Worth a Point

Legendary North Carolina men’s basketball coach Dean Smith built one of college basketball’s most successful programs on a few basic principles. Though Smith has long-since retired, the program’s motto can still be found on locker room walls across the country.

Play Hard. Play Smart. Play Together.

Using these values to guide their behavior on and off the court, the North Carolina made 11 Final Fours and won two national championships during Smith’s tenure. He established high expectations for his players and challenged them to embody the Carolina Way in everything they did. He was a man of few rules, but one became non-negotiable. 

His players would thank the passer.

Smith stole the idea from John Wooden, who asked his players to gesture or wink at the passer as a sign of appreciation. Smith liked the idea, but wanted something more pronounced. He preferred a player point rather than just give a nod.

He wrote about the rule in his book The Carolina Way:

“I wanted a stronger, more visible signal of thanks. I preferred a gesture that fans could see. The media too. So, we asked the player who scored to point to the man who gave him the pass that resulted in the basket, to show appreciation for an unselfish act that helps the team.”

Over the years, this rule was adopted by teams at all levels of basketball, including our own.

It has become a universal signal of gratitude for the one who made the shot possible. 

After years of requiring this from our own players, you can imagine my surprise when this image made the rounds on Twitter last week.

All eyes are on fifth year senior Gabbie Marshall (not pictured) who connected on her fourth 3-pointer of the game to extend Iowa’s lead to 24. As the ball went through the net, the entire team erupted in celebration, including junior EJ Ediger (#34) who is seen pointing at the shooter. 

Pointing at the shooter, what gives?

Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen originally posted the picture with this caption:

There is a sincere joy that’s evident when the Hawks celebrate each other, that’s been a signature of Lisa Bluder’s program for years, but the reaction for Gabbie goes a bit deeper.

Marshall enrolled at Iowa in 2019 as a highly touted point guard from Cincinnati, Ohio. She played in all 30 games her freshman season. She cracked the starting lineup as a sophomore earning a reputation as a deadly 3-pointer shooter. During her first three seasons in Iowa City, she shot 41.5% from outside the arc. 

However, Marshall’s shooting stroke abandoned her to start each of the past two seasons. Last year she shot just 23.8% over the first 22 games, before catching fire late in the year. This season, Iowa has been outstanding, yet Marshall struggled again. She made just 25.4% of her attempts through the first 15 games. 

In other words, the shooter not pictured above has been through some things. 

Iowa has become the darling of women’s college basketball, and with the game’s most popular player on the team, it’s become impossible for Marshall to hide. Iowa has sold out every game this season, home and away. While all eyes have been on Caitlin Clark, Marshall’s struggles have been hard to ignore. It’s been a difficult burden to bear, but one she has not endured alone.

Marshall has played in more games than anyone in Iowa basketball history. She is a popular interview after every game regardless of her scoring output. No matter the circumstance, she is quick to credit her coaches and players for sticking with her through thick and thin. 

According to Chad Liestikow’s excellent piece on Iowa’s culture, the coaching staff finds value “in building healthy relationships, and they see the success that can come from being selfless and lifting up one another.” 

Clark described the Iowa culture even more succinctly:

“All we do is believe in each other and love each other to death, and that’s what a true team is.”

Those relationships begin in the circle that starts every practice. It’s become a place where players can verbalize their struggles and celebrate each other’s successes. 

“We definitely have gotten super-vulnerable with each other within the circle… and meetings and what-not. I think that’s something that builds that bond, the fact that we know we can trust each other to pretty much tell each other anything. We know everything about each other.”  - Sophomore Jada Gyamfi

The circle is where Bluder and the coaches speak confidence into these young women. It’s where players verbalize their unwavering belief in one another no matter the struggles. It is where Marshall found an anchor within the storm, and where she earned the unwavering respect of her teammates. 

Super senior Kate Martin explained the team’s reaction this way:

“I think it’s because in Gabbie’s five years, you’ve seen her go through some lulls, but you’ve seen her come out on top every single time. She’s somebody that you want to root for because she never gives up.” 

A picture is said to speak a thousand words - and this one speaks to the remarkable perseverance of the shooter not pictured above. Her teammates are overcome with joy, not simply because the ball went through the basket, but because it came from the hand of a friend who found her confidence again. Acknowledging that was worth a point.

Food for thought.

Nate Sanderson

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