Why a radical new way of ending games has NBA, college basketball intrigued

Nick Elam poses last year with Dalton Pepper, who sealed the Broad Street Brawlers’ victory in the first game ever played under the Elam Ending. (Special to Yahoo Sports/Courtesy Nick Elam)
Nick Elam poses last year with Dalton Pepper, who sealed the Broad Street Brawlers’ victory in the first game ever played under the Elam Ending. (Special to Yahoo Sports/Courtesy Nick Elam)

When the fifth edition of The Basketball Tournament tipped off last month, more was at stake than just which team would claim the event’s winner-take-all $2 million prize.

Also hanging in the balance was the fate of a former middle-school principal’s radical attempt to revolutionize the sport of basketball.

Nick Elam, now a Ball State professor, Mensa member and Cincinnati Reds groundskeeper, has long watched with annoyance as entertaining basketball games deteriorated down the stretch into disjointed, foul-laden whistle fests. He studied the most frequently discussed remedies — stiffer penalties for intentional fouls or allowing hacked teams to pick their free-throw shooter — but none offered trailing teams a reasonable alternative to fouling.

A far more unorthodox potential solution eventually dawned on Elam in March 2007 as he watched the foul-plagued final minutes of a college game: eliminating the game clock during crunch time. If the clock was no longer a factor, Elam reasoned, teams would have no incentive to ugly up the game by stalling to protect a late lead or purposely fouling to preserve hope of a comeback.

“If we had emojis back then, I’d have used the head-exploding one to express how I felt,” Elam said. “That was the first time I thought of the idea, and I was immediately energized. I tried not to get too excited because I figured there must be some kind of fatal flaw to it, but I decided I was going to stick with the idea until I figured out what that fatal flaw was.”

Under Elam’s proposal, the game clock disappears at the first stoppage in the last four minutes of a college game and the last three minutes of an NBA game. Officials then establish a target score by taking the score of the team that leads and adding seven points. The game ends whenever one team reaches that number, ensuring that every contest concludes with the winning team sinking a clinching basket or foul shot.

Eager to circulate his idea but lacking any meaningful connections within the basketball world, Elam instead resorted to cold pitching coaches, administrators or media members whose mailing addresses or emails he could track down. Among the luminaries whom Elam sent a copy of his initial manuscript were CBS play-by-play voice Jim Nantz and former NBA commissioner David Stern.

When no one lined up to champion the proposal of a man who last played competitive basketball in fifth grade, Elam lowered his sights and reached out to lower-division college coaches, organizers of semi-pro tournaments and representatives of far-flung international leagues. Those who responded typically applauded Elam’s dedication but declined to actually experiment with his unconventional idea.

Everything changed on Aug. 6, 2016, when Elam sent a detailed 67-slide PowerPoint presentation to a man bold enough to consider an offbeat proposal. TBT founder and CEO Jon Mugar opened the email with skepticism but came away impressed by Elam’s meticulousness, innovation and vision.

“I was a Division III basketball walk-on. I can recite ‘Hoosiers’ backwards and forwards. I can’t think of a bigger basketball purist than me so I wanted to be dismissive of a radical change like that,” Mugar said. “If one word weren’t punctuated or spelled correctly, I probably would have deleted the email, but everything was so perfectly worded and it was so clear there was a ton of thought and consideration put into it. So, while skeptical, I kept reading. Then I talked to Nick 10 times on the phone, did more background research on him and decided it was worth giving him a shot.”

Mugar dubbed the new method of finishing games as the “Elam Ending,” dabbled with it in some play-in games last year and then agreed to adopt it for every TBT game this summer, by far Elam’s biggest victory since he conceived of the idea more than a decade ago. This was Elam’s chance to assess if his scheme actually worked, to use ESPN’s platform to reach a wider audience and perhaps even to capture the imagination of the NBA and college basketball heavy hitters who at last were paying attention.

NBA, college basketball keeping an eye on Elam Ending

For the NBA and college basketball, TBT implementing the Elam Ending was an ideal scenario. It gave them the chance to compile the data necessary to analyze the pros and cons of Elam’s brainchild without actually having to risk experimenting with such an unproven, unconventional concept themselves.

Kiki Vandeweghe, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations, was curious enough about Elam’s idea to have a 30-minute phone conversation with him about it last year. When TBT announced it was going all-in on the Elam Ending this summer, Vandeweghe and NBA senior vice president of basketball strategy and analytics Evan Wasch carved out time to watch as many games as possible and study the results.

“We believe that our game is in a great place, but having said that, we’re also charged with always being aware of what’s going on in the sport,” Vandeweghe said. “We’ve watched this some, we’re familiar with the concept and we think it’s really intriguing. Overall right now, for a variety of reasons, it might be a little radical for us to try out, but we’re tracking the games in which it’s being used and we’re watching the results very closely.”

Properly assessing the Elam Ending has not been easy so far this summer because so many early-round TBT games have been blowouts. Less than one third of the 56 games played so far have been decided by single digits, but the few that were in doubt when the Elam Ending kicked in have typically featured enthusiastic crowds, fewer deliberate fouls and dramatic finishes.

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While the idea of speeding up the game and fixing its sometimes herky-jerky crunch-time appeal to the NBA, Vandeweghe and Wasch have some misgivings about the Elam Ending after watching it in action.

They worry about eliminating the drama of overtime or the unrivaled excitement of a true buzzer beater. They fear making such a drastic change to a sport with such a long, rich history. And above all, they wonder if the Elam Ending is actually making that big a difference since the early data they’ve compiled suggests the pace of play remains similar and TBT teams are still taking just as many crunch-time foul shots.

In one TBT game that Wasch watched, a team actually purposely fouled when its opponent was within three of the Elam Ending’s target score in hopes of ensuring it would get the ball back for at least one more possession. That led Wasch to wonder if the Elam Ending might merely shift when intentional fouls occur rather than eradicating them altogether.

“I’m still intrigued with the idea [of the Elam Ending], but personally I’ve cooled a little bit on it since seeing it in action,” Wasch said.

Added Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: “I don’t see it happening in an NBA game. But I do expect the NBA and our partners to take advantage of the demand for live TV content to use it in made-for-TV tournaments.”

While the NBA is already studying the impact of the Elam Ending, college basketball has been slower to react. Many coaches and administrators are interested in the concept, but that’s about as far as it has gone.

Yahoo Sports spoke to three members of the 13-man NCAA men’s basketball rules committee, each of whom either read about the Elam Ending or stumbled across it while watching a TBT game this summer. The rules committee has no concrete plans to weigh the pros and cons of the Elam Ending, but committee members expect such discussions to take place in the coming years once more data becomes available.

“I think it’s interesting, if not intriguing,” Big East associate commissioner and rules-committee member Stu Jackson said. “It’s the duty of the rules committee to explore all possibilities, and I would be surprised if we didn’t at least have a discussion about it. I’m not saying it will definitely be up for consideration or go to the membership for votes, but I think the committee will certainly talk about it.”

The focus of the rules committee during the 2018-19 school year will be the fate of the experimental rules tested during the NIT last March — an extended 3-point arc, a wider lane and the use of four 10-minute quarters instead of two 20-minute halves. The soonest the committee could begin to seriously explore changes to improve the final minute of games would be 2020.

“When it comes to the Elam Ending, if we have five or six years of data to go on, it’s certainly better than one summer,” Colorado coach and rules committee member Tad Boyle said. “But the concept is interesting. I was a little skeptical at first, but it definitely puts a premium on getting stops and making shots as opposed to fouling and hoping the other team misses free throws

“I liked it as a fan more than I thought I would. I still don’t know if I liked it better, but I liked it more than I thought I would.”

‘It’s kind of like every game has a walk-off ending.’

If Elam intends to someday persuade NBA and college basketball officials to give his idea a chance, then some of the electrifying scenes from this year’s TBT are probably his best advertisement.

Fans of Ram Nation chanted, “One more point! One more point!” late in a game earlier this month after the team of VCU alums pulled within a single point of the target score. Throngs of Ohio State fans also rose to their feet in jubilation in Columbus last Sunday when Scarlet & Gray clinched its spot in the Round of 16 in style with an alley-oop dunk.

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Players have embraced the idea of every game ending with a walk-off basket instead of with the winning team dribbling out the clock. Coaches have also welcomed the challenge of adapting their end-game strategies to the new system.

“The Elam Ending is an innovative and fun wrinkle to the game,” said Jamal Adams, an assistant coach on the Sons of Westwood team comprised mostly of UCLA alums “It’s super exciting to end the game on a score. It’s kind of like every game has a walk-off ending.”

While you’ll never seen an Elam Ending game finish with a half-court shot or even a desperate catch-and-shoot buzzer beater, the notion that the rule change limits the potential for drama is overstated. Primetime Players advanced to the Round of 16 with a pair of heart-pounding victories, the first after a comeback from a nine-point deficit during the Elam Ending segment and the second via a clinching 3-pointer with both teams one basket away from victory.

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Primetime Players coach Chris Jones said Elam actually reached out to him about implementing his concept in the East Coast Basketball League before TBT adopted it. Jones ignored Elam’s plea back then, a decision he now regrets.

“I just dismissed it like, ‘What in the world is this guy talking about? Nobody is doing this,” Jones said. “Looks like I may have missed out on something great when I could have been the first.”

Despite the largely positive response at the TBT this summer, Elam’s quest to change basketball is far from over. He intends to compile data from all 71 TBT games this summer, tweak his formula as needed and send his findings to coaches, administrators and media members across the basketball world.

Among the changes Elam will consider is adding a jump ball at the start of the Elam Ending to dissuade teams from calling timeout to lock in the score and secure the first possession. Elam will also study the pace of play to assess whether there’s a better option than adding seven points to generate the target score.

That the basketball world is finally watching his concept in action is extremely gratifying for Elam. It wasn’t that long ago that he was devoting much of his spare time to pitching his idea to total strangers without any guarantee of a response.

“My hope is still that the Elam Ending will reach the highest levels of basketball someday — the NBA, WNBA, Olympics and NCAA Division I,” Elam said. “I think it’s going to take time to grow, but as long as there’s one prominent event that’s invested in it, that means it has life.”

Mugar intends to study the data before committing to bringing the Elam Ending back for the sixth edition of TBT next season, but all signs point to it emerging as a staple of the annual event. Asked for his thoughts on how the Elam Ending has impacted TBT so far, Mugar said, “I can only tell you from where I’m sitting now, I’m extremely pleased with it.”

If either the NBA or NCAA someday experiments with the Elam Ending, it wouldn’t be the first time that the basketball establishment has borrowed from TBT.

Since the TBT’s inception in 2014, victorious players have celebrated after wins by approaching a giant replica of the event’s bracket, grabbing a card with their team name on it and advancing it to the next round. This past March, NCAA officials credited TBT for the clever idea and adopted the postgame tradition for college basketball’s showcase event.

Said Mugar with a chuckle, “That took four years, and there’s slightly less stakes with that than the Elam Ending. So I’m resigned to this taking awhile.”

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at jeisenb@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!