Sports Nut

Save the Tigers!

The fabulous decline of Princeton basketball.

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A Princeton game

This week marks the 10th anniversary of one of the NCAA Tournament’s great upsets: Princeton’s first-round defeat of defending-champion UCLA. But the program that won the hearts of college basketball fans during the 1990s by employing an unusual offense to scare—and occasionally beat—much better teams has fallen into a sad state of disrepair. Last year, after being picked in the preseason media poll to win the Ivy League, Princeton stumbled to a losing conference record for the first time in its history. This season, the Tigers tied the NCAA record for fewest points scored in a game since the creation of the 3-point shot (21, against Monmouth) and dropped a game to Carnegie Mellon, a Division III school. In December, the New York Times noted that Princeton basketball “is setting new standards for failure.” For the second year in a row, Penn, not Princeton, represents the Ivy League in the NCAA Tournament.

While no fan wants his team to lose, Princeton’s decline has actually been a good thing for partisans of Princeton basketball. Rooting for the Tigers is more than just a parochial allegiance; it means that you must pay homage to a particular approach to basketball that has come to be known as the Princeton offense. The offense has spread far and wide during the last 10 years—to NBA teams like the Sacramento Kings, along with countless colleges and high schools. Now the decline of Tigers basketball has achieved something significant: It has saved the brilliant Princeton system from its association with Princeton.

Perfected by Tigers coach Pete Carril during the 1980s, the Princeton offense is premised on constant motion—players moving without the ball—and on doing two things well: shooting 3-pointers and executing backdoor cuts. The offense had a number of specific virtues that helped Princeton acquire a cult following. For one thing, by neutralizing the advantages enjoyed by the team with superior size or talent in any given contest, it made upsets more likely. For another, when run properly, it’s simply a lot of fun to watch.

But the most important virtue was that Princeton’s offense suggested—well, virtue. Specifically, the virtues of selflessness and intellect. Players don’t do much dribbling in the Princeton offense; shots come almost exclusively off assists, and there is little room for the individual to shine. In addition, because the offense appeared so complex—and because it frequently befuddled more athletically gifted teams—the Tigers’ success suggested the triumph of intelligence over talent. The fact that an Ivy League school gave birth to the offense furthered this impression. The rather unsubtle title of Carril’s memoir was The Smart Take From the Strong.

Journalists became smitten with Princeton. Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe said the team’s strength was “brainpower.” Ira Berkow of the New York Times said Princeton’s athletes played “as unselfishly as beavers building a dam.” Perhaps the most far-reaching analysis belonged to George Will, who in a 1998 column wrote, “One should not commit sociology promiscuously, but this team might be a leading indicator of cultural improvement, advancing virtues important in society and decreasingly apparent in sports.”

But there was a problem with all this praise: It sounded a little too much like racial code. In basketball, white players are generally stereotyped as untalented but intelligent, hardworking, selfless, and disciplined—whereas black players are seen as naturally gifted but indolent and inclined toward selfish showboating. True, there was something cerebral about Princeton’s system, and there was something worth celebrating about a style of play that required such discipline and selflessness. Where things got sticky, though, is that Princeton’s teams consistently fielded at least four white starters. And so it was impossible to decipher where genuine appreciation for Princeton’s (selfless, intelligent, disciplined, slow) style of offense ended and racial bias began. As a Tiger fan, you could never quite be sure whether the rest of the country was rooting for your team because of how they played or because of who they were. “Race is implicit,” wrote Jonathan Tilove in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “for the Princeton game harkens back to a time when whites dominated the sport before black players pumped it up and took it over.”

In 1999, as a mostly white Princeton squad took on a mostly black Georgetown squad in the first round of the NIT, a student sitting behind me at Princeton’s Jadwin Gym responded to a controversial call by demanding to know whether the ref was practicing “affirmative action.” What was a socially conscious Princeton fan to do? That’s why the last two years have been a blessing in disguise. Princeton’s demise has coincided with the ascendance of two big-time schools that have used the Princeton offense to rebuild their programs. As the NCAA Tournament gets under way, the national face of the Princeton offense will be very different than it was during the 1990s. After missing the tournament for 10 straight seasons, N.C. State has made the Big Dance every year since coach Herb Sendek installed the Princeton offense in 2001. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., former Princeton coach John Thompson III has used the Princeton offense to turn around Georgetown in just his second season. Two other tournament teams that run some form of the offense, Air Force and Monmouth, are also more racially diverse than Princeton’s best 1990s squads.

To be sure, N.C. State and Georgetown run a more up-tempo version of the offense than Princeton ever did. And because they play in power conferences, they can’t lay claim to Princeton’s underdog appeal.

But to watch N.C. State and Georgetown play is to see on display the same virtues that pundits and fans have long celebrated in Princeton. And the rise of N.C. State and Georgetown means that appreciation of the Princeton offense can no longer be written off as racist code, or simple nostalgia for an era when white athletes dominated. Today, unlike in the 1990s, the best practitioners of this disciplined, cerebral, selfless offense are mostly black, while in central New Jersey a mostly white team is making a mess of the system—even with the lowly competition provided by the Ivy League. Finally, the ugly hint of racism can come uncoupled from a beautiful brand of basketball. As George Will might say, that’s cultural improvement.