My Love Affair with Rez Ball and the System

Rez Ball, much like the System, is about the fast break, pressing and player freedom…a philosophy I have grown to appreciate as a basketball writer and coach

I lived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for  three years, and one aspect of “Rez” life I became very fascinated with over that time span was “Rez Ball.” While Rez Ball encompasses different kinds of basketball over all levels (from youth to adult leagues), where it shines brightly is at the high school level. I know people talk about how Indiana is a mecca for high school basketball, but Indian Reservation High School basketball can’t be far behind. Gyms are packed end-to-end for high school games and the reservation’s focus every Winter sports season becomes on which reservation team is going to make a run at the state championship. Whether it’s in South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Oklahoma or whatever state, Native American High School basketball is a way of life in the winter and early spring months that is not only a positive focus for the student athletes participating, but also for the general reservation community involved.

But in addition to the passion the Native American community has for the sport, one of the other aspects that separates Native American high school basketball from a lot of other high-school basketball-playing areas is the distinct style teams are known to play, which is Rez Ball. What is Rez Ball? This story from 2008 by ESPN’s Cameron Renee Thompson does a good job describing the history and stories (both positive and negative) of Rez Ball on reservations, and the style is eloquently summarized in this paragraph below:

Rezball is a smashmouth game of speed, aggression and stamina. Full-court presses and man D are applied relentlessly, but the transition game is the game. Guards often start a break after receiving the inbounds pass; set plays are rare. Rezball makes the 2007 Suns look like the 1995 Knicks. Squads with three guys taller than 6’3″ are rare, so even the short guys know how to play big, and all five positions boast guardlike handles and shooting skills. Watching the best teams will rivet you to your seat—from the way players improvise at warp speed to their sheer endurance and the dialed-in-but-carefree way they ball.

Yep, I couldn’t describe “Rez Ball” better myself. And for three years, I really had an up-close and intimate view of Rez Ball on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as a fan and part-time coach (I was mostly in charge of keeping statistics). Through those years on the Reservation, my obsession with fast break basketball grew. I marveled at the different kinds of presses teams encompassed from the Diamond (1-2-1-1) to the 2-2-1 to match-up hybrids. I grew fascinated by the up-tempo play, the smothering traps on defense that gave opposing teams fits, the reliance on the 3-point shot and the freedom coaches gave their players on the offensive end. My dad always loved the fast break game and shared that upon me somewhat, as evidenced by him acquainting me earlier with videotaped games from Paul Westhead’s Loyola Marymount teams that garnered national attention and NCAA Tournament success. However, my experience as a player was always more on the “traditional” end, closer to Hickory High than Red Cloud High. Make four passes before a shot. Don’t take a bad shot. Be patient on the offensive end. If you don’t, you’ll be on the bench.

Rez Ball obliterated a lot of those preconceptions for me, because despite the chaos that ensued at times, despite the initial “lack of control” coaches appeared to have over players, I realized that the freedom and style Natives were allowed to play was an ideal way to play. It represented who they were: fast, passionate, and tough. The game became less about coaching “strategy” and more about the players “talents” “skills” and “competitiveness”. Rez Ball and its up-tempo style wasn’t bastardizing the games of basketball for high school kids: it empowered them. It put the responsibility on them. If they failed, it wasn’t a coaching strategy, but rather they weren’t effective enough. They didn’t play fast enough. They didn’t trap enough. They didn’t shoot well enough. All those things were things the players controlled, not the coaches, and it put the responsibility back on them to improve their skills in practice and in their free time if they wanted to be successful.

But if they succeeded, it was more because they demonstrated that they could play their style more effective than the other team and less because the coach was a “genius”. It wasn’t the coaches’ adjustment, but the players’. It wasn’t the coaches’ brilliant defensive strategy, but the hustle and heart the team put into the traps and press. In Rez Ball the coach serves as more of a mentor and a teacher rather than the CEO/Celebrity so many coaches wish to personify. And because of that backward focus, the sport concentrates on who it should: about the youth, not the adult. In an area of the country (Reservations) where hope is bleak for a lot of youth, the empowerment Rez Ball gives has more benefits for the players than just on-the-court success. No wonder players and fans say they cannot play “any other way.”

Safe to say, I love Rez Ball. I nearly moved back to Pine Ridge to take a teaching job because my fascination with the game is incredibly deep. The Lakota Nation Invitational in Rapid City, SD is appointment watching for me on stream (I haven’t had the opportunity to go back since being in KC due to my job responsibilities), and I hope for a day where I can go back and watch the tournament in person with regularity again. As a coach, I have to say Rez Ball has influenced not only the way I want my players to play, but how I coach and how I want to give my players the freedom to play the natural way basketball ought to be played: fast.

And speaking of fast, my fascination and love for Rez Ball led me to the “System”. Looking up all kinds of offenses and styles of play early in my coaching career, both on and off the reservation, I stumbled upon David Arsenault’s “System” a couple of years ago. I had heard about the system and Jack Taylor’s 138 point game years back and my initial thought was akin to the crotchety Tony Kornheiser-mold: that’s a joke, that style of play is ridiculous, they are doing it to manufacture records and attention and little else. I pointed to the argument that they “didn’t win” and “their style didn’t work against better opponents” as discredit to what Arsenault was doing at Grinnell College. And many people agreed with me, even those on the rez and in my social circle who loved the up-tempo basketball as much as I did.

But then I did my research. I found out about how Grinnell had a streak of 29 straight losing seasons before Arsenault switched to the system. I learned how he mainly created the system to help his players and himself be happier and more engaged in practice (he initially thought they wouldn’t win with the style, but at least would have fun). I read about the five-man subs and everybody getting playing time. I discovered about the formula for success and his heavy usage of statistics to serve as benchmarks of success.

My opinion swooned. The system wasn’t the enemy of basketball. Rather it was a proponent of basketball, “player-centered” basketball, much like Rez Ball. The reliance on three’s, the non-stop full court pressing and trapping, the deep bench, everything Grinnell and Arsenault ran was what I had seen from Rez Ball at the high school level in Pine Ridge, but they personified it in a more streamlined and numbers-based philosophy. And instead of being against the “System”, I became an advocate. I defended the system to everyone and will continue to do so, especially in our first year installing it at the school where I coach (And I will continue to advocated it regardless of our record). Rez Ball introduced me to run and gun basketball. But the “System” honed my desires into a philosophy and style of play that truly would accomplish would I want as a coach: a fun style of play, maximum effort, and total participation.

Rez Ball is not completely like the “System”. Rez Ball coaches don’t consistently utilize the bench as often as “System” coaches, and they do not rely on the press as much. Often time, you will see some Rez Ball teams sink into zones, especially after missed baskets. But Rez Ball and “System” basketball are closely linked, related like long-lost cousins who were on opposite ends of the country and didn’t know one another existed. Their philosophies at the core are the same: play fast, play for the players.

The System and Rez Ball are a part of me, and such a fervent part of me that I hope to share with my players this season. I want my team to play with the style of the “System” but the spirit of Rez Ball. I want them to know that they can be empowered in the way they play and that they can transition that empowerment to other areas of life beyond the basketball court.

And I want them to feel like I do when I watch basketball: it is meant to be played fast, it is meant to be fun and with freedom, and when it isn’t, it needs to be either changed or ignored. Basketball isn’t a game of 40-30 slug fests. Basketball isn’t a game where you’re trying to hold teams to the fewest amount of points. We have football for that. We have soccer for that. Basketball doesn’t need to follow the mold that “macho” tough guys have tried to impart on it because they need something to distract them in between football season and spring football.

Run, shoot, press, sub. That is the philosophy of the “System” and Rez Ball follows the same principles closely (or at least the run, shoot, press portion). That is my philosophy as a coach and journalist of the game.

I am forever scarred by the beauty of the “System” and Rez Ball. Watching non-system games, especially at the collegiate level where coaches need to control everything, is something I cannot do anymore. In a college-loving area of the country, I sound like a hedon when I share my disdain of people who advocate 3-2 zone defenses and the four-corners as a primary offense.

But I am fine with the disdain. My love for the game of basketball has been shaped by Rez Ball and the “System”. I am forever grateful that I will never go back to any other way or philosophy again.

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