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IT ALL STARTS HERE
Grant Wahl
February 17, 2003
Hatched in New Jersey decades ago by irascible genius Pete Carril, the intricate ballet of the PRINCETON OFFENSE is suddenly the height of hoop fashion, winning games and converts from sixth grade to the NBA
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February 17, 2003

It All Starts Here

Hatched in New Jersey decades ago by irascible genius Pete Carril, the intricate ballet of the PRINCETON OFFENSE is suddenly the height of hoop fashion, winning games and converts from sixth grade to the NBA

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And, to a large degree, Sendek's job. Combining the Princeton sets with a full-court press, a faster pace and whip-smart players who could cut, pass and shoot, his team went 23-11, advanced to the ACC tournament final and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. What's more, the Wolfpack showed that you can score with the Princeton offense, averaging 75.4 points a game (the most in Sendek's six-year tenure).

Back in Ohio, Jim Burson watches the Wolfpack and smiles. It's his biggest success story as a Connector, and yet it's far from the only one. In the past three years, Burson has also shared the Holy Grail with several D-I colleges—Miami of Ohio, George Mason, Campbell—and "about 30" other teams, from the high school to small-college levels. As Burson says, "It's out now: Burson broke it down and identified all the parts and made it simple. Northwestern's not going to give you anything. Princeton's not going to give you anything. Burson will give it to you, but only if you've studied it. If you want to come up here and show me that you've paid some dues, then I can give you the Grail."

Burson vows he'll never charge for his services—N.C. State covered his airfare, nothing more—but that hardly means he isn't compensated in other ways. For starters, sharing his knowledge burnishes his image as a coaches' coach, a respected sage in the fraternity. Then there's the quiet satisfaction he draws from seeing more teams play winning fundamental basketball. "It's such a neat thing to watch," he says. And certainly N.C. State owes him an immense debt of gratitude, part of which Sendek has already repaid. He recently hired Morland, Burson's former assistant, as his video coordinator.

Of course, there are other Mavens who double as Connectors. Cal Luther, who ran a version of the Princeton offense at Tennessee-Martin, has shared his knowledge with Stetson, Satellite Beach ( Fla.) High and NAIA Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif. Likewise, Steve Baker, a coach at Loyola Blakefield High in Towson, Md., has compiled a 100-page dossier on the Princeton offense, along with a two-hour instructional tape; he recently sold copies to one of his best friends, Tennessee assistant Kerry Keating, who says he'll use the system when he gets a head coaching job.

None of those strains, however, can compare to the vast web being spun by the Division III coach who's changing big-time college basketball precisely because he's so well-connected. In the language of epidemics, Jim Burson is the Patient Zero of the Princeton offense.

The Salesmen

Still, Burson's efforts don't explain how the Princeton offense arrived in the NBA, nor how coaches came to believe that it could work in the fast-paced pro game. It needed a Salesman, and that man was, ironically enough, Master Yoda himself.

Coaches—even Princeton coaches—are an itinerant bunch. Since Carril was hired by Kings president Geoff Petrie (one of his old players) in 1996, his former assistants have moved on to the top jobs at Northwestern (Carmody), Air Force (Joe Scott) and Princeton ( John Thompson III). Carmody recalls a conversation he had in the late '90s with Van Breda Kolff, who gleefully predicted a controlled spread of the system: "The next step is to get jobs for everyone, and they'll [hire] three or four guys each, and soon you'll have these little pods all around the country. And then basketball will be fun to watch again."

No "pod" of the Princeton offense has been more fascinating to follow than the one Carril has established in the NBA in his quest to bring his five-man passing game to a league dominated by me-first 'tudes, isolation plays and pick-and-rolls. For years, though, Carril had maintained that his creation would in fact work beautifully, given the speed and athleticism of NBA players. " Michael Jordan would be one of the great beneficiaries of this," Carril says, "because he's totally fundamentally sound."

In the end it took four sales over a five-year period to seal the deal. First, Carril convinced Eddie Jordan, then a fellow Kings assistant, over a season's worth of breakfasts, lunches and late-night bus rides. Jordan was elevated to head coach, and though the Kings dumped him in 1998 after one full season—injuries had doomed his version of Princeton, proving a Van Breda Kolff adage ("It's not what you do, it's who's doing it")—Jordan still believed in the system when he joined the Nets as an assistant in '99. Two years later, he persuaded head coach Byron Scott to let the Nets run part of Carril's scheme in the NBA summer league. They finished 6-1. Intrigued, Scott timed the offense against the shot clock during the coaches' pickup games, and it came in under 24 seconds. He decided to take the leap.

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