Basketball & Improv

In the December 2009 Los Angeles Magazine, Michael Mullen recounts his experiences learning improv comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Hollywood in an article titled “Get Me Outta Here!”

During two passages, he captures the essence of great basketball as well:

Improv…is about scenes and what is known as The Game. There’s a paradox here. It is human nature to be competitive, to want to stand out and earn a pat on the back. If a scene works, however, it is because players have cooperated and found a game. The game requires an ensemble performance, so it works to your advantage if everyone succeeds.

While NBA basketball depends on star performances, and many high school and colleges win because they have one dominant player, the best teams typically have an ensemble. When everyone plays well, the team performs at its best, offensively and defensively. Even stars depend on teammates to pass the ball, set screens, rebound and defend. While everyone wants to be the star, too many wanna-be stars hunting bad shots or playing individually lead to poor performances.

A group game is infinitely harder than a two-person scene. It is akin to meeting seven friends at a shopping mall and trying to decide what to do. Everyone stands around for half an hour, then finally arrives at a compromise nobody likes. Group games depend on achieving a consciousness in which one loses awareness of self and becomes mindful of only the thoughts and movements of the assembly. It takes listening.

Motion offenses are similar. Bad motion offenses are like the seven friends at the mall. Great motion offenses succeed when teammates read each other and anticipate each other’s movements. This comes through experience playing with each other as well as knowledge of the best plays in certain situations.

If we run a high on-ball screen and the defense rotates to the screener rolling to the basket, the ball handler anticipates that another player fills the vacated area and another player anticipates the open area where the screen originated (top of the key). This is fairly basic basketball, but it spaces the floor and keeps the ball moving. Rather than the ball handler forcing the pass to the screener or pounding the ball, the ball handler reverse to the top for a high-low into the screener or to get a new action going to the weak side.

When the players anticipate the play in this manner, each player plays off each other and off the proper spacing to create open shots for the team. As the players play together more and more, the timing improves and players understand each other’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses, and the offense flows with less thinking and more reacting to the situations, leading to quicker and more effective decision-making and more decisive plays.

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