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I am a father of two amazing boys.  I have served in ministry roles for almost 20 years before transitioning to the areas of education and sports media, though faith is still central to my life.  I maintain multiple blogs and hope to some day have more published work.  I am an avid reader and writer and a self proclaimed sports junkie. Add all of that up and you get the foundation of my business, Varnell Media Resources.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

It is free. You should take it.

As winter turns to spring, the best of the hardwood find our focus.  Though the NBA season may not end until summer, for most, the heartbeat of basketball is in March.  College teams are trying to win a bid to the NCAA tournament. Young men and women in schools from the rural plains to urban jungles seek to find their way into the memories of generations to come.  Almost every High School in America has a basketball team, and often in the small rural areas, it is the sport of choice for their campus.  With such broad appeal and the ability to play indoors during the cold of winter, the game should be developing and evolving as players hone their craft.

From most accounts, this is simply not the case.  Recently, even Kobe Bryant, who went from the High School gym to starting for the LosAngeles Lakers, bypassing the college game entirely, has gone on record about the lack of development of players.  He seemed to target AAU leagues, where students often do not play for their schools, but play in developmental leagues year round.  Though not the complete cause, I am certain that it contributes to the issue.  Players want to be able to dribble and juke like Kevin Durant, dunk like Blake Griffin, and shoot from the 30 foot mark like Steph Curry.  So they practice.  They practice a lot.  They practice juking, spin moves, behind the back reverse layups, and half court shots.  I have one student who has over 2 million views on his Vine app of him juking a kid to the ground, one on one.  He doesn't play high school basketball.

I am convinced that the loosening of the rule book in the NBA has led to a decline in the skill set of players at all levels.  Athletes want to be players, not teammates.  They are not as concerned about the overall impact as long as they get some cheers for their exploits.  It is not entirely their fault, either.  My generation created this monster.  Now we are tasked with taming it.

The biggest example of this gap in skill focus is from the 15 foot stripe when the defense is not active.  We call it the charity stripe for a reason.  It is free.  It should be a given point.  It was just over a generation ago that many fast breaks ended in a 15 foot jumper because the shot was so familiar it could be done with the eyes closed.  Now, athletes are making millions and shoot 30% from the free throw line.  How is that possible?  I will not even address other simple things like blocking out, rebounding, moving without the ball, and layups, all of which show diminished quality and usage in the modern game.

Put yourself in the sneakers for a moment.  You have put in hours this week running and jumping, shooting from 30 feet, and looking for that moment when you can awe the crowd.  Your team is down one, and you have a one and one free throw attempt.  What is going through your mind?  How many of these did you even attempt this week?  Better yet, how many did your coach ask you to shoot this week.  Athletes are scoring points in high flying fashion that this lead footed Sasquatch can only dream of, so why can they not get the free ones?  It is simple.  Discipline.  Free throws, boxing out, rebounding, it is all discipline.  It takes more than one disciplined player to make a disciplined team, but it is contagious.

It felt good last night to watch two very talented, high flying athletes focus on the discipline aspects of the game.  In fact, they lost the night before, shooting the worst percentage of their season from the field and from the line.  They lost in overtime, and were facing an elimination game.  They followed up with a cold shooting first half, but in the second, the discipline was the difference.  After they had a marginal lead, the opponent went into the hack defense to extend the game with half of the fourth quarter to play.  Extending the game is understandable, but the underlying factor was that the team was now playing with discipline.  They were passing, blocking out, rebounding, and melting the clock.  Fouling would be their only way for the opponent to climb back into the game.  Well, the discipline payed off, with one of the players hitting 17of 19 free throws and his teammate hitting all 10 of his.  That is 27 points from two players, with no defense in their face.

The opponent tried to force the ball to other players, but they couldn't.  The two rebounded the ball well, moved to get open, and once they had it, you had to foul them or they would melt the clock passing back and forth.  Fundamental basketball.  Dribble, pass, and move.  As the game drew out, the fouls got harder.  They didn't jump up and yell, curse an official, or roll around with their best impersonation of World Cup Soccer.  They got up, walked the court, and hit two free-throws to extend their lead.

As difficult as it is to say, Kobe is right.  Players are not focused on the right things.  If it is all about "your kid" then he is probably being robbed of potential.  Players need to learn the discipline that comes from playing on a team, wining and losing together, and more importantly, learning together.  Next time you see your kid shooting from 30 feet, go draw a line halfway between, and tell him he gets to shoot one from 30 after every 10 he makes at 15.

I made sure to stay around the locker room exit that night, not just to give some pats on the back, but to tell them you were 17 of 19 and 10 of 10.  I wanted them to know that their discipline was noticed and appreciated.  I also let the coach know, and asked if he could hang around another 10 years to coach both of my boys.

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