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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Revisiting Bobby Knight's 1998 Plan to Reform College Basketball

Bobby Knight is unquestionably a bully but, as could be seen during ESPN's documentary "Basketball: A Love Story," he also has a keen understanding of basketball. In the premiere issue of ESPN: The Magazine, cover dated March 23, 1998, he teamed up with Dick Schaap for an article titled "What I Hate About the Game I Love."

In the past 21 years, many things have changed. Knight, unable or unwilling to control his darker impulses, was fired by Indiana University in 2000. In 2001, he was hired by Texas Tech and he coached there for just over six seasons, setting the all-time NCAA record for career wins by a coach (902, a number later surpassed by Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim) before retiring abruptly just before the end of the 2007-08 season so that his son Pat could take over (Pat went 50-61 before being fired).

Schaap passed away in 2001 after suffering complications from what was supposed to be a routine hip replacement surgery. Prior to that, his son Jeremy interviewed Knight after Knight had been fired by Indiana. Knight, unwilling to answer Schaap's perfectly reasonable questions, barked at Schaap that he had a long way to go to be as good as his father and then stormed out of the interview. Dick Schaap later fired back at Knight that Knight would have been "outraged if someone had used him similarly to criticize his son Patrick, his assistant coach."

Jeremy Schaap later said that the first time he saw Knight after the elder Schaap's passing Knight walked by him without looking him in the eye and without offering condolences. Dick Schaap had considered Knight a friend and had always covered him fairly--but without excusing Knight's excesses--and it is low class for Knight to not acknowledge Jeremy Schaap's loss of his father.

With that background out of the way, let's turn our attention to that 1998 article. How well does it stand up more than two decades later? After a preamble explaining his coaching philosophy--focused on "kids going to class, kids graduating, kids coming to Indiana who don't get a thing other than their scholarship" and winning not based on physical talent but rather "mental toughness--and intelligence"--Knight offered 10 bullet points:

1) "Get rid of the Basketball Bennies who run summer teams, who don't know anything about the game, who don't understand roles and teamwork, who let the kids play any way they want and develop all the bad habits."

Knight was right on target about this one. Both the college game and the professional game would be better off if this suggestion were followed.

2) "Get the sneaker companies out of the recruiting business."

Knight was right on target about this one as well, but it did not happen and much negativity has ensued, including the adidas college basketball recruiting scandal that has resulted in three guilty verdicts in federal court.

3) "Let everybody know that the scouting systems that rate high school players are a joke."

Knight recalled that a few years earlier he had invented a 6-9 Croatian player named Ivan Renko, mentioned him on a TV show and within a short time the "scouting services were saying they'd seen Renko play, and he was a good scorer, or a good rebounder, but a little slow, and they were explaining how he'd fit in to certain offense. They were charlatans then, and they haven't changed."

Knight was right about the scouting systems and you can add to that list the "stat gurus" who think that they can crunch certain numbers and come up with definitive evaluations of individual players; that may work to some extent in baseball and it may work to a lesser, more limited extent on the team level in basketball, but it does not work at the individual level in basketball--but purveying the fiction that it does has been quite lucrative for several "stat gurus."

4) "Eliminate, or drastically limit, the off-season all-star games."

This recommendation is similar to the first one, and is also on target.

5) "Persuade parent to be parents, not surrogate coaches or agents."

Hello, LaVar Ball.

6) "Make certain that referees work realistic schedules."

Knight felt that referees were given travel schedules that contributed to fatigue (and, presumably, to sub-optimal officiating).

7) "Eliminate late-night weekday games."

Knight declared, "Television has made far too great an incursion into college sports. It's like the god that makes all the rules." He was right, and things have only gotten worse.

8) "Eject a player when he commits six fouls, instead of five."

Knight felt that because players are bigger and stronger than they used to be there is more contact and the disqualification rule--unchanged for more than 40 years at the time the article was published--should be altered.

9) "Widen the lane, or perhaps make it trapezoidal, like it is in the international game. That encourages more cutting, more passing."

I am not sure how I feel about this one but I am sure that Knight would share my belief that the isolation heavy game of today is not an improvement over the way that the game used to be played.

10) "These will never happen, but I'd sure love it if they did: Get rid of the three point shot and the shot clock. Nobody agrees with me on this, but the three-point shot and the shot clock hurt a coach like me, a guy who wants control over the game, who, when he gets the lead, says, 'Now you gotta get us, we're gonna spread the offense, we're gonna pass and catch.' I always thought passing and catching were fundamentals of the game, and we would use them in place of scoring. It used to be if a coach like me or Dean Smith was ahead with five or six minutes to go, we hardly ever lost. Not any more."

Knight added, "I don't think any coach who really works at coaching is as effective as he was before the shot clock and the three point shot came in. Those two rules enabled guys who just aren't good coaches to get a couple of players who could shoot threes and one who can penetrate and right away make their teams competitive."

I agree with some of Knight's analysis but I disagree with his suggested rules changes. He is right that the shot clock and the three point shot have taken some control away from the coaches and have made it easier for average coaches to build winning teams, but the problem with not having a shot clock is that the last five or six minutes of the game devolve into boring spectacles of one team not trying to score at all while the other team has to foul. The aim of the game should always be to score and to have activity, not stalling. The shot clock is necessary.

As for the three point shot, it is near and dear to my heart. The addition of the three point line to high school and rec league ball in the mid to late 1980s made me a more valuable player, because my best individual skill was draining shots from long range. When defenders had to run at me, or guard me closely at all times, I was better able to drive or cut despite not having great foot speed. I used to argue with my teammates who kept shooting two pointers at less than 50% accuracy that my three point shooting (typically at 35% or 40% accuracy) was a deadlier weapon and that the idea of always pounding the ball inside was not efficient in the absence of a dominant post player (obviously, when I played with a dominant post player I was all in favor of playing inside-out). However, the three point revolution has gone overboard and is in need of a market correction. I disagree with Knight that the shot should be banned but I agree with him that it is overused.

Basketball cannot just be broken down like a mathematical equation. Midrange two point shooting and the post up game should not be completely abandoned, no matter what "stat gurus" say. As Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams recently put it when asked why he does not shoot three pointers, "You don't have to shoot bloody 3s. Points per possession--I get it. I get it. But it's not a machine. You can't just throw throw s--- in there and the product at the end should be, 'This, according to our calculation.' That's not how it works."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:27 AM



At Sunday, January 20, 2019 4:00:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A curious thing about mid-range shots is how many of them the Warriors are taking. It is an impression one gets when watching them, so I just checked the actual numbers, and it is confirmed by them -- only the Spurs are taking more mid-range shots both in the the 10-14 and 15-19 ft categories than the Warriors.

It was somewhat lower last year but they were still towards the top of the list, it's just that everyone else has tried to eliminate the midrange shot since then (the Rockets have the insane stat of a grand total of 3 FGA per game from between 10 and 19 feet this season).

I know which team my money is on if the Warriors and Rockets meet in the playoffs....

At Sunday, January 20, 2019 4:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Many "stat gurus" treat basketball like the game is a series of discrete actions (a shot is missed, then a rebound is grabbed, then a pass is made) but in reality every action is comprised of multiple simultaneous (or almost simultaneous) actions: a screen is set, a player cuts, a shot is taken, some players box out but some players do not box out, etc. This is not baseball, which is a station to station game (though even in baseball there can be simultaneous actions in terms of how the defense is positioned/shifted, what the base runner(s) do or don't do, etc.).

So, while a three point shot obviously is potentially worth more than a two point shot that does not mean that a team should never shoot two pointers. This is just an extension of the same flawed reasoning that was employed about a decade ago to suggest that Kobe Bryant should shoot less often and Andrew Bynum should shoot more often because Bynum had a higher FG%; of course, that "analysis" failed to take into account why Bynum's FG% was higher (a big reason was the defensive attention drawn by Bryant) and the fact that due to conditioning and other reasons the likelihood was that more FGAs for Bynum would have resulted in a lower individual FG% and a less efficient offense overall.

It will be so amusing to watch the playoff game in which the Rockets miss 15 or 20 straight threes and we are breathlessly told that the Rockets lost despite having good shot selection/taking shots that they "normally make." This variance is predictable and we see it every year in the playoffs. We will also see "tired" Harden, as if Harden is not resting for half of the game on defense. The "stat" that I would like to see is how many times Harden shoots from 30 feet away and yet is the last player to get back on defense.

At Tuesday, January 22, 2019 4:19:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something else I just realized -- Morey has been the Rockets' GM for 11 full seasons now, this will be his 12th.

If stat-guruism guaranteed winning, one would have expected to see it by now...

At Tuesday, January 22, 2019 9:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I have pointed out that Morey seems to have lifetime tenure, unlike any other GM, despite not building even one Finals team.

As Mike Lupica used to say on the “Sports Reporters” about other self-proclaimed experts, “It’s time for the guru to start ‘guruing.’"

At Thursday, January 24, 2019 3:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I know this is sort of a non sequitur, but the real solution to improving semi-pro basketball at the level in between high school and the NBA is for the NBA to create a minor league system much like the NHL's and MLB's farm systems. The NCAA exploits semi-pro level athletes under the hypocritical guise of providing them with "scholarships". The NCAA's concept of the "student-athlete" is a scam. Nor is it coincidental that the NHL and MLB are both overwhelmingly white whereas the NBA and the NFL are both mostly Black. Recently, Scottie Pippen suggested that Zion Williamson should leave Duke's basketball team now so as to protect himself from catastrophic injury, which would lose him tens of millions of dollars. Pippen's point is well taken, but the real issue is that Williamson is playing for a Duke scholarship, which amounts to an "honorarium" for his semi-pro level services which are surely worth millions of dollars as I type this. Williamson should have the viable option to be earning a living at the same level that his similarly talented 18-year-old baseball players and hockey players are earning a living. Yeah, the NBA and the NFL are "Blaxploitation" leagues re: NCAA basketball and football. The mostly white athletes in the NHL and MLB are not similarly exploited. I wonder what Bobby Knight's thoughts would be on that.

At Thursday, January 24, 2019 3:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The NBA has a minor league system: the G-League (formerly known as the D-League or the Developmental League).

I used to incline to the belief that a four year college scholarship provides significant value to student-athletes--particularly for those who otherwise likely would not have had the opportunity to go to college at all--but the problem now is that college sports has morphed into a multi-billion dollar business that provides huge profits to everyone--the schools, the coaches, the sponsors, etc.--except for the athletes themselves. Even if a scholarship is worth, say, $100,000, that is a relatively small amount considering the size of the business and the value provided by the athletes.

Big-time sports and higher education should be divorced but the problem is there is a huge economic incentive for the NCAA and the schools to not lose control of the goose that lays the golden eggs.

I am not sure how this can realistically be resolved, short of some kind of massive scandal that results in government intervention and a complete top to bottom overhaul.


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