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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Backspin Chronicles Pete Strobl's Basketball Odyssey

"They say that you should never stop learning if you want to keep a youthful outlook. They also say that the best way to really master something you love is to teach it to someone else. So, I'm going to go find a gym and teach somebody how to play basketball."--Pete Strobl

Pete Strobl's autobiography Backspin tells the story of his evolution from a Niagara University freshman who received little playing time to a successful pro basketball player in Europe to a highly respected basketball skills development coach. Hubie Brown (the Basketball Hall of Famer equally known for his great coaching career and his great skills as a TV commentator) and Calvin Murphy (who averaged 33.1 ppg during his college career before becoming an NBA All-Star and a Basketball Hall of Famer) are two of Niagara's most famous alumni. Brown came back to Niagara to give a clinic when Strobl was a freshman and Strobl's description of his failed attempt to impress Brown is priceless.

A key moment in Strobl's career happened in his first year at Niagara when he was very disappointed about riding the bench. Assistant coach Tom Parrotta listened to Strobl's complaints and provided a blunt response that sharpened Strobl's focus. Strobl writes (p. 25), "He didn't try to sell me anything; he didn't give me some threadbare speech from a coaching manual on how to deal with immature players who think that they should play more because they were high school studs. He simply listened. He listened to something he's probably heard a hundred times, possibly even from his own mouth when he was a struggling young player hungry for minutes of his own. He hit me right between the eyes with some truth. 'Prove it!' he said. And by not trying to alleviate my pain, he helped to fuel my fire."

Strobl's roommate during his first two years at Niagara was Alvin Young, also known as "Al-Boogie"; Young led the nation in scoring (25.1 ppg) as a senior in 1998-99. Young earned a basketball scholarship to Niagara despite not playing one minute of organized high school basketball. He honed his game on the playgrounds and learned how to get his shot off against any defender. Strobl recalls (p. 31), "The most valuable thing I learned from watching Al was that offensive moves are all about execution and repetition. Time after time, I watched him make the same move, make the same ball fake, hesitate for just exactly the same split-second, and many times against the very same defender. Time after time the result would be the same. He could tell a defensive player exactly what he was going to do and still execute the move flawlessly to get his shot off every time."

Strobl earned his bachelor's degree in just three years and completed his MBA by taking two summer semesters after his senior season. Strobl then began his professional playing career in France, where he initially experienced tremendous culture shock; he quickly adapted to the different language and different way of life and now he looks back with fondness on the time he spent in France. Strobl performed well enough to earn the opportunity to play in high level leagues in Austria and Germany, enabling him to explore his family's roots--and expand his game: Strobl was a late bloomer as a player but in Austria he began to display his full skill set, culminating in a playoff game when he scored 56 points while making 10 of his 15 three point field goal attempts.

While he was in Austria, Strobl began his coaching career by working with his club's Under 12 team. Strobl played a cerebral brand of basketball and he applied that same approach to his life--planning his next move much like "Al-Boogie" set up his next shot--because he realized that a playing career lasts a relatively short amount of time while a coaching career can last for decades.

Strobl subsequently played for teams in Iceland, Ireland and Switzerland, where his playing career came to an abrupt and unexpected end; after the birth of Strobl's second child, Stobl's team declined to provide adequate health insurance for Strobl's family or to release him from his contract so that he could play for a more accommodating club. For his entire life, Strobl had defined himself primarily as a basketball player but now he shifted his focus and made the decision to return to the United States. The lessons Strobl learned during his college career and his European odyssey prepared him for the next phase in his life. In 2009, he founded The Scoring Factory, a Pittsburgh-based basketball skills development academy that trains high school athletes, NBA-bound athletes and athletes who plan to play professionally in Europe.

Recognizing connections between seemingly disparate pursuits is an important aspect of coaching, because this enables a coach to teach by using analogies that can vividly resonate with his students in a way that straight, rote instruction may not. Strobl's father worked as a professional musician and Strobl explains some qualities that are shared by basketball and music (pp. 196-197): "Both require a lot of discipline and have structure and rules. A group of musicians has to play in the same key and time signature, just as a basketball team has to run some kind of offensive set and know what the defensive strategy is. There are role players or accompanists in both music and basketball. But for the great soloist, both music and basketball have plenty of opportunity for creative improvisation. Role players sometimes go unnoticed, but are often the difference between a hit record or not."

Backspin is an entertaining and informative book, full of insights not just about basketball but also about coaching/teaching, the benefits of stepping outside of one's comfort zone and the importance of learning from every life experience.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:36 PM

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