YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Investing Time, Technique Pays Off in a Big Way

December 18, 1985|GERALD SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

So, there's a big man on campus, but he doesn't seem to know a double dribble from a double play.

What's a high school basketball coach to do?

For one thing, stand by that big man, because there is always the possibility he will become a contributing player.

Basketball lore is full of stories about big men who started slowly but developed into good players by their senior seasons.

For another, take the advice of two area coaches who built reputations, in part, on their ability to get the most out of players other coaches long since had given up on.

Don Johnson, 54, is in his 18th year as coach of Cypress College. Pete Newell, 70, is a former general manager of the Lakers who had a brilliant coaching career at Michigan State, the University of San Francisco and California. He lives in Palos Verdes and is a scout with the Golden State Warriors.

Johnson and Newell agree that teaching an inexperienced big man to play the pivot position can be time consuming and trying for the coach, but that the rewards for such work can be tangible.

"The big player in almost every case requires more time and more attention to develop," Johnson said. "The other players seem to be able to get along a little more on their own. The big kid needs a tutor every day.

"It might be self-esteem--big kids sometimes lack that at an early age. You're helping them develop their confidence as much as the fundamentals."

To Johnson, using such players in a limited role is the best way to bring them along. To expect an uncoordinated or inexperienced big man to immediately play a major role within the team framework is unrealistic.

"When Mark Eaton played for us, we gave him a limited role--something he could succeed in," Johnson said. "To expect him to be a complete player at that point would've been a big mistake."

Eaton and Swen Nater were two big men with little experience who went on to UCLA and then the pros after being coached by Johnson at Cypress.

Under Johnson's system, both players played to their strengths in games, and worked on their weaknesses in practices. Nater was a good rebounder with a hook shoot. Eaton's forte was, and is, blocking shots.

"They were extraordinary people, given their lack of a basketball background," Johnson said. "They were years and years behind the others, but they had the drive and motivation they needed to become good players. They required individual attention, but that was to develop their skills and not for their egos."

"In Swen's case, I even recall a comment one of my colleagues made. He said, 'Forget Swen, he's a 6-11 waste. Use some of the 6-5 kids who can play.' The next year, Swen led the state (community colleges) in rebounding."

As far as teaching individual skills to the bigger, and usually slower, players, Newell stressed different training techniques than most basketball coaches.

Newell led USF to an NIT title in 1949 and Cal to the NCAA title in 1959. That Cal team beat an Oscar Robertson-led Cincinnati team in the NCAA semifinals and Jerry West-led West Virginia in the final.

Newell then coached the U.S. Olympic basketball team with West and Robertson, as well as Jerry Lucas, Terry Dischinger, Darrall Imhoff and Walt Bellamy, to the Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960.

Although that was considered Newell's crowning achievement, it might also be noted that his Cal teams once beat John Wooden's UCLA teams seven straight times in the late 1950s.

Today, Newell is sort of a Mr. Goodwrench to players in search of fine tuning for their games.

Established NBA stars such as Ralph Sampson, Akeem Abdul-Olajuwon, Kiki Vandeweghe, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar regularly consult Newell about fundamentals such as shooting, positioning and defense.

To the casual observer, the hands appear to be the most important aspect of the sport, in part because the ball is what the eye, or television camera, usually follows throughout the course of a game.

Newell knows better.

"The feet, not the hands, are the key to the game," Newell said. "We always worked on body movement, balance, shifting weight, that sort of thing. And a player's movement when he doesn't have the ball is as important as when he does have it."

"Footwork and positioning are what gets you a rebound, not jumping ability."

Newell said the required style for playing professionally is different from that needed for playing in school.

"In college (and high school), zones are predominant, so centers play farther away from the basket, often facing it," he said.

"In the pros, playing man-to-man defense, centers have much more room to maneuver, so they can get closer to the basket. Consequently they have to work on their inside games more.

"Ralph Sampson is a perfect example of that. In college at Virginia, he was a 15-foot jump shooter. Now, in the NBA, he's learned to go to the inside more."

When working with big men at various training camps, Newell emphasizes the same fundamental footwork with the likes of Abdul-Jabbar and Sampson as he does with newcomers to the game.

Newell's theory about agility and footwork paid off handsomely with the Olympic team he coached with Lucas at center. A mobile, 6-foot 8-inch pivotman from Ohio State, Lucas outscored and outplayed the bigger centers.

"The Soviets thought he was the best big man they'd ever seen because he could shoot from the outside as well as the inside," Newell recalled.

"We played them for the gold medal and they didn't even play their starting center, Jan Kruminsch, who went about 7-4, 300 pounds, because he was nowhere near as mobile as Lucas.

"If you've followed their program since then, all of their big men--forwards and centers--have become much more fluid players, much more mobile."

Los Angeles Times Articles