June 11, 2011

IF GOLIATH COULD ADAPT...:

Three-Man Weave: There are underdog stories...and there's what happened in North Dakota in 1988 (Chuck Klosterman, JUNE 8, 2011, Grantland)

More than 23 years ago, a pair of low-profile junior college basketball teams played a forgotten game on a neutral floor in southeast North Dakota. The favored team was a school best known for its two-year forestry program; the underdog was a miniscule all-Native American college whose campus is located outside the Bismarck, N.D., airport. You've (probably) never heard of either school, and — in all likelihood — you will (probably) never hear of either one again. And if you remember this game, you (probably) played in it.

Games described as forgotten typically earn that classification because they deserve to disappear; traditionally, it's a modifier historians use to marginalize or dismiss a given event. But this game is "forgotten" in an actual sense: There's almost no record of its existence. Fewer than 500 people watched it happen. It was not televised and there's no videotape. It wasn't broadcast on the radio. Only a couple of small-circulation newspapers made mention of what transpired, and — because it happened before the Internet — Googling the contest's details is like searching for a glossy photograph of Genghis Khan. The game has disappeared from the world's consciousness, buried by time and devoid of nostalgia. And this, of course, is not abnormal. Junior college basketball games from 1988 are not historic landmarks. We are conditioned to forget who won (or lost) the opening round of the North Dakota state juco tournament because those are moments society does not need to remember. They don't even qualify as trivia.

But something crazy happened in this particular game.

In this particular game, a team won with only three players on the floor. And this was not a "metaphorical" victory or a "moral" victory: They literally won the game, 84-81, finishing the final 66 seconds by playing three-on-five. To refer to this as a David and Goliath battle devalues the impact of that cliché; it was more like a blind, one-armed David fighting Goliath without a rock. Yet there was no trick to this win and there was no deception — the team won by playing precisely how you'd expect. The crazy part is that it worked. [...]

This, it seems, is what paradoxically slew the Lumberjacks: their own tempo. They refused to make the Tribes play half-court defense, which fueled Hall's strategy. The Jacks were designed to outscore people; when I finally managed to locate Mr. Oswald7, he assumed I wanted to ask him about an altogether different game — a 1989 track meet versus Northland College in which the two squads combined for 308 points.8 Taylor echoed that sentiment. "Most of our games were more like 120 to 118," he said. "I made 115 3-pointers as a freshman.9 That was how we played."

When Webster fouled out at the four-minute mark, the Thunderbirds were still ahead by four. The remaining Birds — Miles Fighter, Vernon Woodhall, Roger Yellow Card and Harold Pay Pay — were now faced with the task of breaking the Jacks' press without their best ball-handler (and without anyone to physically replace him). The lead started to melt. Fighter10 picked up his fifth foul with 1:06 on the clock; by now, Bottineau had managed to tie the game at 81. With a two-man advantage, it seemed unfathomable that the Tribes could hold on. But then the Thunderbirds got a break: The Lumberjacks' Mark Peltier was called for charging, giving the rock back to UT. Hall called time out, and the Thunderbirds had to inbound the ball at midcourt.

This is when it happened.

Now, imagine you're Ken Hall or Buster Gilliss. What do you do in this dead-ball situation? Hall had limited options; all he could really do was stack up two of his remaining three players and hope they set screens for each other. But Bottineau made a tragic — yet perhaps understandable — mistake: The Lumberjacks covered the man throwing the ball in, and they surrounded the other two Thunderbirds. It was like a little human prison — they face-guarded the front Bird, they played directly behind the back Bird, and they sandwiched the stack from both sides. Since one Thunderbird had to throw the ball in, it was a four-on-two situation. The Jacks assumed United Tribes would skew conservative and simply try to sneak the ball in-bounds. But that's not what happened; instead, Pay Pay spontaneously broke to the basket. Woodhall11 lobbed the ball over Pay Pay's shoulder, and he converted it into a breakaway layup. United Tribes were now up two with less than a minute go, and it suddenly seemed patently obvious they were going to win. There were still 40 seconds on the clock, but it was over. The Jacks had broken.

The crowd lost its collective mind. It felt like we were watching the Olympics.

"We had a psychological advantage, and that increased as the game went on," says Hall, slightly understating the situation.


...David wouldn't always win.

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Posted by at June 11, 2011 8:43 PM
  

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