Let's say we're at Springfield 76 years ago, and I'm Dr. Naismith," says Coach Jack McCloskey of Wake Forest. "I nail a hoop somewhere on the wall and we start playing. The big fellows are tapping in shots and stuffing the ball into the basket, and it looks too easy. What do I do? I raise the baskets! So why not try it now?"
There are, of course, many ramifications to the overall debate that presently engrosses more and more thoughtful coaches, but McCloskey's statement is the heart of the argument for raising the baskets to 12 feet (see cover). When Dr. Naismith dreamed up the game in 1891 he never envisioned such now elementary refinements as five men to a side, backboards or Lew Alcindor. He simply nailed his peach baskets to the lower railing of a balcony in the old Springfield College gym and let his boys take aim with a soccer ball. The balcony rail happened to be 10 feet above the floor, and—thanks to this scientific precision—the hoop has been 10 feet high ever since.
In the early days of the sport, the height of the basket was almost incidental. Everyone threw the ball at the basket; that's what you were supposed to do. Today that height puts an inordinate premium on growth hormones, excessively benefitting both the tall athlete and the nonathlete who happens to be tall. This season nearly 100 seven-footers will be playing basketball in the U.S., and very few of them have anything like the ability of UCLA's Alcindor. They have thrown the game out of kilter.
"College basketball is in grave danger of sinking in a mire of boredom," says University of California Athletic Director Pete Newell. "It was meant to be a game of balanced skills, but they are fast becoming overshadowed by the tall player with his control of rebounds, easy tip-ins and shot-blocking. The game is cluttering itself up around him."
To combat the giants, coaches and rulemakers have searched everywhere, including the loony bin, for ideas. They put a time limit on staying in the foul lane (1936), eliminated the center jump after every basket (1937), outlawed goal-tending (1944), widened the foul lane (1956), banned dunking (1966)—and continued to recruit big boys for their own teams. They also have slowed the game down on occasion to the pace of a chess tournament, on the theory that the fewer chances the giants have to get at the ball, the less harm they can do. All along, say the advocates of the 12-foot basket, the major solution has been to change the game's critical dimension by two feet.
McCloskey, who staged a game with 11½-foot baskets several years ago when he coached at Penn, says, "Basketball is unique in this respect—I don't know another sport where a player can be so dominating and actually lack talent. Why is there so much resistance to change? Unfortunately, too many coaches don't look at it as something good for the game. They're only concerned about whether it is good for them.
"I'm not talking against the big man if he has talent. With a 12-foot basket, he would still be a factor. But he would have to shoot the ball instead of tapping it down. The 10-foot basket is just no longer adequate. Chamberlain is a good example of why it isn't. He's broken every record for scoring and for shooting accuracy, but you put him 15 feet from the basket, at the foul line, and he's the worst."
With the higher hoop, it is claimed, the big men would have to learn the real skills of the game—shooting, dribbling, passing and defense. More important, it would bring the talented little man back to a position of relative value on a par with his skills. Fewer of his shots would be blocked because he would be shooting with a higher arc to reach the goal. He would have a better chance at rebounds because many of them would bounce farther away from the rim than formerly. Given time to adjust to the new height, today's good shooters would still be superior to the others—and the little men are often the best on the team.
Still, the majority of coaches are indignant at the mere mention of changing anything about basketball. (Few have ever seen a 12-foot basket.) "I like the game the way it is," says Shelby Met-calf of Texas A&M. "I wish they'd leave us alone and just let us play." Loyola of Chicago's George Ireland calls the whole idea "silly," and Syracuse's Dr. Fred Lewis insists, "The only reason to do it would be to legislate against the big man. It's just not right to penalize a player's talents." (Lewis has a 6'11" youngster on his freshman team whom he already compares favorably with Alcindor) Abe Lemons, the country humorist at Oklahoma City U., says flatly, "Most defensive coaches like it because it would cut out the shooters. All they know is one end of the court, anyway." But, adds Abe, who is noted for his run-and-gun game, "it really doesn't make any difference where they put the basket. We'd find it if they put it under the stands or in the parking lot."
Notre Dame's Johnny Dee reacts like any coach who has just recruited two 6'9" freshmen. "The game would be like water polo," he claims. "Everyone sloshing around under the basket and no scoring. You'd have to take the shot, hope for the rebound and then work it in again." (And what, ask the advocates, is wrong with that?) John Wooden of UCLA does not like it either, and he says his opinion is not based on Alcindor's presence for two more seasons. "Why tamper with the basic concepts?" he asks. "I was opposed to it 10 years ago and I will be against it three years from now. If you're really trying to help the little man, then lower the basket—and I'm against that, too. The whole thing is so farfetched that it is ridiculous for anyone to even experiment with it."
In the middle of the road are such coaches as John Benington of Michigan State, Don Donoher of Dayton, Vic Bubas of Duke, Jack Kraft of Villanova and Bill Foster of Rutgers. They want some experimentation before they decide. "We're all too slow to change," admits Benington. "I guess because it changes your own thinking and habits. But I think it is worth experimenting with." Donoher, whose Flyers were grounded by UCLA and Big Lew in last March's NCAA Final at Louisville, has one happy thought anyway. "Maybe it will bring back the two-hand set shot." (It undoubtedly would.)
The idea of a 12-foot basket is hardly new. As far back as 1932, Coach Forrest (Phog) Allen of Kansas was arguing that the baskets should be raised. "In the early 1930s," he says, "I foresaw that the influx into the game of more and more big men would ultimately make a travesty of basketball. Actually, I had a 7-footer in 1927. I was convinced that eventually 12-foot baskets would be necessary." Allen does not agree with those who claim shooting would be less accurate. "The muscles of the eyes accommodate easily to changes in height," he says. "Once this accommodation is made it is just as easy to shoot at a 12-foot basket as it is at a 10-foot one."
Allen also contends that some rebounds are likely to bounce out from the backboard or rim as much as six feet farther than at present, thereby eliminating congestion underneath and opening up the game. "The worst position on the court would be directly under the goal," he says.
Allen, Newell and McCloskey have staunch supporters in Ralph Miller of Iowa and Ray Meyer of DePaul. Miller has used 12-foot baskets in practice for 15 years. "It helps our players shoot better," he says. "They can't just throw the ball at a 12-foot basket. Now, many players shoot hard, flat shots, like pegging to second base. They would have to learn correct form." Meyer is confident it would aid the little men. "They usually are better shooters, and once the basket is raised they would quickly adjust by putting a higher arc on their shots," he says. "Then the big man would have to come out to try to block the shot. If he doesn't come out, the shooter has a clear shot. If he commits himself to the block, he no longer has good rebounding position. Also, the ball handling would be better. You'd see better passing under the basket. The 12-foot change is inevitable."
Henry Iba of Oklahoma State and Ned Wulk of Arizona State would like to see a change, but they are a bit more conservative. "Somewhere between 11 and 11½ feet would be all right," says Iba. "It would give us a better outside game." Wulk votes for 11 feet. "Twelve feet distorts the game too much," he says. "Eleven would be better. It would solve the goaltending problem and make the big guy shoot at—not into—the basket."
There have been several experimental games played with 12-foot baskets. Allen staged three at Kansas in the early 1930s and Newell played one at California in 1961. When he coached at Michigan State, Forddy Anderson experimented with the idea in 1962. However, the most comprehensive study was conducted by Stan Morrison, a former Cal player who is now an assistant coach at San Jose State. Morrison played in Newell's game and was so taken with the change that he wrote his master's thesis on it at Sacramento State. For research, he gathered a group of college players in Sacramento and played six games, three with 10-foot baskets and three with 12-footers.
Morrison's findings indicate that with 12-foot baskets the tip-in would be instantly obsolete and blocked shots infrequent. There would be less fouling, particularly underneath the nets, and shooting percentages would not vary much. Half of the small men actually shot better at raised baskets.
In the most recent test, early in November, Coach Ray Mears of Tennessee co-operated with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED by playing his Orange-White preseason intrasquad game with 12-foot baskets. Raising them was simple. University maintenance men built a two-foot pipe extension and installed it at the base of the stand. The job took about three hours and cost less than $50.
Mears divided his squad into two teams, splitting up his first stringers with 7' Tom Boerwinkle on the Orange team and 6'10" sophomore Bobby Croft on the White. The players practiced on the higher baskets for only about 40 minutes the afternoon of the game and again in the pregame warmup. In the contest, played before 5,100 curious people in Tennessee's Stokely Athletics Center, the Oranges missed their first eight shots, the Whites their first nine, and the overall shooting was poor—20% for the Oranges, 25.7% for the Whites, who won 43-36. Poor shooting was not surprising because none of the players had had enough time to become familiar with the new dimensions, but all agreed that they could achieve former accuracy with practice.
What surprised many was that the biggest man, Boerwinkle, who is fairly agile and quick, had the most difficulty. While he had 15 rebounds, a little above his average, he had trouble getting them, although most of the missed shots fell within a 12-foot radius of the basket. He had no chance at all to get the shots that hit the front of the rim. The rebounds usually caromed over his head and were taken by one of the smaller men. On many shots the ball took longer to come down, giving the other players time to crowd into the lane and fight Boerwinkle for the ball. Several times he had the ball stolen away when he came down with it. He failed to block a single shot and did not score on a tip-in. He made only one basket in 16 tries, a jump shot from the foul line.
The small men quickly learned they could shoot better from outside, and they concentrated on shots in the 15-to-25-foot range. Their accuracy, understandably, was not good, but it was apparent that the higher basket would encourage more long jump and set shots. There were fewer layups than normally, but the little men were more adept at this because they were used to shooting the ball up rather than literally laying it in, as big men often do on 10-foot baskets. Boerwinkle's layups almost always hit the back of the rim.
"The closer you are to the basket, the harder it is to shoot a jump shot," said 6'1" Bill Justus, "because then you have to go almost straight up with the ball." After the game Boerwinkle shook his head. "I hope 12-foot baskets never come about," he said. "I couldn't maneuver as well underneath because the ball hung up there on rebounds and the extra time gave the smaller players a chance to get at it—and at me, too. Usually I block six or eight shots a game, but I didn't have a chance tonight because of the higher arc. I couldn't get to the ball."
What bothered Tom even more was his inability to tap the ball into the basket. "There is just no way to get a tip-in," he said. "I couldn't get over the rim no matter how hard I jumped, so all I was able to do was slap at the ball. I had no control. I think maybe I could get used to a 12-foot basket, but I'd sure hate to have to try."
Before the game Mears had been skeptical about what higher hoops would do to the big man. "I really didn't think it would hurt Boerwinkle as much as it did," he said. "But he was in a crowd most of the time and had trouble wheeling out of there. With 12-foot baskets the big man would have to learn to play like a little man, with finesse and agility. The premium wouldn't be on the seven-footer so much. It would be on the in-between players—in the 6'3" to 6'7" range—who can operate around the basket. You would probably see a faster game."
Probably a better one, too.