European basketball coaches, and especially Israeli league coaches, have an obsession with strategic, aggressive fouling. “USE. YOUR. FOWWWWWWWWLS!!!” was easily the most frequent thing I heard during timeouts. The idea was to make the game choppy, take the offense out of its rhythm and prevent fastbreaks. The strategy made a lot of sense to me, but it also represented the most jarring difference in transitioning to the European style of basketball.
Let me quickly say that I always found it interesting that so many Israelis identified as “European.” This was most noticeable in the way they dressed. You looked out of place if you weren’t rocking capri pants, an Abercrombie & Fitch shirt that was two sizes too small, and a faux hawk. But it wasn’t just a look. It was a mindset. I once got into an argument with a teammate after he proclaimed that Israel had “the best doctors in Europe.” I pointed out that we were in the Middle East. He would not budge. “Best doctors in Europe,” he insisted, while taking a drag off a cigarette, chugging some Turkish coffee, and slipping into his Crocs.
Anyway, one of the main reasons for the emphasis on strategic fouling is that the coaches have a lot of faith in their offenses. My teams spent far more time designing offensive sets than working on defense. In fact, we rarely worked on defense at all. Thus, emphasizing fouling became a sort of lowest common denominator way of exerting influence over the team’s defensive scheme. “Hey, I’m telling them to foul. I have a plan!”
Another reason for the offense-centric attitude is that it was difficult for a coach to command the teams attention when he talked defense. This is because a lot of guys were scarred from all the brutal, soul sucking, ‘Shell Drill’ type defensive work that college players have to endure. No one cared about “helping the helper” anymore.
Basically, people were burned out on defense. I know I was. I’m liable to experience low-grade PTSD if I see a couple of loose bricks lying around. I have vivid memories of a stretch in college when the punishment du jour was endless defensive slides while holding a brick in each hand. (Because our most glaring issue was that we didn’t get low enough in our stances, not our near worst in the nation .317 team 3P%.)
My Israeli coaches would eventually catch on to our apathy. After a futile attempt to get us to work on defense, the coach would give up. He’d end the drill, shake his head, then tell us what really mattered anyway: “We must to use da FOULS!”
But, we wouldn’t even do that. This drove my coaches crazy. I experienced multiple halftime speeches where the coaches would look us in the eye, one by one, and implore us to foul. They would pull their hair out, demanding to know why we weren’t sacrificing for the team.
Well, here’s why: Points matter more than anything else when it comes to contracts. I haven’t seen studies on this for Europe, but according to one person’s NBA research, “every additional point per game a player averages, his salary will increase by $722,066.42.” No one’s getting that kind of money for a well-timed foul.
Because scorers are the ones that get the ‘bottle-after-bottle-of-overpriced-Ciroc’ money, players use the following logic: Fouling means getting subbed out, getting subbed out means less points, less points means a smaller contract, a smaller contract means less money to burn on drinks, clothes, XBox games and hush money to give your “Israeli wifey” to insure she doesn’t blow up your spot when your real wife comes to visit. (Probably.)
The best teams coped with this by relying on their low paid Israelis to do a lot of the grunt work. I noticed that the winning teams always seemed to play a couple of guys who didn’t really offer that much in terms of skill, but were more than happy to tackle people instead of giving them an easy shot.
This all comes back to the universal idea that team building is more than just having the best players. “Best” is a misleading term anyway, since it usually only means “best scorer.” If you build a team full of great scorers who don’t give two shits about sacrifice, you get the team I played on in 2011. We had the third highest payroll in the league, yet we were dead last in the standings for almost the entire year. Though to be fair, we were elite at getting two head coaches fired, instigating nightclub brawls, and getting drunk in Russian airports after losing by 40.