Basketball Lessons From ‘Iron Chef’

My undercover photo during practice.

I love cooking shows. And… I think that much about coaching can be related to being a top chef. For years, a program called Iron Chef was my late night TV fix. (I’m talking the original Asian version with English voice over. The sensationalized US version just isn’t the same).

During college, at 12:30am that bad boy would come on and I would flip on the box to see what the main ingredient was going to be and what insights “cuisan” was going to give.

For those who are not familiar, the premise of the show is that each week, after a surprise ingredient is revealed, a challenger chef and the Iron Chef would face off in a 1-hour frenetic culinary battle. There’s a guest panel that taste-tests the dishes and judges them to determine the winner.

Well, like the Iron Chefs and the challengers, as coaches, we get to choose, for the most part, which cut of meat we’d like to cook with; which veggies or starches would act as the perfect compliment to the feature selection. (Think about a tryout, recruiting or the NBA draft.)

Once the selection has been made, we decide how to cook it.

Hmm, do you grill it over the piping hot skillet or fire it in the oven to slow roast? Lastly, you get to decide what ingredients to add, and when; which seasonings to marry with it that will perfectly accent and bring out to best in the food.

Some of us as coaches are like the backyard BBQ’r. Doesn’t matter the cut, age or type of meat… you’re cooking it the same way. (Black! I mean, Cajun. The Iron Chefs would cringe at that thought.)

World Championships

During my trip to watch the European Championship in September of 2007, I was fortunate enough to watch the Spanish Men’s National Team practice in between Games 6 and 7 of EuroBasket. It was a special experience that’s typically closed to the public, as you can imagine.

[I actually was quite nervous during it all. And, for good reason, I might add. You see similar to the NBA, time is allocated to the media to get their B-roll (video footage) from a practice. That’s the stuff you get to see during Sports Centre each night that they supplement with interviews and sound bites. Well sure enough, they do their media avails at the beginning of practice. So you can imagine once the time is up, there’s one person (me!) left on the sideline – without any FIBA credentials, digital camera in one hand and frantically taking notes with the other. I was quickly brought back from my euphoria when I realized two armed policia were aggressively discussing my presence with event organizers, and why I was jotting down notes. Not knowing if I would get tossed out or strip searched and unable to explain myself due to the language barrier, I broke out into my second-year-university-get-it-all-down-shorthand. Who knew when they’d decide if it’d be cool for me to stick around. Luckily, I had friends in higher places (ha!).]

There were a lot of things that jumped out to me. And, I took lots of notes. But, in my quest to learn more about the dynamics of successful teams and leaders, here are a few random observations:

  • Head Coach, Pepu Hernandez: He made it a point to connect personally with each player – especially his point guards – prior to practice. It was interesting to watch him orchestrate and work the gym. I mean that in a positive sense. There are coaches I’ve watched who spend the vast majority of their time wearing what I call their ‘politician’ hat; moving from person to person as if they were on camera shaking hands with their people and kissing babies. Not the case with Pepu. It was evident that he had a clear purpose. He was mentally positioning his troops for what was going to take place during the practice. I really enjoyed watching him work. Similarly, his use of intonation, tone and inflection in his voice during the course of the practice was interesting.

Do you as a coach or athlete think about tone of voice and the impact in can have during a practice or game to make a point?

  • Role of The 4: The 4 in Spain, and more so in the international game, is critical to success; I would argue. Yeah Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon, Navarro, Jorge Garbajosa, Rudy et al are clutch. But the magic is at the four-spot with one guy in particular for me: Carlos Jiménez (#10, 2.04m, 100kg). Chippy and solid on D, but it’s his versatility offensively is what wooed me (and whoa-ed me too!). He can shoot it solidly to 17-19′, has initiation skills to ignite the break with the dribble, is a fantastic passer out of mid-to-high post, and most importantly, rarely stops moving – offensively. I’m talking pass-screen-away, dribble-hand off, pick and pop AND my newest measure of basketball IQ… in-out-up-down off-ball movement. He was a master. The way he moved without the ball led to numerous offensive rebounds and back taps (as seems to have become the trend lately). His best work came as he began to anticipate penetration from the perimeter or Pau was going to work in the post. Oh, it was a thing of beauty. Some coaches would look had him and say, “He just has a way of being in the right place and muddling it up.” That he does. But, to me, it’s a little escapist to leave it at that. What he does, is a skill. You can teach it.
  • In’s-Out’s / Up’s-Down’s (I borrow this terminology from Yoda Master Mike MacKay… I called this concept Slash-Flash / Drift-Burst at our Point Guard College in August as I experimented with it): Coming out of my Euro tour this summer, I became curious with how to teach, and if, it is a skill that could if fact be taught. Or, if it’s just a knack that some athletes have ‘naturally.’ My conclusion: It can. We did.

Back to the kitchen for me… Happy cooking!