Musings, mutterings and the occasional schmahts as Ornauer shakes his head in wonder at how long-distance travel takes more of a toll every year:
As a lost art, foul shooting continues to descend in free fall toward utter irrelevance in basketball. Consider the totals after the first six games of the 7th New Year Classic high school tournament at Yokota High School.
The eight teams entered in the tournament -- Yokota, Kubasaki, Kadena, St. Mary’s International, Christian Academy Japan, Robert D. Edgren, Nile C. Kinnick and the Yokota AAU Saints -- combined to go 70-for-126 at the foul line. That’s 55.6 percent. Or right around Shaquille O’Neal’s and Dwight Howard’s career averages.
Longtime Pacific high school basketball observers say that’s a drop of about 15 percent to 20 percent from the days they played high school ball in the States in the 1960s and 1970s.
The reasons are many, they say. There’s the “ESPN factor,” players placing more importance on the slam dunk, killer crossover dribbles and the three-point goal, to be a Top 10 nominee at the end of the day. And in their day, free throws were more important in the age of the one-shot foul; that went away in the NBA in 1972-73, when the non-shooting foul was added to the rule book. Prior to that, teams could shoot as many as 50 to 60 foul shots a game.
“At my high school” in northern New Jersey, former Yokota boys coach John Thek said: “We had four players who averaged around 80 percent.”
Ex-Yokota girls coach Charlie Capps, who led the Panthers to Far East tournament titles in 1989 and 1991, said: “Back in my day, we aimed for 70 percent at the line, and coach was not happy if we didn’t reach that. Nowadays, they’re pleased if you shoot 50 percent at the line.”
Regarding the difference in length between the three-point line and foul line, approximately a foot, Capps said: “People who can hit the three-pointer, why do they have such trouble shooting foul shots?”
One guy who bears considerable watching from behind the three-point arc is budding Yokota Saints freshman star Mark Burton, who had seven threes in two games on opening day of the 7th New Year Classic.
As a precocious 5-year-old living in Daegu, South Korea, Burton watched an NBA game, then picked up a basketball and told his mother: “I’m going to play in the NBA.”
“He hasn’t stopped playing since,” said his father, also named Mark, a civilian at Yokota who runs the Saints, an AAU youth team operated year-round at Yokota.
Whereas basketball is seasonal for most players in the Kanto Plain, “we wanted to make sure kids have something to do and a way to keep their game sharp all year round,” said the elder Burton. When seasonal players return to the States, “they find they can’t compete.”
A handful of players from nearly every Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools teams either work out with or play for the Saints, to include Yokota JV-ers Burton, Marcus Henagan and Myles Speed, Zama American’s Andre Encarnacion and American School In Japan’s Brody and Addison Ward.
As one who virtually lives with a basketball attached to his hand, the younger Burton already is getting looks from Notre Dame, despite his diminutive height of 5 feet 3 inches. Then again, shorties like Spud Webb (5'7") and Tyrone Bogues (5'3") each had successful NBA careers. Burton was rated 18th among point guards at an Adidas national phenom camp last summer.
So, who would Burton most like to play for? “Whichever team falls in love with me,” he said, adding that he would like to play for his hometown Chicago Bulls, “but I just want to play ball.”
As is the case with every New Year Classic, many games are played before alumni returning to Yokota and other parts of the Kanto Plain from college in the States for the holidays.
Some don’t play sports in college, such as former Kadena tennis stars Arlo Taylor and Christin Gentz, who attend Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., and University of South Florida, respectively. But they still have their memories of championships and competition in Japan and Okinawa, and speak gratefully of the opportunities they each had.
Others plan to play their chosen high school sport in the 2013-14 school year. Kathryn White and Gabriela Navarro, Yokota Class of 2012, and Edgren Class of 2012’s Jen Black now attend St. Leo in Florida. The former plans to try out for volleyball, while Navarro and Black hope to walk on as soccer players. The three live on the same floor in the same dormitory at St. Leo.