It’s been more than two decades since Pete Carril coached his last basketball game at Princeton University, and not long after the signature win of his distinguished career: A 43-41 upset of defending champion UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament.
The so-called Princeton Offense, associated with deliberate half-court strategy, back door plays and low scoring, was quite the counter to the athletic, fast-breaking high-octane “programs” of the major conferences.
However, it might have been a first round NCAA tourney loss by Princeton a few years before that embodied what so many saw in Carril and a style of play often regarded as out of fashion, if at times necessarily effective.
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Also In This Issue: A Radio Announcer’s Haunting Silence; A Wrestler-Poet; Pakistani Cricket; New Baseball Books; Remembering Lou Duva and Bill Webb
On St. Patrick’s Day 1989, the Tigers nearly knocked off Georgetown at the Providence Civic Center in what would have been the biggest upset in the history of college basketball. Princeton was a No. 16 seed, while the mighty Hoyas, boasting future NBA star Alonzo Mourning, were a No. 1 seed.
A 16 seed had never beaten a 1 in NCAA men’s tourney play (it has happened once on the women’s side, when another Ivy League school, Harvard, won at Stanford in 1998).
At halftime, Princeton led 29-21, then stretched the margin to 10 points at the start of the second half, and a late Friday night national TV audience on ESPN began growing, mesmerized by the possibility of a monumental, historic event. Dick Vitale, watching from the studio, was strangely quiet after promising to John Saunders he would don a Princeton cheerleading uniform if the unimaginable took place.
While Georgetown eked out a 50-49 win—blocking two last-ditch Princeton shots in the final seconds—that game was instrumental in pushing the notion of March Madness into the chaotic space it occupies this time of year.
When the 68-team men’s NCAA bracket is revealed later today, TV analysts will be eagerly looking for early-round upset possibilities that today don’t seem like upsets at all. And fans and non-fans alike will be filling out office pool brackets with more than one or two teams seeded in double-digits advancing, even as far as the Sweet 16.
As Sean Gregory and Alexander Wolff wrote in Sports Illustrated about the Princeton-Georgetown game, power conferences were working to banish automatic NCAA bids for smaller conferences during the end of the 1980s. This is when the Big East, led by Georgetown, was rounding into dominating form. At the same time, rules changes went into effect that gave the little guys a chance, especially the 3-point shot.
Princeton’s showing reflected those changes. More importantly, the entertainment value of a David vs. Goliath game was irresistible to the media, especially television. Only a few years earlier, the NCAA lost its ability to control college football television rights, its main source of revenue, in an antitrust case.
After being ruled a cartel by the U.S. Supreme Court, the NCAA found in the men’s tournament a way to refill its coffers, especially since it had recently begun sponsoring women’s sports.
Princeton-Georgetown helped create the now endlessly hyped event called March Madness, as reinforced in a 2015 ESPN 30 For 30 short film, “Billion Dollar Game.” Eight months after that game, CBS negotiated the first 10-figure deal to show the tournament over-the-air, including weeknight prime time slots.
Another little gem from that Gregory-Wolff piece is also essential for understanding Carril’s influence today: While Mourning dominated in the paint, they noted, “14 of Princeton’s 21 baskets had come from incursions into his space, on layups.”
The style that Pete Carril carved out thrives today with college programs that perpetuate March Madness with their upsets, and to a certain degree by the wildly successful UConn women’s team, aiming for a fifth consecutive NCAA title with a record 107-game winning streak.
As Ben Cohen wrote this week in The Wall Street Journal, the emphasis on spacing, passing and three-point shooting that were illustrative of Princeton teams is also being taken up with a fervor in the NBA. Most of all, by the Golden State Warriors.
The difference, of course, is that NBA teams are blending athletic prowess, muscle and relentless pace with the rigors of Carril’s offense, and above all: Taking good shots.
In his memoir, “The Smart Take from the Strong,” Carril’s writes about being the basketball-loving son of a Spanish immigrant growing up in the steel mill, football-besotted town of Bethlehem, Pa.
The extension of Carril’s outlook, as it pertains to the dimensions of a basketball court, has resulted in a welcome, late-in-life appreciation. Pete Carril’s visionary ideas for playing the game has long been taken up at the most basic levels of basketball, and now they’re being embraced and adopted at the highest.
A Few Good Reads
- Retired University of North Carolina play-by-play Woody Durham, rarely at a loss for words professionally or personally, has been robbed of his voice due to aphasia. This story is told in an excellent three-part series in the Raleigh News and Observer;
- The harrowing incident involving a charter plane carrying the University of Michigan basketball team this week came very close to the two-year anniversary of an air accident that took the lives of seven people, including members of the Illinois State University athletic department, who were returning home from the Final Four;
- Jim Nantz, the lead voice for the CBS presentation of March Madness, has a long history of giving away his neckties to players who inspire him, but he’s never meant it as a publicity stunt;
- Once the capital of college basketball, New York City is brimming with hoops this weekend as the ACC tourney takes place in Brooklyn and the Big East tourney is held at Madison Square Garden;
- How a dying author inspired New England Patriots wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell to become a children’s writer;
- How an American slave spiritual became English rugby’s anthem;
- Pakistani cricket’s long and difficult road back to prominence;
- A Division III college wrestler who also writes poetry, multitasking for the love of it;
- The state of President Donald Trump’s collection of golf courses is a healthy one since he launched his campaign and now as he settles into office, although an effort continues to move the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open from the Trump Bedminster course in New Jersey;
- The joys of playing the Old Course at St. Andrews;
- The rise, then shame of Baylor Nation, as lawsuits pile up about a sexual assault scandal that has engulfed far more than the athletic department and university;
- Joe Thornton’s 1,000 assists in the National Hockey League, placed in historical perspective;
- It’s been 45 years since Ali-Frazier I resulted in what The Shadow League is dubbing the “manifestation of Black America;”
- Not even 25 years old, and the Georgia Dome has closed, fittingly enough, with a Monster Truck Jam.
Baseball Book News
- What I’m reading now: “Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son,” by Paul Dickson (Bloomsbury USA), who kindly has sent me a review copy;
- This looks to be a spring publishing season for revisiting personality-driven Golden Age managers. Marty Appel’s latest, due out March 28, is “Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character,” published by Doubleday;
- Also on March 28, Tom Verducci’s “The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse,” is being published by Crown Archetype;
- As the season begins, on April 1, the University of Nebraska Press is rolling out “One Nation Under Baseball: How the 1960s Collided With Major League Baseball” by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro, continuing a theme gaining plenty of traction in the baseball book world;
- Michael Leahy, author of “The Last Innocents,” about the Dodgers in the 1960s social cauldron, is the latest guest on the Baseball by the Book podcast. The book was a finalist for the most recent PEN American Literary Sports Writing Award.
- Boxing cornerman and manager Lou Duva, 97, “was our Yogi Berra” to many of the fighters he worked with, bearing a blunt and gruff but also charming persona. Kevin Iole’s obituary has it all, including Duva’s unforgettable brawl with Roger Mayweather at a Sugar Ray Leonard fight. If you want even more from the man himself, Duva published a memoir in 2016, “A Fighting Life,” that is even more colorful that any third-party remembrance could ever be;
- Bill Webb, 70, had much to do with how Americans saw baseball on television, as a longtime director at Fox Sports and SNY whose intimate approach was called “the Webby style.” Neil Best at Newsday has more about Webb, who previously worked at ABC and was a key figure in “The Wide World of Sports” anthology that made “up close and personal” storytelling an iconic component of American sports television.
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 75, published March 12, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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