors that allowed Dwyane to wade through the Celtic waters with a one-man cast and pounce when the time -- and feeling -- was right.

Chris Forsberg of

While Wade's glossy 46-point output -- the highest of his playoff career -- is hard to look past, particularly the way he single-handedly rallied the Heat at the start of the fourth quarter of a do-or-die game, the Celtics' mental lapses led to their 101-92 loss in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena.

The Celtics pack a 3-1 series lead and head back to Boston for Game 5 on Tuesday.

For all their talk about being focused solely on Game 4, the Celtics sure didn't appear poised at the start of Sunday's game. The first quarter featured a slew of ill-advised shots and sloppy passes that handed the Heat a pair of big runs.

... and just catching up on some other mental game mentions ...

Jeff Caplan of

San Antonio's third-quarter Game 4 annihilation, a complete physical and mental domination of Dallas, will go down as the latest playoff collapse of the Mark Cuban era unless a team that appears mind-blown can regroup and somehow win three in a row.

"It's good, man," Jason Terry said, perhaps trying to convince himself, during Sunday's aftermath. "It's good because when your back's against the wall, you really find out who you are, not only as an individual, but as a team. I know what we have on this team and I know what it's going to take for us to get this job done."

Frances White of

Speaking of growing up; Michael Beasley specifically is the one that Wade hopes will take the leap from JV status to Varsity play. Miami's hope of any advancement relies on this gifted athlete's ability to match his mental capacity with his physical tools.

At times he makes it look so easy he can drive effectively with either hand and he can extend the defense with his three point shooting. He even shows some toughness on the boards in spurts. Sadly, the Heat are not looking for spurts they are looking for consistency.

It takes longer for a big man to grow into his game so the Heat will have patience; even though he will be fodder for the big men of the NBA for now.

Kurt Helin of

What gets overlooked with these Lakers is that when healthy, when focused, this was one of the best defensive teams in the league. They were for much of the season. If they return to that form they can shut teams down.

What really is the Lakers calling card is they have the mental game down. It hasn't looked that way lately but they do. Phil Jackson has two hands full of rings for a reason. Kobe is tough. Gasol is mentally tough. The Lakers have won a title, been to the Finals two straight years. They know what it takes more than any team in the West.

When you have the mental game to go with all that high-priced talent. You can win it all. They just have to flip the switch.

Jack Fertig of

Larry Brown has made the statement that he doesn’t know whether his Charlotte Bobcats can actually beat the Orlando Magic. Many in the field of psychology would be appalled if they heard the leader of a group say something that would plant a seed of doubt in his team. Being the underdog in the series, you’d think the coach would try to bolster the confidence of his club.

Why, then, would Brown make a comment like that? My guess is that what Larry Brown said is exactly what he believes - and he’s been around long enough and has had so much success that he feels it would be foolish to try to play mind games or use some other psychological ploy.


Skiles, no slouch himself running a team in his 10 years in the league as a player, has worked with Jennings at every step. No, Jennings' game is not much like his teacher's, but their vision on the court is something they share.

Now Skiles is waiting to see what Jennings can do in the playoffs.

When asked what he has seen in Jennings' mental makeup that makes him confident that the playoffs won't be too big for him to handle as a rookie, Skiles paused.

"I didn't say that," Skiles said.

Skiles seemed to be sending a message: show me, kid.

"It's going to be interesting to see how he responds," Skiles said. "I would have no problem believing that Brandon's going to come out and play very well in Game 1. You know, on the other hand, it's a different thing. It's something he's got to go through."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bball Brief: Believe in Experience

Do you think the Cornell players ever saw this Pistol Pete video? Perhaps not, but they're busy compiling their own psychology of shooting clips.

They certainly have the conceptualization, concentration, and confidence when shooting the ball (57.1 effective field goal percentage). According to, only Denver (57.9) and Syracuse (57.8) have a higher eFG rating.

And, with all of its senior contributors, the Big Red stands out amongst its peers in experience. In fact, just about all of the mid major NCAA tournament teams that won first round games are more senior laden than the advancing powerhouses (not really a surprise when one considers the number of underclassmen from major schools who leave early; however, still worth noting a meaningful reason for the lesser known teams that win). Old Dominion, which recently lost to Baylor after taking down the veteran Notre Dame ship (3rd in NCAA experience) has but one go-to senior, yet five crucial juniors.

Cornell ranks eighth in experience in the nation and gets important production from seven at the top of their class -- including a point guard who has been a "go-to" since his freshman season and a transfer forward from Kentucky that provides power off the bench. The smarties from Ithaca boast a 7-footer and five players that shoot better than 43 percent from 3-point range. Plus, it's all been in the making for the last few years. Same coach. Same system.

The mid majors that advanced to the second round sported 18 senior contributors, double what teams had from the major conferences. From the historically top teams, only Tennessee has more than two contributing seniors. And only Syracuse and Duke have two. (Wisconsin had two as well before Cornell convincingly ended their run). Kansas was beaten by a Northern Iowa squad that parades three standout seniors. Meanwhile, New Mexico was just taken down by a traditional power team in Washington that edges the Lobos only by the slimmest of margins in experience.

Interesting to think about. Here are the sweet sixteen match-ups. Teams in bold are "favorites" to win while teams listed on the left are predicted winners. Average experience is listed for each team.

West Virginia 1.79 -- Washington 1.52
Duke 2.00 -- Purdue 1.83
Northern Iowa 1.96 -- Michigan St. 1.61
Ohio St. 2.00 -- Tennessee 1.92
Kentucky 0.84 -- Cornell 2.50
Syracuse 1.70 -- Butler 1.70
Kansas St. 1.71 -- Xavier 1.47
Baylor 1.73 -- St. Mary's 1.53

In all cases but one, experience trumps. And that contest features the youngest against the oldest ... two teams that are 9th and 10th in offensive efficiency (Cornell is a tad better) but worlds apart in defensive efficiency over the long term. The Wildcats are No. 8 in that category versus the Big Red's 131st ranking. But, that is why there is a tournament ... and maybe Cornell will continue to demonstrate how maturity correlates with domination as it did in the first two rounds and practically all season. From The Red Majority:
With an offense so explosive and efficient that it averaged nearly a point and a half per possession, Cornell laid down a wide swath of total basketball destruction.
We'll see if talented experience can battle experienced talent.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Time to Touch

Knuckle taps. Fist bumps. Rear slaps. All out embraces. Ridiculous amounts of high fives and daps at the free throw line. Pre-game huddles with players in boundary breaking proximity. Even handshakes and hugs with opponents that are sought out by fierce competitors. And it looks like there is more reason for all than just an entertaining and congratulatory montage or homely hello.

So says this research about the impact of a simple touch and the relationship between physical actions and mental comfort.

Not only is Kevin Garnett one of the most intense players, he is also, um, the touchiest. Go Green.

Interesting concepts for team building and self-efficacy enhancement, especially if the touching is shown to be a predictor of success. Imagine spring training or preseason now.

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