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Watching basketball like a pro.

When most fans watch an NBA game, whether they are in the stands or at home in front of the television, they probably see a bunch of players running up and down the court, then crisscrossing back and forth before someone takes a shot. Then the players charge the other way and do it all over again. The spectators usually watch the player with the ball. He either passes, shoots, or commits a turnover. Then they see everybody run the other way, and they watch it happen all over again. Well, maybe a novice would be satisfied with that action, but anyone who really understands the game knows there's much more to playing basketball than that. When a team'S working together as one unit, the game is like clockwork-fast and efficient. It's Boom! Bam! Dish! and Jam! Blink and you just might miss the key part of the sequence that opened the play for someone to finally score. That's why the game is so difficult to watch for some fans, unless they've done their homework.

I was lucky that my father taught me exactly how to watch a game when I was still young. He taught me how to see everything happening on the floor and not just the action in one comer or even one-half of the floor. He taught me the game by watching films, even when I was in junior high school, and by showing me why plays like the pick-and-roll, backdoor, simple things like that, worked when they were run correctly. He showed me how they developed, what they looked like in the early stages so that I would learn to recognize situations before the other players would. My father told me that if I could do that I'd be able to take advantage of the openings before the defense even sees them. He wanted me to learn to see things before they even happened.

Fans always tell me they have trouble trying to watch a basketball game. They see the ball, so they know when someone scores, but they can't catch the quick moves or see the strategies develop until it's too late, such as after a basket's been scored, or when the defense has made the steal, or when a player has had his shot blocked and the other team is already on its way down the floor. Basketball's a simple game to play and watch, but only if you develop an eye for even the smallest details of the game and see it the way players and coaches do, as ten bodies working together and against each other, bumping and pounding, and not just a bunch of guys going one-on-one. To get the true flavor of the game, I tell people to try another angle, to focus on the center, the man in the middle. All the action, whether it's on the ball or away from it, revolves around that position. People who watch the center won't miss anything. They'll see the offensive movement, the screens, and the picks teams use to get someone an open shot. They'll also see defensive rotations and adjustments. If they watch only the basketball, they'll miss a lot of the game on the other side of the floor, the weak side, things that ultimately might be the reason the team with the ball either scores or doesn't.

To really watch a game, you have to think like a player. Sometimes I tell fans to pretend they're the point guard, to look for an opening in the defense, a weakness. They should see if they can catch the defensive player leaning the wrong way before the offensive player drives around him; or if they can see the offensive player read a defensive double-team and dish the basketball off to the open man who's cutting to the basket; or if they can see the defensive player creeping toward an open lane because he reads the eyes of the player with the basketball and sees that the spot is where he's about to pass it; or if they can notice the center on defense sliding across the lane to help a teammate who's been beaten by his man, then arriving just in time to block the opponent's drive; or if they can catch it before the players do, so when someone makes the pass they can say, "Yeah, I made that pass too," or when someone makes a steal they can say, "Yeah, that defensive player saw the same thing I did." Fans can pretend they're Larry Bird staring down at the unlucky guy who's been assigned to guard him, daring him to make a defensive move. When the defender backs off just a little, they shoot the jumper. If he comes up and crowds them, they give him Larry's little head fake and then go right around him. Or they can pretend that they're Michael Jordan. They put their wings on, then come flying down the floor, stalking the defense, their tongue wagging out of the side of their mouth, looking for somebody to dunk on. Everybody's mesmerized. They see an opening in the lane. They fake right, roll left, take off, and jam it through over two players who didn't have a chance. Then on their way back to the defensive end of the floor, they pass the other team's coach and say, "That guy can't guard me! You'd better get somebody out here who can guard me before that guy gets hurt!"

Watching the game can be so much more fun for fans when they begin to think like the players. The most successful basketball players at any level see the game in their minds. They size up situations, then see plays an instant before they happen. They've learned to look at the court in a way that's different from most other players and fans. Some former players who've gone into coaching get frustrated because most of their players just don't see the game the way they did. Guys like Lenny Wilkens, Willis Reed, and Doug Collins were special players not only because of what they could do on the floor but also because they had a mind for the game that some of their opponents and teammates didn't have. That's not something coaches can just pass on to the players they coach if the players simply can't absorb it.

I understand what they go through. Early on, when I first began coaching kids at my summer camps, I got caught up in that same kind of thinking and became frustrated too. During a scrimmage, I'd stop play and yell at a kid because he didn't see a teammate who was open for an easy shot, or he missed that a particular passing lane was clear, or he wasn't paying attention on defense and his man slipped right by him for an easy lay-up. I had to learn that the kids couldn't see what I saw, that the game I was playing in my mind was a lot different from the game they were playing on the floor. To me, everything was clear. It was like a book where everything was explained down to the smallest detail and illustrated with pictures that were clear and strong. But to a lot of people, the game was too fast and too complicated to see. The pictures were blurry. That's unfortunate because if people would learn to visualize the game, to see it and think it the right way, then everything on the floor becomes crystal clear. It becomes a whole new game.

Even basketball fans who've never played the sport can develop a feel for the game from the stands. So more than just knowing the score, they'll know how to read the importance of different scoring margins and how each team is reacting to being ahead or behind. Good teams are always capable of erasing almost any lead. Sc they'll watch closely the team that', ahead and look for signs that they're satisfied with the lead. That's the most dangerous thing that can happen to a team, but it happens to almost everybody. In December of 1988, the Lakers blew a 20-point lead against the Washington Bullets at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. That's because we got lazy. We were in the middle of a slump, and we weren't playing well; we were so happy to get a lead, we relaxed. Before we knew it, it was their game again, and with their crowd behind them, we just couldn't regain control. It was embarrassing. That's one game no one, except maybe Bullets' fans, should want to see through my eyes.

From the stands, spectators can also become the coach. If a team scores three or four times in a row against the home team, do you call time-out? Do you make a substitution? Do you yell at the players for making mistakes or encourage them to just play harder and concentrate? Do you let the players on the floor ride out the storm? If one particular player is hot, if he's just running his defender in circles, do you call his play again? And again? Or do you use him as a decoy to set up someone else for the shot? If the player misses badly, do you call his play again? Do you rest him? Do you allow the rookie to play through his mistakes, even though it might cost the team some points? Or do you

risk shattering his confidence by taking him out? And what about your reserves? Are you concerned that they get at least a few minutes of playing time? Do you reward them for practicing hard or just let them know that the games are only for the starters and two or three other key players? Decisions, decisions.

All these questions are being asked on the floor as the game is being played, which is why basketball is such a fascinating game. The players and coach are trying to answer them every moment we're out on the floor. Those questions should be going through the fans' minds as they're watching any game, no matter whether it's a game between kids; teenagers on the playground; adults at the YMCA or YWCA; or boys and girls on teams in junior high, high school, or college. Think the game as well as play it.

To me, basketball is a labor of love, and I'd like to help anyone who plays the game or just watches it to enjoy it more, understand it more, or play it better. Besides winning championships, that's my reward. Every time fans come up to me and say I helped bring them into basketball, I smile. A
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Author:Johnson, Magic
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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