In Defense of 138

Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 12:00 am

By Doug Cutchins
Well, that didn't take long.
It seemed that no sooner had Grinnell College men's basketball player Jack Taylor swished his final free throw, giving him an NCAA record-breaking 138 points in a Nov. 20 game against Faith Baptist Bible College, than the critics began their barrage against the undersized guard. ESPN's Mike Wilbon pronounced, "He never should have done that." A CNN columnist called Jack an "embarrassment." And Deadspin won the trophy for pulling off the hyperbolic cynical sports journalism trifecta, going with "sham," "bullshit," and "complete bastardization," all in a single paragraph.
Now, let me own my biases up front. I am not only a Grinnell graduate and employee, but I was mid-court for the record-breaking game, and my jiggly cell-phone video of Jack's final eight points has nearly 300,000 views on YouTube.
But that's not why I'm writing. I'm writing because so many of Jack's critics are so uncreative and intellectually lazy. Grinnell basketball and Jack Taylor's phenomenal effort are not the apotheosis of me-first basketball, but are the result of an innovative, data-driven system that relies on selfless teamwork to create the most fun basketball I've ever watched, all produced by young men that we should celebrate, not denigrate.
Like any outlier, Jack's 138-point game needs to be contextualized. Scoring a ton of points is nothing new for Grinnell. Utilizing coach David Arsenault's System, over the last 20 years the Pioneers have averaged an NCAA-record 111.9 points per game. It's sort of a Zen approach to basketball: do not worry too much about controlling how many points the other team scores; simply maximize your own output, mostly by remembering that 3 is always more than 2, so a guarded three-pointer by Grinnell beats an uncontested layup by the opponent every time.
Jack Taylor's 138-point effort broke the NCAA Division III record of 89 points held by his current teammate, senior Griffin Lentsch. Griffin took the record from another Grinnellian, Jeff Clement. Grinnell just scores and scores and scores. This is what makes the critics crazy. They sputter and spout that by focusing so much on offense, Grinnell is somehow not playing basketball the way it "should" be played. As if innovation and creativity are bad things. As if the point of the game is not to score more points than the other team, using any method allowed within the rulebook. As if that rulebook states that you are not allowed to use a full-court press for 40 minutes, substitute all five players every 60 seconds, or pass up layups for three-point shots (remember, 3 is still greater than 2), all of which are a part of the Grinnell game plan each and every time the team takes the floor, not just against Faith Baptist last week.
"Oh," but the critics lament, "what about the children? What lessons shall our children learn from one player scoring 138 of his team's 179 points?" A lot of good stuff, as it turns out. Because while Jack Taylor gets his name etched in the record books, he'll be the first to tell you that he didn't earn it by himself. What I saw while sitting courtside was a team of 20 guys who were working their tails off to collectively lift him up. Guys who scrapped for rebounds, forced 49 turnovers (49 turnovers! Another school record! And the critics say Grinnell played no defense.), passed the ball, set screens, and cheered for Jack every step of the way.
Watch the first minute of this video, but focus on the other Grinnell players. How they look to pass Jack the ball as soon as they can. How the bench explodes in joy when Jack, exhausted, drains his final 25-footer of the night. How they rally him to the free throw line one last time, high-fiving and smiling, chanting his name. What exactly is it that we do not want our children to emulate of this team?
"But the other team!" the critics continue. "What about the guys from Faith Baptist? Certainly it is not sporting for Grinnell to score so many points!" Well, they're making that argument without the help of the Faith Baptist coach, who told the Des Moines Register, "We're fine with it. We're happy for Jack. We knew going into the game what Grinnell did, the system and style. We don't have any hard feelings toward them at all."
Look, if you weren't at the game, here's what you couldn't see: that Faith Baptist's David Larson, en route to breaking his own school's single-game record by scoring 70 points and leading the team to score more than 100 points for the first time all season, was cheered by the Grinnell students at every turn. When Larson took the bench for a breather, they chanted "We want David (clap, clap, clapclapclap)" until he returned, and then gave him an ovation when he took the floor. 
This was a fun game. Everyone got to play. Other than Jack Taylor, no Grinnell player was on the floor for more than 15 minutes. Everyone on both teams knew coming into the night how Grinnell played.
But the real shame is what the critics have completely missed about Grinnell. These guys—from "stars" like Jack Taylor and Griffin Lentsch to the players who barely took the floor against Faith Baptist—play basketball for fun. Taylor and Lentsch, if they're lucky, might have a chance to play in a European league. Nobody at Grinnell is on an athletic scholarship, and athletes don't get any breaks academically or socially. Everyone lives in the same dorms and eats in the same dining hall and takes the same classes as Grinnell's many Fulbright Scholars.
You know what Jack did the morning after his performance, on four hours of adrenaline-addled sleep, the day before Thanksgiving, putting off interviews with every major media outlet in the country? He went to class. Calculus class. Because he needs it for his major. In Biochemistry. Sure would hate for our kids to turn out like that, eh?
So Grinnell had some fun on the basketball court. Some guys who are going to go on to be lawyers and doctors and Peace Corps volunteers and definitely not NBA stars decided to sacrifice their games and shine the focus on one person for one night. They utilized an innovative, groundbreaking style of play, and played their style for the whole night. The fans had fun, and a player from the other team set a school record.
And the next day, Jack Taylor and his classmates got up and went to class at one of the top undergraduate schools in the nation. And this is what the critics choose to get upset about?
-- Doug Cutchins '93 is director of social commitment at Grinnell College.