My Late Love Affair With Defensive Basketball

By Lorenzo Tanos

As a young boy growing up in the Philippines (where I am still based now), I grew up on run-and-gun basketball. I got hooked on basketball thanks to the “Showtime” Lakers featuring Magic, Kareem, Worthy and Pat Riley. Our Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) routinely had scores exceeding the 130 mark in the mid-‘80s to early-‘90s, especially when American “imports” would be part of the lineups. So the NBA had Wilt Chamberlain as the only individual to score 100 points in a game? We had two in the PBA – imports Michael Hackett (103 points in 1985) and Tony Harris (105 points in 1992 or 1993). That’s why I found it a little hard to accept when the PBA took the NBA’s then-vogue “uglyball” style of play into overdrive (some say overkill, including me in those days) and 100-point games became a rarity in the late ‘90s. An extreme rarity, I must add, compared to the similarly low-scoring NBA of that era.

However, ask most Filipinos aged 25 to 40 and they’ll tell you the PBA of the late ‘90s was the league’s greatest era ever. Sure, there were a few players who came in as Filipino-Americans who were eventually banned from the league for falsifying birth documents – the so-called “Fil-Shams.” That was a big blow to the PBA’s credibility at one point. But now that I’m older and wiser, I realize that those people are right – Mike D’Antoni-approved shootouts are still fun to watch, ditto the “no defense allowed” All-Star games, but the real classics are the games where both teams are playing their proverbial 110% and hunkering down on defense. These are the equivalents of Fischer vsSpassky in chess or Royce Gracie vs Ken Shamrock in those early UFC tournaments. And now I’m speaking in general, regardless of which basketball league I’m watching. These are the games that turn into chess matches, as Team A figures out how to stop Team B’s top scorer while Team B does the same. And while the score invariably sinks below the 90s in the NBA (below the 80s in the PBA), certain fans, such as myself, are better for it, having seen a real classic of a game unfold.

Of course there will be fans who insist that balls clanging off the rim over and over again are a sight for sore eyes. That’s a point well taken, but for me, basketball is best enjoyed when it’s a game played to stop the other team from scoring, instead of trying to outscore the other team. It’s that old adage at work here – the best offense is a good defense. When your shots aren’t falling, what can you do to make yourself useful? Try to shut your man down, that’s what. Even if you’re not a good defender, the important thing is that you show some effort out there. And going back to my home country, fans tend to let off a bigger cheer for a clean blocked shot rather than a booming three-point shot or rim-rattling dunk. An open trey or breakaway dunk is executed with no one in your face; it’s like taking candy from a baby. But getting in somebody’s face and blocking a shot? It’s more than just athleticism and timing – hard work and a willingness to play “D” is an important part of those plays.

Well, it took me more than two decades of being a basketball fan, but as a man in my early 30s, I finally learned how to love defensive basketball. If played right, so-called “uglyball” can be a thing of beauty.

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