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Running down the score

You may have seen the story already, although I fully understand if you’re not a voracious fan of Oklahoma high school basketball. But last week, the Weatherford High School Eagles boys basketball team defeated the Anadarko High School Warriors 4-2. That’s not a misstatement, but an actual fact. That game was played to its entirety, which generally speaking is four, eight-minute quarters. So Anadarko scored one point every 16 minutes. Weatherford doubled that output in what relatively speaking could be considered an offensive onslaught. No one was injured, this wasn’t the backups to the backups because everyone was suspended. This was simply two high school basketball teams scoring a collective three baskets in 32 minutes.

The reason for this was largely because Anadarko, the away team, decided to use excessive stall tactics all game. Meaning instead of the normal dribble down the court, make some passes, and try to score, they just focused on the first two parts. And that was completely and totally within the rules, because in Oklahoma high school basketball, there is no shot clock, a countdown timer for each possession that ensures a high tempo. In the NBA, the clock is 24 seconds. In the NCAA, it’s 30. For high schools, it’s basically take as long as you want, although the National Federation of State High School Associations, the governing body for all high school sports, recently voted to allow high schools to adopt a 35 second clock. But clearly, they haven’t yet in Oklahoma, which turned the game into what amounts to watching an exercise video. So Anadarko tried to dribble out each agonizing possession to keep Weatherford, who I suppose was the better of the two teams, from scoring. Not scoring a lot, but scoring ever. I suppose the plan backfired given the final score, but it would be hard to declare anyone a winner here, including the broadcasters who had to somehow call the game.

This is by no means the first time that a team has used something of a rope-a-dope strategy to secure a win on the hardcourt. Dean Smith famously used the four corners offense at North Carolina to win games with low numbers. Villanova used a heavy slowdown in the second half of their 1985 National Championship upset over Georgetown. Pretty much all pre shot clock basketball involved some sort of downtempo play, especially for teams who knew they couldn’t win on athletic talent alone. That was especially pronounced before the invent of the three-point shot, which gave teams a way to quickly get back into a game and largely force its narrative. The basketball we’re accustomed to watching today is a far cry from its genesis.

Of course, capitalism changed all that. Not surprisingly, people who wanted to make money off sports realized fans were a lot more excited about people shooting and scoring than people dribbling to avoid that possibility. So rules were built to facilitate that change and officials started to privilege offense over defense – thus the effective end of what we used to know as traveling in the NBA. And upcoming players learned to build their game around scoring over defending. Which is why Steph Curry is the modern NBA prototype, not Anthony Mason. Such is true for virtually all major spectator sports with the exception of soccer, where fans are strangely conditioned to celebrate a 0-0 tie.

The conversation in Oklahoma now is what should be done so this doesn’t happen again. I’m guessing that conversation is being led by the parents who were forced to watch this atrocity. I’d be surprised if we don’t see a shot clock by next season. And honestly, the reality is that trying to keep high school kids from shooting the ball is a lot harder than it seems. So I imagine this is more spectacle than crisis.

But still, part of me hopes they do absolutely nothing. Part of the joy of sport is figuring out how to use a confluence of your skill sets and the game’s structure to beat the other team. That’s what Anadarko tried to do, albeit unsuccessfully. Instead of instinctively changing things because it was horribly boring, perhaps we should let the chess match continue and remember that sport is far more than forcing a particular narrative of consumer entertainment.

I doubt that’s going to happen. Which means that when these teams play next year, we can expect something completely different. And perhaps we’ll need more than two hands to count the score.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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