If the world is full of weird coincidences, so is the basketball world. If every coach takes from others, that’s how it should be, assuming they pass it along.
Swarthmore men’s hoops coach Landry Kosmalski recently was front and center on a webinar — an online hoops clinic — doing exactly that, explaining the ins and outs and origins of his five-out motion offense.
The National Association of Basketball Coaches put the webinars together after the coronavirus pandemic knocked out the typical NABC coaching clinics held at their national convention. It made sense that the NABC reached out to Kosmalski to conduct a session, since he had the top-ranked Division III team. This was the first year he’d been called to be a clinician.
He began with a surprise.
“The majority of what I’m going to show came from Harry Perretta,’’ Kosmalski said.
Wait a second — Swarthmore’s men run Villanova women’s offense?
“Unbelievable offensive mind,’’ Kosmalski told the coaches assembled out in the online world, speaking of a coach who just retired after 42 seasons in charge of Nova’s women’s program.
Call this a tale of two unlikely chemists in a basketball laboratory, brought together by a single thread, their mutual connection to a late legend of the sport.
In planning the webinar, Kosmalski first thought about talking about team culture, since he believes his team’s success starts there. He was told coaches want to hear about plays. So, he stood in front of a whiteboard in his office and talked about the five-out, which is what it sounds like, with all five players away from the basket.
You might assume that the origins of Swarthmore’s motion offense came from Davidson coach Bob McKillop, since Kosmalski had both played and coached under McKillop, who is way up the recognized list of offensive basketball geniuses.
“First, my motion background,’’ Kosmalski said on the webinar. “So you can decide right away whether I’m worth listening to. … It starts with Coach McKillop.”
Kosmalski explained that he learned four-out and one-in motion from McKillop. “He’s very innovative. He comes up with a lot of things just from watching film.”
When Kosmalski got the Swarthmore job eight seasons back, he told the webinar listeners, he was told to go see Perretta, just up Route 320.
“I stupidly waited three years,’’ Kosmalski said.
Where he got the recommendation? That’s where coincidence comes in.
Back in 2002, Perretta got this phone message from the late, great Pat Summitt, saying she wanted to come up to the Main Line to study his offense. Perretta insisted he thought one of his friends was playing a joke, getting someone to imitate the legendary Tennessee Vols women’s coach on the phone message.
It was her, and she showed up. (When Summitt died, Perretta related how Summitt, after watching a long practice, said to him, “Do you not like me?” Perretta remembers saying, "What are you talking about? I don’t even know you.” Summitt wanted to know why he wouldn’t look her in the eye. Perretta told the great coach that he had been a history major. “The peasant never looks the queen in the eye.”)
From there, a friendship was born that lasted until Summitt died in 2016.
Where does Kosmalski come in? Between stints as a Davidson assistant, Kosmalski spent a couple of seasons coaching high school basketball in Knoxville, Tenn. One of his guards happened to be named Tyler Summitt. Pat’s son. It was Tyler who recommended Kosmalski go see Perretta.
So, after the three-year wait, Kosmalski showed up.
“I thought he was just a motion guy,’’ Kosmalski said. “He said, ‘Are you here for the five-out?’ "
Kosmalski said he launched into an explanation of how he played with two big guys who couldn’t shoot outside the paint, how five-out wouldn’t work for him.
“He smiled and said, “Just watch practice.’ "
That’s why Kosmalski was there.
“And 2½ hours later, I left — my head was about to explode,’’ Kosmalski told the coaches. “A ton of new ideas. I didn’t sleep well for a couple of nights, because his concepts held so much promise.”
Over time, Kosmalski picked up how to use his big men in pick-and-roll situations, how that created better entry situations than just having them down low. He picked up spacing concepts — he got excited about the spacing concepts — how to force defenses into choices that led to shots for top shooters.
Maybe most of all, Kosmalski picked up from Perretta that you could number specific actions, a curl or a pick-and-roll, and it would be a code.
“Now your team knows and they don’t,’’ Kosmalski said, explaining that he rarely calls out such numbers during games. The players call them out.
“It is a form of code,’’ Kosmalski added, but explained that once a curl or a slip becomes a number, practiced through repetition, he believes it takes less mental energy to call out and remember.
“The original idea for the numbers ... one day at a practice, I yelled at a kid: Move,’ " Perretta said over the phone. “She said, ‘Where do I go?’ “
Kosmalski and Perretta got on the phone after the webinar, to explain a little more of the story behind the story. Kosmalski hadn’t mentioned in his clinic about who had told him to call Perretta.
Taking things from other coaches? It’s not always coaches, they made it clear.
“I learned from 10-year-olds playing in a CYO game,’’ Perretta said. “If they do a cut that’s not supposed to be right but worked, we’d try it.”
Kosmalski said he doesn’t watch much NBA basketball, but he tuned in to the Sixers during the playoffs a couple of seasons back. He watched how Ben Simmons was defended because he wouldn’t shoot, saw how former Sixers guard JJ Redick would pass to Simmons and instantly start cutting back to the ball, aware that Simmons’ defenders had slumped off him. That little bit of space would give Redick room for a shot. Swarthmore has used that move ever since.
Perretta’s original spread offense, the one he showed Pat Summitt, was a variation from his own Monsignor Bonner coach Dick Bernhart. A 1-2-2 offense, with passes one way, opposite person cutting into the lane, a backdoor or a curl, then going away from the ball, with other actions for others. One variation Swarthmore uses, Kosmalski said, actually came from Summitt.
“Which I didn’t know at the time was from you,’’ Kosmalski told Perretta.
Kosmalski went back and picked up more from Perretta, how he doesn’t always use direct screens, preferring to split away from the potential screen. Inside hoops, but important stuff. If more athletic teams can blow up screens, you try to use their athleticism against them.
When Perretta first got the Villanova job, the men’s coach was Rollie Massimino.
“Rollie always had a different idea every day,’’ Perretta said. “That’s what his mind was. We’re going to run a different offense two times a week. That’s the biggest thing I got from him, was to be innovative.”
They also had the type of relationship where Perretta could be watching a men’s practice and jump on the court and say, “I’m going to de-complicate what you’re doing.” A different era.
“Rollie would coach [at a practice]. I’d walk into the play. ‘I don’t like how you’re doing this.’ The next three minutes would be a debate between me and Rollie.”
Or Massimino would show up at a women’s practice with his assistants and say, “Show me the spread,’’ and the Villanova women would demonstrate for half-an-hour while Massimino smoked a cigar.
He’d gone to the five-out, Perretta said, because defenses had adjusted to his spread offense.
“This will make you a little crazy,’’ Perretta remembered telling Kosmalski about the five-out and its variations. “You go out for a run, you’ll almost get hit by a car, you’re thinking of spacing and angles.”
At first, Swarthmore ran into problems with it. Kosmalski called Perretta.
“You’ve got to do the six,’’ Perretta told him.
The six is a pick-and-roll.
“You didn’t tell me that,’’ Kosmalski told him.
“That was the answer,'' Kosmalski told the coaches.
“Swarthmore does it really well,’’ Perretta said over the phone. He’d gone to see them this season. He noted over the phone that Kosmalski had put in a tweak or two that he’d also done but never told Kosmalski about.
“It’s funny, you came to the same conclusion,’’ Perretta told Kosmalski about where a particular motion should wind up.
In the webinar, there were a couple of questions at the end. Kosmalski had made it clear that this stuff has to be practiced all the time.
“It can’t be your change-up. It has to be your fastball.”
The question was about whether it could work for high schools. Kosmalski and Perretta agree that it can work only when the feeder programs, junior varsity and even younger, run it. Just learning when you hit varsity as a junior would have you lost for a year, so half the team would be lost every season.
“You’ll only have seniors every year really getting it,'' Kosmalski said.
Another question was about whether it would work for a team of slashers. Kosmalski didn’t think so. You need shooters. That’s one thing Swarthmore’s men and Villanova’s women have typically had in common.
Kosmalski had told the coaches right off the bat, “If you’re going to run motion, you’re going to have to teach your players not to dribble. Everyone nowadays wants to catch and just mindlessly dribble, and that kills your motion.”
Not every team should run it, both coaches made clear. Kentucky isn’t going to use it. Maybe if you have a couple of players who are clearly more skilled than other teams’ players, this isn’t the offense for you, since it provides equal opportunities. Or at least, as Perretta explained, it can take a lot of actions before the ball ends up where maybe you want it, in the hands of your most-talented player.
Perretta said his team would practice cutting so much in practice, “we don’t have to run sprints at practice.”
McKillop was always this type of innovator, Kosmalski said. He’d watch a film, see some accidental cut by a player, say, “We use this.” Swarthmore still uses a ton of McKillop stuff.
The laboratory never really closes. When Perretta went to Swarthmore this season, he saw how they did their handoffs.
“We put that in,’’ Perretta said.
Maybe the last thing he put in for his career?
“Yes, it was,’’ Perretta said.
In the webinar, Swarthmore’s coach was asked whether this five-out offense worked against zone defenses. Nah, wouldn’t do that, Kosmalski made clear.