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Nashville Scene Truer to the Game

Women play a superior brand of basketball

By Randy Horick

APRIL 10, 2000:  Out in our driveway, where my 12-year-old daughter dreams of becoming the next Chamique Holdsclaw, we have been working together on a few of the finer points of competitive basketball. Like how to use your elbow semi-legally to establish position (an old Don Meyer bit of wisdom). Or how to inbound the ball to yourself by thunking it off the buttocks of an unsuspecting opponent. Or the deep personal satisfaction, to say nothing of the psychological advantage, gained from setting a teeth-rattling screen.

As part of this regimen, I have tried to use games on TV as teaching tools. I point out, for example, a good blockout on a rebound, a properly executed pick and roll, or the way to run a two-on-one fast break (or, more often, the way not to run a break).

Being a quick study, my daughter has observed one of the game's truths just from viewing two telecasts: the women's Final Four games on Friday and the corresponding men's contests on Saturday evening. "Dad," she observed, "the guys can't shoot."

This is either basketball's deep, dark secret or a cause for excitement, depending on your point of view. The truth is that the women take better shots than their male counterparts. As their respective NCAA tournaments made it ever clearer this March, when it comes to putting the pill in the hoop, girls' basketball rocks. Boys' basketball, well, doesn't.

But not only that: The women play a superior brand of basketball. These are not the tilted rantings of some addle-brained pot-stirrer, as accustomed as you may profess to be to seeing such things on these pages. You can find a whole pantheon of old NBA stars--including no less of a luminary than Bill Russell his own bad shot-blocking self--who proclaim that women's basketball is much truer to the game they played than the men's version today.

Claims of superiority, of course, all depend upon your definitions. If you measure quality by physical measures--speed, play above the rim, dazzling one-on-one moves--it's still a man's world. (Don't imagine, however, that the women in the Final Four aren't superbly conditioned athletes.)

If you're looking for solid fundamentals and all-around team play, well, um, fellas, y'all got next. Ironically, the relative physical inferiority of today's women players provides the basis for a superior game.

The ability of men to complete acrobatic, soaring drives and dunks increasingly has led them to become infatuated with "taking it to the tin"--regardless of which defenders are in the way or which teammates may be open elsewhere. It's as if the guys have all graduated from some funky basketball camp that teaches that style points count for even more than real ones.

If you had $250 for every time during the men's NCAAs that a player passed up a jump shot, faked with the ball, then put his head down and headed toward the hole, they'd make you an honorary member of the bar association. The predictable results of such reckless driving, all too often, are offensive fouls, ugly collisions, and loads of bricks. For every dunk, we are forced to witness several thunks. For every electrifying play, there are several short-circuits. The literal rise of countless would-be Jordans has corresponded with a steady fall in field goal and free throw percentages in the men's game.

Contrast that with the women's game, where the play is decidedly below the rim and dunks are rarer than incorruptible state legislators.

Because the girls aren't yet throwing it down, they're forced to concentrate on aspects of the game that many of the boys seem to regard as beneath them. Like practicing free throws. Running patterned offenses. Looking for back-door cutters. Making routine shots. Executing the fundamentals.

For all of these reasons, if you want to teach someone to play the game, women's basketball today is far more instructive. In part, that's because their game runs at a slightly slower speed, allowing you more clearly to see plays develop. Much more, however, it has to do with better shot selection, better ball movement, and more faithful adherence to the concept of team play.

Off the court, of course, women's college basketball looks even better in comparison. At the Division I level, men's hoops today less and less exemplifies the old ideals of amateur competition and more and more resembles a corporate leviathan.

In the way that drug cartels have corrupted the institutions in countries like Colombia and Mexico, those who control the money and labor supply have leeched into men's basketball. AAU coaches serve as talent brokers who wield inordinate influence. Shoe companies sponsor posh summer camps for top high school players and sign college coaches to cushy contracts, hoping to win future endorsements from those who become stars.

Meanwhile, the pressures to win are so enormous upon coaches, and the financial allure of an NBA career so powerful to players, that almost any action can be rationalized in the name of winning. Top high school players with marginal grades may be shipped off to basketball trade schools that pass themselves off as institutions of academic learning.

Collegiate coaches recruit the nation's elite players knowing all too well that they will be gone within a year or two, and that their only real interest in the college experience lies in gaining experience that will prepare them for the pros.

Things are so whomperdejawed that the NCAA, which blithely presided over the creation of this mess, is now declaring that the entire culture of men's basketball is diseased and needs a radical cure. (Good luck, guys.)

Against this backdrop, the women's game looks like a fount of purity. Star players don't bug out early for the professional league; they stay and earn their degrees.

Coaches don't have to hire bodyguards to protect their athletes from contact by predatory agents. The recruiting process does not begin in the eighth or ninth grades. There are no televised McDonald's all-American games or dunk contests that teach the best players that they belong to some sort of celebrity elite.

Those days may be coming. As the popularity of women's basketball continues to increase (Sunday's championship between Tennessee and Connecticut was the most watched women's game ever), so too will the pressures.

The retirement last week of Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore is a reminder of where the game is going. Tech and Old Dominion are perhaps the last of the "little" schools that remain powers in women's basketball today. It's easy to forget that, barely two decades ago, the game was dominated by colleges you never heard of: Delta State, Immaculata, Stephen F. Austin, Wayland Baptist.

Women's basketball belongs to the big schools now. With the WNBA successfully established, it is conceivable that collegians might turn pro early if salaries become attractive enough. Coaches might cut corners and grease palms to lure the best high schoolers to their programs. A whole industry might rise up and enshroud the game, as it has with men's basketball.

Until then, though, I'll keep offering up as role models the kind of unspoiled, we-first players who were evident in the women's tournament.

Meanwhile, we won't forget at our house that the men's pro league still offers enormous entertainment value. Just last Sunday, during the Knicks-Lakers game, my daughter came rushing in breathlessly. "Dad, dad, come check it out. Kobe Bryant and Chris Childs are having a fight!"

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