Andrew Butcher, meet Norman Dale.
Yes, the Santa Barbara High School girls’ basketball coach could have taken a hint from the Gene Hackman character in Hoosiers.
When Dale, the coach of underdog Hickory High, saw the awe on the faces of his players upon entering cavernous Hinkle Fieldhouse before the Indiana state title game, he asked for a tape measure.
“See, the basket’s 10 feet here, too,” Dale says in the movie. “We got nothing to worry about.”
Hoosiers was based on a true story, but it’s hardly the truth.
As anyone who has watched Sac-Joaquin Section basketball finals for the last 15 years knows, playing important games at Sleep Train Arena tends to do strange things to teenage athletes not used to the sheer scope of the venue.
And in Modesto Christian’s 64-55 victory Friday over Santa Barbara in the state Division 3 championship game, the arena factor not only was in full effect, but it clearly favored the Crusaders.
“It’s a long background and the ball bounces differently where the boards are put together,” Butcher said after watching his team shoot 24.2 percent (15 for 62) from the floor. “It’s too bad Santa Barbara doesn’t have a pro team that would let us practice in there.”
On the other hand, MC coach Robb Spencer knows all about the bounces on this floor – both good and bad – and he’s seen first-hand many times how playing a high school game in an NBA arena can impact a team’s performance.
“We talk about how when you shoot here, you see people in the background instead of a wall,” Spencer said. “Yes, it is an advantage that we get to play here almost every year.”
The Sac-Joaquin is the only section in the country that plays its title games in an NBA arena. It’s an undeniable thrill for the high school students – both players and fans – to come together in the same place the best players in the world ply their trade.
And it was only three weeks earlier that Modesto Christian’s girls played on this floor, defeating Florin for the section title. In the meantime, the largest venue the Dons had seen during their run to the SoCal crown was the Felix Events Center at Azusa Pacific, a gym that seats 3,500.
“Coming onto the court I think I was really nervous and it showed with all the turnovers we had,” said Santa Barbara’s Desirea Coleman. “The court was really big and I was really tired a couple times. Everytime everyone screamed I’d get chills running down my body. It’s a very intense feeling.”
For a moment, forget about the capacity of the building, the consistency of the floor and the shooters’ lack of depth perception common to large arenas, but Coleman hinted at the biggest advantage Modesto Christian had on Friday.
The NBA court is big. It’s 94 feet long. The regulation high school floor is 84 feet long, and many – particularly in older gyms – are shorter than that.
You might think 10 feet is no big difference, but it translates to two or three additional strides each player must take on every possession. It adds up in a hurry, and when you multiply the extra steps by MC’s roster depth, it can make a huge impact.
It’s a difference Spencer knows about from experience.
“We do a lot of running,” Spencer said. “We know the court here is bigger, so that’s why I’m always on the girls about running. It’s just in case we get to this stage, so it’s not as big, not as intimidating.”
Spencer showed his cards very early. By the time halftime hit, 10 different MC players had seen action, with five reserves absorbing 48 minutes of fatigue from the starters. By contrast, only seven Dons saw action in the opening half, seeing only a little more than 15 minutes of playing time.
And when the Crusaders ran out to a 15-point lead in the final 5:33, Santa Barbara was out of gas. The Dons had the desire to rally, but their legs not longer would be willing.
“Even though we both were missing shots, we could see them starting to tug on their shorts in the second quarter,” Spencer said. “I knew that in the second half, this is what we do and it was the survival of the fittest. We played 10 and they played seven, so the numbers were on our side.”
There might be valid arguments made against forcing high school teams to have to adjust their games for the season’s ultimate contest, and the CIF will have to face that decision soon enough.
In two years, this two-day, 12-game championship weekend will start rotating between northern and southern sites, and there’s no indication yet as to which Los Angeles-area venue would serve as host.
In addition, there’s no guarantee the new ownership of the Sacramento Kings will be as generous with their new downtown home in future years as they have been with this building.
So until the state championships move away from Sleep Train Area, it will be up to the coaches to make all the preparations and adjustments that will allow their teams to play at their best in an NBA building.
That process might start for some with a tape measure.
“If somebody would have invented goggles that we could wear in practice to simulate this, we would buy them,” Butcher said. “But this definitely is a different situation.”