Mad Dogs & Englishmen:
Hoops Across the Water

by Richard Kortum

Talk about your madness in the third month!  Dig those daft Brits.  Those warped & wacky cousins of Cleese.  Monty Python’s John, that is.

Across the pond, hundreds of Rhodes Scholars and sundry Yanks have by this bug been bit.  George Stephanopoulis was, once or twice.  Recent presidential hopeful Bill Bradley, I presume, was, too.

Warning: Virulent virus.  I don’t believe I’ll ever be rid of it, myself.  Not entirely.  Call me mad as a hatter, but I confess: maybe I just don’t want to stop the twitch.

You think you’ve got a fever?  Let me tell you about a basketball tournament.

Oh yes, they play b-ball in the British Isles.  Sure, you won’t see many iron rings bolted to garage gables while motoring about the picture-postcard Cotswolds or the chic ‘hoods of London’s West End; it’s far too tame for a game in the rain.  But baby, some playuhs they’ve got.

And that’s no jabberwock.  Take my word for it: like other Euro-hoopsters, Brit kids can shoot the rock.

For many a moon there’s been more than a quorum of Americans there; but nobody seems to know for sure how long anybody’s been whooping it up à la James Naismith at Oxford & Cambridge.  Eighty-odd years definitely; possibly ninety.  For the past seven decades at least, BUSF (British Universities Sports Federation) has been running a major basketball tournament, by tradition the last weekend in February.

Eight clubs typically are invited to this frenzied cult dance: five university All-star teams assembled from schools within each of the Four Nations -- England (two teams), Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales -- along with the University of London; plus the Dark Blues and Light Blues of Oxford and Cambridge, respectively.

My second year on the Oxford Blues, in March of ‘91 an additional tournament was inaugurated.  The BSSF (British Students Sports Federation) ended the snub against the polytechnics and created an inclusive system to crown a kingdomwide Student Champion.  [Nota bene: in 1993 the UK’s polys were officially ‘‘upgraded’’ by Her Majesty’s government to university status; notwithstanding, the BSSF remained the national tournament.]

Here’s how it works.

The UK is divided into eight regions.  You can think of these roughly as ‘‘conferences’’.  In the course of the b-ball season, which by the way begins in October, you play each team in your regional conference twice, home and away.  Like here, non-conference play doesn’t count toward conference standings.  The top two finishers from each region, then, together comprise the equivalent of the NCAA’s Sweet 16.

In a February ‘‘Crossover Round’’ the number ones each play a number two from a different conference.  One game.  Lose and you’re out.  The number ones have home-court advantage.  But notice that his format nevertheless gives a good second-place team from a conference with a particularly outstanding team at the top a better chance to move into the Elite Eight.

Where things really get interesting.  Or downright bin-looney, depending on your taste for this brand of ballroom tune.

From this point on, the BUSF and BSSF tourneys are structured along the same lines.  Among the eight, two brackets are formed, A and B, each comprised of four teams.  No attempt at ranking the teams is made.  It’s pretty much all blind dates.  No matchmaking allowed.  In the first round you play each team in your bracket once.  Win or lose, that’s three matches -- er, games.

Following this round the top two teams in each bracket -- the Final Four as it were -- cross over; the number one from Bracket A plays number two from B, and vice versa.  (In the case of identical records within the same bracket, an arcane system involving point differentials is used to establish the final standings.)  This is the fourth game of the tourney.

In the fifth and final game, the two semi-final winners -- which as you can see may come from the same bracket -- vie for the National Championship, with the two losers playing for third place.  (Note that everybody dances five times: threes and fours from each bracket also cross over, playing ultimately for fifth through eighth place.)

No scheme is perfectly rational or sane; but whatever the deficiencies, one thing is not in doubt.  Talk about being in shape!  Dream on, Sigmund.  The two major tournaments, BUSF in February, and BSSF in March, are played just two weeks apart.  The most amazing thing, the wildest, the craziest thing, is this: start to finish, each takes place in the course of a single weekend.

And not only that, but, in just over 36 hours!  Believe it, Ripley.

A more detailed itinerary might look like this: Arriving at the host city Swansea in Wales, say, or Glasgow in Scotland, late Friday afternoon after six or eight hours in a cramped van, you check into a Bed and Breakfast, change into your basketball ‘‘kit’’, and head straight for the Sports Centre for a one-hour workout.  Your inexpensive, no-frills B&B is for sleeping and breakfast only: the rest of your time, napping and study-times included, is spent within too-easy earshot of a referee’s whistle.

Each of the eight teams plays once on Friday night.  After a quick fish & chips around the corner, you play that first bracket game at either 7:30 or 9:30 P.M.  Go easy on the cider vinegar, mate.

Saturday morning, beginning at about nine, the action resumes.  It’s a formidable pace, to be sure, and phrenetic.  Inside the cavernous multi-storied main sports hall, it’s a little like The Twilight Zone.  Tanless bodies, young and not-so-young, are traipsing along the sidelines in swimsuits, on their way to or from an indoor pool.  Badminton pairs in traditional garb are volleying a birdie beside one court, volleyballers are practicing digs near the other, indoor footballers are hammering goals into nets beyond the endlines, rock climbers like spidermen are all over the walls.  You pinch yourself: you must be hallucinating.

A couple of dozen chairs and a few benches are scattered courtside, but where the heck are the bleachers?  A smattering of folks stand and watch idly from time to time from open, upper-level passageways.  If five hundred spectators watch the final, you’re famous.

Painted on the Sports Centre’s multi-purpose courts are so many lines you don’t know what’s in, what’s out, or where the free-throw line is.  More often than not, the courts, although full-scale, are quite literally side-by-side.  Inevitably, this makes for some confusion.  Play often stops awkwardly on a whistle from the adjacent court.  Think of Saturday-morning rec-league games played simultaneously on the side baskets of your local high school gym when you were in elementary school, and you’ve pretty much got the picture.

It’s a three-ring bughouse, baby.  Everything’s happening at once.  It’s wild.  Sheer bedlam.  Dicky V. would lose his voice for good.

But somehow or other, deranged as it may be, a rhythm gets established and things get sorted out.  And by Saturday evening, will ye, nill ye, each team has completed its bracket play.  You understand, that means two 40-minute, full-court basketball games in one day.  Following a game the night before.  And those maniacal lads from Northern Ireland have been full-court pressing every minute.  Is that pluck, or what?

After dinner, bedtime comes early.  Nobody’s counting sheep.

But, however weary, for us March hares there just ain’t no rest.  First thing Sunday morning, the Final Four, or Crossover Round, begins.  Tip-off 9 A.M.  Freud forbid that you should lose in the Crossover.  The unfortunate members of those two squads get maybe a twenty-minute respite to soothe sore muscles and balm bruised psyches before contending with one another for the honor of a bronze medallion.  Oh yes, and for drawing up a game plan as well.

The Crossover winners, mercifully, are given more of a sporting chance to recover: the National Championship game doesn’t tip-off till around one in the afternoon.  That leaves about two hours between games. Pure luxury!

So add them up, fans.  For every team -- for each possessed player -- that’s five, count them, five complete games of college hoops, played in less time than it takes you and your buddies to drain that keg of weak American suds.  Well, almost.

And remember, this is International Rules we’re talking about here.  The shot clock is set at 30 seconds, not at the NCAA’s more languid 35.  Stopping the clock?  You must be joking.  Joshua more easily got the sun to stand still for a day.

Time-outs?  Not the discretionary surfeit stockpiled by the NCAA coach to wield on demand, that’s for sure.  -- To put brakes on momentum, to settle frazzled nerves, to ice free-throw shooters, to X-and-O set-pieces.  And none of these 20-second breathers, either.  In International Rules each side gets just two time-outs per half.  Battle fatigued or not, you’ve got to play through the pain.  Sixty seconds each.  Use ‘em or lose ‘em, that’s it.

Needless to say, there are no commercial breaks, at or near the 16-, 12-, 8-, and 4-minute benchmarks of each half.  Short of breath?  Stamina is supposed to be an essential part of this game, remember?  Thanks be to American Consumerism, televised NCAA tournament games, by way of contrast, are now played in five 4-minute installments per half, with conspicuous two-and-a-half minute intermissions between each short run.  At this latitude, that’s like night & day.  Next thing you know, there’ll be a huddle at the bench each time down the floor.

Oh, did I mention that half-time lasts only five minutes?

As if all that isn’t enough to keep the ball rolling at a warped speed, consider this: a time-out cannot be called while the ball is in play -- no, not even by the player with ball in hand.

Generally speaking, a time-out cannot be signaled to a ref by any player on the floor; it has to come directly from the scorer’s table via the bench.  If you’re quick -- and if Nurse Ratched is dozing -- you might sneak one in immediately after a whistle; but ordinarily you’ve got to call them in advance: coach or captain has to inform the scorer, ‘‘I want a time-out at the next dead ball.’’  Once you’ve placed the order, however, it’s virtually impossible to cancel it.

And call it cuckoo if you will, but, the game clock does not stop automatically after every field goal in the last minute of play.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, . . . .  The final minute takes little more than, well, 60 seconds.  That’s Real-Time for you.  Waits for no man.  It don’t require no doctoral pedigree to factor the level of frustration.  It’s maddening.  Last-minute comebacks are notoriously difficult to mount.

And you’d better pray that nobody gets injured.  Or, with the semis and the final both on the Sabbath, that you’ve got no Tabernacle Choirboys in your lineup (like the slick point guard from BYU we had one year).  Or, that you don’t have to go OT.  Bench strength, obviously, is critical.  But it’s sheer bodies, ultimately, that matters most.

As it is, it’s the last man standing wins.  Foul trouble can reduce a team to four on the floor.  I’ve seen it happen.

That first BSSF tourney, we suited up seven players for the trip to Birmingham.  That’s right, seven, including me -- a plaster wrap on a broken index finger, a plastic splint on the snapped-tendon pinky of my shooting hand, and fresh stitches above an eye swollen nearly shut -- to sub at point.  We listed a handful of Rhodes Scholars, but I was the only one who’d played college ball in the States.  And that was as a collector of splinters in my behind, mostly.  To play five games in a day and a-half.  And we had just played five the weekend before.  We came wearing our hard hats.

You can bank on it, though: no matter what, some twisted variant of Murphy’s Law will strike.  Early in our second game in Birmingham our starting 3-man went down with a severe ankle sprain.  For the next 24 hours we were obliged to play our remaining games, all three and three-quarters of them, with five and a-half players.  Only two were starters.  (Count over-the-hill me, generously, as the half.)

I’ll say this for those, my Blues, brothers: look up Stamina in Webster’s and you should find a picture of those five guys.  Ditto for Courage and Resolve.

Talk about tough.  We swept the remaining games.  So what if it was blue-collar and lacking in finesse?  Michigan State don’t try to win no beauty pageants neither.  The closest was against arch-foe Cambridge in our final . . . .

Now, you think Carolina-Duke is a pretty hot rivalry.  Sure ’nough.  But if you can, try to get your imagination around this: Oxford and Cambridge have been at each other’s throats since early in the 14th century.  It doesn’t much matter whether it’s religion, philosophy, fencing, or tiddlywinks.  Check out the Varsity Match in rugby at Twickenham if you happen to be in London in early December.  You’ll see what I mean.  That gentlemanly form of bloodletting’s been going on since before Viscount Horatio Nelson, the Admiral, made his first paper boat, I reckon.  I can guarantee you they’ve not seen anything like to it down on Tobacco Road.

. . . Our BSSF final vs. Cambridge was tied at the half.  Sprawled about the bench -- the locker room’s too distant a trek -- silence reigned.  We were all simply too exhausted to speak.  But by that point in your season, what’s left to be said?

In the second half, the Cantabrians threw all thirteen on their side into the fray.  Our quintet had to hold fast for another twenty long minutes.  With foul trouble we were in danger of playing the final ten minutes with three guys.  Our backs against the wall, we stared down their sabers and daggers.  Beware the Ides of March.  We won by twenty.

And back here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., what’s the word in Atlanta?  Come this first weekend in April, the Cinderellas have finally fled the dance and the smart money’s divvied up two ways.  The brass ring is up for grabs.

But whatever your pool picks, you can bet your bottom dollar on one inevitable howl.  From assistant coach or a player occasionally, from fans and apologists a bunch.  As familiar as the face of the moon.  I, for one, won’t call it a phase of lunacy; but perhaps you can understand why, verily, it maketh me to smile.

-- About the lack of preparation time.  About the lack of rest.  About how one of the finalists for the NCAA Championship will be at a disadvantage because they’ve played ‘‘the late game’’ on Saturday.

Holy moly, that gives the other fellas two extra hours before the final on Monday night.  And our all-American has a hang-nail!

Now don’t go getting me wrong.  I am not suggesting that the British system is ideal -- far from it.  Nor superior, even.  No sir.  I may be moonstruck, all right, but I’m not that frothy around the mouth.  All I’m saying is: Check it out, guv.  It’s way out there.  They’re like on basketball-Pluto, like, you dig?

No, just as much as you or the next rabid fan or anybody, I’m pining to see the two sides, whoever they’ll be, performing at the apex of their abilities, and with energy bursting like supernovae.  I don’t want to watch Josh or Joakim limp up and down the hardwoods chasing that Dream at half-strength.

Just don’t expect me to soak a box of Kleenex over it, okay?

I mean, how much time do they really need?  You do the math.  They’ve got practically one full week between the Regional finals and the Final Four.  And between the semifinals and the National Championship they’ve got virtually two full days.

Criminy!  That’s 48 hours, almost.  To those who huff & puff about the NCAA tournament schedule, all I have to say is this: I’ve seen a slew of unheralded guys play their hearts out five times in that amount of time.  With no spotlights and very little hoopla.  For chump change, really -- nothing much besides pride.

That’s it.  No fuss and no muss.  Your Division 1 semi-pro, scholarship stars are thoroughbreds.  They ought to be in decent enough shape by now.  How’s about some true grit?

And to those student-athletes who’ll be on the floor Monday night in the state-of-the-art Georgia Dome for the 2006-07 season finale, there’s nothing much for anybody to say but the platitudinous: Good luck and may the best team win.

Oh yes, and maybe this: You might want to count your blessings.  With every burning breath you gulp this weekend.  Sure, you got to suck it up, fellas.  But win or lose, you don’t know how lucky you are.

Forty-eight hours.  To me and my old Blues mates, that’s some kinda ear candy.  Sounds like practically half a century.  Just think of all we could’ve accomplished before that pile of hourglass grains would run out.  Toured Edinburgh Castle.  Transited Hadrian’s Wall.  Scaled Ben Nevis.  Circumnavigated a roundabout several more times . . . .

Okay, so lock me up and throw away the key.   But say what you like, that’s all the time in the world to get in a few good pick-up games, anyway.

* * * * *

Speaking of keys . . . .  Now don’t ask how, but I’ve got me a brass skeleton to the women’s old gym.  It has a wonderful wooden floor.  Waxed and ready for wear.  Nobody’ll be in there.  At half-time Monday night, anybody wanna go shoot some threes?

First one to twenty buckets.  It’s even got glass ‘boards.  You know that with all those hare-brained commercials and in-depth, psycho analyses, they won’t be back on the floor for fifteen minutes, at least.

The nets are all nylon, baby.  I’ll spot you a deuce.  C’mon, there’s plenty of time.

Two out of three.

Kortum, a recent Fulbright Senior Scholar, received his Doctorate in analytic philosophy of language & philosophical logic from Oxford University, and is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy & Humanities at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.  He grew up in Rockville, Maryland, where he played shooting guard for the Rockville Rams on their first State Champion team.  A walk-on his freshman year at Duke, he is reportedly the only player to have played university basketball for both Cambridge and Oxford.  During his stint at Oxford, where he was captain two years, the Dark Blues won back-to-back BUSF and back-to-back BSSF Championships.  He now looks forward in the spring to intramural ball at ETSU.  At a saner pace.