This story appears in the Feb. 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
We had an idea -- a bold idea, really. Ask an NBA coach to let a fan design a play and, if he liked it, use it in a game. Sounds fun, right? We thought so. So did Wizards coach Flip Saunders when we approached him with our plan. That's because he's smart enough to know that a) it's sports, not heart surgery; b) all teams, let alone struggling ones, should always be on the lookout for new ways to connect with fans; and c) good ideas can come from anywhere. Alas, we can't say the same for the talking heads -- some on ESPN -- who ripped Saunders just for considering the offer. And so with critics yapping and Gilbert Arenas' gun issues bringing the Wizards grief, we thanked Flip for hearing us out and left him to more important things. Luckily, Nets GM and interim coach Kiki Vandeweghe also found the idea fun and interesting. And this time, we didn't tell anyone what we were up to.
I tried to keep my expectations low as I walked into the Izod Center that cold January night, something every Nets fan has learned to do this season. I figured, at worst, I'd watch my favorite team battle the Atlantic Division-leading Celtics. At best? I'd see my cellar-dwellers run a side out-of-bounds play I designed especially for them. No kidding.
This all started after New Year's. A buddy of mine, Mag NBA senior writer Chris Broussard, told me the Nets had agreed to look at a play designed by a fan, and if it was good enough, they'd consider actually running it. Naturally, I thought he was kidding. The Nets are my team. I've followed them since the Dr. J days. When I finally realized Chris was serious, I dug into my archives.
I grew up on the basketball court in the Jersey suburbs and even played college hoops at Virginia Commonwealth. So I looked at my old playbooks to find just the right plan -- something that fit the Nets personnel. I settled on one that, when run correctly, gives the team a variety of options, which include driving to the hoop, dishing it inside for a layup or outside for a shot, trying a corner three or lobbing the ball to the basket. The Nets, at least I think, have a good mix of guys who can do all that.
I love this play, but even though I coach 10- and 11-year-olds in my spare time I never get a chance to use it; the kids can't catch the ball well enough to execute a lob. So I thought this would be my moment to let it all hang out with the pros.
I knew going in that there would be no guarantees: The Nets would run the play only in the first half, before the game got serious, or in the final minutes of a blowout. Now, I might be a fan, but I'm realistic. With 3-34 New Jersey hosting 26-10 Boston, I knew there was a good chance I should expect the latter.
I handed my play over to The Mag, and in the days leading up to the game, I heard Kiki thought it was good enough to test at shootaround. I had submitted a half-page description of the play detailing how I thought it could develop and ways it could be executed. I was feeling pretty good about it. At practice the day before the game, Kiki looked at my description and translated it into Nets X's and O's. Apparently, it reminded him of a play he ran during his days with the Nuggets. He had flashbacks to Doug Moe and those Life Savers uniforms. "It's really not a bad play," Kiki said. "It may even be better than some of the stuff we have."
The Nets often set aside an eight-minute segment of practice for inbound plays, and a portion of that slot was allotted to introduce mine. Here's how Kiki saw it.
First option: Small forward inbounds to point guard and then runs his defender into a back screen by the center. Now that he's got some space, the PG lobs the ball back to the small forward, who races toward the rim.
Second option: Small forward inbounds to the point, who comes off the screen and swings the ball to the power forward at the right corner of the free throw line; he goes one-on-one or tries to nail the midrange J.
Third option: Small forward inbounds to the point, who looks for a pick-and-roll off the screen. If it's not there, he passes to the shooting guard, set up in the corner for a trey.
After four minutes practicing it, Kiki said, "Got it? Okay, if we run it, it'll be out of a time-out."
At that point, Devin Harris, the team's official play-namer, dubbed my baby Cross Shake, because it resembled a play already in the Nets' playbook called Shake. After that, the team moved on to examining Celtics plays for 10 minutes. All I could think was, Wow, my play, being broken down by a pro team during a routine practice.
I didn't get my hopes up, but I had to be the only fan in the arena that night who relaxed while the clock was ticking but got nervous during time-outs. In the first half, there were a few opportunities to run my play, but whenever I watched the players come out of a huddle I could tell by the way they lined up that the Cross Shake wasn't going to be the call.
As the second half wore on and the Celtics jumped out to a 30-point lead, I thought the chances for my play were as dim as the Nets'. I grew more and more anxious as the seconds ticked off the clock. With two minutes remaining, I was resigned to the fact it wasn't going to happen. I thought, Hey, I had a pretty good night seeing my team battle one the NBA's best, so even if they don't run it, it's all good.
Then, with 1:42 left and Boston leading 107-84, Kiki called a 20-second time-out. Most of the fans grumbled, but I was ready to give the coach a standing O. I paid close attention as the Nets' second unit -- which was getting some run with the game out of hand -- went back on the floor. I saw how the players lined up and it looked exactly as I would have drawn it. I knew this was it.
Small forward Terrence Williams inbounded the ball to point Chris Quinn. Freed by power forward Kris Humphries' screen at the top of the key, Quinn dribbled right and found shooting guard Jarvis Hayes in the right corner. This was a variation of option three. From where I sat, it looked as though Quinn could've gotten a step on his defender, created a little more space and taken it to the rack himself. But that's not what happened. Quinn found Hayes, who put up a contested three. As the ball went up I thought, Wouldn't it be great if he made this? He didn't -- he front-rimmed it -- but hey, at least no one tripped!
After the game, I was escorted into the corridor across from the players' locker room. Courtney Lee walked by, then assistant coach Del Harris. Shortly after Kiki finished talking to the media I was invited into his office. He handed me a black felt-tipped pen and asked me to draw up my play on the coaches' white board. He and I had a brief conversation about X's and O's, and he came up with options for my play that I'd never even considered. We were just two fellas talking hoops. He told me it was a pretty good play, and later I found out that he's adding it to the playbook.
I'm just glad I could help.