02.22.08

The Story of The Scheme: SI’s Wahl on the (Not Really) Memphis Offense

Posted in Basketball, College Spurts, Sports Journalism at 4:25 pm by

It didn’t make much of an impression on me last month when Pepperdine’s head coach, Vance Wahlberg, a former junior college coach with some renown as an offensive technician, resigned as the Waves coach just a couple of games into the WCC conference season. If I think of Pepperdine at all, it’s as the place that throws professorships at dubious conservative intellectual lights from Ken Starr to Ben Stein. But apparently it was bigger news than I thought.


That’s because the offense that Walberg (above) invented — he called it “Attack Attack Skip Attack Attack,” which John Calipari shortened to “Dribble-Drive Motion” when he adopted it at Memphis several years ago — is currently in use all over basketball. Memphis, which you might’ve heard is undefeated and will face #2 Tennessee tomorrow night, runs it. St. Anthony’s of Jersey City, currently the top-ranked prep team in the US, runs it. The Boston Celtics even run a variation on it. All this while Vance sits home and fends off prank calls asking how Donnie is doing.

I wouldn’t know about any of this if it weren’t for Benjamin Polk mentioning the existence of a Sports Illustrated article about Walberg and his nutty offense on the Minneapolis CityPages’ Balls! Blog. Anyone who knows Ben knows that he’s seldom if ever wrong — except, I think, about how good Animal Collective is — and I think he’s right on when he writes of said piece, “The article is pretty good, for Sports Illustrated (not too much about what John Calipari’s Mom taught him about commitment or whatever, more about basketball) and the discussion of the offense is really interesting if you like that kind of stuff.”

I do, and I also like this article, which touches not only on the nuts and bolts of Walberg’s offense — which gives unprecedented leeway to players to create, and is part of the reason why it seems like Memphis is always taking layups — but on the weird networks through which things like offenses travel from coach to coach. I’m going to clip from two parts of the fairly long piece, but I’d say the whole piece is worth reading, if you like this kind of thing. Grant Wahl writes:

In California’s Central Valley, where Walberg, 51, coached for 13 seasons at Clovis West High and four at Fresno City College, his high-pressure offense and defense have changed the way an entire region plays basketball. “It totally blew up here,” says Fresno Central High coach Loren LeBeau, one of Walberg’s former assistants. “We’re in the top league in Fresno, and four of the six teams are running this style.” Under coach Tom Gonsalves, the girls’ team at St. Mary’s High in Stockton has gone 25-0 and risen to No. 9 in the nation using DDM. Another practitioner, coach Jeff Klein at Chaffey Community College in Rancho Cucamonga, describes the system this way: “It’s almost like Vance invented a new language.”

The Denver Nuggets are running elements of DDM, and so are the Boston Celtics. “[Calipari] and I fax each other,” says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. Meanwhile, one vocal DDM skeptic has changed his mind. “If I were fortunate enough to get back into coaching, I’d seek Vance’s help in a minute,” says Brown, who joined Calipari and Walberg last September at a clinic in Mississippi attended by more than 400 high school coaches. “When I was coaching UCLA, everybody ran the high-post offense and the 2-2-1 press because of Coach [John] Wooden. He won 10 national titles, so you could understand that. But to see all these people who are incorporating what Vance does is mind-boggling…”

Why change? It may seem obvious now that they’re coaching the nation’s top-ranked teams in college and high school basketball, but Calipari and Hurley didn’t need to overhaul their systems. Calipari, 49, had won 336 games in college and the NBA and had reached three Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and a Final Four when he and Walberg sat down for dinner that night at Cal’s Championship Steakhouse. During his first three seasons at Memphis, however, Calipari had coached in only one NCAA tournament game. “It’s like you’re a teacher, and you’re teaching for 15 years, and your lesson plan never changed,” he says. “This has been invigorating for me because it’s gotten me to think, to study the game again.”

(Bob) Hurley, 60, had won 22 state championships, nearly 900 games and two mythical national titles as head coach at St. Anthony when he adopted dribble-drive in the fall of 2005. “I’ve had very few original thoughts in my life,” Hurley says, “but I’m smart enough to take from people who are successful and seem to have a greater view of the game. We got to a point where kids spent more time in the weight room than out on the court working on skills. [Dribble-drive] gets you working on skills. You can move your center around. It doesn’t have to be mud-wrestling where just the stronger, more physical, more athletic kids win.”

I understand Ben’s suspicion about SI pieces in general — that magazine did make Rick Reilly rich, after all — but between this and the very good profile of Rick Majerus from last month, I’ll admit to being impressed. Who knew a well-reported and decently written article about sports could be so enjoyable?

3 Responses to “The Story of The Scheme: SI’s Wahl on the (Not Really) Memphis Offense”

  1. matt says:

    that article was pretty awesome. is it just me or does it seem like a don nelson offense clone though? what’s the main difference really? no midrange jumpers and no point guard (read: baron davis) post ups?

  2. David Roth says:

    I guess there’s less of an emphasis on beating teams down the floor, but other than that, I think you’re right. Golden State is also lucky enough to actually have 3-point shooters. I’ve seen Memphis several times this year, and as good as they are — and despite their generally very good defense — I think the reason I wouldn’t pick them to win the NCAA Tournament is that the drive-and-kick portion of this offense more often than not ends with the ball in the hands of a guy who doesn’t shoot very well. The driving part, though, 1) works and 2) is fun to watch.

    It is a good piece, though, right? It’s nice to read something about coaches that isn’t about how heroic and hard-working they are. I feel like that’s a lot easier article to write than this one probably was, but a much more difficult one to finish.

  3. matt says:

    oh it’s definitely fun to watch and i’m as surprised as you that si actually ran an article that broke down some aspect of sport alot of people have no clue about. and that it actually applies to game situations as opposed to shit that has nothing to do with how games pan out… their typical isnt he a great guy type of spiel.

    good stuff.

Leave a Reply