"Basketball is one sport," says Jack Gardner of Utah in the Heisman Trophy of understatements, "where the tall man has found a place." The place is usually right under the basket, and the big guy has the ball—which is what haunts Gardner and his colleagues who have to cope with the problem.
All the thinking on the subject ultimately leads to two risky alternatives. In the first, as Temple's Harry Litwack puts it, "you play him honestly—and you know he's going to get his 30 or 40 points." In other words, pretend the big guy is just another player on the opposition's roster. This is an excellent gambit if you have Bill Russell on your roster. Harry never has had Russell, so he knows this approach would cost him a pile of points. There are so many giants scattered around campuses these days, however, that many coaches are tempted to try the "honest" bit. What stops them is that their giant is seven feet of nonathletic gristle and the other team's is Lew Alcindor or someone nearly as good. So the first alternative—play him honestly—in most instances amounts to suicide.
The second is the one that affords coaches the opportunity to make X's and circles all over note pads, shirt cuffs, tablecloths and the blackboards of their dreams. A very few scorn this opportunity—phooey on collapsing zones and sagging mano a manos—preferring not to burden their young men with best-laid plans that tend to go the way Robert Burns asserted they do. "I tell my kids," says Paul Valenti of Oregon State, "not to worry too much about being organized. Just get in there and get around the big fellow, and if he gets that ball, make sure he has to throw it back out." This swarm-of-bees technique will stop the big man every time—from setting a scoring record, that is. But only rarely will it stop his team from winning—which is the idea. Abe Lemons, the Oklahoma City philosopher, describes the tactic and its failing in his own style. "I'm smart enough to handle any big man there is," says Abe. "I put one man in front of him, one in back, one on one side and one on the other, and then I tell the four of them to follow him around all night. Then me and the guy I got left, we can just sit back and watch those four other squirrels shoot us to death."
The trick, then, is to lay plans that do not attempt the impossible but have a reasonable chance for success, that try to cut off the big man from the ball, that isolate him from his teammates, that disrupt his team's normal patterns of behavior. Then you hope for the best. Fred Taylor of Ohio State explains the danger of expecting too much. "Look, if you're talking about a big man with Alcindor's capabilities," he says, "forget it. He is going to force you to go for a gimmicked-up game, and you just don't win consistently with gimmicks. But you can try for a one-shot deal—say, maybe for a half—in hopes that you'll cause momentary offensive problems and maybe promote a little confusion that will give you time to make nuisance changes. Then just pray that the game doesn't last too long."
"You have to use all sorts of tricks—stalls, sagging defenses and whatever else you can dream up," says John Benington of Michigan State. "Most teams will play some kind of a control game, something to lure the big man away from the basket. Then, whenever he turns around, somebody will fall down and look for the foul." The last move is not exactly cricket, of course, and it does not work very often either.
As Benington indicates, containing the big man is not just a matter of setting up an effective half-court defense. How a rival team plays on offense, the tempo it sets, often has considerable effect on how the giant's team plays its offense. Dave Strack of Michigan calls this "defensing the big man offensively." Bob Boyd, whose Southern California Trojans are the lucky devils who get first crack at Alcindor this Saturday, will not tip his hand, but he does hint at employing this strategy. "You have a chance if you throw the extreme game at them," he says. "Like maybe a blazing fast break. Then, if that fails, immediately become control-conscious and go into a virtual stall."
Once the big man's team gets the ball and brings it to mid-court, however, choosing a suitable defense becomes imperative. In the likely event that the guards have brought the ball that far and the big fellow is in the post, one choice is similar to football's tactic of rushing the passer. "We want to put tremendous pressure on those guards from the moment they get past mid-court," says Kentucky's Adolph Rupp. "We want to keep them so busy they can't set up the tall guy."
"If he normally gets the ball in the pivot 50 or 60 times in a game," says Syracuse's Fred Lewis, "we try to cut that in half. Harass the guards, work on them all the time, don't let up on them." Agreeing with all this, Michigan's Dave Strack brings up the special case that stumps everyone. "Of course," he says, "if it's Alcindor, he's so agile that he's capable of bringing the ball up himself and taking it right into the pivot without any help. What do you do then?" The best answer may be to fall back and at least avoid the three-point play.
Putting pressure on the big man inside by double-teaming him leaves the defense vulnerable at some point on the floor or at some stage in its movements. But the offensive team must be smart enough to spot the weakness and quick enough to attack it before the defenders adjust and cover up. This situation often leads to the kind of thrust-and-parry action that keeps spectators out of their seats and drives coaches out of their minds.
It can also bring the happiest of results for the defense, as it did when North Carolina met Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in the NCAA finals in 1957. Carolina's Frank McGuire stationed the Tar Heels' biggest man, 6-foot-8 Joe Quigg, behind Wilt and put 6-foot-5 Lenny Rosenbluth directly in front of him in a 2-1-2 zone. Kansas kept trying to get the ball in to Wilt and played directly into North Carolina's hands by stubbornly refusing to shoot from outside. Chamberlain was able to make only six shots and North Carolina won the title in triple overtime.