The Lost Art of Scoring (Cont.)
On Feb. 3, 1990, no one dreaded the speed game more than Debi Polito. She was the play-by-play typist, a local fifth-grade teacher who freelanced LSU games at $20 a pop. As she smoked her final cigarette before tip-off, she was troubled by the fact that Loyola had scored 150 points two days earlier. "I thought, 'I don't know if I can do this,'" she told the now-defunct State Times of Baton Rouge, which ran a story about her nightmarish afternoon. "I don't know [if] the return of the typewriter is that quick."
Her concerns were well-founded. At the 3:14 mark of the first half, by which time she had nearly two pages of play-by-play -- and that was without notating missed shots, blocks, rebounds or assists -- her IBM Selectric went into a state of shock. "All of a sudden the ribbon kind of rose up in the typewriter," Polito told the State Times. "The whole thing froze. It wouldn't go forward. It wouldn't go backward."
Members of LSU's game staff could be seen on the broadcast sprinting off to find a replacement typewriter. When it arrived a few possessions later, Polito did her best to catch up. But the Selectric crisis left the official play-by-play sheet jaggedly formatted up through where Loyola's Jeff "Fryer gets three" with 2:52 left, cutting LSU's lead to 64-52.
Polito's transcript contained some unintentional comedy -- in particular the second-half sequence where "Coach Brown discusses something with officials!!!" is followed directly by "Technical called on Coach Brown" -- and despite all that it was missing, it served as an accurate record of runs. There is the one Jackson and Roberts led into halftime, putting LSU up 72-58. And the one Kimble ignited at the start of the second, cutting the lead to 76-72 in just 106 seconds. The scoring never ceased, and the Tigers found themselves back up double-digits with 4:43 left, at 126-114. But they were far from comfortable.
From that point on, the play-by-play sheet told the story of Gathers' second act: demoralized on page 1, redeemed on page 5. Mostly because he refused to ever stop hustling, Gathers scored nine points in a rally that helped tie the game at 134-134 by the end of regulation ...
... and proceeded to put up the first four points of overtime, too. Those were back-to-back buckets over Shaq, who finished with a triple-double (20 points, 24 boards, 12 blocks) that was overshadowed by Gathers' response to his early drubbing. The most-remembered individual stat was that Gathers finished with 48 points.
As Kimble put it: "I played with Hank for 11 years, and there's no better story about his heart and resilience than the LSU game. He said, 'You did a great job blocking the first five shots, but good luck trying to stop the next 30.'"
In an epic, though, there was room for a final plot-twist, and that was that Gathers' 48 points were not enough. Up 138-134 in overtime, the Lions pressed, created a turnover and -- because the System was so hard-wired in their DNA -- Fryer hoisted a long-range bomb within eight seconds. They didn't need a three, and the lane to the basket was open ... but they never passed up open threes.
This one missed, and momentum flipped. LSU converted the long rebound into a Randy Devall three, and that metastasized into a 9-0 run. Gathers never scored again, and Loyola walked off stunned after a 148-141 loss. CBS had no time to make sense of things in a wrap-up. It cut away to coverage of the third round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where viewers were promised glimpses of Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood and Don Johnson: a slow chaser for fast basketball.
Unlike Debi Polito, I had the luxury of pause-and-rewind buttons, and I set to charting the full game in a spreadsheet. Her lone advantage was being able to see the house scoreboards. CBS only displayed occasional time-and-score chyrons; during a game of that speed they felt like lifelines. I had to use a stopwatch to fill in the blanks.
Even if the overtime is ignored, the possession count is staggering. In regulation, LSU had the ball 116 times and Loyola had it 115 times. (Each team had 13 more possessions in OT.) The average time of possession is just as incredible: LSU clocked in at 11.3 seconds, while Loyola used just 9.7 seconds.
How does that compare to '11-12? To be fair, and not pick on one of the many games that were played at the speed of golf, I went searching for the highest-tempo contest between two ranked teams last season.
It turned out to be Kentucky's win over Louisville on Dec. 31, 2011, in which each team had 78 possessions. That game was not known for being fast. The stout defenses held the score to 69-62, and the possession count was driven up by the fact that 52 fouls were called. More than one writer described it as a "grinder"; Kentucky's average time of possession was 16.7 seconds, while Louisville's was 14.1 seconds.
This is what it looks like when the first-half possessions from Kentucky-Louisville are overlaid with the first-half possessions from LSU-Loyola:
The second-half overlay has the same degree of contrast:
Such is the gap between the old and new concept of uptempo. While making those charts I was reminded of a nugget that colleague Seth Davis Tweeted in the lead-up to the '10-11 season:
"Rick Pitino just told me Louisville is going to play offense like the old Loyola Marymount teams. Does Bo Kimble have any eligibility left?"
It was nice to know that Pitino had a hankering for the System, even if he wasn't being entirely literal. But his Cardinals have averaged 67.9 and 66.9 possessions per game the past two seasons -- far cries from Loyola's 103.0. Accommodations must have been made.
An incomplete list of things that transpired after the final buzzer of LSU-Loyola:
The Tigers celebrated briefly, then went to their locker room and wilted. Said Roberts, who went 10-for-10 from the field despite not being in what anyone would've described as exquisite shape: "Everybody just laid on the floor in silence, thankful that it was over. Everybody but Shaq: He was still hyped, clowning and jumping around. He was a big kid, all excited that we just won on national TV, and we had to tell him, 'Leave us alone, man! Let us rest.'"
Loyola showered, took a bus to Baton Rouge's airport, then a commercial connecting flight back to Los Angeles -- where they scored 157 points in a win over San Francisco the next day.
Gathers' heart gave out for good on March 4, when he collapsed during a West Coast Conference tournament game and was soon declared dead in a Los Angeles hospital. The team attended Gathers' funeral on March 12 in Philadelphia, then played the NCAA tournament in his honor, upsetting New Mexico State, defending national champ Michigan and Alabama before losing to UNLV in the Elite Eight. The tragedy and subsequent, improbable tourney run was such national news that a nine-year-old me, having jumped on the bandwagon, was able to buy a Loyola shirt at my local mall in Wisconsin.
Westhead left that offseason to take over the Denver Nuggets, but the System's defense didn't work in the NBA, yielding a record 130.8 points per game in '90-91. He was sacked by '92. A reboot attempt at George Mason in '93 didn't work, either, and Westhead was done after four losing seasons. One of his 70 losses with the Patriots occurred on Dec. 3, 1994 in Baton Rouge, where he assumed that no one would remember him. But multiple stadium staffers approached Westhead before the game to tell him that LSU-Loyola was the best show they'd ever seen.
In a phone interview this October, Dale Brown insisted to me that Westhead was a revolutionary figure who could have changed the college game had he stayed at Loyola. Brown then asked, "Where is Westhead now? Is he still running?"
University of Oregon, I answered. With the women's team, trying to replicate the success he had while coaching the Phoenix Mercury to an WNBA title in 2007. It has been slow going: His Ducks went 15-16 last season and averaged only 71.0 points per game.
The fastest team in Eugene is on the gridiron. Coach Chip Kelly's no-huddle, uptempo offense -- which at one point had a visual play-call placard that was an image of Westhead -- is the most-talked about scheme in the nation. Who could have predicted that the football mainstream would become obsessed with uptempo while the hoops world was marginalizing it? (To find a men's team running a true replica of the System, you have to go to Shoreline Community College in Washington, where Kimble helped install it as a volunteer assistant.)
Westhead took a recording of LSU-Loyola along with him to Eugene. Never mind that it was a loss: "When I'm not in a happy mood," he said, "I'll pick up that tape and revel in the mood of that day." His video coordinator cut a five-minute edit of fastbreaks from that game, and his Oregon players viewed it earlier this month. "They marveled at it," he said. "I marveled at it."
I told Westhead that I had a similar experience upon first watching the DVDs. It was hard to believe, sometimes, that the speed was real.
"Yeah," he said. "You see it and you're like, what was that?"