Saturday, March 24, 2012

Zone Defense and Ninjas

This week, while watching the famous Syracuse zone defense, I started thinking about other zone defenses. This got me thinking about John Cheney's Temple Owls teams, and that got me thinking about one of his players, a guy by the name of Mark Macon. Specifically, I thought about a Sports Illustrated article I read over 20 years ago about Mark Macon.

It may seem odd that I would remember a magazine article about a fairly obscure college basketball player that was published more than two decades ago. I often do boast about the quality of my memory, but recollections are never truly random. We remember things that, for whatever reason, make an impression on us. And the reason this article made an impression on me was because it made me think that Mark Macon was a ninja.

For the benefit of those who didn't grow up in the 1980s, this was a time when ninjas were a pop culture phenomenon. You couldn't turn on a cartoon without encountering a ninja. I once witnessed a playground debate in which the de facto resolved statement was "It is possible for a ninja to catch another ninja's throwing stars." G.I. Joe couldn't fight Cobra without having a ninja on their side. The "Teenage Mutant Turtles" wouldn't have ever emerged from the sewer.

What made ninjas spectacular to my generation was not their physical capabilities. Ninjas were awesome because their physical skills were an extension of the power of their minds. A ninja's mastery of their environment started with their ability to cogitate.

And this article made clear to me that for Mark Macon, his performance on the basketball court started in his dorm room. He would make up proverbs, write them on index cards, and tape them to his dorm room wall. For as remarkable as this seemed to me at the time, it is even more remarkable now. I hadn't been to college when I first read the article, so for all I knew, it was fairly common for college students (athletes, at that) to decorate their dorm rooms with 3X5 cards with sayings like "Suffering + Sacrifice = Success." And actually, this particular Maconism stayed with me all through the years. I was able to access the original article within minutes by googling "Suffering + Sacrifice= Success."

Re-reading the article after all these years, I am struck by how utterly bizarre Mark Macon's high school coach, Norwaine Reed, was. Here is an excerpt that describes what it was like to play for him:

Reed coached Macon at Buena Vista High in Saginaw, Mich., and taught him a course, as part of the basketball program, called Competitive Edge to Peak Performance. Reed's pedagogy is a sort of Norman Vincent Peale for jocks, with an overlay of mysticism. Says Reed, "We sought to instill in our youngsters a commitment to truth, and to have a spiritual commitment—to teach them that there are things in the metaphysical realm that they can control just by how they think."

The Reed method involves memorizing affirmations and repeating them three times daily. His Knights keep a journal of their goals and an "image book," with graphic renderings of these objectives to help them "visualize."

Reed's beliefs scared up some controversy while Macon was at Buena Vista. Players had to sit together in the cafeteria and nosh on affirmations with their lunches. The team practiced on Sunday mornings, which gave the Knights "a feeling of being one, of aspiring to something higher," says Temple's Shoun Randolph, a classmate of Macon's at Buena Vista.

Players even had to forswear girlfriends during the season. "When you get caught up in one girl, you lose sight of what you're striving for," says Macon, who found this to be the most difficult of Reed's rules to follow.

This was a few years before Phil Jackson made the term "Zen master" something that could be attributed without irony to a basketball coach. But both Jackson and Norwaine Reed were products of a particular zeitgeist, one that I don't think exists anymore (as evidenced perhaps by Jackson's appearance in a luxury car commercial last year, in which the nickname was gently mocked).

True, the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid was a box office success, but the Mr. Miyagi archetype is not nearly as prevalent as it was when Mark Macon matriculated at Temple. Nor am I seeing any of the coaches in this year's March Madness tournament being compared to Splinter the Rat.

After the initial romanticism and allure of the culture of martial arts has worn off, and with it the belief that some mixture of asceticism, secret knowledge, and willpower would yield success, we don't get coaches who give athletes reading assignments and "affirmations." Nor do we get players developing arcane equations as dorm decorations.

And in my estimation, basketball (and all of pop culture) is better off for it. It's possible to be a good player without being a ninja. In fact, based upon the evidence of the trajectory of Macon's pro career, ninjas were highly overrated. Using a draft lottery pick on a ninja is a bad idea. Also, I highly doubt that any ninja would be able to catch another ninja's throwing stars.


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