by William Bixby
Dean Smith, Hubie Brown, George Thompson II, Pete Newell, and John Wooden no longer coach the game of basketball. They were the preeminent teachers of the sport, and they may be the last of their kind. Players that attended the University of North Carolina, Georgetown University, University of California Los Angeles, or were drafted to the NBA team with one of these coaches became better basketball players and better men. These men not only taught basketball ideology, but also helped their players to navigate life through their interest in basketball. These men cultivated the sport and groomed young men into upstanding citizens on and off the court. The examples set by them still ring true today.
If you were fortunate enough to play for UCLA from the 60′s through the 70′s, then you played for one of the most legendary coaches of all time. John Wooden taught basketball theory, but also guided young men through life lessons. Players under Wooden were promised three things, they would get an education, win a National Championship, and become both a better basketball player and a better person. Wooden was so close to his players that many of them, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, (both Hall of Fame Players) kept in touch with him until he passed away in 2010. He was innovative in basketball helping implement the 2-2-1 zone that was built by one of his assistant coaches, but he was even more influential off the court imparting wisdom to players like this statement. ”Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
If you played for Dean Smith, at the University of North Carolina from the 70′s to the 90′s, you would have a solid pro career in the National Basketball Association. He preached fundamentals, like ball-handling and proper shooting technique, to all his players. He taught both selflessness and assertiveness with the basketball. Smith taught fundamental basketball philosophy, like proper spacing and cutting on the offensive end, and unit cohesiveness and rotation on the defensive end. His tenure at UNC produced more professional players than anyone in college history and gave us Hall of Fame players like Michael Jordan and James Worthy. However, Dean Smith’s legacy is his coaching tree. He has also produced more good coaches than his contemporaries, including two Hall of Famer’s, Larry Brown and Roy Williams.
Pete Newell specialized in training big men. He emphasized efficient footwork in the post area. Hall of Fame centers like Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon frequented his camps in their off-season to gain an advantage over their competition.
John Thompson II produced some of the most dominant big men and the most dominant little man that the NBA has ever seen in 27 years at Georgetown University. He taught a suffocating, pressure defense and aggressive, attacking offense. He coached dynamic post play on offense and positioning and active hands on defense. Thompson gave us Ewing, Mourning, and Mutumbo, three of the league’s best shotblockers, and Iverson one of the league’s best pure scorers. More so, John Thompson protected and mentored his players and still mentors some of them today.
Before Hubie Brown coached the Memphis Grizzlies, they were the butt of a lot of NBA jokes. After he arrived, he convinced the players to use their time to hone their skills, put them in a position to win games, and allowed them play in a manner that was conducive to their skill set. He took the Grizzlies from laughing stock to a playoff team.Pau Gasol blossomed and became an All-Star under Hubie Brown. And, even today, he remains one of the best teachers of basketball theory on his telecasts as a NBA broadcaster for the league.
These men taught the game of basketball as more than a hobby or even an occupation for their players. They taught basketball as a means to a better life, not necessarily financially, but as a mirror to their players own work ethic and personal drive. Basketball served as a guide for life with their players.
The next collection of great coaches arrived long ago, but not many real teachers are found in the group. Larry Brown, who taught the game like his former head coach Dean Smith, has moved on to the NBA where the teaching is minimal. Bobby Knight, one of the great motivators and tacticians in college basketball, has retired. He did more with less talent than any coach in history, but no longer coaches. Mike Krzyzewski, though a Hall of Fame coach, only improves the game of his wing players. His post players and point guards never get better. He does motivate and provides a sound education, but overall his players do not leave with better basketball or life skills than with what they arrived.
I’m not sure where the next generation of teachers of basketball are. Maybe there is some Division III head coach that is waiting for his big shot. Maybe the next crop has not been born yet. But, the skill level and integrity of the game is dependent on them arriving soon, and if we do not find them, basketball as we know it may never be the same.