Opals and the Art of War
As I watched the Opals playing the USA in a practise game in New York at Madison Square Garden in their last practise game before the big dance I wondered what their plan was to eventually beat the USA in a meaningful game. The Opals have never beaten the USA in World Championship or Olympic events but have won a few of times many years ago in exhibition games during the Tom Maher and Jan Stirling era.
Certainly if the Opals are the second best women’s team in the world you would expect that at some point they would be the ones who might cause a huge upset in women’s basketball. When the Opals won their only Gold medal in 2006 it was Russia who eliminated the Americans from the tournament with the Opals knocking off the Russians in the Gold Medal game, so the Opals have never beaten the USA in a meaningful game.
The US men’s team have been beaten at these events by Greece in 2002 at the World Champs and by Argentina in the 2004 Olympic Games. So were the Opals working on a plan to beat the Yanks in this pre-Olympic event in New York?
In the early 1990’s I was fortunate enough to host legendary US college coach Bob Knight while he was in Melbourne as the guest speaker at our annual coach’s convention – yes we had coaches conventions in those days. My hosting role included taking Coach Knight and his wife Karen to see some of the major tourist attractions around Melbourne including the 12 Apostles near Warrnambool, the Penguin Parade in Phillip Island and of course Healesville Sanctuary. The great part of this role was that I had arguably the best coach in the world sitting beside me in the front seat of my car for many hours while we did our site seeing. We had many discussions about basketball, with me doing all the listening, and it was a truly a unique experience for me. One of the questions I asked him was what was the best book he had read on coaching basketball? His answer was The Art of War by Sun Tzu which was written in the 5th Century BC and is basically a book on military tactics of the time. I thought it an unusual choice, but once I read the book I understood why he thought it essential reading for a basketball coach. The book is a hard read but if you are patient there is plenty of good information in there. One of the tactics he emphasises is the importance of winning the meaningful battles, even if you go to the extent of looking foolish or incompetent in non-meaningful battles you can make your opposition think less of you and thus get complacent when they next face you – perhaps in a more meaningful battle. This is a tactic that Europeans have often used in the meaningful tournaments conducted by FIBA, they are very aware of the games that matter and will often be more than happy to lose a meaningless game if they feel it can help their chances when it matters the most. I have seen this many times over my basketball life while following the Olympic Games and World Championships for men and women.
I have also seen many teams bet Victoria Metro in pre-tournament games or beat them in the early rounds of pool play at National Championships only to see those same teams lose to the Vic’s at the elimination stage of the tournaments on a Friday or Saturday night, you win the Championship by winning the meaningful games.
Having seen the Opals beat the Americans a couple of times in meaningless games but never able to get past them in games that matter I decided if I ever got into such a situation I would apply the tactics of Sun Tzu.
My opportunity came when I was appointed Head Coach of the Australian Young Men’s team in 1997. I knew I was getting a very talented group of players, most of these guys had won Silver at the 1995 Under 19 World Championships beating a USA team along the way that had the likes of Vince Carter, Stephon Marbury and Trajan Langdon. I knew we would have a chance of doing well at the tournament. I also knew that the coach of the USA team was going to be Rick Majerus who was the coach of the University of Utah, a very highly respected coach in US College basketball.
I had a chance to scout Majerus when I took a group of players on a college tour to the USA organised by Australian Basketball Legend Ken Cole. We played Utah and it still goes down as one of the biggest screw jobs I have experienced in the USA. We were up by one point with about 20 seconds to go in the game, Utah had the ball with the opportunity to score to win the game, in a simple cross court pass their player missed the ball and it went out of bounds directly in front of our bench. It was 100% clear the ball went out without any of our players touching the ball, it was clearly to be our ball with a few seconds left in the game with a 1-point lead. However, the home town ref called the ball out off us and gave Utah another chance to win the game. They got it to future NBA player Keith Van Horne who scored on the buzzer and of course we lose by one. As you can imagine I was quite disappointed at that and as I went up to shake the hand of Coach Majerus he stood there with a smug look on his face and it was all I could do to not call him a cheating son of a %%$&. I knew I would see him again, I’m not sure if he knew I was coach of the Australian team he would be facing early the next year but he would find out soon enough.
I next faced Coach Majerus at a warm up game before the World Championships. The game was billed as the Future Forces of Australian Basketball v USA. It was telecast on Fox Sports and it was the only time we would face the USA before it would be a meaningful game at the World Championships. We were in the opposite pool to the USA but it was safe to assume if we were going to win the Gold Medal we were going to have to face the USA at some point.
The game was a chance to test ourselves against the USA and see how good we really were. It became pretty clear as the game went on that we were more than competitive with this team, my team played extremely well and you could see that the guys were giving everything they had in an effort to beat the Yanks. With about eight minutes to go in the game it was pretty clear to me that we could beat this US team, I can’t remember the exact scores but it was enough for me to feel confident that in the right situation we could certainly beat these guys. I made the decision there and then that I did not want to win this Future Forces game. The last thing I needed was for a grumpy US team to enter those World Champs, I wanted them feeling invincible and feeling like they had our number.
I started to sub out guys who were playing particularly well for us, I tried to hide the fact that I was trying to lose the game and I didn’t mind looking stupid while I was doing it. Problem was everyone I subbed in also played well, it was a point for point game in the end and we eventually ended up losing narrowly. I can remember my assistant coach Bruce Palmer after the game frustrated at some of the subbing and tactical decisions I made during that game. I explained to him that I didn’t want to win that game, you only get so many chances to beat the USA. I wanted to beat them when it mattered, he didn’t get it. Shaking Coach Majerus’ hand after the game was another painful experience but I could see by the look on his face he had some concerns.
Anyway, our tournament didn’t exactly go to plan, we completed the round robin phase with a 3-2 record which saw us in a knock out quarter final against non-other than the USA and Coach Majerus. It was, for me, a moment of truth, the sort of opportunity you can both love and loath as its usually a death sentence once you face the USA in these events. Some of the European coaches I shared a drink with each night at the Hotel bar had even suggested we lose our last pool game against Spain to avoid the USA in the quarter finals. They didn’t understand I wanted to play the USA and I thought I had both a game plan and strategy to beat them. History shows we thrashed the USA by 18 points and eliminated them from the tournament. The walk down to shake the hand of Coach Majerus after the game was one of my best memories from the tournament, I just put my hand out and said “good game”. I could see his pain and I must say it was a beautiful thing. We went on and won the Gold medal, surviving a nail bitter against Argentina in the semi-final with an Aaron Trahair three pointer on the buzzer and then winning against Puerto Rico to bring home Australia’s first men’s Gold Medal. I am certain some of the tactics I learnt courtesy of Coach Knight and Sun Tzu helped us win that medal.
This is why I ask what the plan is for the Opals to beat the Americans. I doubt Brendan Joyce would have gone into that game willing to show all he had planned for them at the Olympics. They are in opposite pools as the number 1 and number 2 ranked teams so they shouldn’t face each other until the Gold Medal game if all goes to plan. In the men’s game the Americans have been surprised a couple of times in recent years, losing to Argentina at the 2004 Olympic Games and losing to Greece in the semi-finals of the 2006 World Championships, Spain eventually won the Gold. The Europeans and Argentinians beat the Yanks by slowing the game down, taking away their transition opportunities and by awesome passing and shooting. There was a clear style of play that both frustrated and exposed weaknesses in the American game, weaknesses that are no longer apparent in the American game. The NBA now also pass the ball much better and certainly use the three point shot much better as a result of the success teams had against US teams.
So will we see a different approach by the Opals? If they try to slug it out with them in an up tempo game I think they have little chance, that is how they played at Madison Square Garden. I will be interested to see if Brendan has a cunning plan to beat the Yanks and create some history for the Opals and Australian basketball. Here’s hoping all goes well for the Opals and they can bring home Gold.