Growing up, tennis and basketball were my games. If I wasn't on the tennis court (which wasn't often) I was at the gym working on my jumper. If I wasn't practicing my serve I was working on my bounce pass and if I wasn't reading "The Education of a Tennis Player" by "Rocket" Rod Laver I was devouring the biography of Walt "Clyde" Frazier.
When I was 13, I severely stretched ligaments in my racket hand. The cast on my right hand made tennis impossible for a few months so I spent that winter at my neighbor's outdoor hoop playing imaginary games against the NBA's best. With my hand wrapped in plaster and snow falling around my ears, I'd dribble past Frazier, soar above Wilt the Stilt and, at the last second, send a bounce pass to the big "O" for an easy lay-up. I won the NBA championship with a last second shot virtually every day of the week that winter.
Throughout school I played both sports. In high school, I was a "star" on the tennis team and a "scub" on the J.V. basketball squad. Though I eventually gave up organized basketball for full-time tennis, I've always played pick-up basketball when I could and have been fortunate enough to attend many NBA games as a lifelong Knicks fan.
The two sports always went hand in hand for me and playing one taught me things about the other, particularly in regards to strategy. For example, the old Knicks of Frazier, DeBusschere, Reed and Monroe embraced the team concept of patience and making as many passes as needed to get an open shot.
From a tennis standpoint, this translated into hitting as many balls as needed to maneuver my opponent out of position so that I would have an easy put away into the open court.
As the years went by, both sports seemed to change at the highest level. As the athletes became bigger, stronger and faster, fire replaced finesse and tactics became taboo. The purity of both games was largely lost in the athleticism of their participants.
No longer interested in the team concept, basketball games often became run and gun affairs where three point shots and monster dunks replaced the extra pass and the art of boxing out. On the tennis court, 130 m.p.h. serves and super-sonic forehands became the rage.
Human nature leads us to emulate our heroes so the approach of the pros trickled down to the masses. Recreational basketball and tennis courts became filled with wannabe clones of the "big boys and girls." Walk by any public basketball court and you'll see players going one on three while their teammates stand and watch. You'll see pull up three pointers while teammates stand wide open under the hoop.
On the tennis court, point development has been largely replaced by impatience. Players attempt shots with an attitude that seems to say, "I'm going to hit the ball as hard as I possibly can--------- in case it happens to go in."
In my opinion, both games have suffered over the past few years due to this phenomenon. Professional basketball is losing fans to the college game every day and pro tennis has struggled to build a loyal following.
Well, help is on the way and it is in the form of a Piston. Watching Detroit upset the dream team Lakers, I saw old school basketball. Strategy, effort and guts defeated showtime.
Listening to the remarks by the commentators I was again reminded of how similar basketball and tennis are and how we, as tennis players, can learn from Larry Brown's Pistons blue collar style of play.
With that in mind, here's my starting five "team of tips" that we can all take from the NBA finals to the tennis court.
The Pistons won the championship this year. By following their "team of tips" you can be a champ as well.
- Don't Be Intimidated By A Heavily Favored Opponent
When the Pistons lined up for the opening tip, they looked into the eyes of Shaq, Kobe, Malone and Payton---four of the greatest players to ever lace up a pair of basketball shoes. If the Pistons had listened to the media and the so-called experts, they would have never left the locker room. Fortunately they didn't and neither should you.
If you're facing an opponent that is "supposed" to beat you, don't be intimidated. Remember to focus on the ball, not the person you're playing. Play within yourself and remember that the pressure is all on them because they're supposed to win.
- Develop A Strategy
The Pistons beat the Lakers because they walked onto the court with a well-defined strategy. They knew that Shaq was going to get his points regardless of what they did so they decided to focus on shutting down the rest of the Lakers. The strategy worked to perfection as Kobe struggled and Gary Peyton was virtually non-existent. During that last game the Lakers looked totally lost and ready for the beach.
Go into each tennis match with a strategy. Scout your opponent. Learn their strengths, weaknesses and their tendencies. Devise a strategy and during the match figure out what's working, what isn't and make adjustments along the way.
- Set Up Your Shots
I frequently recite this little speech to my students:
"Think of tennis as a game of basketball. You can go for (low percentage) three-pointers or you can make the extra passes and go for (high percentage) lay-ups. In tennis this translates into hitting a few extra shots to develop a point as opposed to the big shot, low-percentage mentality that's infected many player's minds."
Develop a patient approach to your game. Forget the big shot mentality and learn to construct points. Contrary to popular belief, the most satisfying winner is not the "great" shot that skims the line at 100 m.p.h.
It's always amusing to watch a group of players after one of them has hit a "great" shot. The others on the court clap their hands to their strings and the player who came up with the shot takes a not so modest bow. Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeze! Trust me, another word for "great" shot is "lucky" shot. The player that depends on great shots to win their points won't be winning very many of them.
To me, the most satisfying winner is the one that I am able to tap into a wide-open court after I've pulled my opponent completely out of position. As I've often said in the past, you don't get extra points for degree of difficulty in tennis so patiently move the ball around so that you have the easiest possible shot to win the point.
- Play Every Point Hard
It is said that the Pistons never took a possession off. Be it on offense or defense, every time down the floor the Pistons gave it their all. To us, that means play every point as if it were match point.
Jimmy Connors is perhaps the best I've ever seen at this. When you watched Jimbo, you could never tell if it was the first point of the opening set or the biggest point of the match.
- Fight Back From Adversity
After that heartbreaking, overtime loss in game 2, the Pistons could have packed it in. Instead, they re-grouped and came back stronger than ever. As tennis players, this is particularly good advice. If you lose the first set dig in and remember that the first two games of each set often determine the tone of the set. So firm up your resolve and fight extra hard for those two games.
If you suffer a particularly painful loss, remind yourself that it was only one match and that there will be plenty of others. Take a step back, figure out went wrong, make adjustments for your next match and then get back at it.