Basketball Golden Boy May Be Playing His Own Sport

A basketball player from Grinnell College who set a good scoring record has received a lot of good press, but there's also been some backlash. Host Rachel Martin checks in with NPR's Mike Pesca for his unique take on the sports stories of the week.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE IS A BALL GAME")

SISTER WYNONA CARR: (Singing) Life is a ball game being played each day...

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's Sunday morning, so that means NPR's Mike Pesca is with us for our weekly chat about sports - and frankly, whatever else strikes our fancy. He's up in New York. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hey. Maybe woodworking.

MARTIN: Who knows?

PESCA: Scrapbooking.

MARTIN: Yes! OK, so Thanksgiving Day, my family and I ran this little race - this little 5K, in Washington - and while I was running, I was catching snippets of conversations; I eavesdrop, from time to time. And I passed this group of guys; and they were going on and on about this kid at Grinnell College, this basketball player who set this crazy record - 138 points in a single game. I mean, everyone's still talking about this. Is this kid some kind of basketball golden child?

PESCA: Yeah, and he benefited from the system. But I think the most important thing, in that anecdote, is if you're going to be talking about basketball in a race, you will get passed by a very swift NPR host.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Right, pushing a stroller. Mm-hmm.

PESCA: Noticed passed; you - yes, you passed them. So Jack Taylor of Grinnell benefits from a very interesting system. His coach - you know, Grinnell's a really good school. You have to have high math SAT scores to get in. You have to know that three is more than two. And his coach said, hey, if we shoot and make all these three-pointers, and we let the other team shoot a lot of two-pointers, we'll probably win. And that's sort of the cornerstone of his system; where the coach of Grinnell subs in player after player after player - 20 guys play in the game - and everyone in this game - against Faith Baptist - funneled the ball to Jack Taylor, who shot and shot and shot his way into the NCAA record book.

Now, this was great for Grinnell. You maybe never hear of Grinnell; no one had ever heard of Jack Taylor. But - you know, there was, of course, a backlash; Deadspin calling it a sham; Gregg Doyel, of CBS, said kid scores 138, nobody wins - actually Grinnell won by 75. So there's always this sort of, oh, we can't experience pleasure, sports, athletic anhedonia going on.

MARTIN: How come? I mean, what's the deal?

PESCA: OK. I mean, I think that there are some general rules, like don't run up the score - that, alone, is bad sportsmanship. But you have to take context into effect. Sports are, of course, an analogy for battle; and so we like to have some chivalry during our battles. But look at what was going on. This was a game where Jack Taylor was trying to set a record. And set a record, he did. And as far as the running-up-the-score argument, I think some context is important. Like, first of all, if I told you two teams were playing - right? - and one team beat the other by seven, would you call that a blowout, or running up the score?

MARTIN: I mean, no. I mean, it depends on the game, right? Like in soccer...

PESCA: That's right.

MARTIN: ...it would be a big win.

PESCA: Yes.

MARTIN: But in basketball, no.

PESCA: That's right. It depends on the game. In football, you know, seven points is just one touchdown. In soccer, it's ridiculous. And I submit that what Grinnell was doing, is actually playing a different game than the basketball that we know. It's not walking the ball up the court, and getting it to the guy who happens to be open. It's a concerted effort; waves and waves of players. And because there were so many possessions - Grinnell possessed the ball 123 times - there are big swings in the score. So you look at the final score and you say, oh my God, what a huge number. But then other games, where the score might be - you know, routinely, teams lose by 30 or 40 points; actually, those are bigger blowouts because there are so many fewer possessions of a game. The way Grinnell plays, the score could change dramatically. So I would excuse Grinnell on that point.

MARTIN: But - I mean, I don't get what the controversy is. This team still won, I mean, by more than 70 points.

PESCA: Oh, but the controversy is - you know, you should have shut the kid down; and he should have maybe only scored 99 points. But, you know, I would say a couple things. It's not 12-year-olds playing - this is called men's basketball. It's not a sport like football; no one's going to get hurt. And if you asked Faith Baptist, as some coaches - as some reporters did, they weren't at all annoyed by it. You know, no one likes to lose by that much. But they lost by 50 points a week earlier; they're not a very good team. And so they weren't upset to be part of history.

MARTIN: Just seconds left - it's Thanksgiving weekend. You want to say anything about football?

PESCA: I do. In the Lions game, the coach, Jim Schwartz, challenged a play where the Texans scored. And he would have won his challenge, if he had only kept his flag in his pocket. Because he challenged, he lost the ability to challenge. I surveyed a bunch of legal experts - like Gabe Feldman,of the Tulane Sports Law Center; Emily Bazelon, of Slate - and they could find no legal precedent to explain losing a right just by asking for your right. The only thing I could think of is when my kids ask, Daddy, can I have a ring pop? I say yes. Daddy, can I have a ring pop? I say yes. Daddy - if you ask for another ring pop, you're not going to have a ring pop. And I think that was...

MARTIN: That's the big lesson.

PESCA: ...the principle at stake. Yes.

MARTIN: NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks so much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE IS A BALL GAME")

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News.

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