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Thursday, June 23, 2022

OUBbC: What makes a club, and what makes a person?

Calum Isaacs reports on OUBbC's last match and meets the team's coach.

Oxford 75-52 De Montfort

In basketball, the game clock stops when the ball goes out of play. But the game clock’s been stopped for a while now, and the players are sitting down, and the coach is pointing at a little whiteboard. We’re 3 minutes and 28 seconds in to the first quarter of the first game of the season, and I’m confused. It’s been three minutes, and the Blues have called a timeout. And yes, they are 7-0 down, and yes, they’ve messed up a couple of times, but what on earth is there to talk about?

This is not the only time I am a bit lost over the course of the next hour and a half. In fact, I watch the game in a fairly permanent state of dissociation. The game ebbs and flows, at least according to the scoreboard, but I can’t really work out how or why.

Basketball is a heavily choreographed sport, but to the novice viewer, the alternating 20-second flurries of activity are just that—flurries. The ball is bounced and passed and the players are moving and the eyes are widening and eventually someone shoots from far, or shoots from near, or gets fouled, and it’s all over in the 24 seconds it takes for the shot clock to count down. And then there’s that moment where the ball flies towards the hoop and hits the rim, and hovers in the air, and, for that brief second, I fully understand what’s going on—will it go in? And then it does, or it doesn’t, and the ball’s already halfway up the court and the next flurry is swirling and I’m lost again.

Yet despite my disconnection, I’m right that this timeout is noteworthy. The players look dejected and the coach looks shaken, and it’s not in a dramatic way, but also… it’s been three minutes. I’m told later that the message of all the intense conversation and gesticulation at this point was basically just ‘calm down’. Understandably, when a team needs to win pretty much every match this season, they must feel a sense of impenetrability. Without that, the improbable becomes impossible. And this sense of impenetrability has been penetrated within three minutes. The timeout was to note that and to pledge to repair it.

As I say, what happened next is fairly lost on me. But after some reflection and discussion, I have cobbled together some kind of narrative. The Blues started slow. They haven’t played a team of the same low age profile for a while. Their transitions weren’t fast enough, and they kept allowing the De Montfort defence to get set. This meant they began by relying on what I call ‘explosive runs into the box’, which I soon learn to be known as ‘drives into the paint’. Basically, when everyone’s got back and is in position, the most effective way of breaking through the stasis is for one player to forcefully weave their way through to the hoop. These sequences—in the way they combine guile and power—are some of, for the two or three seconds they last, the most awesome and friendly-to-slow-motion-replay moments in this sport. And I will be sure to return to that in future weeks.

For now, though, all you need to know is that drives on a fast transition are quite straightforward, but these drives after the defence is set, though useful in that position, are not an efficient tactic to depend on. Fortunately, as the game went on, the Blues sped up, and the De Montfort players tired. The number of forced drives decreased and the number of swiftly concluded counters increased. The Blues got into their flow and, as the game wound down, Bill, the club president, shouted across the court to me (in a callback to last week’s article) ‘we’re hitting our threes now!’ To be honest, I had slightly zoned out, but as I refocused, I could see he was right. The 10-point lead that the Blues had opened up and maintained for the last 15 minutes was widening, and three-point shots were flying in from all angles.

The game ended 75-52, and the story I’ve outlined is nice and neat and reassuring. In reality, the game was not a steady arc, and there were periods of stasis and there were periods of change. Parts of this were not as clean as simply ‘they warmed up and got into their flow’. For example, in basketball, there is a limit on how many fouls a player can commit before they get kicked out of the game. When you get close to this limit, you’re in ‘foul trouble’, and the coach might sub you off for a bit to prevent suspension. Oxford started getting into foul trouble, good players came off, and their lead plateaued for a bit. Then De Montfort got into a bit of foul trouble, and the lead started growing again.

Moreover, the team depended on big performances. They depended on captain Orin Varley, clearly the best player, hitting 29 points. And they depended on Varley along with Josh Soifer (‘power forward’ by name, ‘power forward’ by nature) getting 10 rebounds each, which, I’m told, is a lot.

But of course they depended on big performances. They won by 23 points and there’s only 5 guys on the court at one time. My point is really that there’s a lot of moving parts and it’s hard to put your finger on what ensured a victory instead of a loss. But whatever confluence of factors delivers these Ws, the delivery is expected each and every time this season, and it’s an interesting question why this team is now so confident in that fact.

The change that the team has undergone from fairly dire straits to renewed hope has to be greatly attributed to one guy: the coach, Jamie Smith. He’s been at the club since last year, and he’s brought changes in all aspects. There’s of course the tactical and talent-enhancing parts of being a coach. What Jamie says about tactics sound like truisms: that it’s easiest to score when the defence hasn’t got back yet, that the good shooters should go for threes whenever they get a good opportunity, that play should be quick, and plays should be in sync. However, truisms stop being truisms when they have to be respected in every thing you do. I get the impression from players’ exhausted but appreciative look on recalling this year’s pre-term training camp, and from the way Jamie talks about these concepts, that, in recent years, drills and preparation have not been close to as purposeful and intense at OUBbC as they are now.

Jamie Smith, OUBbC Coach. Credit: Mansoor Ahmed

Nevertheless, Jamie downplays this stuff. He says “I’m not an innovator” when it comes to tactics and game state. He learnt these principles from the greats he’s worked under like Roy Williams at the University of North Carolina and Billy Donovan at the University of Florida. What he likes to attribute success to more, and what he seems more energised and excited discussing, is how the team and the club are changing as institutions, or, more prosaically, as groups of people. He’s keen to highlight changes in culture. Turning up late to training now means harsher consequences. Team socials after every match are mandatory. Like Bill, his eyes light up when talking about the team’s newly increased social media presence, and new kits. It all contributes to a feeling that this is more than a uni team playing a fairly unpopular sport, that it’s part of a story, that people care, and that they should be proud to wear the dark blue jersey.

But I’m not sure that’s all it is—for Jamie. From a very young age, he was obsessed with America. Basketball was partly a cause and partly a result of that obsession. He played for multiple teams at once, and organised a local league, and even did some coaching. By the age of 18, his future was uncertain in his own mind, and he saw a flyer for a year abroad studying in the US. His family didn’t have that much money. He took a year out, earning what he could, and applying for this programme. He made it to Idaho, and despite loving the chance to live in this country he’d dreamed about, he realised he was not good enough for the basketball team. So instead, he went early every day to their state-of-the-art court, and practised alone. And eventually, someone on the coaching team noticed this abnormally committed guy and decided they wanted him on their staff.

Supported by almost perfect grades every step of the way, Jamie kept studying, which allowed him to stay in the US, while coaching basketball. He went all over the place: Idaho, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Massachusetts, Hawaii. This was all punctuated by returns to the UK to earn some money to keep the party going. He worked for two NBA teams as a video coordinator—Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics—being one of the only Brits working on any coaching staff in the NBA. And a key reason for that is that it’s very difficult to get a US visa to coach. Eventually, circumstances, including visa circumstances, deemed it fit to return to the UK, where Jamie worked with, and continues to work with, the GB national team.

It’s a story full of coincidence and contingency. He’s only ended up at Oxford because he shot the club an email and, by chance, at that very time, they had a vacancy. He only continued coaching when he got to North Carolina because they were impressed by his work in a summer camp in the summer of his first year. His life path was not clear or planned out.

But now we’re at this point, where I sit across from this 41 year-old guy with lightly greying hair and, forgive the schmaltz, an eminently good heart. He’s had a wandering social life transported from state to state, and spends his time either coaching basketball or reading about basketball for his PhD in the sport’s history or editing Wikipedia pages, correcting their historical basketball errors. And he seems quite happy. He is essentially married to this sport, and what started as staying up watching the Chicago Bulls instead of working on his GCSEs has basically spiralled, and I mean that in a value-neutral way.

The talk about the social media, and the team’s history, and the new kits, and the culture, and the story—it’s partly self-justifying. It’s contextualising Jamie in a tale of great import. It makes his life not just internally meaningful, but externally. This is not to say it is a charade, or a farce. Of course, I do believe that this club has a special story, and of course, it is undeniably true that it has great history. And it’s not to say that Jamie’s obsession with basketball is not ultimately genuine. But it doesn’t seem like genuine interest and self-justification can really be disentangled. Perhaps everything is path-dependent on what we find ourselves drawn to at the age of 18, and the coincidences that lead us on require us to reconceptualise what we care about so that the path remains, in some sense, the right path in our minds.

Jamie’s been given a 4-year contract at Oxford, so the path ahead, at least for now, is attached to the fate of this team. The next game is against Brookes: the biggest rivals in this division. A loss would be hugely significant for the Blues’ hopes this year. Whatever happens, I’m sure we can assimilate it in some way into the narrative, because, yes, narratives are loose and easily modified and retooled. Perhaps a loss is a spark for a fresh revival. But I’d really rather not—let’s just keep the train rolling, lads. See you next week.

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