Even in the precise terms used in physics, the endeavor seems so fraught with variables as to preclude any chance for consistent success. What we refer to here is the act of propelling a 22-ounce sphere 9.5 inches in diameter through a metal circle only 18 inches in diameter, located 10 feet off the ground and 20 feet away. A mathematician might go about solving the problem by using the following equation (written by Enoch J. Durbin, professor of aerospace and mechanical sciences at Princeton):
R(range)=(V(velocity)/G(gravity)) 2 sinŒ∏
Turn all this into a game by putting the sphere into human hands and stationing some hungry 6'8" defender between our hero and the hoop, and the maneuver, it seems, becomes more difficult to master than quantum mechanics. And yet college basketball players have shot better and better ever since the rule makers cut the bottom out of Dr. Naismith's peach baskets. In recent seasons, their rate of improvement has accelerated almost exponentially.
During the first half of this century, styles of play varied widely by region. The Midwest was known for its long-range gunners. The purists in the East derived more pleasure from tricky passes and driving layups. In the West they played some heavy defense, both before and during the mid-'50s, when Bill Russell led San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA titles—despite team field-goal percentages of less than .400.
Nowadays, when it seems everybody, everywhere, can shoot the lights out, a percentage like that would not win a pickup game at the Y. Why else would all those coaches be screaming about the importance of defense? Somebody, somewhere, they say, must figure out how to stop this deadly firing. After all, the national shooting average last season was a record .467, and as Washington Coach Marv Harshman says, "If we don't hit 48% as a team, we aren't going to win anything."
Witness the fact that Tulane led Arkansas—the 1976-77 team leader in field-goal percentage with .545—by a score of 38-28 at halftime in New Orleans last season, and Tulane then came out and hit 16 of 20 shots in the second half and still lost. The red-hot Razorbacks scored 48 points in the final 20 minutes of that game. It is no wonder that they had two players among the country's top 10 shooters—Sidney Moncrief (.649) was third and Ron Brewer (.610) was 10th—while Wingman Marvin Delph, whom we will talk about later, really had the best shot on the team.
St. Bonaventure was also an opponent you would not want to challenge to a game of H-O-R-S-E. The Bonnies drilled 21 out of 25 in the second half against Virginia Tech, aided by a combined 15-for-15 performance by Greg Sanders and Essie Hollis. And lately, even some guys who do not have overwhelming natural ability have been riddling defenses by adhering to a simple principle: take only what you can make.
Frank Sowinski's Princeton teammates call him "Kielbasa" because of his heavy legs. Comparatively slow, Sowinski got off only 10 shots per game last season, yet his scoring average was 16.8. The reason: Sowinski shot .632 from the field, even though he most often launched his jumper from far outside. Joe Senser of West Chester (Pa.) State took only two shots from farther away than 10 feet in '76-'77, making both of those and a lot of others on the way to breaking Lew Alcindor's single-season field-goal shooting record with a .699 percentage. Said Senser of his record, "I couldn't even tie Alcindor's shoelaces."
The standard for shooting excellence has risen sharply in recent years. In 1972 only six major colleges shot .500. In 1976-77 no fewer than 35 teams did. For the moment, the percentage barrier appears to be .540, and of the seven teams ever to attain that figure, four hit it last season—Arkansas, UNC-Wilmington (.544), West Texas State (.542) and Utah (.540).
John Wooden's pet statistic, the first one he would look for on a postgame stat sheet, was the opposition's field-goal percentage. He was not as concerned about UCLA's shooting as with the success an opponent had against the Bruin defense. Risking heresy, a former pupil of Wooden's now begs to differ. Says Louisville Coach Denny Crum, "I think the day has come when great shooting can beat great defense."
A turnabout in numbers supports Crum's theory. Last season, for the first time since the NCAA began keeping track of such trivia, the 20 top-ranked teams in field-goal percentage won more often than did the top 20 in field-goal-percentage defense or the leaders in any other statistical category except scoring margin—which is always tops because games are ultimately won or lost according to the point totals on the scoreboard.
At last count, experts had cited at least 47 different reasons for this surge in shooting accuracy. They include everything from rounder basketballs to videotape machines to shooting gloves. However, an old Bill Bradley quotation ("Practice...because when you don't somebody, somewhere, is, and when they play you, they will beat you") underlines the most important new element in the game—it has become a 12-month endeavor for everyone, coach or player, who wants to do more than just play out a schedule.
Example A: UNC-Charlotte hoped to clean up in recruiting while the memory of last season's fourth-place finish in the NCAA tournament was still fresh. So it scheduled a two-week trip to Argentina for October and told high school recruits that this was the kind of broadening experience they could expect if they decided to come to school in Charlotte. The tour also gave the 49ers' incoming freshmen nine games of international competition before they ever played a college game, thereby allowing UNCC to get a big jump on its opponents, who had to be content with six weeks of intrasquad scrimmages back home. The 49ers were not even playing hooky, because while they were competing in Argentina, they were also enrolled in Geography 402-H, a three-credit course taught by Dr. Jim Clay, a UNCC professor who went along in the back of the bus. To square things with the NCAA, there was even a final exam.
Example B: When Phil Ford was a sophomore at North Carolina, he started playing organized ball on Oct. 15, 1975, the day fall practice began. Counting UNC's 1975-76 season, the Olympic tryout camp, a summer tour of Europe, the Montreal Olympics, last fall's practice sessions and the 1976-77 season, Ford was scarcely off the court for 17 consecutive months.
Example C: Kevin Nance, son of Iowa State Coach Lynn Nance, was recently invited to try out for an all-star team that will tour the People's Republic of China. Kevin is 13 years old.
But the single-mindedness with which players of all ages now dedicate themselves to basketball is not explanation enough for the shooting boom. Nor is the return to college games of the dunk, which was attempted so few times last season that it was a statistically insignificant factor in the rising shooting percentages. Because the dunk is too specialized to rehearse during all those workouts in gyms from Buena Park to Buenos Aires, the players practice a more useful shot, the game's ultimate weapon—the jumper. Curiously, no one seems to know from where it came. In fact, as often happens when basketball nuts congregate, the origin of the jump shot was the subject of heated debate in the Los Angeles Times' city room only a few weeks ago.
"It was the day Bert Lance resigned," recalls Sports Deskman George Kiseda, "but somehow we all got involved in a squabble over who invented the jumper. We couldn't agree on one person, but whoever it was, he revolutionized basketball just as surely as Babe Ruth revolutionized baseball. The first answer you usually get is Hank Luisetti of Stanford, around 1936. But even Luisetti doesn't claim to have shot the ball the way kids do today. His was a running one-hand push. Chances are, the jump shot was developed by accident—like penicillin—but at least we know Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin."
When SPORTS ILLUSTRATED conducted an informal survey, the answers seemed to depend on what player lived down the street from the person queried. It uncovered some names unfamiliar to those who, when they think of great college jump shooters, invariably begin with Oscar, then mention West, Mount and Carr on their way to the present. For the edification of those who think the jumper originated with Oscar Robertson at the University of Cincinnati in 1957, here is a random sampling of the responses to the SI poll:
"Bob Kessler and Jewell Young at Purdue in the mid-1930s."
LSU COACH DALE BROWN
"Annie Groninger, a teammate of mine at Model Minot High in North Dakota around 1940."
"It just busted on us out of nowhere."
KANSAS COACH TED OWENS
"Preacher Bill Flynt."
NOTRE DAME COACH DIGGER PHELPS
"In the Jewish Alps—around Grossinger's—in the early 1950s."
OKLAHOMA ASSISTANT DOUG ASH
"John Cooper, a professor of kinesiology at Indiana University."
Other intriguing nominees included Garland Pinholster of North Georgia College, Glenn (The Pound Pivoter) Roberts and two fair-to-middlin' players who became sportscasters—Curt Gowdy of Wyoming and Bud Palmer of Princeton. Everyone but Sir Alex Fleming got at least one vote.
With each curious response, it became clearer that it is impossible to establish who invented the jump shot. It is easy, however, to name the man who popularized it. That distinction goes to the late Joe Fulks, a little-known player at Murray State in 1943, who as a member of the Philadelphia Warriors after World War II became the first box-office attraction in the old BAA. a forerunner of the NBA.
Before the advent of the jump shot, the two-hand set ruled the day. It was impossible to get the set shot off in close quarters, so teams relied on intricate passing sequences—sometimes weaving 20 or 30 hand-offs into a single play—before someone got free long enough to face the basket; squat and let fly. The game was played exclusively on the floor. Even rebounders were usually content to congregate around the basket and wait for the ball to come to them.
Luisetti began a trend in December 1936 when he and his one-hand shot came to Madison Square Garden and helped Stanford beat LIU, which had won 43 straight games. The score, 45-31, was shockingly high for that era. Later Luisetti scored 50 points all by himself against Duquesne, and the college game was never the same.
The offensive man began to dictate the terms, which increased both scoring and attendance. Year by year, as the competitors grew taller and the need for shooting clearance increased, the point of release on players' shots crept higher. Kenny Sailors used a shot somewhat like the jumper when Wyoming won the 1943 NCAA title and he was named MVP. But by then, Fulks, a slender 6'5" forward, was already shooting the genuine overhead jump shot at Murray State. He subsequently used it while averaging an astounding 23.4 points in 1946 to lead the BAA in scoring. Fulks, however, was no purist. He had a wild assortment of shots, and he left it to his Warrior teammate Paul Arizin to refine the jumper, and to Bill Sharman of USC and the Celtics to perfect it.
The essentials of the shot these men devised have not changed; the elements that differentiate the jumper from its predecessors remain the vertical leap and the release of the ball from above the head. Only the height of the jump and the precise position of the ball when it is cocked overhead tend to vary much from player to player.
Unlike the two-hand set, the jumper eliminates the need for tedious pattern movement to clear a player for a shot; even without outside help, the man with the ball can maneuver himself into position for a high-percentage shot. In fact, the dazzling moves of today's stars are largely the result of the freedom the jumper brought to the game.
Like Luisetti's shot, the jumper is a one-hander, which ballistics experts testify is the most accurate way to shoot a ball. But unlike Luisetti's shot, the jumper is launched from the top of the head, all the better to get it over an opponent's outstretched hands, and it is shot off a vertical leap, not a lateral one. Again the laws of ballistics apply. While Luisetti (and others who played as recently as Bob Cousy and Lenny Wilkens and used a shot similar to his) floated laterally through the air, his range and angle to the basket constantly changed. Ideally, a jumper shooter should land on the same spot from which he took off. His range and angle never change. In artillerymen's terms, the jumper provides the shooter with a "stable platform" from which to fire.
The advantages of the jumper were quickly recognized by players, and before 1960 it had become the standard outside shot throughout the country. Since then, all those year-round players have been so successful with it that even conservative coaches like Princeton's Pete Carril have come to hold the jumper in the same high regard that Henry Iba used to hold the layup. "Our offense is designed to get the open 15-foot jumper," says Sowinski.
Along with Sowinski, a goodly number of the 424 college starters who cracked the .500 barrier last season will be back and worth watching this winter. One of them is N.E. Louisiana's Calvin Natt, a 6'5" forward who is not afraid to range far from the basket and who connected on 12 of 13 shots against Georgia State last season. Others are two velvet-smooth swingmen, Winford Boynes of San Francisco and Mike Woodson of Indiana; and two superb sophomore guards, Ron Perry of Holy Cross and Kyle Macy of Kentucky.
But consideration of the most dangerous offensive players in the country, game wreckers who can destroy an opponent from just about anywhere on the floor with jump shots of unnerving accuracy, must include these five:
His first shot of the season, a rampaging slam dunk at the end of a fast break, alerted long-suffering Indiana State fans that a new era was dawning. His last shot, a twisting baseline attempt that rolled off the rim in the final seconds of a game at Houston's Hofheinz Pavilion, would, if it had fallen, have sent the Sycamores to New York for the quarterfinals of last year's NIT. In between those two field-goal attempts, Larry Bird, a player so little known outside of Terre Haute, Ind. that he can only be called basketball's secret weapon, displayed wall-to-wall talent and the finest all-round game in the country.
He ended the season as the nation's No. 3 scorer (32.8) and No. 7 rebounder (13.3), the best combined showing in those two departments since 1969, when Spencer Haywood won the rebounding title and finished fourth in scoring. Bird shot .544 from the field and .840 from the free-throw line and handed out more than four assists a game.
A 6'9" Hoosier who came by his considerable passing skills as a guard in high school, Bird enrolled at Indiana University in the fall of '74, but was scared away after one week because he felt lost among IU's 33,000 students. Back home in French Lick, Ind. (pop. 2,059), he worked on a garbage truck for a year and then sat out another season before beginning his college basketball career at Indiana State.
Because of Bird's instant orientation and unerring touch around the basket and his flair for offensive rebounding, most opponents have tried to force him outside. There he merely banged away with the same jump shot he developed in his backyard as a kid: head cocked slightly to one side like Jack Nicklaus as he prepares to hit a long drive, easy motion over the top, plenty of rotation on the ball upon release. Against Loyola of Chicago, he made 20 out of 27, but what really turned the pro scouts on to Bird was the night they came to Terre Haute to see Illinois State Center Jeff Wilkins. Instead they got an eyeful of Bird, who had 31 points at the half.
About that missed shot against Houston, no one need feel sorry for Bird. He finished the game with 44 points, and Indiana State still had a 25-3 season. It was a pretty good beginning for a 20-year-old sophomore.
What makes Greg Sanders so much fun to watch? Mostly it's the way he gallivants around the court without apparent common sense. If the spirit moves him, he may launch a rainbow from beyond the top of the key—a description that fits his crucial basket in St. Bonaventure's surprising final-game victory in the NIT last March. Or he might fly down the lane and try to jam one in over some 7-footer. The prayer shot from deep in the corner with four other guys hanging all over him is also in Sanders' repertoire. And besides, he is a lefty, and everybody knows that a left-handed shot never looks as dependable as the other kind.
But what Bonnies' Coach Jim Satalin thought was the most fun about Sanders' game last season was his .586 shooting percentage. Despite his unorthodox play, Sanders has been a model of consistent improvement at St. Bonaventure. He shot .518 as a freshman, coming off the bench to hit 10 of 13 in his first game. As a sophomore, he moved up to .559, buoyed by a torrid 86-for-122 streak that included 30 points against Notre Dame. He topped off last year with a 14-for-23 afternoon in the NIT finals, good for 40 points and the tournament MVP award. A 6'6" 190-pounder from Fairmont Heights, Md., he nearly broke the Bonnies' single-season field-goal-percentage mark of .588 set by Bob Lanier, another deadly lefthander, who worked considerably closer to the basket.
By his own admission, Sanders is usually off-balance when he shoots. But his jumper used to look even shabbier when he kicked his legs back and faded away at the same time, in the manner of Dick (Fall Back, Baby) Barnett. The kicking stopped when Sanders decided it looked silly; the fadeaway faded only after he nearly broke his back while practicing a shooting drill between two chairs.
"Because I call myself Mr. G, people think I'm cocky," says Sanders. "Naw. It's just a personal psych-up to keep me on top of my game. When I shoot the ball I always make a ssshhh-OOO! sound. Then this index finger here, like an automatic part of my follow-through, starts waggling. That means, 'Count it.' "
Let's see now. Phil Ford, hmmmm. Peppery little No. 12 with the jitterbug moves and the nonstop enthusiasm. He can't still be in college, can he? No way. Must have started playing ball for North Carolina about 1970. Probably in his third year in the NBA by now. At least that's the way it seems. Where were you when Ford:
•Scored 27 and 29 points in the 1977 NCAAs before he sustained an elbow injury that cost Carolina a good chance of beating Marquette in the finals.
•Led UNC in scoring (18.6/18.7) and assists (7.0/6.6) the past two seasons.
•Had 54 assists in six games and never seemed to miss a clutch shot as the U.S. won at the 1976 Olympics.
•Ran the "Four Corners" to perfection and sank 26 of 30 free throws to help Carolina win the 1975 ACC championship when he was a freshman.
And so on, back to Ford's elementary school days in Rocky Mount, N.C., when he would bribe the other kids with a handful of cookies into staying around and playing more basketball. A coach's dream to this day, Ford is so closely associated with the Tar Heels' sophisticated game of keep-away that it is easy to forget what a murderous shooter he can be.
Besides leading the ACC in free-throw percentage (.853) last season, he scored a career-high 32 points against N.C. State on 14 of 21 from the floor and put in 30 more vs. Tulane on 11 of 16. He has never taken more than 22 shots in a game and, astonishingly, has 1,665 career points in only 1,188 attempts.
"One of the keys to any jump shooter's success is getting a feel for the basket," says Ford. "By now I've shot so much in practice, I don't have to aim. I know where the hoop is. Another important factor is never thinking you're going to miss. I don't. And finally, enjoying the game. If I'm uptight about a test or something, I'll come down to the gym and shoot. It makes me feel better. I like hearing the ball bounce." And swish, too.
Talk about a minority group whose image could stand sprucing up, what about NCAA scoring champions? In 30 years, only half a dozen—Arizin (1950), Clyde Lovellette (1952), Robertson (1958-60), Rick Barry (1965), Jimmy Walker (1967) and Pete Maravich (1968-70)—achieved commensurate success in the pros.
"I'm going to be different," says Portland State's Freeman Williams, with the unbridled optimism of one who led the nation in scoring last season with a 38.8 average. And there is good reason to believe that this quiet 6'4" senior from Los Angeles may not go the way of other NBA booby prizes.
Portland State's schedule—a hodgepodge of strong independents, WCAC teams and small colleges—has severely limited Williams' supporters. Typical of those who have never caught Williams' act and sneer at him as just another NCAA scoring champ is Coach Dick Harter of nearby Oregon, who says, "I don't know anything about him."
However, on one ambitious road trip last season Williams proved his mettle by helping to stop three good-sized home-court winning streaks in four nights—at the University of New Orleans (10 straight), at North Texas State (19) and at Pan American (20). He scored 42, 34 and 30 and hurt all three teams' hopes for NCAA tournament bids.
Williams' season percentage was .498, remarkable for a scoring champ who fires mostly 22-footers, squeezing them out of an unorthodox two-handed grip in front of his forehead in order to negotiate the long distance between himself and the basket. He has speed aplenty and will gladly drive when he gets the opportunity, but perhaps the best indicator of Williams' all-round ability came this summer when Crum thought enough of his ball-handling and passing skills to choose him as the point guard on the victorious U.S. World University Games team. He beat out the more experienced Perry of Holy Cross for the job.
Williams averaged only 10.9 points per game in Bulgaria, but knows that every one of them was more important to his future than the 71 he rang up in one game last season against Southern Oregon.
The main reason Marvin Delph's story is recounted here is to keep his confidence up. After all, the other members of Arkansas' vaunted "Three Musketeers" were in the limelight during the off-season. Moncrief starred on the World University Games team and Brewer appeared in Playboy as an All-America candidate. Obviously, Marvin needs something of his own to brag about as the season begins in Fayetteville.
Usually found on the perimeter of the Razorbacks' offense, Delph plays bigger than his 6'4" and, like Brewer and Moncrief, benefits from a lot of favorable matchups as a result. He was second on the team in rebounding last season and also jumped center. No wonder. Delph can rise more than three feet off the floor from a standing start and has a pair of 41-inch arms. Those assets are not the reasons he is such a superb shooter, but they certainly add other dimensions to his game.
"With complete freedom, Marvin could lead the nation in scoring," says Arkansas Coach Eddie Sutton. "He led our well-balanced team with 19.7 points per game. He shot .533 and hits from 30 feet as well as he does from 15. He's got weird-looking form—cranks the ball way up and behind his head, then slingshots it up there. But he's no Heinz 57 Varieties man. He delivers it the same way every time, so I'm not going to say a word about it."
Delph was the driving force behind Arkansas' memorable comeback against Tulane, scoring 23 points and dropping in a long, acrobatic jumper to tie the score. In five scoring duels with Houston's Otis Birdsong—who completed his eligibility last spring with a 24.4 career average and then was picked second in the NBA draft—Delph won three, including a matchup last season in which he erupted for 24 points in the second half.
"Even though Arkansas is a big football state, I grew up with pictures of West, Robertson and Charlie Scott on my wall," he says. "Maybe that's how I got such a funny shot—trying to copy the Big O. Even now, if the coaches don't keep an eye on me in practice, I'll start imitating another player."
The way Delph is going, maybe everybody ought to be imitating him.
Where will all this hotter and hotter shooting lead? LSU's Brown, a fanatic on personal motivation in athletes, thinks he has discovered a unique method for driving the Tigers' shooting percentages up. He has hired a doctoral candidate in experimental psychology to conduct team seminars on relaxation and mental imagery. Twice a week, LSU's players will lie down in the dressing room at Assembly Center, close their eyes and listen to shooting instructions spoken in a soothing voice. At the same time, they will be asked to picture the mechanics of their shot and to "see" the ball swishing through the net 200 times in a row.
The Tigers were not among the 35 teams that shot .500 last season—their percentage was .454—but Brown feels that the exercises could push LSU over 50% in 1977-78. Such rapid improvement would not startle USC Coach Bob Boyd, who says, "If the next 20 years produce what the last 20 did, percentages might go to 70."
And if, in this great quest for self-improvement, players maintain the intensity shown by the likes of Kansas State Guard Mike Evans, who shoots 900 jumpers a day during the off-season, it might not take that long.