For a basketball player, there really is no season. All it takes is the availability of a ball and a basket. For the addicted, the urge to put that ball in that basket is irresistible. By NCAA legislation, however, the 15th of October is the day—the awful, wonderful, magic day of reckoning when basketball coaches are allowed to summon their squads and begin preparing them for a season. For six weeks the tallest boys on campus huff up and down steps of empty arenas, race up and down courts and strain through calisthenics, all this soundless except for the squeak of sneakers on polished floors and the exasperated cries of coaches who see disaster in every double dribble. Turn that bunch into a team in six weeks? Oh, brother.
At Oklahoma State University, fall practice is a very special time. Though the ritual is being performed on campuses all over the country, there is a distinctive urgency to it at OSU. There has been for 34 years.
In 1934 Henry Payne Iba came to the land-grant university at Stillwater—it was called Oklahoma A&M then—to coach basketball, and there has been nothing casual about the game there since. (Acquaintances of Iba's impress their friends by calling him Hank. Intimates call him Henry. Players and graduates never stop calling him Mr. Iba.) An easygoing, country-boy aura surrounds Henry Iba, but do not let that fool you if you coach this game. Watch the eyes—those clear, steady, gray eyes. They miss nothing, and while he is charming you with an impish smile, he is figuring out a way to beat your brains out on a basketball court. It is a single-minded and uncompromising approach that has brought him 731 victories (619 at OSU, 112 others at Colorado University, where he coached for a year, and Maryville College in Missouri, where he coached for four years), two national championships and 15 conference championships. Among active coaches, only Adolph Rupp has won more (760).
There is obvious distinction to winning 731 games, but what makes Iba's reign memorable is how he won them. The term now is ball control—or slowdown or stall—depending on whether you are a critic or a fan. No matter. Henry Iba invented it, polished it and displayed it, and its influence on the game has been so pervasive that all you have to say about a team in Maine, Moscow or Manila is that it plays Iba-style ball and everyone knows what you're talking about. And a lot of teams have been playing it since the Iba philosophy began to be carried out of the Southwest by converts and OSU graduates. In recent years Texas Western used it to win the NCAA title, and Cincinnati upset the fine Ohio State teams of 1961 and 1962 the same way for the same championship.
Still, the cry of the run-and-shoot set is, "Who needs it?" The go-go-goers think of the Iba shuffle along with bathtub gin and boop-boop-a-doop. "Iba gets a three-point lead," they also say, "and he lets the air out of the ball." There is truth in both views.
It was 40 years ago that Iba decided he was going to control the game. "We're not going to play them," is the first thing he tells his team every year. "They're going to play us." Faced with such a foe, opposing coaches who are wild to set scoring records often find themselves forced into trying to beat Iba at his own game, which is hard to do when you haven't practiced it. Having lost the ball, they then have to sit there slowly ulcerating for the five minutes OSU spends setting up a basket—preferably a layup.
If they find that exasperating, they are hardly better off when they get the ball. Then they have to contend with a team that spends as much time practicing defense as offense. Getting off a shot against a representative OSU team is an accomplishment. As for garbage points—forget it. Iba does not always have the tall, quick shooters and jumpers you need to win championships but, runt or giant, an OSU player rarely makes a mistake. He is sloppy only once—before he is yanked out of the game—and never, never is he caught in a listless pose.
It is a question of discipline. It starts on the opening day of practice when Iba lets his players know exactly what is expected of them. There is a short talk, and that is the last time the players will sit down in old Gallagher Hall for the next six weeks. From then on there will be motion—up stairs, down stairs; up court with ball, without ball, singly, in pairs, in a crowd—and always at full speed. The Iba style is physically demanding, and it is his theory that the fit are not born, they are made. Of course, any good team is well conditioned. Iba simply carries the idea several steps further.
OSU players spend hours learning plays that include the setting up of picks and screens, all with the idea of getting one man free for only the easiest kind of shot. "It's free lance with screens," says Iba, but there is very little free lance involved. Let a player ignore the master plan, and Iba reacts immediately. "Cut that out," is the preamble, and it is followed by an in-depth critique of what the player did wrong. "I'm not against shooting," Iba insists. "I'm against bad shooting. I want my boys to shoot. I love my boys to shoot. But glory be, make it a good shot—his shot."
A sloppy play on a basketball court—anyone's basketball court—makes Iba physically ill. "I've seen Mr. Iba cringe," says his assistant, Sam Aubrey, "when the other team makes a mistake."