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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Part II of an Interview with Dr. Charles "Chic" Hess, Author of "Prof Blood and the Wonder Teams"

"Life comes to you in a moment...each moment of your life can be perceived by you only if you are equipped imaginatively, equipped to dramatize your own role in it--to see yourself as a protagonist confronted by adversary circumstances"--Jerzy Kosinski

The greatest basketball coach you've never heard of led Passaic (New Jersey) High School to 159 straight victories from 1919-1925. Ernest Blood--better known as Professor Blood or simply Prof--was an innovator who valued the pass over the dribble and who developed a feeder system in the lower grade levels so that his high school squad had a steady supply of enthusiastic, top level talent. Blood won seven state championships at Passaic from 1915-1925 and he could have enjoyed a much longer run of success there but he ran afoul of shortsighted school administrators who were apparently jealous of his popularity. Blood resigned his post at Passaic and then coached at St. Benedict's Preparatory School (in Newark, New Jersey) for 23 seasons, leading them to five prep school state titles. Blood also coached at Clarkson University and the U.S. Military Academy.

Blood was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960 but his life story and accomplishments are not widely known. Enter Philadelphia native Dr. Charles "Chic" Hess, a veteran high school and junior college coach who first learned about Blood by reading about the 159 game winning streak in little filler blurbs in the local newspapers. Hess had always wanted to know more about the fantastically successful coach with the eye-catching name, so when he began working on his doctorate in his forties he also started assembling information about Blood's life and times. This turned into a 16 year project that culminated with Hess writing a 455 page book titled "Prof Blood and the Wonder Teams: The True Story of Basketball's First Great Coach." Published in 2003 and currently available for $29.95 plus $5 shipping and handling, Hess' biography of Blood is truly a labor of love, a thoroughly detailed account of Passaic's epic winning streak and the behind the scenes school politics that ultimately ended Blood's time at the school.

Dr. Hess is a very successful coach in his own right. His 1978 Lebanon (Pennsylvania) high school squad, anchored by future NBA first round draft pick Sam Bowie, made it to the 1978 Class AAA State Finals. Hess won three coach of the year awards in Pennsylvania, captured two NAIA District 29 Coach of the Year awards for his work at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and then earned the 1991 NABC Coach of the Year Award at Arizona Western College (NJCAA).

You can read Part I of my interview with Dr. Hess here.

Friedman: "In the book, you point out that Prof Blood very much emphasized the importance of passing and that he discouraged excessive dribbling. I have a big interest in the NBA, so I am curious to hear you compare Prof Blood’s philosophy to the philosophies of two coaches in particular: Paul Westhead, the ‘guru of go’ who coached in college and the NBA, and then also Mike D’Antoni, who has employed the ‘seven seconds or less’ philosophy in Phoenix and now with the Knicks. How would you compare Prof Blood’s ideas about passing and not dribbling too much with what you know about the philosophies of those two coaches?"

Hess: "I’m much more familiar with Paul Westhead, because he’s from Philadelphia too. It comes down to talent. You want to play a style of play (that fits your talent), whether you’re totally in the entertainment business or you’re really just teaching kids. Paul got to be in the entertainment business and the NBA is the entertainment business—people come to the games to be entertained. If you have the right talent, there is nothing wrong with doing that. It’s fun. Is it Grinnell College in Iowa that scores 100+ points per game almost every year? They just put it up, put it up, put it up. It’s amazing to watch them play and it’s fun and entertaining. He recruits kids for that system.

There was a time in basketball that was called the ‘dribble game.’ Before the development of helping defense, a good dribbler could beat his defender and get all the way to the basket. Then, when helping defense developed it was pretty hard for a dribbler to get all the way to the basket. Now, they reward the three point shot. What’s it called? Dribble-drive motion offense."

Friedman: "Right, in Memphis with John Calipari."

Hess: "Yeah. You dribble in, you penetrate and if the defense helps out then you kick the ball out to a three point shooter. The game has evolved. But, back then, Prof Blood said that the ball would move quicker than the defensive players could move and if you move that ball quickly enough then you are going to get very good shots. It’s a team game, everyone is going to be touching the ball and everyone has to be able to handle the ball; you can’t hide a player. They’re all involved. I just like that better. Hey, I’ve been in the game long enough—if I had the players would I ever think of doing what Paul Westhead did? Yeah, what the hell, it would be fun. Give it a try. There is more than one way to skin a cat but you have to look at how much talent you have available. How many players do you have? You may look at your bench and not have one kid who can play; all your good players may be on the court. So, then you can’t substitute a lot.

I believe in the pass—pass the ball, move the ball, hit the high post, kick it outside. The ball is being moved all around. People aren’t catching the ball and dribbling and catching and dribbling—move the ball, move the ball. I believed in that before I read about Prof and then reading about him just made me more set in my ways. I’d rather have a kid save his dribble and catch and pass the ball right away then do anything else but then whoever is open, take the shot. That is why we are passing the ball: to get someone an open shot. That is why we work all year round on shooting the ball, so that when you get an open shot you will hit it. As Hubie Brown says, shooting covers up a multitude of sins."

Friedman: "You seem to be making a distinction between Prof Blood’s philosophy and Paul Westhead’s philosophy but I’m not sure that I understand the distinction that you are making. You seem to be saying that there was some kind of difference between what Prof Blood was doing and what Coach Westhead was doing but from my perspective—and maybe I’m wrong or maybe I’m not understanding something—it seems like what they advocated is similar. The main difference that I see is that in Prof Blood’s era there was a jump ball after each made basket, so there was not the same kind of non-stop fast break that Westhead uses. That has more to do with a rules difference than with a difference in philosophy, because Westhead’s philosophy is to advance the ball up the court as quickly as possible and the first guy who is open should shoot. He is not going to tell anybody not to shoot; I interviewed him a while ago and he told me that he would never discourage a player from shooting because he did not want to mess with his confidence. He would always encourage players to advance the ball up the court and then shoot the first open shot. To me, it seems like there is a certain parallel between that idea and my understanding of your explanation of what Prof Blood’s teams were doing: pass the ball, pass the ball, pass the ball and when you have an open shot then shoot it with confidence. Maybe I’m misunderstanding your answer but your answer seemed to be that if you have the personnel then you can use Westhead’s system, so if there is a distinction in your mind between what Coach Westhead did and what Prof Blood did then please explain it to me so that I can understand it better."

Hess: "Let me try. Paul got fired at La Salle right before he moved out west. At La Salle, he used to have one guy cherry picking underneath the basket while the other four guys played defense. He was an innovator. He tried different things. He was entertaining and it was fun to watch. He got a couple good Philadelphia players (to go to Loyola Marymount), Hank Gathers from Dobbins (high school in Philadelphia) and who was the other player?"

Friedman: "Bo Kimble. Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble were his two key players at Loyola Marymount."

Hess: "I think that they were both from Philadelphia, public school kids there."

Friedman: "Yes."

Hess: "He turned it into a sideshow. I studied his fast break and I even still have all his notes about how he ran it numbers-wise, who was in what position and what they did, that ball got down the court and the kid on the wing or slightly in the corner shot the ball right away with other people crashing the boards. If he couldn’t shoot it right away then the ball went somewhere else and he shot it if he could. He wanted a shot in seven seconds."

Friedman: "Similar to D’Antoni."

Hess: "Yeah. He wanted the shot taken right away. Prof Blood wanted to get twice as many shots up as the other team. He worked on shooting and he figured that his team would shoot better than the opposing teams but he knew that the quality of the shot was dependent on the quality of the passes. Instead of dribbling the ball, he believed in passing the ball rapidly, no matter how many passes it would take—three, four, five quick passes, six, seven or eight if you had to, but if it is done quickly you are going to get a shot. Of course, obviously then you have to crash the boards and get second shots but those kids were firing away at the basket. The number of shots that they took in some games, I wondered how did they take 75 shots in a high school game? But they did it and it was a sight to be seen. I talked to old people and they used to say that when they watched this they knew that they were seeing the future of basketball. There are obviously some similarities (between Blood and Westhead) but because of the differences in era and the way that the game was evolving and the courts that they used—hey, Paul Westhead’s basketball did not catch on, everyone is not doing it, although the (shot) clock has almost forced it. He (Westhead) was adapting a good method (to take advantage of the shot clock and the three point shot) and he had the players to do it. Look what he pulled off and if they were on TV people tuned in to watch because they were extremely entertaining. They filled up that gym there in L.A. and there hasn’t been anything like that there since then.”

Friedman: "Yes and he did the same kind of thing with the Nuggets, obviously with much less success—but, as he said to me, he didn’t have the players. He won a WNBA championship in Phoenix with basically the same approach. He’s called the 'guru of go.' When I read your book about Prof Blood, it seemed to me that if Prof Blood were alive today then he would be doing something like what D’Antoni is doing or what Westhead did. There might be some fine points that would be changed—you seem to be decrying what you consider to be a sideshow aspect of what Westhead did, that maybe he took things to far or that his approach was maybe a little bit too extreme."

Hess: "The reason that I say 'sideshow' is that I know what he did at La Salle. How many coaches would ever have one guy stand underneath the basket at the offensive end and never leave to keep the other team off balance while they’re on offense, because if they miss then they have to hurry to get someone back on defense? He used to do things to disrupt other teams. He wasn’t as successful and I don’t know all the politics behind it, but he eventually got fired (at La Salle); that’s no slight and I don’t mean it as such, because what coach in the business hasn’t been fired? It’s part of the business. He is entertaining and there are obviously some similarities and you are probably right, if Prof Blood were coaching today he probably would be doing something to stay ahead of the curve of what is going on."

Friedman: "When I was reading your book—and when anyone reads a book or goes through any life experience, you relate it to your own life experience and your own knowledge—I made analogies to my experiences and what I’ve seen and I thought that Prof Blood seems like Coach D’Antoni and Coach Westhead. All of the things that you wrote about Prof Blood’s emphasis on passing the ball and getting shots up sound just like the way that D’Antoni and Westhead coach. I’ve interviewed both of those coaches. Also, you mentioned in the book how much Prof Blood instilled confidence in his players and that is very much a D’Antoni approach or a Westhead approach. As you know, there are some coaches who are critical—obviously, that is an important aspect of coaching and every coach has to be critical at some point if the players mess up--but there are certain coaches who are constantly involved in building up their players’ confidence. Westhead and D’Antoni definitely fall more on that side of the spectrum than, say, Bobby Knight. You can be a great coach the other way but there are a couple different approaches you can take and you don’t often see Westhead or D’Antoni screaming at their players or berating them. They are always telling their players, ‘Keep shooting. I want you to shoot the ball’ and that sort of thing.

Denver Coach George Karl has this phrase that he uses—and I’ve heard other coaches use it, too: ball stopper. He does not want his players to be ball stoppers. He constantly says to his players that he wants them to shoot, pass or drive as soon as they catch the ball. Do not stop the ball. He does not want them to stop the ball. He almost literally would rather that they take a bad shot than hold the ball—he doesn’t want them to take a bad shot, but, given a choice, he’d prefer that they take a bad shot right after they catch the ball as opposed to holding the ball. Do you see some similarity between that mentality and Prof Blood’s emphasis on the pass and on quick hitting action?"

Hess: "I think you’re hitting the nail right on the head. Yes. Prof had different jargon—his press was called 'offensive defense.'"

Friedman: "That was going to be my next question."

Hess: "I think that was exactly what they did—pass, pass, pass, pass and as soon as the first guy was open he either shot it or took it to the basket. Shots were going up and it was quick, quick, quick. As John Wooden said, 'Be quick but don’t hurry.' The ball would be moving quickly. I wasn’t familiar with that term—'ball stopper'--but I’ve had great respect for Coach Karl throughout his career. That makes an awful lot of sense and that is what Prof’s team was doing."

Friedman: "I’ve heard other coaches use that phrase since I heard Coach Karl use it, so I’m not sure where it originates. I don’t know if he created it; for all I know, maybe he learned it from Dean Smith somewhere along the line with that North Carolina coaching tree. The first time I heard him say it, they had this show—I think that it was on NBA TV—during which they miked up Denver’s practice. One of the players caught the ball, held it, dribbled and was not really doing anything and Coach Karl blew his whistle, stopped the practice and he said, ‘Don’t be a ball stopper. When you catch the ball, shoot it, pass it, drive it.’

You and I talked a little bit about Iverson and this also relates to Carmelo Anthony, who is guilty of this. At one point in time, Coach Karl was coaching two players who are very talented but who are both ball stoppers. They both are guys who get the ball, they massage it, they are looking around—because they are one on one players. They are very good one on one players but Coach Karl was pulling out what little hair he has left when those guys did that because that does not fit in with his approach."

Hess: "I understand completely what you are saying and as a coach that would drive me nuts. It really would. I’ve had some outstanding players, some who I was able to get through to and some who I just could not run an offense with them; they’d get the ball and then it’s their time and the offense goes to heck because, as you said, they start massaging the ball and they think about doing their thing and our thing has just gone out the window."

Friedman: "The thing that is interesting to me in terms of watching different coaches and their philosophies is that what Phil Jackson has been able to do very successfully with the Bulls and the Lakers is that he had Jordan and now he has Kobe, fantastic players who do things that could be considered 'ball stopping' at some points. He puts in the Triangle and somehow he finds a happy medium between running the Triangle to get everyone involved while also having a certain degree of toleration, understanding the necessity that in certain situations those guys will isolate and go one on one and do some of that. Jackson found some kind of compromise position. A cynic could say that it is easy to find a compromise position when you have arguably the best player in the game in either of those eras but not every coach would be able to adjust to that and find some happy medium there.

You mentioned 'offensive defense.' That is an interesting phrase in your book and I would like for you to expound on that and explain how it relates to the modern game. What does that approach mean and how could it be used under today’s rules?"

Hess: "As the game has evolved, Prof was not known for his defense. He was known for his offense. His teams were going to shoot the ball well and they were going to shoot it frequently. That’s a given. After pass-pass-pass the shot was going to go up and everything was going to be done quickly. Well, to get more shots, as soon as they lost possession of the ball they would start playing defense right away. They would be on them full court. In 1936, the rules changed and they started taking the ball out of bounds after a made free throw, which eventually led to taking the ball out of bounds after every made shot, eliminating the center jump (which used to be held after each made field goal). Of course, there were a lot of people who argued that the human body was not capable of running non-stop that way; that is what the medical profession and even the coaches thought, until they tried it and they found out that the human body was much more capable than they thought.

I mentioned in the book that Frank Keaney of the University of Rhode Island—or Rhode Island State College as it was called at the time—had a former Passaic student—Bill Mokray—as the manager of the team. Sure enough, Frank Keaney started doing a lot of the things that Prof was doing: pressing full court and putting the ball up rapidly. They were famous for the two points a minute teams that scored more points than any team in the country because they were shooting so much. I thought that it was a real coincidence that they were doing this and they had a former Passaic High School student who had seen all of Prof’s games and who I think probably influenced Keaney to do that full court style of basketball where more points are being scored, that wide open style; that was uncharacteristic of East Coast basketball, especially the St. John’s Wonder Five that they had in the early 1930s. Prof Blood’s idea was passing the ball quickly until you got an open shot and then pressing on defense."

Friedman: "So the idea is that you put a lot of pressure on the opposing team by how quickly you are shooting and how many shots you get up and then when you don’t have the ball you are primarily trapping and being aggressive and trying to get the ball back to put up more shots."

Hess: "You are making conditioning an aspect of the game. If you are in better condition than your opponent, take advantage of it. Make them build up an oxygen debt. Make them hurry. If they have to hurry, they won’t be as efficient; if they’re tired, they won’t be as efficient. So, get them playing at a different pace than they’re used to. Coaches do this today but of course many of the teams are in superior condition—except for the high schools. I’m seeing some of the high schools out here—Hawaii is not known for basketball. I’m reading in the paper right now that coaches are talking about how the football players are coming out for basketball and they’re not in shape yet. At St. Anthony’s, where Bobby Hurley is coaching, the kids are in shape in October. They’re always in shape and they’re always ready to play. Here it’s a little different and conditioning can be a factor in winning games."

Friedman: "If you have that approach, then you are going to make sure that your players are conditioned to do it and, like you said, if the other teams are not training that way then your conditioning becomes an advantage and the other team will not only be physically fatigued but they will also become mentally fatigued and make mistakes. That is where, in the totality, I see a comparison between Prof Blood and Westhead and D’Antoni and Karl—all three of those guys are known for coaching teams that play at a fast tempo. They are not necessarily known for having teams that play great defense, although Karl had a good defensive team in Seattle but in Denver that is something that has been questioned a little bit. All three of them are known for coaching teams that get up a lot of shots, are well conditioned, try to outrun opposing teams and, as you said, make conditioning a real advantage for their teams and a disadvantage for opposing teams."

Hess: "I think that what you are seeing and what you are saying is that the game has evolved and you mentioned some of the great coaches that we have today and what they do. There is a similarity to what Prof Blood was doing 70, 80 years ago. This is a fact. Before those coaches came along, there were other coaches—like Clair Bee and Nat Holman: those guys were the pioneers and that’s what Prof Blood was. He was a pioneer who started doing different things that caught on. Clair Bee and others came to watch his (Prof Blood’s) teams play—college coaches came around to see his teams play. During an after banquet speech, Clair Bee mentioned Prof Blood. The same thing with Nat Holman, who referred to Prof Blood being the best coach of his era, for sure. They learned from him and then it branches out. We all have our mentors. Naismith wasn’t a basketball guy. He only played the game twice. He invented the game, but basically that was it. Other people took it and refined it. It’s almost like there’s nothing new. This dribble-drive motion offense is really nothing new. Other people have become famous because of the stage that they were on but they learned what they did from someone else."

Friedman: "Coach Westhead told me that he did not invent a lot of the principles that he used in his offense. He borrowed a lot of things from Sonny Allen, who coached at Old Dominion. Like you said, there is a whole tradition or legacy that gets passed on from one generation to the next. Calipari borrowed the dribble-drive motion offense from some other coach (Vance Walberg, a high school and community college coach in California) and I’m sure that coach got it from somewhere else and so on down the line.

You’ve addressed this a little bit in terms of talking about the feeder system but I noticed that Prof Blood’s teams won a lot of blowouts. How much of the dominance of those teams—not just how many games in a row that they won but the large victory margins—was a result of his coaching strategies and techniques and how much simply had to do his teams having more talent than the opposing teams did? How would you assess that?"

Hess: "There is no doubt that he had more talent than most of the teams that he played against but Prof understood what it took to win games. He would shake the bushes, look through the school and get the kids with athletic ability to come out for the team. I remember that when I was in college, one professor said to me, 'If you want to be a winner as a coach, find the natural athletes.' I remember feeling a little indignant about that, because I am only an average athlete and I know that I was probably an overachiever (as a player) with the ability that I was given. I was thinking that I would work with kids like myself and teach them how to play—instill a love of the game so they can play and get better, become good shooters and know how to score. Prof understood this and he would look for kids who had athletic ability. Of course, he motivated them and they played. Not only that, he knew that you needed to control the center tap (because at that time there was a jump ball after every made basket), so he always looked for tall kids. He would go into the elementary schools and start identifying who the tall kids were and making sure that he exposed them to the game so that they would become smitten with the love of the game and want to play. He was very successful in doing that and always having some big kids and that was a decided advantage, getting the center tap.

As you know, by the rules at that time he could not coach the kids from the bench during the game; you had to wait until timeouts and halftime to talk to them. From everything I’ve researched, I visualize him as a complete package. He understood the psychology of the game and how athletes think. He understood the game of basketball and he could see things that were going on out on the court and make adjustments; during more than a handful of games during the streak, he had to do that. As you know, he often put his second and third teams in and they were also coached to be able to do different things. Obviously, if you are in a lot of close games then you will lose some of them. The ball will not bounce your way every time and you will inevitably lose a game. People are going to catch up to you. I tried to theorize what would have happened if he had stayed there. Well, eventually he would have lost and losses would have come more often but he had something going on there that I think that he could have won 99% of the next 150 games if he had been able to be there that much longer. He would have continued to win with maybe an occasional loss and it would have taken another 10-15 years for the rest of the world to start to catch up with him if someone cared to try to build a (comparable) program somewhere else. I thought that he was a complete package."

Part III of my interview with Dr. Hess will look more closely at his coaching career, including the time that he spent mentoring future first round draft pick Sam Bowie.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 AM

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