At the start of the historic Game 7 between the Alaska Aces and the San Miguel Beermen, Aces’ Coach Alex Compton did something that had their opponent and the Philippine basketball world baffled.
As soon as they got possession of the ball following the tip-off, they called three full timeouts, one after another without any time going off. Even Coach Leo Austria of the Beermen was left dumbfounded as his players were forced to do nothing while the Aces were busy warming up along the sidelines. This meant that the Aces would have to play without timeouts throughout the first three quarters, something no basketball fan would consider to be a boon for their team.
But wait, perhaps Coach Alex is simply applying something he learned outside of basketball.
NBA Champion Coach Larry Brown attributed his success to the study of the Art of War. The Art of War was an ancient manuscript often attributed to Sun Tzu of the “Warring States” period China in which he details the art of engagement and how to turn the tide of battle onto your favor.
Perhaps Coach Alex Compton is also a student of the Art of War. Perhaps not. But when we put it in this context, placing his team in such a dire situation to begin the game makes perfect sense.
Losing three straight games while being on the brink of ending up on the wrong end of history, it’s likely that Coach Alex Compton saw only one way to beat the team that had the Behemoth that was Junemar Fajardo—Run them dry and gas them out early.
But to do that meant that his players would need energy and inspiration beyond measure. This is where the Art of War kicks in. Coach Alex Compton wanted to push his players into desperation.
Sun Tzu writes: The art of war recognizes nine varieties of ground: (1) Dispersive ground; (2) facile ground; (3) contentious ground; (4) open ground; (5) ground of intersecting highways; (6) serious ground; (7) difficult ground; (8) hemmed-in ground; (9) desperate ground.
A PBA game can easily be described as open ground. Neither team is playing on their own court, both teams have the same amount of resources and both teams have the exact same goals and court to play on.
The problem with playing on open court is that the way to play it is to take it like a chess match. Unfortunately for Alaska, while the board might be even, San Miguel has two “queens” in June Mar Fajardo, tipping the odds in San Miguel’s favor.
To regain some of that lost advantage, Compton played to his players’ strength which is passion. Alaska is one of the most passion-driven teams in the PBA today. When they aren’t out-classing opponents, their drive to win fuels some of the most amazing come-backs we’ve seen in the league.
But how do you create this frenzy of inspiration that would drive up their emotions?
Sun Tzu writes: On hemmed-in ground, I would block any way of retreat. On desperate ground, I would proclaim to my soldiers the hopelessness of saving their lives.
What was once open ground has turned into hemmed-in ground wherein they are not only forced to fight, but forced to fight against a force that out-strengths them. Normally, the idea here is to use strategy, go slow and hang on fight with caution. But on Game 7, there is little room for caution.
By burning three timeouts early, Coach Alex not only blocked any way of retreat, but had his players drink the “Coolaid” in what he probably sold to them as their last valiant stand ala-Leonidas and his 300 Spartans.
But why would he turn poor ground into worse?
Sun Tzu wrote: Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear. If there is no place of refuge, they will stand firm. If they are in hostile country, they will show a stubborn front. If there is no help for it, they will fight hard.
There’s a saying that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that one must never push a man to the point of desperation because that is when he will be capable of the unthinkable. The same applies here. By taking away their timeouts, they know that if they mess up or if they start digging a hole for themselves, nobody, not even their coach will be able to come and rescue them. This triggers the “fight or flight” instinct in all of them, forcing them to play harder than they have ever played their entire lives.
We’ve seen this play out in movies, like “A Knight’s Tale” where in the final joust Heath Ledger’s character opted to take off his armor, creating a win or get killed situation. The same played out in 300 as Leonidas repeatedly reminded his Spartans, “No retreat, no surrender,” allowing his men to hold Thermopylae for three days against the giant Persian army.
Creating perils, real or imaginary, forces combatants to exert more effort than imaginable. While the strategy does not always lead to victory, for many generals, it allows them to even the odds even in the slightest.
When applied correctly, it allows players or soldiers or fighters to enter a frenzy of desperation, one which forces them to play and fight just a little bit harder. For the first few minutes we saw it working. Alaska took an early lead, San Miguel was committing too many turnovers for their own good, but unfortunately the frenzy died out.
Personally, to complete this strategy, Compton could have opted to burn the three fourth quarter timeouts as well. It would have put his players in the ultimate situation of desperation, at the same time sent the ultimate vote of confidence on all of them. Alaska showed some of the first quarter frenzy again in the first minutes of the final quarter. But alas, Chris Ross happened and the rest was history.
Coach Alex Compton demostrated great leadership. He gave his army every chance to win. Unfortunately in the game of basketball, the battle isn’t fought cutting people down with brute force, it is won by the team which can get the ball into the hoop more times.