To Giant Killer Syndrome, Hoping This KU Team Contracts It, and Being Thankful for Being Alive During the Age of the Greatest Game Ever Invented

  • (Author here–RIP DFW: I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone that responded from their innards to my intentionally astringent post about no one on this year’s KU team perhaps being good enough to break into the rotation on the '08 KU champion. But I owe a special thanks to HEM who said something that opened up a vein in me I was not yet aware of.)

    @HighEliteMajor said:

    The key is a relative comparison. How does Kansas shape up against the competition in men’s CBB this season?

    This is a good discussion as it does give perspective here, as noted above.

    I would say this, too – chemistry is a big deal.

    This is a good way of looking at it. I did not rule out this team winning a ring. I said it would take this team transforming into a team of giant killers. Giant killers happen sometimes. It is why the myth of the giant killer came into being no doubt back long before stories were written down as David and Goliath, or Jack the Giant Killer, etc.

    Often giant killers in basketball are reductively described as teams that get hot in March, as if shooting well were all it took for a team with lesser talent on paper to transcend itself and become a team that cannot be beaten for six games. Just “getting hot” neither captures, nor does justice to, the phenomenon of “giant killer syndrome,” which I so hope this year’s team contracts thoroughly.

    (Note: syndrome is a word for what is clearly evidenced, whether rarely, or frequently, but which we cannot yet be satisfactorily explain with rational empiricism.)

    Your word chemistry is a big part of it, particularly if used consciously as a team macro. I happen to believe that many, if not all, giant killers in March Madness actually have had quite a bit of talent all along, but the chemistry thing finally kicks in at some point and transmogrifies the team into being able to use effectively the talent that is has long been struggling to use to greatest effect. Still, the true giant killer isn’t as good on paper, as the giant. Smarter? Usually. More opportunistic? Yes. Hotter? Yes. Luckier? Definitely. More mentally tough? Most definitely.

    But as talented? Never. Or they would not be giant killers, would they?

    Three exemplary giant killers come quickly to my mind, though I am sure others will add others.

    Texas Western Miners–Okie Baller Don Haskins’ original wild bunch on the Rio Grande. Lost in the racial pioneers story line (note: they were only pioneers in the sense of finally winning a ring with an all African American starting five, and made dramatic and memorable, and heroic, by being pitted by chance, in the Finals against what was already, by then, a racial anachronism in much of the country–an all Caucasian American starting five), was that Bobbie Joe Hill, Neville the Shadow Shed, Big Dave Latin, etc. did not go on to be Hall of Famers, or even All Stars in the NBA. The real wonder of Texas Western was not their color distribution–black starters, white rotation players; rather, it was the phenomenal way this team transmogrified from what it was early in the season into the team of giant killers it became down the stretch. And anyone that cares about historical accuracy, and that wants to rise above race, needs to remember that Haskins rational coaching job really involved re-mixing his starters and rotation second stringers eventually in a way that happened to yield color distributions that conflicted with then prevailing prejudices and expectations of what proportions of color could play well together and in reserve. Haskins to his eternal credit did not bench whites because they were white and play blacks because they were black. He was like all hard scrabble Okie Ballers looking for the magical, opportunistic mixture of impact players and glue players and rotating role players that yielded a great defensive team that could make impact offensive plays and so become greater than the sum of its parts. It involved a great coach–one of the three great apostles of Iba–working with far from the most talented team in America and partly stumbling into a magical mix (if you can call what Haskins, Eddie, Hartman, and now Bill do stumbling) of what talent he had that enabled his rotation to go through the alchemical transformation of all great Giant Killers. Haskins search for the five that worked best together starting and the short bench of subs that worked the best in substitution (sound familiar?) also brought a team of young men not only into efficient basketball dynamics, but into harmonic vibration with a path dependent pivot point of basketball historical process that had commenced in 1947, when John Wooden, also strongly influenced by Iba, crossed the racist color line at Indiana State down near the grits curtin in Indiana , and others like Kansas had quickly followed to reinforce.

    (Note: For those too young to recall–most of us–and too busy to seek basketball historical literacy–too many I fear [because of our too hectic lives and some “it wasn’t me that done it” indifference], there were apparently black basketball players in the early days of pro basketball in the naught decade of the 20th Century in some white dominated pro basketball leagues and barnstorming teams, just as there were some black bicyclists at the time in professional cycling, and some black race car drivers in professional car racing, and so on. Segregation was never monolithically rigid on the historical timeline. Thinking it was is the kind of reductive thinking that helps contempo thinkers stay ignorant of the underlying dynamics of the evil that can always flow again if we are not vigilant. The dynamic flows when it is used as a means to power. It ebbs when not. Segregation’s evil, underpinned always by the asymmetric economic net benefits of exclusion, and enabled by prejudice indoctrinated into the excluding class toward the excluded class by the private oligarchy, i.e., the whites being taught to hate and embrace segregating the blacks and being rewarded with more jobs for doing so; plus by the strategic net benefits to the private oligarchy of dividing whites and blacks and so conquering them by keeping both races from uniting to oppose the private oligarchy, which in skin pigment has always appeared white, but which we learn increasingly in reality was the color of money possessed at the level of wealth [not talkin’ bout money, as Chris Rock so aptly noted, talkin’ bout wealth], has had some tidal characteristics, ebbing and flowing; though to be emphatic, its flows up and in have taken up far more time than its ebbs have gone down and out. Dig?)

    The Miners of Don Haskins famous win in the public’s memory remains, as reinforced by the movie, its defeat of the segregated University of Kentucky team. But that Kentucky team, in part because of the talent its own racism denied it, was hardly the best team that year. It was hardly the biggest giant that Haskin’s Miners slayed.

    KU was the great, talented giant that season. KU with Jo Jo White and Walt Wesley, both of whom went on to extended NBA careers. But it was especially Jo Jo White, the Future NBA All-Star, NBA champion, and Hall of Famer that made KU a giant dwarfing UK. KU that season without doubt would have beaten UK to a bloody pulp, where as Haskin and his giant killing Miners merely beat them soundly. And I mentioned above that one of the key elements of giant killers is luck when luck is needed. Jo Jo making a game winning basket in bounds and being called out of bounds, or if you prefer making a game winning basket with a foot out of bounds, is luck of a giant killing order. The Miners were the ultimate Giant Killers, and only secondarily race pioneers. And I believe characterizing them this way does them the great, great justice this heroic team has always deserved. I hated them once for beating my Hawks. But there is no shame in losing to Giant Killers, only heart break. Shizz and giant killers happen.

    KU in 1988–Larry Brown’s great 1988 national champion is proof positive that Giant Killers can be misunderstood as not very talented–just hot. A team with Danny Manning on it was by definition one of the most talented teams in the country that season. But add in Kevin Pritchard at point and the rest of the rotation and it was only lacking in talent in the same sense that Texas Western was not the most talented team of that season; which is to say it did not have oodles of future NBA players on the team, just Danny and Pritch, and maybe one, or two, more that I now forget that may have had short NBA careers also. That 1988 team had great COLLEGE basketball players. It had great impact players like Manning and Pritch, and it had great glue men like Pipe and Newton. It had guys that could do the long laundry list of what needed to be done to play great college basketball for six straight games. And it would likely have had a sparkling regular season record, instead of double digit losses, had it not been periodically destabilized by injuries to crucial players. One way of putting the talent level of that '88 team in perspective was that it was so deep that it could have a worse rash of season ending injuries than probably any other team in America that season and STILL come together in March in seven players that could pretty much kick the asses of six straight opponents, and taking their names later on the champions podium. The '88 Jayhawks would have been the giant had injuries not decimated them. The miracle of Danny and the Miracles was NOT a Cinderella fairy tale. It was a giant killer myth. The team LITERALLY did transmogrify over the course of the season and literally did turn into a giant killer. Still awesome to think about what Larry and his players did that season…after all these years.

    Finally, UConn two season ago–Kevin Ollie experienced the transmogrification before his rookie coaching eyes. He had one great COLLEGE point guard that proved not to be a great pro. He had a lot of other good COLLEGE players, but not a dump truck load of OADs, or 5 stars. His team contracted Giant Killer Syndrome and Kevin Ollie, who learned his game from two great coaches–Larry Brown and Jim Calhoun–two coaches with authority issues about those above them–Kevin Ollie coached, and coaxed, and lead and followed and inspired and was inspired by, and held tight reigns, and let go of the reigns, and did everything in between for a magical March Run, became the coach of a Giant Killing National Champion. I had a hard time loving UConn, because of all the shizz that Calhoun had pulled late in his career, but once I could let go of Calhoun and see Ollie for Ollie, and his magnificient young men for the Giant Killers that they became, I could finally love them unconditionally for denying one of Caliper’s stacks a ring and for yielding one more basketball Giant Killer in my time on this mortal coil.

    There were a few others. LaRue Martin’s Loyola Ramblers. Howard Porter’s Villanova team, though there was some corruption there. Maybe even Jimmy V’s Wolfpack team, though looking back it was pretty talented. But that’s still not too many in 55 years of watching the game. Giant Killers are rare birds among NCAA champions, which are themselves rare birds. Maybe the only thing rarer than a Giant Killer is the perfect teams–the undefeated national champions–a couple of UCLA teams, and Indiana’s '76 bunch.

    My god! My god!

    I am so lucky to have lived on this earth in the age of the Greatest Game Ever Invented.

    To think I could have been born for hundreds of thousands of years of homo sapiens before the game and have missed it; had I not come along near mid 20th Century.

    Thank you, basketball god.

    Thank you.

  • @jaybate-1.0 Another post Im going to have to digest over a period of time after I finish watching the KU game going on right now! 😉 Rock CHalk!

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