For Bill Carmody the shock came just more than a year ago, on a cool November evening in the Piedmont. Carmody is the basketball coach at Northwestern, but he's known in coaching circles as the caretaker of the Princeton offense, the classic labyrinthine scheme he learned at the feet of Hall of Famer Pete Carril. On that night in Raleigh, Carmody and his assistants were astonished when they sat down to scout the second game of the Black Coaches Association Invitational. North Carolina State was using the Princeton offense. Their offense. Every bit of the breathtaking minuet: its backdoor cuts and dribble handoffs, its fade screens and wide-open layups. The Wolfpack had it down cold.
"Wow. They're running it," Carmody whispered, pen frozen in hand. "And they have the perfect guys to do it, skillful guys who can dribble and pass and shoot and cut."
But how did they get it? This wasn't something you could lift from a few viewings of videotape. And why now? For decades nobody had bothered to imitate Carril's offense. Oh, Princeton had its moments—winning the 1975 NIT, nearly upsetting Georgetown in the '89 NCAA tournament, knocking out defending national champion UCLA in '96—but most coaches derided Carril's slowdown style as little more than a gimmick. "People thought you couldn't teach it to athletic players. They wouldn't have the patience," says N.C. State associate head coach Larry Hunter. Even when Princeton's run to a No. 8 ranking in '98 sparked new levels of national interest, the Sons of Carril kept their secrets in the family. "It's hard to get in," says Campbell University coach Billy Lee, one of dozens who tried, "kind of like the Mafia."
Suddenly, though, the secret not only got out, but it morphed into a genuine basketball movement. The New Jersey Nets reached last year's NBA Finals using a faithful copy of the Princeton playbook. Likewise, that N.C. State team made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years, saving coach Herb Sendek's job. A high school outfit in Monument, Colo., Lewis-Palmer, had won 61 of its last 67 games through Sunday with the offense, while women's teams at Ohio State, Vanderbilt and Xavier were thriving under it too. At rural Gibson Southern High in Fort Branch, Ind., coach Jerry O'Brien puts his Titans through the Princeton paces, and even the district's sixth-graders run the offense. "It's good fundamental basketball," Nets coach Byron Scott says. "But it's different, and that's why it's special."
And it keeps spreading, not just through the NBA—in which the Sacramento Kings, Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves also are employing Princeton concepts—but through every level of the game (map, pages 60-61). In addition to the programs run by coaches with ties to Carril ( Princeton, Northwestern, Air Force), a growing number of Division I colleges have adopted the offense, from big-conference powers ( N.C. State) to successful mid-majors ( Miami of Ohio, George Mason, Samford) to smaller programs (Campbell, Eastern Washington, Western Carolina) hoping to ride it to the NCAA tournament. Why, even go-go Florida and Louisville, two of the nation's most explosive offensive teams, are running some of the trademark Princeton sets.
Yet Carmody watched N.C. State that night in Raleigh with mixed emotions. On the one hand, here was a moment to enjoy the ultimate in professional respect—imitation, of course, being the sincerest form of flattery. Yet he was also stricken by a deep and abiding fear. After all, as the Princeton offense goes mainstream, won't defenses become more adept at stopping it? In the long run, won't its triumph, in a misdirection play worthy of the scheme itself, sow the seeds of its own demise? Ruin its novelty? Forever save defenses from death by a thousand cuts?
"I like seeing the Nets run this stuff," Carmody says, his Conan O'Brien features tightening with angst, "but in a perfect world I'd prefer that no one else did it."
This is a story about basketball, but it is also about innovation, human nature and the fanatical drive to attain—and sustain—a competitive advantage. Above all, this is the story of a philosophy and its wholly unexpected transformation into a burgeoning fad. How did the oldest of old school game plans, an arcane quirk shrouded in secrecy, turn into what the New York Daily News recently called the "trendy" Princeton offense?
Like the rise of fashion vogue and the movement of the latest flu virus, the spread of the Princeton offense is best viewed as a social epidemic. In his groundbreaking best-seller The Tipping Point. Malcolm Gladwell describes the three types of agents responsible for social epidemics: Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen. "In a social epidemic, Mavens are data banks. They provide the message," Gladwell writes. "Connectors are the social glue: They spread it. But there is also a select group of people—Salesmen—with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing."
For the Princeton offense to spread, it needed all three types: Mavens outside the Carril "family" to decipher and master every nuance of the scheme; Connectors to spread that knowledge to coaches across the country; and Salesmen to persuade the hoops cognoscenti that it could be successful at every level of the game, for high schoolers and pros, men and women, in up-tempo and slowdown attacks. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened.