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Panama Playing it's Own Style

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Written by Matt   
Friday, 10 September 2010 10:32

When Pete Carril was coaching men’s basketball at Princeton University, and I was growing up there and it wasn’t unusual for me to see him around town drinking coffee or reading the newspaper. Because Princeton University did not award sports scholarships, sales the teams were never able to recruit the best talent and were, more or less, tied to the imagination of their coach. Carril, by all looks and appearances, was not someone whose imagination you’d want to be tied to. He was crabby, old, and balding: a man who, most of the time, actually looked like he was about to cry.

No one should try and replicate anything over their head, particularly if they’re not at the top of their class. In this scenario, the absolute best effort will result in nothing but second place.


Carril’s basketball philosophy though hinged on two curious principles. The first was that his players would play ridiculously hard defense. I loved going to see Pete’s teams play defense. Shuffling their feet for positioning, double-teaming, full court presses. They were like little gnats! So annoying that a disproportionate amount of times, the opposing team’s shot clock would expire before they got off a shot.

Every time that happened, us Princeton fans celebrated our own little victory. It wasn’t as if we were the only ones who appreciated this either. Carril’s teams led the NCAA in defense fourteen times.

On the other side of the court, Carril’s second principle was that players would practice something now famously known throughout the basketball world as “the Princeton offense.” This basically meant a whole lot of exterior passing with two things in mind: 1) milk the shot clock down as far as humanly possible and 2) release a high percentage shot at the end. To other teams, the Princeton offense was about as annoying as was its defense. LOL.

There was no flare or crazy innovation to Princeton’s game. Pete had figured that if you didn’t have the best shooters or the best rebounders, the next best solution was to shave minutes and consolidate the game down to a limited quantity of shots. This didn’t mean Princeton would always beat quality teams, but it did at least give them a chance. The results of Princeton basketball games often sounded more like football scores: 21-28, 30-32. I remember a time Pete’s Princeton held at team to 7 points at halftime. Double LOL.

At this moment, Panama is more justifiably impressive in the things that it doesn’t promote than the things that it does. Which is to say, I guarantee you no one’s coming back from a Panama vacation and saying, “Oh my gosh, you’re not going to believe how gorgeous Atlapa Convention Center is.”

Same goes for the malls or the casinos or the “Gold Coast” of Coronado and Gorgona. World travelers aren’t impressed by that shit. Why? Because those places already exist. They’ve already been done before. They’ve already been perfected. If you want to go to sparking casinos, you go to Vegas. If you want conventions, Florida has a million better options.

The similarity I see between Panama’s development plan and NCAA basketball strategy is a distant yet plausible one that rests on two somewhat interchangeable values. First, no one should try and replicate anything over their head, particularly if they’re not at the top of their class. In this scenario, the absolute best effort will result in nothing but second place. Oppositely, in the worst-case scenario, your reputation will be damaged beyond repair (think bad cover bands). Princeton could have played traditional basketball under Pete Carril just as Panama could potentially try to become the next generic hub of the world. These are disadvantageous because, in both, competition is far more equipped. In both, it’s far too easy to compare you to something else and say, well, you pretty much suck.

Second, Princeton embraced its strengths. There are some actual virtues in basketballers who score 1600s on their SATs just as there are actual virtues in indigenous tribes and spectacular coasts. The trick, as Pete proved, was not to use the same traditional measurements of height and speed and verticals (which for Panama would be comparing itself to Dubai or Switzerland or Miami). Instead, effectively flip the standards on their head. Should Panama to play by its own book and redefine the game on its own terms, it would carve a new niche. Panama would be similar to the world’s best destinations precisely because it was trying not to do so.

In the world of small school basketball, just as in the world of emerging destinations, there are many examples of this phenomenon (a team or a country using its own unorthodox style to effectively change the terms of the game and triumph against the bigger, seemingly better opponent). Some small guys win and others lose. This is natural. So what’s the differentiating factor?

The answer for Princeton was character and the respect. If they were going to try to genuinely hang with the big boys, they were going to bring their own authentic style. Indiana’s famed psycho-coach Bobby Knight once wrote, “[Pete] Carril inspired his teams with his own character to win and he demonstrated time and again how a smart and dedicated team could compete successfully against bigger programs and better players.”

The storybook ending to Pete Carril’s Princeton University career was in 1996. I was 14, and still remember the day vividly. It was the first game of the NCAA tournament, March Madness, and Princeton had unluckily drawn top ranked UCLA. It was a no-brainer for the odds makers. Big athletic black dudes from the hood versus preppy east coast nerds. Suffice it to say, if Princeton was going to try to beat UCLA at UCLA’s game, they’d lose. Horribly. But by destabilizing the playing field, by bringing their own unique recipe of obnoxious defense and time-sucking offense to the table, at least they’d have a chance.

Down a few points with five minutes remaining, things looked decent for the Tigers. Princeton had battled to a 19-18 halftime deficit (which is hilarious considering UCLA was one of the highest scoring teams in the nation). They had kept it close throughout most of the second half. The teams exchanged possessions without scoring until 21 seconds remained, when Princeton held possession of the ball and had the opportunity to take the final shot.

Which is when Steve Goodrich fed Gabe Lewullis on a cut through the middle and Lewullis converted a backdoor lay-up with like a second or two left. Mass pandemonium. A backdoor play. Princeton's most classic maneuver to win Princeton's biggest game ever. Arguably the most famous back-door play in the history of the sport. I still get chills thinking about that game.

It’s not as if Princeton was ever going to win the tournament (in fact, I think they lost in the next game). They weren’t the best team in the nation at all. But they did have a very authentic vision of what basketball was to them. And the moment against UCLA idolized it. Carril left the next year and went on to coach professionally in the NBA. But I still see him occasionally in Princeton drinking coffee or reading newspapers when I go to visit. He’s still crabby, old and always looks like he’s gonna cry.

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Last Updated on Friday, 10 September 2010 15:56