Basketball… Really

Whittier, CA (thenotsomorningshow.com)- Marty McFly had to drive a Delorean 88 miles an hour to travel back in time, 88 years after the invention of basketball two schools traveled back in time for an hour inside a California gymnasium.

photo credit: j9sk9s via photopin cc

In 1891 when Dr. James Naismith first put up peach baskets to toss a ball into, teams would play the new game of basketball until tiring from the activity, or growing weary of the delay incurred using a ladder to retrieve the ball captured inside the basket after scoring. Among of the games earliest changes were to knock the bottom out of the peach basket, and timing the contests.

By 1979 professionals used a 24 second clock to get off their shot or turn the ball over, the collegiate and high school game had no timed shot clock, enabling one team to spread out, simply pass and dribble, while running minutes off the clock with a single possession. This tactic was often utilized to get the last shot of a game or allowing a team with a lead to hold the ball and run the games last precious minutes down, forcing an opponent into fouling them and being rewarded with free throws. The “four corner” led to numerous upsets, with the underdog winning low scoring games when a favorite would fall a few points behind and become a victim of basketballs version of keep away.

San Clemente is a town on the southern California coastline, about 50 miles south of Los Angeles, then with a population of 17,000 and a high school of 2000 students from freshmen to seniors. The Tritons did win state and CIF championships that year, in surfing and volleyball, while the basketball team scrapped and reached the California Interscholastic Federation playoffs with a third place finish in the South Coast League. The school had a unique roster of players that season, with only one returning letterman from the previous years playoff team that had included three senior starters over 6’6″. Their tallest player for the new season was six foot 2 inch senior Ross Sutton, who was moved to forward and led the team in scoring, the remainder of the squad included only two players who were over or at 6 feet tall, with two starting guards that were five foot 6 inches tall, in essence the entire team were guards and the taller ones weren’t ball handlers.

Recognizing that rebounding was an all too obvious weakness for his team, coach Rich Skelton had to find a way to keep his squad from being tremendously outrebounded by much taller teams in nearly every contest. His options were to coach his team to become either superior jumpers who could out leap opponents, or superior shooters who could not miss, or limit the amount of available rebounds in each game.

Skelton choose the latter. In any basketball game there are two ways to limit rebounds, make your shots, or don’t attempt many shots.

Skelton again, choose the latter. The “four corner” offense became a staple in San Clemente that season.

In doing so he got his tiny Tritons into the playoffs. Many of their regular season scores could have been mistaken for football games. Including victories against Capistrano Valley 35-32 and 42-32, a loss to Dana Hills 21-16, a non-league 5 overtime 36-34 victory over Irvine. San Clemente entered the playoffs with a wild card match up and responded with a convincing victory over a taller but slower Lompoc, earning the right to face a powerful Sierra High Spartans two nights later.

The Spartans, coached by Todd James, had won their league and were rewarded with a top seed in the playoffs, allowing them to host the wild card winner on their court in Whittier. Sierra forward Steve Egbert was named to the All-Southern California AA second team, leading a front line that clearly outsized San Clemente, and they were good. The team also began their season knowing that Sierra High was closing after the school year, they truly walked the edge knowing that a loss for them ended not just a season, but their history.

The evening of the game at Sierra high, Friday February 23, 1979, the Spartans and coach James had prepared for how they would react to a slowed down tempo, being aware of the upsets the Tritons had pulled using it during their season. While San Clemente’s coach Skelton also made some drastic adjustments to give his team a chance at victory.

Though taller, Sierra could not control the opening jump and San Clemente took the games first possession, and immediately began to spread out. Without so much as a cursory attempt to drive the lane or set a pick, for five and a half minutes the Tritons dribbled and relayed the ball between themselves. Until Sutton, probably acting against instructions was given an open look and made a jump shot from 17 feet to put the Tritons up 2-0. Sierra hurried back offensively and fed Jeff Masters inside for a hoop to tie the score at 2-2 less than 20 seconds later. San Clemente ran off the final two minutes and missed a shot as time expired in the opening quarter.

After again gaining possession of the tip San Clemente controlled the ball the entire second quarter, passing the ball and winding down the clock before using a time out in the last 30 seconds to set up a shot, which was missed at the halftime buzzer. There was no scoring in the quarter and the game remained tied 2-2 at halftime.

The third quarter began with Sierra again giving up control of the jump and quickly falling back on defense against the “four corner” keep away for over 7 minutes, without using a time out, however San Clemente missed a shot attempt and lost the ball to Sierra with 15 seconds to play in the quarter.

After a time out, Sierra took advantage of their limited possession, quickly feeding Masters inside, his miss was followed by a Steve Egbert offensive rebound and basket to give them a 4-2 lead with four seconds to go in the third quarter. The basket by Egbert were the first points for either team in over two quarters, a total of 18 minutes playing time, San Clemente missed a hurried shot and the third quarter ended.

The first three quarters of the game had been played played through hoots and jeering from the shocked Sierra crowd, which had been vocal of their displeasure with the playing style of San Clemente from the games onset. The San Clemente followers who travelled to the game had spent the season watching their team pull off several upsets of powerful teams playing slow down, and cheerfully responded by applauding their teams passes. As this game progressed the crowd noise ebbed into an eerie silence, as if the echoed sounds of sneakers squealing and a basketball repeatedly striking the hardwood floor combined to draw the entire gymnasium into an almost hypnotic gaze.

As the teams lined up to begin the final quarter, the Sierra crowd expelled much of their yet unused energy in an attempt to spur on the action, they were immediately rewarded. Sutton had consistently out-jumped Masters for each of the quarter opening tips and did so again, but Sierra controlled the loose ball, now with a 4-2 lead, it was Sierra who spread out. With 8 minutes to play, not needing a shot, they went into “keep away” mode offensively.

For over seven and half minutes Sierra now passed, dribbled, and passed more in near silence. As those minutes wore on the home crowd began to awake from their trance, sensing a 4-2 victory, their chatter slowly started to build. Then with only 15 seconds to play the San Clemente press forced Egbert out of a corner and into losing his dribble at the top of the key, Triton freshman James Hill turned the turnover into a quick basket to tie the score at 4-4 with 8 seconds to play in the game.

The again hushed crowd’s thoughts of how to survive an overtime barely had time to set in when, without using a time out, Sierra immediately and instinctively inbounded and ran what coach Todd called a “sideline break”. Racing up court in the once again silent gymnasium, the ball ended up in Egbert’s hands in the right corner, from where he sent his shot spinning through the air and through the net. The crowd then finally erupted, an entire evening consisting of mostly shocked silence had concluded with a buzzer beating game winner.

The final 10 seconds of this 6-4 game could rival any other, at any level, on any excitement calculating meter. It also could be truly noted, for those in attendance, the opening 31:50 of 32 minutes of playing time was akin to painting oneself into a corner and being stuck waiting for it to dry. Sierra’s head coach James still says it was “probably the hardest game I ever coached,” coming from one of only two men who ever coached in a game like this, and what his Sierra squad was playing for, we take him at his word.

San Clemente was eliminated from the playoffs, while Sierra moved on, with a newly acquired reputation as a team that played slow down basketball, advancing to the CIF semi-finals before their season, their schools last, ended. For those who coached, played or witnessed the game, their reference to the contest is almost, if not, always punctuated with, “yes a basketball game, yes 6-4.”

The games box score;
S Clem. 2 0 0 2-4
Sierra 2 0 2 2-6
Scoring. Sierra- Egbert 4, Masters 2. San Clemente- Sutton 2, Hill 2.

Rare if ever that a basketball game can be broken down into each scoring play, akin to football and baseball, this game had five baskets scored in 4 quarters. The breakdown of the scoring;

First quarter
With 2:30 remaining Ross Sutton scored San Clemente 2, Sierra 0.
With 2:10 remaining Jeff Masters field goal. Sierra 2, San Clemente 2.
Third quarter
With :04 remaining Steve Egbert, offensive rebound and basket. Sierra 4, San Clemente 2.
Fourth quarter
With :08 remaining James Hill field goal. San Clemente 4, Sierra 4.
With :01 remaining Steve Egbert field goal. Sierra 6, San Clemente 4.

Game notes;
The game set one official CIF record, fewest points scored by a winning team, upon closer examination numerous other marks were reached as well, most of which will never be broken.
The high school game consists of 32 minutes of playing time, four 8 minute quarters.
Egbert finished as the games leading scorer, with 4 points, his basket following his offensive rebound at the end of the third quarter was the only scoring for both teams during the second and third quarters.
Between Sutton’s first quarter basket and Hill’s basket in the fourth, San Clemente went over 27 minutes without scoring.
In a never to be repeated feat, three different players in this game, each scored all but two points for their team.
With the lack of usual fouls, possession changes and time outs, this game was over and the gymnasium was emptied within 60 minutes of the opening tip off.

The CIF adopted the 3-point shot beginning in 1987-88 and did not introduce the shot clock in the boys game until 1997-98.

-Mike Lips