When The Going Gets Tough: An Examination of Toughness on the Basketball Court

Wednesday March 28, 2012 10:40 PM

When The Going Gets Tough

An examination of what constitutes true toughness on the basketball court

Jason Friedman

HOUSTON - When you hear the word ‘toughness’ tossed around, what comes to mind? For basketball fans of a certain generation, the first images conjured are probably those of an injured but indomitable Willis Reed walking through a Madison Square Garden tunnel prior to Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. Others likely recall Michael Jordan’s famous flu game. Many of today’s fans, meanwhile, understandably stand in awe of Kobe Bryant’s ability to overcome an assortment of injuries while continuing to perform at a high level.

Interesting, that so many of our instinctive initial contemplations of competitive toughness stem from one’s ability to play through pain. And while that is unquestionably one manifestation of the word, there are of course others as well: the toughness necessary to bang bodies and take a beating down low while fighting tooth and nail for prime real estate beneath the basket in an effort to snatch every rebound; the willingness to repeatedly dive on the floor for every loose ball knowing how precious every single possession can be; the gritty resolve required to hurl oneself toward the rim, understanding the very real likelihood that what momentarily appears to be an open layup may instead result in a hard foul that could very well send one crashing to the court.

Of course, those are merely examples of physical toughness. Mental fortitude plays just as pivotal a role in the blueprint for sustained success. Oceans of virtual ink have been spilled discussing and dissecting those players who not only crave crunch time but thrive within its unique confines, but equally important – if not more so – are those who possess the ability to focus for a full 48 minutes every single night throughout the marathon that is the NBA regular season. It is a grind to be sure; one that tests the limits of toughness not just from a physical standpoint, but from a mental one, too.

It should come as no surprise then that Rockets Head Coach Kevin McHale preaches the tenets of toughness as often as he does, nor should it shock that he holds those who embody its principles in such high regard. He is, after all, the same man who ignored doctors' advice while continuing to play through a broken bone in his right foot during the Boston Celtics’ 1987 run to the NBA Finals. McHale makes no secret of his disdain for excuses, and his passion for those who share his ultra-competitive nature is impossible to miss. So when Courtney Lee laughs at a torn ligament, Marcus Camby does the same, and Goran Dragic shrugs off a sprained ankle to play 38 minutes the next night, one can only assume that those actions are not just met with a nod of approval from their coach – but also a significant amount of pride as well. The same can certainly be said of his reaction to the Rockets’ resilience displayed during their captivating comeback wins over the Thunder and Lakers earlier this month.

What makes the topic doubly fascinating, however, is the fact that toughness falls into that ambiguous, impossible-to-measure intangibles category for which there is no perfect metric. Want to know how well Chandler Parsons holds up when defending opposing players in isolation situations? There’s a stat for that. But attempt to calculate the contents of someone’s heart and mind, and you’re likely to find yourself in murky waters in short order.

Not that such roadblocks have ever stopped anyone, players included, from crafting their own personal methods for evaluating attributes like toughness, of course.

“You can obviously physically see it,” says Parsons, when asked how he gauges toughness on a basketball court. “You can see that Luis Scola is tough and won’t back down from anybody. He’ll step in the way and take a charge from anybody, no matter how big or fast they are. He’ll get his nose in there and take elbows, dive on the floor to get loose balls – all those physical things he does every night; those are tough plays.

“If the ball is down low, you’ll see a lot of guys just sort of reach down to go get it. But if you’re tough you won’t hesitate to dive down on the floor to go get it, and those are the tough, winning plays that add up and often make the real difference between winning and losing.”

Interesting that Parsons singled out Scola in terms of toughness – he was not the only one to do so, by the way; many Rockets players used Luis as an example of the embodiment of toughness when asked for their definition of the characteristic – since Houston’s hirsute power forward was at the center of a toughness debate of sorts earlier this season. No one doubts Scola’s dedication, determination, resolve and ability to play through pain – he’s missed just 8 games over the course of his five-year NBA career despite taking a noticeable beating on an almost nightly basis – but some critics were quick to question his response or lack thereof to Kevin Love’s “stomp” during the Rockets’ February 4th showdown with the Timberwolves. Those who decried Scola’s refusal to retaliate seemed to want a message sent; a ‘don’t tread on me’ directive delivered via a hard foul – or more – by either Scola himself or one of his teammates that would supposedly show the Rockets were not a team to be trifled with in such a manner.

But what point does such frontier justice really prove? Is it, too, indicative and a meaningful element of true toughness, or is it nothing more than mere macho posturing? For that matter, are such tactics even effective? Scola – a world champion and Olympic gold medalist who knows a thing or two about teamwork, solidarity and the merits of toughness – is dubious.

“Sometimes what people refer to as toughness is actually something that will hurt your team,” he says. “There are certain situations where nothing you can do from the standard definition of toughness will help you win the game. I believe that the most important thing is that you’re able to keep your head, keep playing hard and try to help your team win – that’s what toughness is to me within a basketball team. There’s nothing else you can do. If this would be hockey it would be a different story. Toughness would also be about being able to fight. In a basketball game you cannot fight; fouling hard doesn’t mean anything; reacting or punching somebody doesn’t get you anything.

“In other games we got a couple flagrant foul calls against the other team and that’s a big advantage right there. It was a great situation for us in the Lakers game and against Golden State – those helped us win the game. If we retaliate and do something stupid, who knows what happens then?”

Not surprisingly, Parsons has Scola’s back on the subject, taking the discussion a step further.

“There’s a difference between playing tough and being dirty,” he says. “Luis is not going to go out there and punch Kevin Love just because he stepped on his face. He’s going to go out there, outwork his man and he’s not going to stop; he’s going to be relentless. He’s a classy dude; he’s not just going to retaliate and be an idiot – he’s just going to keep going all-out.

“It’s almost more mental toughness to not retaliate. I think that shows maturity and responsibility. We need Luis. So if he goes out there and does something that gets him in trouble or potentially tossed, that’s just mentally dumb. I think it shows his toughness that he doesn’t retaliate and just takes out whatever frustration he has within the rules of the game.”

Parsons’ point seems valid when examining the nature of the game’s recent champions. Last season’s Mavericks tossed aside their soft label with their play, not their fists. Before Dallas ascended to the throne, Kobe’s back-to-back title-winning Lakers beat you up with their size, skill and execution rather than any sort of pugilistic bent. While Boston barked plenty, their brand of toughness was more about playing hard and getting under their own opponents’ skin. And the next time Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and the four-time champion Spurs 'send a message' via some retaliatory, supposedly galvanizing cheap shot it will be their first.

To be sure, toughness can take on many different contours and constructs. But on the basketball court at least it seems a safe bet that it is far more likely to be effective when it takes the form of old school attributes like perspiration and preparation rather than any sort of art that exists in impulsive retaliation.

“The concept of something like toughness changes depending on the scenario,” says Scola. “Toughness is one thing in a street or bar fight, and it’s something else in a basketball game just like it has some other completely different meaning on Wall Street – in that scenario someone can be tough without ever cursing or fighting; he’s tough because he’s aggressive and will do whatever it takes to win. So depending on how you apply it, toughness can have a different meaning and a whole different concept.

“I believe toughness on the basketball court is the ability to be there every day, play hard every day and every game, and to help your team win and to not let anything get you down or prevent you from playing 100 percent. It comes with a good sense of intelligence about what is going to help your team win and how you’re going to be there when many players aren’t able to be there every day for the whole year. How are you going to manage yourself to be there every day and help your team every day? When other teams and players are breaking down and tired and you’re still there, I believe that’s the definition of true toughness in basketball.”

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