Let’s get a few things straight from the start.
First, I’m no basketball purist. I’m not an anything purist. My favorite sport is baseball, and I’ll take the 15-12 train wreck over a 1-0 pitching gem any day.
People say they’re purists all the time, but let’s be honest for a second here. It was, after all, a Burlingame biotech lab that saved baseball from the 1994 strike—not the Atlanta Braves’ great pitching.
Second, I have no axe to grind with the West Catholic Athletic League. I’ve covered the league for parts of the last four decades. I’ve asked more dumb questions and butchered enough stats and spellings than I care to admit, and yet win or lose, I’ve always been treated kindly by a coach, player, administrator or parent.
The WCAL is one of the nation’s most respected leagues in all sports. It regularly features some of the finest-caliber basketball you’ll see at the high school level anywhere in Northern California. Nearly all WCAL teams play a fundamentally sound team game with a physical brand of basketball that’s steeped in tradition (the St. Ignatius-Sacred Heart Cathedral rivalry is the longest standing west of the Mississippi). Teams run sophisticated offenses and play defenses so disciplined that it’s amazing anybody ever scores.
It’s a brand of basketball that by all accounts emphasizes teamwork, work ethic and discipline, offering some valuable life lessons that benefit players long after they celebrate the truckloads of hardware the Central Coast Section regularly presents them.
That’s all well and good, but sorry, I’m not a fan.
My beef with the WCAL is based on one thing and one thing only.
It plays a brand of basketball that’s criminally boring.
I was covering the league as a San Mateo Times correspondent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before corporate had fully sucked the life out of professional sports. SportsCenter highlights back then were routinely filled with 360-degree Michael Jordan dunks and Shaquille O'Neal spraying NBA arenas with fiberglass backboard shrapnel.
At a time when sports was probably never more entertaining, the 38-36 WCAL basketball game seemed about as exciting as unsweetened oatmeal.
I’d been out of the area for a while and forgot how boring WCAL basketball really was until I covered a few games last month.
Traumas buried deep immediately resurfaced as I watched the over-coached players in overly-regimented systems, sticking to script, running nothing but set offensive plays and obsessive-compulsive defense.
My editor tired of my whining about the WCAL game. He said I shouldn’t be complaining about getting paid to watch sports during the Great Recession (good point) and that some people actually enjoy that style of play (huh?).
If there really is an attraction to the WCAL game, I wanted to get to the bottom of it. So on Saturday night, I went to the St. Francis-SI game at SI.
I wanted to talk to real fans, people who paid real money to watch this.
Jerry Connolly, a 47-year-old SI alum with a daughter who goes to the school, told me he loves the WCAL game.
“I love watching sports, and the WCAL is the best (high school) league in the Bay Area, by far,” he said before the game. “They have the most talented players.
“And they’re well-coached,” he said.
“And that’s a good thing?” I replied.
“Absolutely!” he said.
I spent much of the first half trying to point out every negative detail about the WCAL game I could think of.
“Bet you neither team reaches double digits in scoring the first quarter,” I tell him.
More than a minute into the second quarter, St. Francis takes an 11-10 lead.
I talked to some parents I knew during halftime, but made it to the snack bar just in time for the third quarter. SI has a large cafeteria in the snack bar area, and kids were running around having fun without their every move directed by Type-A grownups. Now there's a novel concept.
When I asked the snack bar volunteers if boring basketball helps their business, they insisted that there was nothing wrong with WCAL basketball.
Well then, why were people lining up for hot dogs and M&Ms if the action (if you can call it that) of a game in progress was so compelling?
The attendants offered me a hot dog to stop bothering the paying customers at the window. I was on my way, but declined the dog. Even an obnoxious middle-aged muckraker has his pride. Plus, that carnitas burrito I had just before the game felt like it was expanding in my stomach.
St. Francis led 30-25 with 3:15 left in the third quarter when I got back to my seat.
I woke up to the sound of the buzzer at the end of the third quarter.
St. Francis is having a nice season. The Lancers enter tonight’s game at Bellarmine in third place after graduating seven players, including all five starters from last year’s team that was unbeaten in league and made it to the state finals. They beat SI 56-49, in what was probably their most impressive win of the season.
So after Saturday’s game, I asked coach Mike Motil why WCAL basketball is so boring.
“Not tonight it isn’t,” he said, pointing out that his team pressed the entire game.
“I saw that,” I told him, “but it didn’t really fit the angle of my column, so I tried to ignore it.”
Besides, I’m more interested in the league’s style of play in general, not what one team does one night.
“It is a physical league, I’ll give you that,” he said. “Every night’s a grind for everyone in this league. It’s not like you have an opportunity to take a night off.”
Motil said the WCAL game varies regionally, noting refs seem to let a lot more go at the three San Francisco schools and Serra, the programs that commit most of the muggings.
“Nature of the beast around here,” Motil said. “If you’re watching a game at our place or at Mitty, there’s going to be more fouls called. When we come into the city, rarely are teams getting into the bonus, let alone the double bonus.”
When I asked SI coach John DeBenedetti if his team would take collections to refund fans on account of the league’s ghastly playing style, he called me on it.
“You used your media pass,” he said. “Good luck with that.”
As I went on about why WCAL basketball isn’t very entertaining, he told me that isn’t the league’s mission.
“It’s not an ESPN highlight show,” he said. “If that’s what you’re looking for, then you’re at the wrong league.”
DeBenedetti said academics come first at WCAL schools. SI, he said, ranks among the nation’s top 100 in advanced placement test scores.
“We’re not basketball factories,” he said.
They’re apparently no recruiting factories either. The WCAL has had some great recruiting years, but this year, there are no Division I-bound seniors, and just two players in the last two years have gone on to Division I schools.
Serra standout Connor McGrath is headed to Division II Chico State, but that’s it.
“Maybe some of those kids are not attracted to these schools,” DeBenedetti said. “If you’re a big-time eighth-grade kid, maybe you don’t want to go to a school that’s going to make you give up your ego and say, ‘I’m going to do stuff for the team.’”
The “team concept” might be the biggest culprit of boring basketball. When I sit back and watch highlights, I want dunks and fast breaks. Who wants to watch teams moving the ball around eating up the shot clock, right?
I couldn’t find a sane person in this gym…
“It’s definitely a purist’s league,” said Jacob Bernstein, an SI senior.
“If you want highlight reel, you’re going to watch the public schools in the East Bay, but if you want to watch good solid fundamental basketball, watch the WCAL.”
Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins was at Saturday’s game to watch his son, Sean, who plays for St. Francis.
He was no help.
“I enjoy watching how hard they play and how they compete and how well they execute both offensively and defensively,” Dawkins said. “They do a really good job, mixing defenses and executing half-court offenses.
“I love it.”
OK, but that’s a Stanford guy.
But what about the rest of us C students from state college who don’t care about the subtleties of “mixing defenses”?
Didn’t Wooden say this is a simple game?
Talent showcase, anyone?
“If somebody wants to be showcased, they’re playing for the wrong coach and they’re probably in the wrong league,” DeBenedetti said.
“I’ve seen a couple of those other teams, and they’re fun to watch, but I think there might be a few teams in our league that might be able to beat that team.”
Believe it or not, I do respect WCAL basketball. It’s just not for everybody.
And criticism of the league’s playing style comes from all corners—not just an admitted non-purist.
While the WCAL’s regimented playing style and structure produces team players and the fierce competition within and between teams develops a “warrior’s mentality,” the old-school basketball doesn’t encourage creativity and imagination. Even the league’s strongest proponents acknowledge it’s not a place for free spirits.
Sacred Heart Prep coach Tony Martinelli said the WCAL experience wasn’t for him.
When it became apparent to him after his freshman year at Serra that he’d never get to play on the basketball team, he transferred to Mills, where he started on the varsity basketball and baseball teams as a sophomore.
Martinelli ended up playing baseball at USF, where he was a manager on the basketball team.
“They have that ‘warrior’s mentality,’ ” Martinelli said. “They’ve played against the best competition, so they have that edge in that regard, because they’ve met a lot of challenges playing in that league and going through it, but I also think they are a little bit stifled, because they have to learn the college game, and it is a little bit more wide open, and that affects them.
“(The WCAL) prepares you physically but I think the mental part of the game and the athletic part of the game is what doesn’t translate as well to the college game.”
Former Cañada College coach and basketball development guru Mike Legarza acknowledged that WCAL players tend not to be the most imaginative, but he said that’s a relatively small wart, and one he could live with considering everything else WCAL players bring
“Some of them are so coached and so regimented that they don’t develop their individual skills as much as they possibly could, but on the other hand, when I was at Cañada, every year I had three or four WCAL players on my team, and those kids were great. They’ve had 16 rock’em sock’em heavyweight fights every year, so they’re tough, they’re competitive, and they’re fundamentally sound.
“Those are types of players that end up winning you games.”
Burlingame coach Jeff Dowd acknowledged that the WCAL style isn’t fun to watch, but he’s nevertheless trying to emulate it because he believes toughness and defense win championships.
The Panthers are winless in five CCS title-game appearances since 2003, with four of those losses to WCAL teams.
Nevertheless, Dowd said he makes a point of not creating a system that’s overly structured.
“I think it’s a fine balance,” Dowd said. “We’ve got some offensive sets that are based on reads where you have to be creative and you have to think, but we’ve also got some (set plays) where this is what you have to do and you just have to go from there.
“When you get to the playoffs and you have to try to win a tough game, it’s really hard to win with just patterns. Kids have to go out and make plays, and if you’re teaching your players how to create plays all season long, you have a much better chance of having some success.”