Unless you are a coal miner or Cheryl Tiegs, you may be as alarmed as everybody else at the newest four-letter monstrosity that is rampaging through the newspapers, giving off enough evil connotations to get the entire sport of basketball thrown into jail. Unlike some of its predecessors—p-i-l-l, for instance, d-o-p-e, or even s-e-x—the word has not yet been banned in every God-fearing American household. But it is getting there.
As a matter of fact, the epithet in question, "zone"...Whew! There it is. Doesn't it even sound ugly? Z, as in zit. O, as in oaf. N, as in nasty. E, as in eccch. Historically it has been as dirty, as abominable and as strenuously to-be-eschewed a basketball term as a coach could utter. A zone defense always has implied that you are weak and lily-livered. A zone says you are afraid to match up with the other guy fair and square, head on, face-to-face, like, oh, you know, like a real man. A zone is a gimmick, a trick, an outrage against truth, fairness, art and Peter Pan. Put that fellow from San Clemente on a basketball court and you know he would immediately go into a zone.
Why, even in the college branch of the game all the wonderful legendary mentors of yesteryear piously claimed they avoided the zone defense like the plague. UCLA's John Wooden said he never used one. Ho, ho. (Don't ask Artis Gilmore how the Bruins stopped him and Jacksonville in the 1970 NCAA championship game.) And the late, always great Adolph Rupp, sly Baron that he was, fabricated a polysyllabic disguise for it when the Kentucky Wildcats went into what suspiciously resembled a stationary deployment of their defensive troops. "Now, boys, that was no zone," Adolph would drawl. "What you-all saw out there was the old stratified, transitional, hyperbolic paraboloid."
A fortnight ago at the ACC tournament, North Carolina Assistant Coach Eddie Fogler defended his team's much-maligned (for slowing the pace) "four corners" offense by verbally fast-breaking to the opposite extreme and cutting to ribbons none other than the zone defense. "The single biggest slowdown factor in basketball is the zone," Fogler said. After which, naturally, North Carolina went out and used it some of the time and lost, and Duke used it practically all the time and won.
Of course, the zone defense is illegal in pro basketball. Say what? Say illegal. Then, too, the speed limit is 55 mph on our highways. And snorting the ticket stubs is not permitted at our rock concerts. Also, children under 18 are not allowed to see The Betsy unless accompanied by parent or adult. In reality, the ordinance against zone defenses in the NBA is the most trampled-upon sports regulation since somebody ruled that hockey players should not open up heads with their sticks.
The NBA rule is written plainly enough, right there under "Fouls and Penalties, 12A, Section 1." The rule states flatly that a zone defense is not permitted, a zone in the pros being when a defensive player stands in the key area more than three seconds or when a defender is more than six to eight feet away from his man. Moreover, says the rule book, "the offensive team must prove the defensive team is not adhering to the rule as written by sending a player or players through the defense." If no defender follows these players, a zone is obviously being used and a violation should be called.
In the NBA's Russellian era, there was less open-floor activity than now and few centers ventured far from the basket. This made it possible for Boston's esteemed Bill Russell—titular defensive specialist that he was—to camp inside and protect the hoop as well as reject the advances of opposing pivotmen, because they were seldom more than two feet away, let alone six feet. The Celtics funneled everybody into Russell to be gobbled up like so many helpless flies detoured into a spider web. But make no mistake about it: Bill Russell played a zone.
In the current pro game, featuring more mobile big men, faster and quicker ball movement, smarter and bolder coaches and, especially, the influx of ABA-inspired pressing and trapping defenses (which referees, if not Joe Fan, seem to have a hard time distinguishing from zones), it is easy to understand why the scarlet letter Z has come into such vogue. And easier still to see—and hear—how the rule is broken.
?In Oakland, Golden State GM Scotty Stirling sends a film of a Warrior-Laker game to Norm Drucker, the NBA's supervisor of officials, which shows Rick Barry angling through the defense to the basket time after time without accompaniment. So little attention is paid him by his defender that Barry might as well be strolling off to his hair weaver. But the Lakers are issued only one zone warning all night. Stirling says he heard that when the league's competition committee took a look at the film, all someone said was, "The Warrior bench didn't bitch enough."
?In Philadelphia, the 76ers quintuple-team Kareem Abdul-Jabbar so completely that he seldom gets off a thought, much less a shot. Afterward Abdul is queried about the strange defense and says, "Well, if that wasn't a zone, the 76ers should have at least been given some parking tickets."