A highly anticipated Oregon 5A state championship game, between schools Springfield and Willamette, ended up being one the biggest duds in recent memory. The final score was 16-7. The halftime score was 4-0. And Willamette had one possession that lasted almost the entire second quarter. Because rather than play basketball, Willamette coach Paul Brothers decided on a radically different, and incredibly frustrating, stalling tactic. The result: possibly the worst basketball game ever recorded.
Prior to this, Willamette had lost just three games all year — all to Springfield, led by highly regarded junior Mercedes Russell, a 6’6 post player. And Russell is justifiably scary: even in the scant number of plays actually run during this game, Russell is clearly the tallest and most skilled player on the court.
So what did coach Brothers instruct his squad to do? Keep the ball away from Springfield. But that didn’t mean “protect the ball,” or “deny Russell post position or entry passes.” That meant, literally hold the ball for as long as humanly possible. With no shot clock, Willamette was able to stand still without doing anything for long stretches of the game, including virtually the entire second quarter. When Willamette did run a play with six seconds to go before the half, it was immediately stolen and taken the other way by Springfield.
Here are some “highlights,” including a glimpse into what must have been a terribly boring first half.
As shown by the one field goal Willamette made in the video, they were obviously capable of playing. In fact, they had made it all the way to the state championship by (presumably) playing basketball. But out of desperation, Brothers tried to game the system, and went against everything that any high school coach should be instilling in their players. Scholastic basketball – even championship-level high school basketball – shouldn’t be about winning at whatever cost.
And Brothers isn’t the first person to try this tactic. Pac-8 teams used to hold the ball rather than give it to Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and UCLA. And I speak from experience here: as a third grader, I was once one of the weaker players on a team in a community league, where the coach would make some players stand in the corner while the best two would run a pick and roll and play by themselves. “We” won many games that season, but I (along with several other eight-year-olds) only touched a ball a few times over the course of the year.
In my case, at least there was a happy ending: I was able to make the 4th grade “All-Star Team” the next year (which proved to be the apex of my basketball career), and I went on to become something of a well-adjusted adult. I can only hope that the players on Willamette take an important lesson from this game: winning isn’t everything. Especially when you end up on the losing side of the lowest scoring game in state championship history instead.
What do you think about all this, America? Worst game ever? Or shrewd tactic that simply backfired?