Jul 5, 2011

Roberto smashes backboard, gets 20 stitches
Roberto Nelson went to Macedonia with Beavers Without Borders, a group of Oregon State athletes who do community service during the offseason. During a pickup game in Macedonia, he shattered a backboard and ended up in the hospital. Here is a video during which he discusses what happened and it includes footage of the incident. I love that Roberto didn’t think he needed to go to the hospital. (Btw, that is Big Joe Burton in the video, another PTHO kid.)

Apr 25, 2011

A Great Letter
I have received three of four emails a week from people who have read PTHO. I love all of them (even the rare ones that criticize the project) but some I REALLY love. I received this note a few weeks ago from one reader, and it will stay in my inbox forever.


My dad started reading this book while I was home during Spring break last
week. He's an avid basketball fan and I know it was kind of a
disappointment to him that his two kids favor softball and boy scouts over
his first love. Anyway, I picked up the book out of curiosity and fell in
love with it instantly. I got so emotionally attached to the players that
I found myself in tears reading about Rome and Aaron's struggles.

All unnecessary background info aside, I just wanted to thank you for
giving me, albeit temporarily, something in common with something so
important in my dad's life. Reading and discussing "Play Their Hearts Out"
with him has brought us closer and I can't thank you enough.

Also, as an aspiring writer, I can't leave out how in awe I am of your
writing. I don't know how you managed to weave in new characters with
almost every chapter, but it all worked perfectly.


Apr 13, 2011

Penn State award
Here is the release announcing that Play Their Hearts Out won the Award for Excellence in Coverage of Youth Sports, presented by the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. I'm headed to State College, PA to pick up the award and talk with journalism students.


Feb 16, 2011

Oregon State

I watch the boys from PTHO play as often as I can. If I can't view their games in real time, I TIVO them and watch them late at night or while I am filling out expense reports (the worst) or executing some other mindless task. I usually enjoy watching them play – even when they aren't performing well – because it still amazes me that the young kids I once knew are now college players.

Lately, I have been obsessively watching Roberto Nelson and Oregon State. I've seen almost all of the Beavers Pac-10 games and I saw the team play in person at Cal and at Stanford. Roberto's dad, Bruce, calls me from prison for updates on how Roberto is doing. I want to give him a comprehensive report, so sometimes I watch Roberto's games live and then re-watch the portions of the game when Roberto was on the floor.

Those who follow me on Twitter know that this has amounted to torture. Oregon State has to be one of the worst major conference teams in the nation. Worst of all, they remind me of one of Joe Keller's team: No discipline, poor fundamentals, a lack of leadership, and a coach on the sideline who doesn't appear to have any answers.

Criticizing the tactics of coaches can be tricky because, well, I am not a coach. In PTHO, I did so only when I felt like it was SO obvious that what Keller was doing was wrong. I don't know as much about basketball as Oregon State coach Craig Robinson. I don't know all of his players like I know Roberto. I don't know what kind of effort they give in practice and who is teachable and who is not. Still, it has become obvious to me that the team is doing a lot wrong. For example:

1. The Beavers play a gimmicky zone - a lot of 1-3-1 and others - that is too easily exploited by disciplined teams. The players run around crazily trying to create turnovers and it just leads to easy buckets. Oregon State has a number of great athletes who, on the surface, look like they would be good one-on-one defenders, and yet night after night Oregon State sticks with that zone, which has resulted in the worst field-goal percentage defense in the Pac-10. It reminds me of Keller's stupid "Fist" defense, and readers will remember that it wasn't until Keller abandoned that zone that the team found real success.

2. Oregon State should run but does not. Oregon State has some supreme athletes, such as Jared Cunningham, Calvin Haynes, Devon Collier, Roberto, etc. but it plays a version of the Princeton offense (I'm told) that is ill suited to its personnel. To my untrained eye, the Beavers entire offensive philosophy consists of passing the ball around the perimeter until one of those great athletes says "to hell with it" and takes a low percentage shot.

3. Nobody rebounds. This may be because of the aforementioned zone, as it makes it harder for players to find a man and box out. Among Pac-10 schools, Oregon State ranks last in defensive rebounding.

4. Nobody can shoot the 3. As a team, Oregon State shoots about 29% from three-point range. That's not a typo. Part of the problem is the high number of players (like Cunningham, Haynes, etc) who are better penetrators than shooters, but the offense also doesn't create enough open looks because . . .

5. Nobody passes. This may be what bothers me most. I watch Notre Dame play a lot, and the difference between how the Notre Dame players share the ball and what Oregon State does is the difference between Steve Nash and J.R. Smith. Oregon State has a roster full of selfish players. I first watched Haynes, a senior guard, play at the Adidas Superstar Camp when he was going into his final year of high school. I remember thinking then that he was chucker, and I would never want him on my team. More than four years later, my opinion remains unchanged. Haynes is not the only guilty party, but he personifies the problem. Why did UCLA rack up an astounding 16 blocks Saturday against the Beavers? Because no Oregon State player ever drove and dished. They always took the shot, no matter how bad it was, so UCLA's frontline could play for the block without concern for leaving their man.

Oregon State's mistakes and mediocrity shouldn't bother me as much as it does. What do I care if the Beavers suck? Well, here is why: Before he went to Oregon State, Roberto was a good shooter, a great passer, a very good rebounder for a guard, and a solid one-on-one defender. Most importantly, he was consummate team player. If you don't believe me, go back and reread the chapters that focus on him.

Late in the second half of Oregon State's embarrassing showing against UCLA, Roberto was just looking for his shot, not caring about his teammates. It appeared as if he had caught whatever disease Calvin Haynes has had since high school. He may have been the last holdout among the Beavers most talented players; the others turned into me-first kids even earlier. Now, even Roberto had succumbed. This is what happens on bad, undisciplined teams. It becomes every man for himself, every player trying to show what he can do. We are going to lose anyway, the players think, so I might as well get my shots. 

It hurts to see Roberto playing that way. That is not who he is. We have talked about it, and he is frustrated and unhappy, mostly with the losing. He wants to help his team win, but he knows that if he goes out there and plays one way and all his teammates are playing another, it is not going to make a difference.

So, what's the solution? I don't know. I see SO much that needs to change, beginning with Robinson's core strategic philosophies: that zone and the Princeton-ish offense. Coaches can adapt, but most have a way of doing things and tend to deviate only slightly. Tweaks aren't going to fix Oregon State.

As the risk of exposing my basketball ignorance, here are a couple of overly simplistic suggestions:

1. Play man-to-man defense. If the zone(s) you are playing has made you the worst defensive team (%-wise) in the conference, time to try something else. Show the team tape of Oregon State alumnus Gary Payton playing and say, "Do that!"

2. Get the younger players (Cunningham, Collier, Roberto, etc.) on the floor together more often and give them a long leash. Sit Haynes and Omari Johnson. As seniors, they are not going to be part of any turnaround and they take minutes from those who might be. Please sit Haynes. Please. Please. Please. I will buy a copy of Robinson's book to go with the one copy I already own for every game the rest of the year in which Haynes logs less than 15 minutes on the floor.

3. Run, Craig, run. Encourage those young players to pick up the pace. How any coach could not let Cunningham get out and run is beyond me. He's one of the top 10 athletes and finishers at the rim in the nation. Roberto should have 10 assists a night playing next to Cunningham.
I know, I know, I sound like a frustrated parent. I want Roberto to play more and all of those suggestions would benefit him. But I just don't see any other way for Oregon State to create a sliver of hope for the future and to make their remaining games remotely watchable. Time to do something drastic.

Jan 12, 2011

When Not to Transfer.

Gary Franklin has enrolled at Baylor after leaving Cal, and I am happy for him. He really liked Baylor coach Scott Drew and the vibe of the school when he visited Waco, Texas as a high school senior.

I hope Gary, one of the kids I wrote about in Play Their Hearts Out, finds great success at Baylor, and I will always root for him. But his transfer still bothers me and I imagine it bothers others, too.

Let’s start with the big question, which Demetrius Walker articulated when I called him last week to tell him that Gary was leaving Cal.  “He’s playing 25 minutes a game as a freshman,” Demetrius said. “Why is he gonna transfer?”

I’ve talked to Gary Sr. and exchanged texts with Little Gary, and was told that the reason he left Cal is that he wasn’t happy with the team’s “style of play.” Translation: Gary wasn’t happy with how he was being utilized. He wanted the ball in his hands more, which meant playing more at the point, and he wanted more freedom to create rather than be restricted by the constant plays being called from the bench. Also, Gary feels that he has to play point guard to make it to the NBA, and the Cal coaches were playing him mostly off the ball.

Set aside, for a moment, whether or not the Cal coaches were using him correctly and whether or not Gary can become an NBA point guard. 

Let’s get back to the question that Demetrius asked: How can a kid playing 25 minutes a game as a freshman transfer?

My answer: He can’t.

Playing time is precious. Ask Justin Hawkins, Andrew Bock, Demetrius and other Team Cal alumni about playing time, about how they felt last season seeing limited minutes or, as Demetrius put it: “Getting all those DNPs,” (Did Not Play). Playing time as a freshman is tough to find; playing time as a freshman when you are struggling is even rarer. Gary was shooting 29% from the field and the same percentage from three-point range and yet he still started 11 of 13 games and was playing more than 25 minutes a contest. Against Stanford, in what would be Gary’s last game for Cal, he played 30 minutes.

Cal’s team was so thin and so young that it appeared as if the coaching staff would continue to give Gary playing time no matter what he did. That’s unheard of, particularly at a major-conference school. Gary had it good, even if it didn’t feel that way after he started coming off the bench.

Gary Sr. told me that he didn’t want his son to leave Cal; he hoped he would at least finish out the school year. “But it is his life and so at some point I have to support his decision,” Gary Sr. said.

Okay, I get that, but I also know this: If Gary is good enough to have a team’s offense run through him and if he really is a future NBA point guard, he’s going to have to prove it to whomever is coaching him.  He had to prove it at Cal with Mike Montgomery and now he is going to have to prove it to Scott Drew. The benefit of staying at Cal was that he was assured playing time. There is no such assurance at Baylor, and so one could argue that Gary’s odds of being an impact college player and making the NBA just got a little longer.

Before deciding to transfer, I wish that Gary had called another alumnus from Team Cal (and another character from my book): Darius Morris.

            Darius is now a sophomore guard at Michigan and the Wolverines’ best player. He is averaging 15.2 points per game and 7.3 assists, fourth most in the nation. Recently, NBA draft analysts like ESPN’s Chad Ford have begun writing that pro scouts have taken notice.

            But as a freshman last season, Darius was a role player. He started the first nine games and then was sent to the bench, mostly because the Michigan staff didn’t feel he was enough of a threat from the perimeter. DeWayne Morris, Darius father, told me: “Just like with Gary, it was about this time last year that Darius got taken out of the starting lineup and he was discouraged. When he was playing he was being asked only to play defense and then get the ball to others and go stand in the corner. He didn’t like that. When he was being recruited, the coaches [at Michigan] talked about how he was going to be scoring guard and all that but it changes when you get there.”

            But instead of looking to transfer from a school for which he was playing more than 20 minutes a game, “we talked to Darius about what he was going to do to change how the coaches saw him,” DeWayne said.           

Darius had been a role player during his one year on Team Cal and was rarely the centerpiece on other AAU teams for which he played. In contrast, Gary was the fulcrum of almost every team he was on, in part because Gary Sr. was usually his head coach.

 “I actually talked to Darius last season about the experience with Joe [Keller] and on Team Cal,” DeWayne said. “We talked about how if people don’t see you as the player you think you are, the only thing you can do is get better and better until they have to see it. But if you have always been the star of the team, you never think that the reason you aren’t playing as much or scoring as much is that you aren’t good enough.”

            I won’t go into too much detail about how Darius made himself into a more complete player because I am likely to write something on him for Sports Illustrated a little later. What I love is the approach he took. He set out to change the coaches’ perception of him and he did just that and now he is thriving and being talked about as one of the better sophomore guards in the country and an NBA prospect.

            He is in the exact position Gary hopes to be in, and he didn’t have to transfer to a different school to get there.



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