David Halberstam book The Breaks of the Game

David Halberstam’s book The Breaks of the Game is the main topic for conversation on this New Year’s Day 2023 edition of the Torg Stories podcast. I also bring some of my writer and teacher self to workshopping this show’s content in the second half of the episode.

Scroll down for the audio podcast and for a list of “Golden Lines” from the book Anne and I used for our discussion.

Click above to listen to the podcast.

Click here to link to the book on Amazon.

Some background notes on Halberstam’s book The Breaks of the Game:

  • Published in 1981 and tells the story of the 79-80 Trailblazers team. 
  • Author David Halberstam won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1964.
  • Halberstam died in 2007 age 73 and was killed in car crash. 
  • I also read Playing for Keeps, Halberstam’s book about Michael Jordan.

Golden Lines from the book:

  • “When you are discussing a successful coach,” sports psychologist Bruce Ogilvie once said, not of Ramsay but of the entire profession, “you are not necessarily drawing the profile of an entirely healthy person.”
  • Most damaging to the intensity of the game was the arrival of the no-cut contract. Given no-cut contracts, too many games, and a schedule designed to exhaust even the most physically fit young men in America, many players responded by functioning on automatic pilot, coming alive only in the playoff games.
  • In addition to just doing whatever it takes to win, I believe that I ought to coach a version of the game I enjoy watching. This line about Coach Ramsay reminds me of that: “Ramsay, for all his toughness and his obsession with winning, that believed there was poetry in the game, that it was connected to ballet, and that there was beauty and truth in it, the right movement of the right body flashing by another body to score.”
  • Whether you are coaching at a middle school, for a DII college team or in the pros, each level of competition comes with a variety of challenges: “The real question is why anyone would want to be a coach in this league. You’re always on the road, the pressure to win is terrible, the players are not conditioned by salaries to listen, and there’s simply no time to teach the kids in practice.”
  • At Watauga HS in the girls basketball program, we use visualization. Here was a description of Walton’s pregame routine: “He played his own music, from the Grateful Dead, a rock band of which he was virtually a member, and the music helped, it flowed through him and he thought about the tempo he wanted to set and how he could move. He would sit in his home or his hotel room in those hours and actually see the game and feel the movement of it. Sometimes he did it with such accuracy that a few hours later when he was on the court and the same players made the same moves, it was easy for him because he had already seen it all, had made that move or blocked that shot.”
  • “For suddenly the team went into a slump. A few defeats became, as they can in basketball, a psychological state.”
  • In the classes I teach at App State, we talk about the tension that can come with assimilating to a new group. This about Kermit Washington: “When he went home to his old neighborhood during the summer his friends teased him. ‘Kermit, what’s happened to you? You beginning to talk like a white person now, man.’ He knew he was changing, he did not think it was a bad thing to change, to want to be better. It was also important for Pat to like him. He was sure she would not like someone who could not write a sentence or make a paragraph.”
  • I grew up in Indiana rooting for Coach Bob Knight’s Hoosier teams and later trying to run a version of their motion offense. This sentence is about Coach Knight: “He once suggested to the NCAA that schools only be allowed in effect to give out only as many basketball scholarships as the number of seniors who had graduated from its program and received their degrees the previous year.”
  • The following quote is about nicknames, and it got me thinking about nicknames I’ve heard and liked. In this sentence, Earl Monroe shows up at the playground for a game: “He was wearing the most ragged shorts imaginable, terrible ratty sneakers and an absolutely beautiful Panama hat. That, Luke knew immediately, was true style, the hat and the shorts and the Rolls. The crowd had begun to shout Magic, Magic, Magic (his playground nickname, different from his white media nickname which, given the nature of sportswriters who like things to rhyme, was the Pearl). 
  • What nicknames came to mind right away for me: Sweetness, The Splendid Splinter, Chocolate Thunder, Big Smooth. The Snake, Magic, Babe, Dr. J., The Iceman and The Bus. 
  • I didn’t know this word!!!! Obstreperous meaning noisy and difficult to control. 
  • The writer describes UCLA: “For UCLA was a beautiful school, one of the loveliest in the country; its faculty and intellectual climate, as America’s power and affluence steadily moved westward, had been continually on the rise.”
  • THE LEAGUE’S PROBLEMS were not limited to its television ratings. Live attendance was bad too. It had averaged around 11,000 a game the year before and now it was down nearly 10 percent, to about 10,000. Only 6 of 22 teams showed an increase in attendance and 7 of the teams had a decline of more than 2,000 spectators a game.
  • Would have been an incredible time to buy in: “To no one’s particular surprise, he sold the San Diego Clippers to Donald Sterling, a Los Angeles realtor-lawyer, for $13.5 million, a figure far far greater than the amount he had spent to buy in. (IRV LEVIN BOUGHT BEFORE: COMPLICATED STORY BOUGHT CELTICS FOR 3.5 MILLION) 
  • The lines where the book gets its title: “In the end the club waived him but agreed to pay him for roughly a quarter of the season. It also agreed to help him in his claim against the insurance company for his disability pay. Thus did Larry Steele’s active career with the Portland Trail Blazers end. He tried not to be bitter about it. It was, he said, just one of the breaks of the game. Friends in business told him that this sort of thing happened all the time in the corporate world, especially when men reached higher career levels where salaries were greater.”

Some other background or related information I collected:

  • Billy Ray Bates is mentioned as a player who joins the team and gets off to a good start. From Wikipedia: “On January 17, 1998, Bates robbed a New Jersey Texaco station at knifepoint, slashing the ear of attendant Philip Kittel. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. Bates hit bottom when he robbed the gasoline station. At the time, he was living with his wife and stepdaughter while holding two manual-labor jobs in eastern New Jersey.”
  • Click here to read the Suns sale for 4 billion dollars.

Jack Ramsay :

  • Died in 2014 at age 89. 
  • Doc of education from Penn. 
  • 1977 Ramsey won the title with Blazers. 
  • 15 nba finals for nba radio

Bill Walton:

  • He’s 70. 
  • I know him first as an 86 Celtic and then as a broadcaster now. 
  • 88 game winning streak at UCLA 
  • 4 sons with first wife, including Luke who was named after Maurice Lucas. All sons played college basketball.

Thanks for checking out this page and the podcast!

Mars Hill University Coach Emry Tsitouris

Today’s guest on the Torg Stories Podcast is the new head coach at Mars Hill University, Coach Emry Tsitouris. Mars Hill is located just north of Asheville, North Carolina and competes at the Division II level as a member of the South Atlantic Conference. Coach Tsitouris was hired in the spring of 2022 and was previously an assistant coach at Catawba College. Tsitouris played college basketball at both USC Aiken and Belmont Abbey.

Audio File Above of Conversation with Coach Emry Tsitouris

You can also access this episode through the podcast app of an iPhone. Just search for Torg Stories.

YouTube video edition of the episode:

Here are some topics covered in the episode:

  • The story of Coach hearing about, applying for, and eventually accepting the position as head coach at Mars Hill.
  • Some of the first things she did on the job.
  • So, where is Mars Hill? What’s it like there?
  • How has the roster changed since you took the job?
  • What are you looking for when it comes to a Mars Hill player?
  • What was with the combine portion of your elite camp?
  • How would you describe your preferred style of play?
Coach Tsitouris is center in her long sleeve “Mars Hill Lions” shirt

You can reach Coach Tsitouris on Twitter @Emry_T.

Connect with me on Twitter @BillTorg.

Thanks for checking out this episode of the Torg Stories Podcast!

Leadership Secrets of Alabama Coach Nick Saban

I’ve just finished reading John Talty’s book, The Leadership Secrets of Nick Saban: How Alabama’s Coach Became the Greatest Ever. When I finish a book, I’m in the habit of typing up what I’d call golden lines. What follows below are some of the lines from the book that resonated with me.

I came to reading this book after starting on a path years ago of trying to learn everything I could about New England Patriot Coach Bill Belichick. Some of my reading and viewing stops have included reading Benedict’s The Dynasty, Demasio’s Parcells: A Football Life, O’Connor’s Belichick, Wickersham’s It’s Better to be Feared, Lombardi’s Gridiron Genius, and watching the documentary films Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching and ESPN’s The Two Bills. I enjoyed each of the books and films in that list.

Here are some of the lines I picked out from the book:

  • “Your toughness is a direct reflection of your conditioning.”
  • “It’s difficult to overstate just how important that first year is to establish a culture after taking over an organization.”
  • From Villanova’s Jay Wright on the importance of team building: “We were getting good players, but I don’t think I did a good job of structuring our roster.”
  • On when to start working with players on their leadership skills: “Saban worked to develop players like Julio Jones and Mark Barron into leaders the moment they arrived on campus. He believes you can’t wait until a player is a junior or senior to start preparing him to be a leader.”
  • I always enjoy reading about how coaches work together: “The daily meetings Kiffin was required to attend at 7:30 am frustrated him, as did the regimented approach Saban preferred. Kiffin was more of a freethinker, an artist whose work was beautiful play calls. Ken Smithmier, the president of P3 insights, identified Kiffin as a people (intrinsic) dominant person while Saban was a vision (systemic) dominant person…Kiffin fell under the fast domain and preferred intuitive, fast decision-making while Saban as a slow thinker wanted a more deliberate approach.”
  • Try to erase negative self talk: “In basic terms, negative self-talk could be self-defeating and had a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
  • It’s easier to get a commitment from the players and staff if the head coach is all in: “He’s never taken a day off, never missed a second of a meeting, never missed a second of practice. -Keaton Anderson on Saban.”
  • “Saban would guide ‘what if’ meetings in the lead-up to games where his staff could throw out scenarios that could pop up and then debate what they should do.”
  • What players should play in the game? “Saban is very open about the fact that he’d play a well-prepared yet less talented player than a talented player who hasn’t put in the work to learn the playbook.”
  • “You never want to waste a failing.” And it’s companion phrase: “So what? Now what?” We failed; now what are we going to do about it? What’s the plan?
  • Parcells on truth telling: “You have to tell them the truth about their performance, you have to tell it to them face-to-face, and you have to tell it to them over and over again.”
  • “You can’t just do a one-off message; it has to be reinforced.”
  • “He lays out very clear job responsibilities and expectations for everyone in the organization, a skill he traces back to his time working for Belichick in Cleveland.”
  • Bears coach Matt Eberflus on Saban: “I’ve learned to define roles for everybody. This is what Coach Saban did for coaches. For each individual player on a given play, (they know) what their role is. Not only in terms of execution, but what it takes mentally and physically how we’re going to play the game.

After finishing up this book, I’ve downloaded a sample onto my Kindle of Phil Savage and Ray Glier’s 4th and Goal Everyday: Alabama’s Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.

Shot Talk: A Conversation About Shooting the Basketball

  1. This isn’t a “how to shoot” or a “how to teach shooting” video. I’m trying to answer this question: when I watch these shooters, what do I notice?
  2. What shooters did I watch? Steph Curry, Sue Bird, James Harden, Klay Thompson, Kyle Korver, and JJ Redick.
  3. Who are some of my influences when it comes to teaching shooting? Indiana HS Coach Sam Alford, his son Steve’s workout videos, Dick Baumgartner, Dave Love and Drew Hanlon.
  4. When I have questions about shooting–for example, where should the guide hand be placed?–I try to watch video of great shooters and look for the answers.
  5. I think of this video and post as a sort of video remix about shooting. Yes, I am using short screen grabs from other people’s YouTube posts the way I might use a quote from a writer’s article writing my own research paper. As a kind of Works Cited, I will link you to each video I screen grab for this project. I hope you will check out some of those YouTube channels and that my linking to them sparks some great conversation / content about shooting.
  6. A belief I have about shooting: good shooters don’t shoot the same way. There are multiple ways to be a good shooter. By the way, I believe the same thing about writing.
  7. For this video analysis, I looked for mostly catch and shoot situations. Great shooters don’t shoot the ball the same way every time. Sometimes the situation–off the dribble or sprinting off a screen–demand the shooter do something different when it comes to footwork, balance, or the path the ball takes from catch to release.

Here’s the screen capture from my study of Steph Curry, Sue Bird, James Harden, Klay Thompson, Kyle Korver, and JJ Redick.

image of Steph Shooting from SC30.com

After watching the shooters in the above video, what did you see worth bringing to this discussion?

Here are some of my thoughts after watching those shooters:

  1. A consistent shooting motion can overcome minor mechanical flaws related to some idea of an ideal shot. I need to chill out about some more minor things I see with the players I work with.
  2. Left / right footwork for a right handed shooter is a good starting place. Step toward the ball on the pass with the left foot and put the right foot down on the catch.
  3. The pocket is where the ball is taken on the catch. Teach the pocket as a ball width away from the stomach and slightly toward the side of the body of the shooting hand. I first heard the pocket described that way by Dave Love.
  4. Rather than keep the ball close to the body as it travels from the pocket to the release, the ball travels away from the body to the set point in what looks like a half circle. The upper arms, forearms, and hands can move together as one to the set point. See examples in video above.
  5. I teach what I call rhythm shooting. This rhythm includes taking the ball down to the pocket as needed, (if the ball wasn’t caught there) flexing the legs, and then the ball starts to rise toward the set point just ahead of the legs starting to push and extend. The timing of that process, which is one fluid motion with no stops, is what I mean by rhythm. The word tempo also comes to mind.
  6. I prefer the shooter and the ball go up and toward the basket. Many players have something (hand, jump, footprint) that goes somewhere not toward the hoops. A very common flaw is for a player to drift a lot if they are catching on the move. Some twist of the body is fine and this can become more pronounced depending on what kind of shot is being taken. Of course as players’ skill evolves, they will make use of fade aways, step backs, and drifting in a direction to get away from the defense.

When I finished this project, I wondered where the players I work with look when they shoot. I think they can watch the flight of the ball, the front of the rim, or the back of the rim, but I realized I had not talked much about that to the players I work with.

I do have a routine I use when I start working with a player on their shot. Perhaps that is a future post.

Here is a list of the videos I used in making the video on this page. Again, I am thinking of these videos in my video as quotes I would use in writing a research paper.

Image of Steph Curry on right from SC30.com

I’d love to hear from you in the comments section or on Twitter about what you noticed when you watched these shooters shoot.

My Daughters Charlotte and Izzy: A Basketball Journal Entry

Charlotte on the left and Izzy on the right. I’m holding my Father’s Day presents: Bird on the Left and KD on the right.

Many of you know the cycle: fall workouts on the court and in the weight room, the school season, and the travel season that follows in March, April and May. June is for high school team stuff and July is back to the travel circuit heading to places such as Louisville, DC, and Indianapolis. Since the basketball never stops, it’s tricky to find moments for reflection, goal setting, and starting a basketball journal such as the one I’m hoping for here. With the school year beginning, it seems as good a time as any to start the project. Up first: where (or is it who) are we now? 

I am an assistant coach for the girls basketball team at Watauga High School in Boone, North Carolina, and I teach completely online writing classes as a lecturer at Appalachian State University. Teaching online means that I have a lot of flexibility about when I do the job and so am free for morning workouts and practices after school. I find I have way more time to prepare to coach than I ever did when I was teaching at a middle or high school.

I have two daughters. The oldest, Charlotte, is a high school sophomore. Eighteen months ago, as her last middle school season came to a close and the CDC was confirming the first case of Covid-19 in the United States, Charlotte set the goal of making the varsity team for her freshman season. We had a few weeks of travel basketball but then the season was cancelled. We couldn’t get into a gym, and so I hung a goal in our garage that could only be nine feet high because of the height of the ceiling.

Izzy posing with the Watauga graphic she made under our garage hoop. This is where our pandemic training began.

The girls and I worked on ball handling, agility, finishing, and post moves. Like a lot of other people, I invested in more weight equipment and as the weather warmed up, Charlotte, her sister Izzy, and I logged what now seems like an incredible four months of six days a week of outdoor workouts in our backyard and at Junaluska Park in Boone. We got up early to avoid the heat and tried to get our workouts in before the sun rose above the trees. A surprising number of people passed through the park each day, and we made many new acquaintances. Charlotte did reach her goal of making the varsity, and she started all twelve of our games during the pandemic-shortened season. I’m proud of what she accomplished.

Charlotte as a freshman playing for Watauga High School in Boone, NC

My youngest daughter Izzy is an eighth grader, and up until this past summer, I felt like she might just be along for the ride when it comes to basketball. When Charlotte and I had plans to workout, we’d always ask Izzy and she’d agree to go with varying amounts of enthusiasm. Although I tell her she’s always free to decline the offer, I’m not sure how free she could really feel to stay home. Charlotte would probably be the first to tell you that Izzy can pick up a ball handling move faster than she can and is more of a natural shooter, but over the years, I have just been unsure of how badly Izzy wants to work to improve.

Last season, for the first time in Izzy’s life, she was on a team where she didn’t play very much. It was the first time that our school system took the eight K-8 schools that feed into the high school and made a district wide middle school basketball team. The competition to make the team was tougher, and while Izzy did accomplish that, she rarely played in the games. Izzy didn’t say anything to me about not playing. When she’d hop in the car after a practice, she was always happy and chattering about things her teammates had done or funny things her coach had said. Izzy liked her teammates, her coach, and took pride about her team’s undefeated season.  

Izzy and Charlotte in Lentz-Eggers Gym at Watauga HS

What I did notice about Izzy in the weeks and months that followed her season was that Izzy started to go out and work in the backyard on her own. When Charlotte and I were gone for high school workouts, Izzy would join my wife Megan for Peloton workouts at the house. A player really can’t just decide one day to start working very hard on their game. A player has to also decide to get in shape. Working hard on your game takes a lot of cardiovascular fitness. Izzy became a more enthusiastic runner of the big hill outside of our house, and I no longer have to prod her to keep running all the way around the mile loop we run at Valle Crucis Park by our house. For most of Izzy’s life playing basketball, she could get by because she could handle the ball with both hands, shoot layups with both hands, and consistently make wide open shots. Like most basketball players, and probably all athletes and maybe anyone who pursues a goal in or out of sports, Izzy came to a point when what she was doing to prepare to play in games was no longer good enough for her to succeed on the floor. It’s one of the great things about playing sports. A challenge rises up; we have to work to meet it or give up. So far, it’s been a pleasure for me to watch Izzy respond to the challenge.

Not too long ago, Izzy hit a rough spot of missing a bunch of shots while doing a transition / run-the-sideline drill. “Keeping working,” she told herself. I jumped on her comment and told her it was one of the best things I’d ever heard her say in a workout. Charlotte and I have also latched onto the phrase and it’s become a simple mantra for the three of us. Keep working. Rough spots are coming on and off the court because that’s part of what it is to be human and that includes playing playing basketball: there are missed shots, turnovers, bad losses, and days that we struggle to bring energy to our work. We often don’t get the results we want as quickly as we expect. Izzy, Charlotte, and I will ride those up and downs together and, like Izzy says, we’ll keep working.