In the absence of an imminent court-rushing, coaches not shaking hands at the end of a game is a serious breach of post-game etiquette. Fran McCaffery’s refusal to follow decades of hoops tradition and not offer parting pleasantries to Brian Jones Tuesday night was caused by another breach of etiquette – when the winning team has the ball and the shot clock is off in a lopsided game, the time to play basketball has ended.
When North Dakota’s Corey Baldwin stole the ball from Nicholas Baer with a few seconds left, he violated one of the unwritten rules of the game. McCaffery overreacted by a few orders of magnitude, but in most cases the coach of the offending team would feel obligated to apologize to the opposing coach in the handshake line for such actions by his players.
It didn’t use to be like this, though. The late-game concession dance has taken years to develop. Back in the ’70s and ’80s , nobody even knew how to dribble out the end of the game. You played until the horn. Witness the final minute of this lopsided contest between DePaul and UCLA from 1980. DePaul has a 14-point lead at the beginning of this sequence, but both teams are still competing like the outcome is in doubt.
This is representative of what happened at the end of lopsided games in the ’80s and even into the ’90s. Teams just kept playing and scoring and even stepping in for charges until the horn sounded. End-game dunks by teams with double-digit leads were common and no post-game apology was expected.
Why was this illogical practice the norm? It’s impossible to for someone sitting in his pajamas surfing YouTube to say, but I have a theory. In college basketball in 1980, there was nothing compelling one to shoot. A team could win the opening tip and hold the ball for the next 20 minutes if they were so inclined. This almost never happened, though, because people wanted to play basketball instead of stand around.
Given the lack of a shot clock, a universally-accepted dribble-out time was impossible to negotiate. If a team was up by 20 with two minutes to go, should it just try to run out the clock or play basketball until the horn? It apparently was seen as less embarrassing to the losing team to do the latter. And to be fair, defenses were not all that cooperative in this endeavor, either. Pressing and fouling often continued regardless of the late-game deficit. Therefore, offenses kept playing until the horn. There was no other way.
These customs continued for the at least the next decade. Witness a rather memorable finish from Shaq in a 1990 game between LSU and Arizona. We pick up the action with LSU leading by five and inbounding the ball with 13 seconds left.
I highly doubt it, but maybe Shaq’s dunk would still happen today the way that play unfolded. However, Vernell Singleton’s steal and dunk just before the horn to give the Tigers a ten-point victory almost certainly would be viewed differently in 2017 than it was then.1 Dickie V was genuinely excited in 1990, but I wonder if 2016 Dickie V would react the same way.
It’s not difficult at all to find other games from the late ’80s and early ’90s where the winning team finishes off a game with a dunk or alley-oop in the final seconds. Later that season, UNLV refused to dribble it out with a 12-point lead over Seton Hall in the Elite Eight. After the clock hits zero, the camera pans to a motionless PJ Carlesimo who must be contemplating why this illogical situation exists. It would take him three more years to jump to the NBA, but maybe the seed was planted then.
In November of 1992, Duke rebounds a Michigan shot leading by nine with five seconds left. That’s not enough for Bobby Hurley who insists on leaking out for a last-second uncontested layup.
The insanity continues through the mid ’90s. Georgetown is up by 20 on Georgia Tech with 30 seconds left in this 1995 game. John Thompson insists on employing a half-court trap in the game’s final possessions and after the Hoyas grab a rebound with 15 seconds left, there is no thought of dribbling out the game. Jahidi White gets a game-ending dunk after grabbing a loose ball.
But sometime around the turn of the century, college basketball entered a more practical age. Late-game dunks were starting to be viewed as unnecessary, on the way to their ultimate label of ‘classless’. Perhaps it was incidents like this one, at the end of a blow-out Louisville win over Kentucky in 1998, that ushered in the new way of thinking. The Cardinals’ Nate Johnson, operating under the Shaq Doctrine, tries for a game-closing dunk and Jamaal Magloire, a future member of Team McCaffery, is going to make sure that doesn’t happen.
It took a few more seasons for the current dribbling-out custom to prevail nationwide, but it gradually caught on. More and more losing teams stopped pressing and fouling when the deficit became insurmountable. And that removed the best excuse for the winning team to punctuate the game trying for a last-second score.
Soon, that became the accepted practice for ending a basketball game. When the game was effectively over and the shot clock was off, a truce was expected. The winning team was allowed to dribble out the final possession while the defense stood and watched. The first examples I could find of a true dribble-out, where everyone stands around waiting for the clock to expire was the 2000 season.2
I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence or not, but the handshake line became a thing at the same time. For years, players were left to fend for themselves after the game, shaking the hands of random opponents and assistant coaches while milling around on the court. But things got much more organized in the 2000-2001 time frame. The end-game became a time of peace and acceptance for all parties involved.
In modern times, you still have the occasional end-game dunk (famous examples include Donald Sloan, Elijah Johnson, Victor Oladipo, and Brannen Greene) but they are almost always followed by apologetic words from the offending player or his coach shortly after the game. And the transformation of the end-game truly came full circle when Hurley’s old coach criticized Dillon Brooks for a late three – taken from 30 feet to avoid a shot-clock violation – and the subsequent gesture indicating some sort of excitement in a big Oregon win during last season’s NCAA tournament.
The Iowa/North Dakota ending was odd by 2016 standards, but in 1991 Fran McCaffery would have considered Nicholas Baer the goofball for just letting someone steal the ball from him, even if the outcome of the game was decided. And Coach K would have had his defense trapping all over the court instead of exhibiting complete indifference. But times have changed and you don’t play to the horn unless it’s necessary. That’s for the better, but it’s fascinating that two people who coached back in the days of end-game dunks are now among the most concerned about how to properly conclude a lopsided game.
|^1||Then again, it’s clear from the video that Dale Brown can’t seem to find a hand to shake at the end, so maybe attitudes were beginning to change.|
|^2||It should be noted that there’s a lot of selection bias in the games that are available on YouTube. Few people upload the kinds of games where a dribble-out is possible. Also, I didn’t watch every game on YouTube. Which is to say I’m sure that the dribble-out existed in earlier seasons, but based on my cursory examination it certainly wasn’t popular.|