SINCE THE 1950s, he has devised devilish defenses far ahead of their time. Today, the Sonic defensive coordinator's ordered mayhem is still feared. But for Bob Kloppenburg, 66, time is running out for an elusive NBA championship.
"This guy wants to double-team Jesus."
- Sonic Coach George Karl, on defensive coordinator Bob Kloppenburg.
The crusade is renewed each morning, give or take, in some gymnasium in San Diego, where it all began, or Europe, where it has since spread, or in Seattle, where it now is headquartered. Its mastermind will take a place at the base of a lane he calls "Blood Alley," where territory, he tells his followers, is not surrendered without a fight. From there, he will orchestrate the mayhem.
In another place, another time, he'd be as out of place as grunge on a debutante. But, here, the respect could be mistaken for fear as 10 men brace for the coming explosion.
Deny! The first salvo. Search! The exhortations often are punctuated with arm gestures. Hit!
"The guy should have been a damn karate instructor," says Bernie Bickerstaff, a former head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics and now general manager of the Denver Nuggets.
Instead, he became Bob Kloppenburg, for the defense. And because of that defense, he just might be the most important member of a Sonic team that has designs on an NBA championship.
Close out! The instructions spew forth, like bursts from a
machine gun. Smother!
"To the new guys, listening to all that is real frustrating," says Nate McMillan, an eight-year veteran who has listened to it longest. "It takes a while before you realize he's looking at everything and not just you. He's talking to everybody on the defense. Now, I don't even hear him. But I know what he's saying. Some of the other guys just go crazy."
They would be opponents, mostly. For them, Bob Kloppenburg is their worst nightmare. Their confusion is his aim.
Kloppenburg, defensive coordinator of the Sonics, has been using this radical defense for 25 years, teaching it to all who'd listen for the past 20. And still he is considered ahead of his time.
His time has come again.
"Coach Kloppenburg is like a basketball," says Tim Cunningham, who played for Kloppenburg at Cal-Western in the mid-60s. "He comes alive when you take him out of the bag."
Kloppenburg, 66, is out of the bag now, chirping directions. The destination is an NBA title, and he knows just how to get there. Defense. His defense. Hard-nosed, pressure defense. The SOS way. The only way, he believes. He has convinced some; he wants to convince more.
"There is a family of this defense, and that's what keeps me motivated," Kloppenburg says. "Even if it's in the toy department of life, I feel I am helping people."
That's if you're for him. If you're against him, he chants your torture every day in some practice or clinic: Smother-close-out-deny-switch-hit! The rest of the NBA can hear the Sonics coming a mile away.
Can't you see them flinching?
"The style Seattle is known around the league for is all Bob Kloppenburg," says the Lakers' Sedale Threatt, an ex-Sonic who flourished under it.
That style is built in part on contradictions.
Such as offense begins at the defensive end.
"We used to say that, if you made his starting five, you were going to play defense for three hours at practice," Cunningham says, "and never get to touch the ball."
Yet, Kloppenburg swears his teams never neglect offense. And he's right, if you look at things his way.
If your pressure defense so scrambles a point guard's brains that he'll throw you the ball, you're then starting your offense right there. You're only taking the ball halfway up the court, instead of all the way. And you're doing so with the defense chasing you.
Now, contrast that with conventional offenses. All those Xs and Os to decipher. All those patterns to memorize. All the self-control and harmony required.
Kloppenburg's defense is just going to mess it up, anyway.
Just ask Sonic Coach George Karl, and Bickerstaff before him. Their teams had the misfortune of going up against Kloppenburg's defense every day in practice. The head coaches have had to order Kloppenburg to call off his dogs, so the team could get in a little offensive work.
"We always work on offense second," Karl says, "because we need to tire out our defense first."
With Karl's halfcourt offense often criticized for its lack of sophistication, the Sonics nevertheless finished fourth in the NBA in scoring last season. Despite their lack of overwhelming perimeter punch, they also finished seventh in shooting percentage.
Seattle accomplished this sleight of hand by creating better offensive opportunities with a defense that led the NBA in steals (by a margin of 81 over No. 2 Milwaukee), opponents' turnovers and steal-turnover ratio. All that enabled the Sonics to lead the league in point differential - plus-7.1 points per game.
"It's revolutionary, and some people think it's crazy," says Paul Silas, who as head coach of the then-San Diego Clippers was the first to incorporate Kloppenburg's defense in the NBA. "But it sure works."
The basis for the defense's success is all-out denial. Its most controversial aspect has his players constantly switching, so a defender is always draped over a potential receiver. The worst consequence is mismatches - big players outside against quicker guards or smaller guards against big players under the basket. But to exploit a mismatch you need the ball, and the aim of the Kloppenburg defense is to prevent the necessary pass.
Because of its emphasis on separating primary ballhandlers from potential targets, Kloppenburg's defense has become the scourge of point guards.
"It was like you were still picking something off you after the game," says Bickerstaff, who at San Diego State both played the point and coached against Kloppenburg's Cal-Western teams. "They were all over you during it."
The way to beat the Sonic defense is by moving the ball more quickly or spreading farther apart, thereby preventing defenders from rotating in time. But the biggest obstacles to making Kloppenburg's defense work are internal ones. It requires commitment, hard work and, because of the fatigue factor, a limitation on playing time. It requires a collective focus difficult to maintain over the long, grueling season.
Players typically complain that the effort on defense takes away from their offensive performance and robs their legs late in the season. Front-line players also complain that the constant switching takes them out of rebounding position.
For those reasons, all the NBA head coaches who have used Kloppenburg's defense have had to compromise it. Silas allowed switching only between like players (guards and guards, forwards and forwards, etc.). Bickerstaff abandoned it midway through his first season because he lacked the depth and the athletes, and during ensuing years softened it up during difficult stretches in the schedule. Karl extends the pressure only to halfcourt.
But the real arch-enemy of Kloppenburg's defense is time. He says the basic version can be installed in 15 sessions, each of which is 75 minutes long. The typical NBA head coach's teaching time is limited to maybe four hours per day for seven days during training camp, some of which he needs to devote to conditioning and offense.
"Most coaches are offensive-oriented," Silas says. "They like putting the plays together, designing them and watching them succeed. I haven't met anyone else who has looked at the game the other way around, from the defensive end, like Kloppy."
Funny, how that happened.
If you hail from the Los Angeles area, circa the mid-1940s, you probably knew Kloppenburg as "Bobby," as the newspapers referred to him back then. And you probably knew him for scoring an unheard-of 47 points in a game for Marshall High School to set an L.A. city record in 1945. You probably also know that, as a freshman at USC, where he played with Bill Sharman and Tex Winter, Kloppenburg was All-Pacific Coast after leading the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division in scoring.
"I get kidded a lot by my old friends," Kloppenburg says. "They all knew me as a gunner."
Kloppenburg still had an offensive bent when he began his coaching career at Lindsay High School in the San Joaquin Valley. But the school was so small and undermanned that Kloppenburg figured the only way to survive was to play conservatively, with good defense and ball control. His defensive principles were further shaped by Hank Iba and Pete Newell, the two gurus of convention in that day.
But jump-shooting, then the passing and screening schemes, came into vogue in the late 1950s, and Kloppenburg began to forge a defensive counter while coaching at Paramount High in Los Angeles. Paramount played good, hard-nosed interior defense, but the athletic, jump-shooting teams from schools like nearby Compton forced Kloppenburg's defenses out of the lane. In the 1960s, having moved on to Cal-Western, he went to all-out pressure and came up with his novel notions on switching.
"The only way to avoid gray areas - should I or shouldn't I switch," Kloppenburg explains, "was to switch everything."
In 20 years at Cal-Western, Kloppenburg compiled a 280-169 record. That success built a strong following in Southern California, which excited him even more about his defensive system. He began to document it, leading to his book, "SOS: Pressure Defense," now in its second edition.
Cal-Western had sold its campus to U.S. International University in 1975, meaning Kloppenburg's team practiced in high schools - virtually a different one every day. Still, during his next-to-last season, his team won 20 straight. Unable to recruit because of subpar facilities, he quit in 1978 and split his time between coaching the Camp Pendleton Marine team and scouting for the Houston Rockets.
Kloppenburg considers coaching the Marines as one of his most rewarding experiences. He had a rather captive audience.
"We started at 7:30 a.m., and they had to be there," he says. "And they really, really played defense."
From the Clippers to the Sonics and Cal-Western to the Runnin' Rebels of UNLV, Kloppenburg has put his defensive stamp on many teams. His devotion to his concepts, as wild and groundbreaking as they have been, has helped him endure in the ultra-political game of basketball. His tenure with the Sonics has spanned three head coaches. His NBA career once took him from the worst owner of all-time, Ted Stepien of the Cleveland Cavaliers, directly to the second-worst, Donald Sterling of the Clippers.
Nothing seemed able to derail Kloppenburg's crusade.
"What keeps Bob going is his intensity," says Mike Seamen, a former player of Kloppenburg's who now coaches at San Diego's Mission Bay High School. "When he's on the floor, he's a young man again. He's so passionate about his defense, his love just ignites him."
Yet, though he never met an offense that he couldn't figure out how to stop, Kloppenburg could not devise a way to defend himself against the relentlessness of time. He began curbing his career in 1989 when, tired and wracked by arthritis, he moved into scouting.
"I wanted to pace down," he said.
Or he thought he did.
Kloppenburg missed the practices, missed the teaching, missed the players. When he returned from the road, he tried to make as many practices as possible, even though he wasn't actively involved in them. Kloppenburg returned to the bench in 1990, but his old friend, Bickerstaff, left for Denver and was replaced by K.C. Jones. But Jones favored a more conventional defense, so Kloppenburg and his pressure faded into the background.
Then came Jan. 18, 1992, just four days after the bottom had fallen out of the team, taking Jones with it. That night, with Kloppenburg as interim head coach for the first of four games, the Sonics beat the Lakers 112-108. "Klop-py, Klop-py, Klop-py," went the players' cathartic chant.
"We missed it," McMillan says of the pressure defense. "We thought we wanted to just play halfcourt defense, but we found out it wasn't us. Kloppy brought us back to the way we need to play. I've been doing it so long, I don't feel comfortable playing any other way."
Taking over from Jones was "one of the more stressful things I've ever done," says Kloppenburg, who was lobbied hard by club president Bob Whitsitt to mind the team during the search that led to the hiring of Karl. "It also was one of the more heartwarming things."
That period, during which Kloppenburg coached the Sonics to a 2-2 record, served to re-energize him. The players were so responsive. And, again, he saw how effective his defense could be. He also found a most willing ally in Karl. That backing, along with a roster packed with players athletic enough and familiar enough with the system to execute it nearly instinctively, led to last year's banner season - one, Kloppenburg says, that has come closest, on the pro level, to his ideal.
Largely because of that defense, the Sonics are considered a contender for an NBA championship. If they reach the Finals, Kloppenburg would love dearly for it to be against the Knicks. The encounter would be tantamount to ideological warfare, pitting the far-out, pressure team from the West against the take-no-prisoners, halfcourt beasts of the East.
"It's always teed me off because there are some damned good defensive teams out here," Kloppenburg says. "But they only give credit to the conventional defenses. That's what the league encourages, because they let teams (like the Knicks or Pistons) bang or hold. Anything different or innovative is almost punished. If you don't play that physical kind of defense, then you are considered a gimmick defense."
This is Kloppy's crusade. To convince the world that defense, his defense, wins championships. At every level. And only one level remains unconquered. He has written a book about the subject. He has released a series of videotapes to augment the book. He has conducted clinics in Europe the past six years. He has taught his system everywhere he has been the past 20 years. But the best argument, maybe the only argument, would be winning an NBA title.
Bob Kloppenburg knows this. What he doesn't know is how long it will take, and whether he can hang on long enough.
"I've always said that if I can't have enthusiasm, it isn't fair to the players," he says. "But I love this team. I want to see this team through, even though at this age I question how long I want to do it. I'm the only coach who has been with them the whole way."
And, as far as defense is concerned, maybe the only coach - period.
-------------------------------------------------. Kloppy's principles
Some basic principles of the Kloppenburg defense:
-- Harass the ballhandler and steer him to one of the designated areas on the floor where offensive players are considered least dangerous and can be trapped by additional defenders.
-- Next, get the ballhandler to pick up his dribble, which should make him dead meat because one or more defenders are all over him, preventing a pass.
-- Meanwhile, the other defenders furiously try to prevent their men from receiving the ball. This is where Kloppenburg's defense is revolutionary.
-- In the post, deny the entry pass by playing in front of the offensive player. This forces the ballhandler to make a delicate and dangerous lob pass over the defender.
-- If that pass is successful, bring a defender over from the other side of the foul lane - the "weak" side - to stop the post player's path to the basket and trap him. Prevent a pass to the weak side by forming a two- or three-player column called the "I." The object is to confine the ball to one side of the court.
Kloppenburg's principle of trapping and double-teaming the post has become widely mimicked, and has been credited with decreasing the offensive domination of big men.