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Law and Basketball

By Kristy Demas
November 7, 2018

"A game is a legal system," U-M Basketball Coach John Beilein told members of the Michigan Law community recently. His talk, Law and Basketball, focused on the importance of integrity in sports—and in other aspects of life.

Dean Mark West initially invited Beilein to address 1Ls at a Commitment to Integrity ceremony after the two met for the first time at a football game. It didn't work for his schedule at the time but the idea of talking to law students was appealing to the basketball coach.

Sincere and self-effacing, Beilein described a career that began with a modest aspiration to teach social studies and coach youth sports on the side. Influenced by his family—he is the eighth of nine children—Beilein learned a lot about integrity growing up. Two of his uncles were basketball coaches, and Beilein still quotes his Uncle Joe, who said "it is better to find the spirit of the rule rather than try to find a way around the rule."

Relating the adage to lawyers, Beilein said, "You’re going to try to get ahead, and then there's the responsibility to the client to find a loophole. Or you can ask yourself if there is a better way."

Despite his successful record and ability to turn players into NBA-worthy athletes, Beilein admits there still are bad days—those when he wonders if he'll ever win his 800th game.* (His record of wins stands at 799 currently). But he believes that both his and Michigan Basketball's good reputations stem from what he calls the tone at the top. "It's the ability to walk into the office daily acknowledging that it is a new day."

How you present yourself is also important. "Integrity is a big part of it, and easier than the alternative. Wouldn't it be great to just tell the truth?"

Something that doesn't ever lie, according to Beilein, is the ball. "It'll come back to get you."

His background as a teacher comes to the fore when interacting with his players. "When they get to Michigan, it is to get an education and the experience of a lifetime. I tell them, 'unpack your bags like you're here for four years—don't come here with the idea that you're a pro.'"

As one of the few scholars in the newly developing field of sports and games as legal systems, Richard Friedman, the Alene and Allan F. Smith Professor of Law, served as moderator for the talk. Friedman also happens to be a huge basketball fan.

Kicking off the question-and-answer period, Friedman first thanked Beilein for "being who you are"—citing his results from his Google search asking for the most honest coach in college basketball. Beilein's name repeatedly came up in first place.

While agreeing that integrity is the most important rule of the game, Friedman discussed a couple areas of the sport he believes are in need of polishing. Citing boredom when scores differ by 20 points or more, he suggested basketball be played in sets, like tennis. Each set is its own mini-game, raising the stakes for spectators.

He also asked Beilein why free throws aren't eliminated from the game and replaced by time-outs in a penalty box. Friedman believes it would ratchet up the excitement in the game, leaving four players against five for the two-minute penalty period.

"Coaches need to think outside the box. Nobody wants to watch free throws. Or maybe you can limit the number?" Friedman asked Beilein somewhat rhetorically.

Beilein replied with a smile: "There is a 99 percent chance that's not going to happen."

*In the time since he spoke to the Law School, Beilein did in fact win his 800th game on November 6 against Norfolk State.

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