X’s & O’s

Watching the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four this past weekend reminded me of the one time in my life I was a basketball scout. (The Final Four took place in Minneapolis, seventy miles away, but I watched from my study, not tempted one minute to be in the midst of the activity. Had I been thirty years younger, things might have been different.)

The weekend’s games brought to mind a weekend in early 1979: The Other Half and I were heading northwest from Monticello about 125 miles to visit her family, who lived between the two small towns of Eagle Bend and Parkers Prairie, going up Saturday morning and coming back Sunday afternoon.

On my newspaper rounds that Friday, I mentioned our plans to the boys’ basketball coach at Big Lake High School. “Really?” he said. “I noticed that Swanville is playing at Eagle Bend Saturday night. They’re supposed to be good, but nobody I know has had a chance to look at them.”

That wasn’t surprising. The basketball district included about twelve schools – smaller ones tagged as Class A by the state high school league – all within about forty-five miles of St. Cloud. Big Lake was at the southeastern corner of the district, and Swanville, a burg of about 300, was in the northwestern corner of the district.

The coach looked at me, and I knew what was coming: “What are you doing Saturday night?”

I had no plans other than being in the farmhouse halfway between Eagle Bend and Parkers Prairie with the Other Half, her parents and her nine siblings. Based on previous visits, it wasn’t like we all did things together around the huge kitchen table. The Other Half would be catching up with her mom and her sisters, and I’d likely be on my own.

“I’ll see if I can get into town,” I told the coach. “But you know that I’m not an X’s and O’s guy. I’m not that good.” After all, I’d only been covering basketball for a little more than a year.

He dismissed that concern with a wave of his hand. “You’ve learned more than you think,” he said. “You can tell zone from man-to-man, you can tell when a team likes to press or to run fast off rebounds. You can see a team’s tendencies in the half-court game.”

He shrugged. “And even if you couldn’t see all of that, you might see one thing that gives us some insight if we end up playing them in the tournament.”

So after dinner Saturday evening, I drove our Toyota from the farm to Eagle Bend High School to watch the Eagles host the Swans. As it happened, my father-in-law was on duty that evening as a custodian at the high school, so I stopped in at his workroom for a few minutes, then headed into the gym with my notebook.

I don’t recall if the Swans played man or zone. I don’t remember if they won the game although I think so, as they had a far better record coming in than did the Eagles. I do remember one thing about their half-court offense: From the top of the key, the Swans would pass the ball to the side about halfway between mid-court and the baseline. From there would come a pass to a player in the corner, and he would attempt to drive along the baseline and shoot. If the shot wasn’t there, he’d retreat to the corner, passing the ball back to the top of the key for a shot or more rarely, a pass to the halfway point on the other side of the court, followed by another attempt at baseline penetration.

I’d watched a lot of high school basketball games in the previous year and a half, and I’d never seen anything like what the Swans were doing. It looked odd and inefficient.

At halftime, the fellow I’d noticed doing radio play-by-play of the game approached me. If I recall this correctly, a decal on his equipment or a patch on his jacket told me he was from a station in Wadena, a larger town a little bit north of Eagle Bend. He asked if I was a reporter, and I said I was but that I was playing the role of scout for the Big Lake coach. He invited me to join him on the air to talk about the teams in the southern portion of the district, and I shared what I knew and what I thought for a few minutes.

He asked me who I thought might reach the district title game, and I said that based on what I’d read and seen, it would be the teams from Big Lake and from Albany, which is just a little northwest of St. Cloud. (I was right: In the title game, Albany’s tough defense shut down Big Lake’s running game and outside shooting, ending the Hornets’ season for the second year in a row; a year earlier, the loss had come in the quarterfinals.)

The Swans beat the Eagles, and I headed via country roads to the farmhouse and – a day later – back to Monticello. On Monday, when I made my regular stop at Big Lake High School, I handed in my scouting report. When tournament time came, the bracket put Swanville up against the Bulldogs from Becker, eight miles northwest of Big Lake, and – without my knowing it – the Big Lake coach passed my notes onto the coach from Becker, a close friend.

And on another Monday, the Big Lake coach told me he’d talked to the Becker coach over the weekend, following Becker’s victory over Swanville. “He said that Swanville did exactly what you said they’d do,” the Big Lake coach told me. “From the key to the side, down to the baseline and back to the key with a few outside shots added. Becker shut down the baseline, challenged the outside shooters and frustrated ’em all night long.”

I’ve never been called on to scout another game. Why should I? I’m 1-0.

I have one track on the digital shelves that has the word “basketball” in its title. (I expected at least two, but I tend to forget that I lost my copy of “Basketball Jones” in the hard drive crash a couple of years back and haven’t replaced it.) Here’s “I Never Play Basketball Now” by Prefab Sprout. It’s from the English band’s 1984 debut album Swoon.

Tags:

Leave a Reply