SPORTS WATCH

A second-guesser’s guide to basketball

Unlike coaches, real fans never have a losing season. They are too smart. If a team loses three or four in a row, the coach is a dumbbell.

TRENT FRAYNE July 10 1995
SPORTS WATCH

A second-guesser’s guide to basketball

Unlike coaches, real fans never have a losing season. They are too smart. If a team loses three or four in a row, the coach is a dumbbell.

TRENT FRAYNE July 10 1995

A second-guesser’s guide to basketball

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

Unlike coaches, real fans never have a losing season. They are too smart. If a team loses three or four in a row, the coach is a dumbbell.

Big-time basketball comes to Canada in November, two-legged giraffes gambolling up and down the hardwood in Vancouver and Toronto, leaning in from the stratosphere to dunk 200 points per game. Talk about pitchers’ battles.

In all the hoopla surrounding the recent draft of players to stock the Grizzlies and the Raptors, a great deal of attention was paid to the discards and head cases who came north, and too little to the fans’ plight. Nobody issued a primer on what to second-guess.

Second-guessing is a key aspect of every sport. Unlike coaches, real fans never have a losing season. They are too smart. You see a team lose three or four in a row and it is because the coach is a dumbbell. A fan would have done things right, although for some perverse reason fans pay to get in and coaches make $500,000 a year.

The thing is, though, fans have to know what to second-guess. Canadian fans know hockey and baseball well enough that any one of them could replace Scotty Bowman and lead the downhearted Red Wings to the Stanley Cup, or take Felipe Alou’s job in Montreal and guide the Expos to the World Series. But pro basketball is different. We aren’t familiar enough with it yet. We can’t just sit there and say, “No wonder them bums are losing; look at the coach’s haircut.” No, we’ve got to say something like, “Hey, Fathead! Where’s the full-court press?”

Until everybody got sick of baseball, it was the ideal game for second-guessers. The Toronto Blue Jays began life slowly in 1977, and fans had nearly a decade to learn the game while Pat Gillick was painstakingly fitting together the pieces. By the 1990s, tens of thousands of Jays fans knew the game better than Gillick or the manager, Cito Gaston, and had second-guessed them to two World Series championships, no credit to Cito with players like Gillick provided. Cito steamed under the criticism, unlike the immortal Casey Stengel, who rolled with it. “I couldn’t

'have done it,” 01’ Case conceded at a dinner honoring his 10 pennants in 12 years as Yankee manager, “without the players.”

Still, as I say, basketball is different, and fans aren’t sure in what areas coaches require second-guessing. Accordingly, it becomes necessary to speed to the side of one of the great minds of hoops in this country. This is the indefatigable wordsmith, Jack Donohue, from the Bronx, N.Y., pilfered by Basketball Canada a quarter of a century ago to give this country respectable teams for international competition. Jack got the job done, talking nonstop around the globe, coaching and making after-dinner speeches (and before dinner, too; wherever he could clutch a set of lapels).

The question put to the master went something like this: “In what areas should a basketball coach be second-guessed?”

“None,” snapped Jack, a retired coach.

So the question was rephrased. “Where should a second-guesser begin?”

“They always begin early,” Jack said. “ ‘Is this the right coach?’ as soon as the guy is appointed. Usually they decide he isn’t.

“Next comes the draft. ‘Did they pick the right players? Why did they pick this

guy? They shoulda picked that guy.’ “When the season starts, there’s the style of play. Tempo is the key word. If the coach produces an up-tempo offence, secondguessers want to know why he doesn’t slow down the pace. If the tempo is deliberate, they wonder where’s the fast break.”

Jack peered at your agent quizzically.

“You know about synergy?”

“Synergy?” said your agent brightly.

“Yeah, working together, co-operating. Some coaches don’t understand about synergy, and a true second-guesser will spot this. You’ve got to have the right combinations playing together. A guy can’t help a guy out on the floor if he’s sitting on the bench.”

“Of course,” I said. “Synergy.”

As in any sport, people who pay to watch can second-guess the coach if he is too tough on his players (provided the team is losing). Hockey fans can examine the record of John Brophy, the toughest old player who ever turned to coaching, a guy who piled up 3,593 minutes in the penalty boxes of pro hockey’s lower reaches and hoped his fireand-brimstone approach would work when kindly old Harold Ballard hired him to run the Toronto Maple Leafs. It didn’t, and after a season and a half he was gone. Brophy was just too aggressive and the second-guessers, including his kindly old employer, peered at the standings and knew it instantly.

On the other hand, a coach is always second-guessed if he isn’t tough enough (and is losing). Nine years prior to the hiring of John Brophy, kindly old H. Ballard had fingered Roger Neilson as the Leaf coach. Roger was (and is) a quiet-spoken student of the game, one of the very first coaches to utilize the technology of computers and videotape. Roger lasted two seasons, by which time the second-guessers, including his employer, were unanimous in concluding that he wasn’t aggressive enough. (Second-guessing does not have to make sense.)

Now, returning to his favorite game, Jack points out that basketball fans do not need to attend a lot of games to be smart enough to second-guess. “Fans can participate on a single-game basis,” he says. “Like, if a big tall guy is sitting on the bench, a novice secondguesser can observe that the coach isn’t giving this guy enough playing time. Basketball is a game for tall guys, right? So why is the dummy leaving the tall guy sit?”

Even going to one game is not required. People who merely read the papers or listen to the loonies on squawk radio make excellent second-guessers when they’re discussing the Raptors or the Grizzlies.

“Yes,” Jack concedes, “if there are a few veteran players on an expansion club, a fan knows from these sources that the game is no longer fun. Also, they know that for a lot of coaches the game has passed them by.” Still, not everything is bleak for the maligned breed. Jack points out that coaches of all ages, styles and personalities can overcome every second-guess, whether from the front office or the cheap seats. “All you have to do is win,” Jack says. He is smiling.