"Ask a boy what his strength is," says USC Coach Bob Boyd, "and he'll tell you he has a 17-foot jump shot that never misses. Or a great hook shot. Or he is a tremendous rebounder. I have yet to have one tell me that he likes to pass."
What Boyd does not say is that most of today's players hardly know how to pass; with rare exceptions, they have failed to learn what was once considered the basic fundamental of the game, ball handling. That lovely art was, in fact, threatening to become as extinct as the center jump until, ironically, the full-court press forced a review. Now there are a number of coaches who contend that ball handling, in the next few years, is going to be revived, out of necessity if nothing else.
In defense of the players, it is easy to see why the passers and ball handlers, who used to rate top billing (yes, Virginia, there really was a Bob Cousy), passed largely from the scene. The big men and the newfangled jump shooters took their places. But, while the bombers were exciting to watch, the game they played was beginning not to be. College basketball, in fact, was and still is in serious danger of becoming stereotyped, just like the pro game. In too many cases coaches lucky enough to have a cadre of pure shooters—and who does not have them today?—simply shrugged their shoulders and said, "We'll outshoot 'em." And even this season, with an increasing number of coaches seeking new ways to circumvent the harassment of the pressing defenses, it will be much of the same thing: big men with big point totals.
Coach Dean Smith of North Carolina calls the present game power basketball. It is that and it is fast-breaking, free-lancing basketball. The shooters are so proficient that it is almost impossible to stop a good one. Why waste time passing the ball three or four times, ask the coaches, when you can get to your shooter right away, and he'll put it in the hole?
The player who can execute the reverse dribble or snap off crisp, accurate passes with either hand (sometimes behind his back) is regarded as something of a maverick. When he pulls off one of the oldtime moves, usually he is accused of showboating. The give-and-go, in which one player hands the ball off to a teammate, then cuts around the defender for a return pass, is tried so seldom that when it works, spectators, especially the younger ones, seem to think it was a lucky-dumb accident, not a planned play. These same people do know their shooters, a point that has not been lost on the players. The shooters get the headlines. The ball handler gets a pat on the back.
"You can't find a high school kid who really knows very much about ball handling," says Colorado State Coach Jim Williams. "They think more about scoring." Kansas Coach Ted Owens says, "Look at the kids playing around a garage or backyard basket. You don't ever see any of them practicing passing or dribbling. Mostly, they'll be shooting." Says Coach Tates Locke of Miami of Ohio, "Kids aren't respecting the ball the way they once did."
Nostalgic nonsense? Not entirely. If the emergence of the one-handed shot has made basketball scoring more efficient, it has also made it less fascinating. Before, youngsters spent their time on basketball courts practicing the skills of ball handling—passing, dribbling and protecting the ball. Particularly proficient were New York players who trained in the schoolyards of the city. "We used to say they had the 'smarts,' " recalls Pete Newell, the former University of California coach.
New York teams coached by Nat Holman of City College, Joe Lapchick of St. John's, Howard Cann of NYU and Clair Bee of LIU were a delight to watch. They moved the ball skillfully until someone got loose for a crackling pass and a layup. "That was the beauty of the game," says Lapchick. "Those kids knew what to do with a basketball."
Nowadays, however, even the New York City schoolyards have a changed look. Youngsters still play endless games of two-on-two and three-on-three but now they work on their shooting.
New York City was not the only place where you could find slick ball handling. Holy Cross, coached to a national championship in 1947 by the late Doggie Julian, moved the ball around so fast that sometimes the players forgot to shoot. Cousy and Joe Mullaney, now the coach of Providence College, were the stars of that team. Coach Adolph Rupp's 1947-48 Kentucky team, called the "Fabulous Five," won the national championship and the Olympic gold medal in 1948. In addition to Ralph Beard and Alex Groza, a member of that team was Cliff Barker, who had been an Air Force sergeant in World War II. Barker learned to handle the ball in a prisoner of war camp after being shot down on a mission over Germany.
"You had to find something to do or you would go stir crazy," says Barker, "so I got a basketball from the Red Cross and started working with it." Barker spent hours, day after day, practicing dribbling and passing, and by the time he got back to Kentucky he was a wizard at handling the ball.
Perhaps the most spectacular of all the ball handlers—and the model for the few who are outstanding today—was Cousy, who gained his greatest fame as a pro with the Boston Celtics. Cousy had uncanny control of the ball and onlookers marveled at his ability to dribble defenders out of their high-rise sneakers. He could alternate hands on the dribble and change his pace, all in an instant. More important, he was a marvelous passer, whipping quick, blind tosses or low bounce passes to teammates cutting for the basket. Cousy's specialty was the behind-the-back switch with the ball, right to left or left to right. He used it on a driving layup, and nobody was ever sure which hand had the ball. Or whether he was eventually going to pass or shoot.
Cousy played at a time when superb ball handlers were still the rule rather than the exception. Every team had at least one: Bobby Davies of Seton Hall and the Rochester Royals, Dick McGuire of St. John's and the New York Knickerbockers, Slater Martin of Texas and the St. Louis Hawks.
"I had a tremendous natural advantage," admits Cousy, "because I was blessed with peripheral vision. I didn't have to look at the man I wanted to pass to. I always knew where he was. I had some other advantages, too. I was ambidextrous, and I could snap off my passes. My hands were big, too, much bigger than they should have been for my size. And I learned my basketball in New York. You just naturally dribbled, passed, faked, changed directions and played give-and-go. It was the finesse way to play basketball, and everybody I grew up with played it that way."
There are, of course, exceptions to everything, including trends in sports. For all its marvelous scorers, professional basketball has some exceptional passers: Guy Rodgers, Elgin Baylor, Walt Hazzard, Johnny Egan, Len Wilkens, Earl Monroe, Jimmy Walker, Gail Goodrich and Oscar Robertson, called by some the best passer of all time. The presence of so many good ball handlers per capita probably is to be expected in a sport as distilled as pro basketball, which each year takes in only a handful of the graduating college seniors who played basketball.
Not all college coaches agree that ball handling is a lost art. Loyola of Chicago's George Ireland, whose teams are noted for their running game, is one who does not. "How do you think we get down there so fast?" he asks. "The ball handling is much better now than it was in the good old days. Then it was a lot of individual stuff. Now there is more team play, fast passing, crisscrossing, cutting. I hope the old days never come back. What did you see? Ring-around-the-rosy, a lot of passes, a lot of meaningless stuff."
Villanova's Jack Kraft concedes that there may be a shortage of fine ball handlers elsewhere in the country but not in the East. "Our kids work on it," he says, "and teams like St. Bonaventure, Holy Cross, St. John's, Boston College and the Philadelphia clubs always have the passers."
Coach John Wooden of UCLA, who has had some good ones, denies that there has ever been a shortage of fine college ball handlers. "Maybe they're not so fancy today," he says, "but there are quite a few around I wish that I had found—or that they had found me."
Johnny Dee of Notre Dame goes further. "There hasn't been an outstanding team in the last 20 years that didn't have a super ball handler," he says. "Like Larry Siegfried at Ohio State, K.C. Jones at San Francisco, Walt Hazzard and Mike Warren at UCLA. You need the caddy who can get the ball up-court, the guy who can pass off to the man in the clear. Without him you just don't win."
Maybe so, but Butch van Breda Kolff, coach of the pro Los Angeles Lakers, has to be convinced. "If there's no shortage," he asks, "why are we all going around trying to make backcourt men out of college forwards? Where are they hiding?"
The truth is, ball handlers have not been hiding; they have been in short supply. But those two new developments in the game—the zone press and combination defenses—are beginning to change that. The press, which harasses the mediocre ball handler and makes capital of his shortcomings, has become one of the most devastating weapons in basketball, as coaches of the many teams that have lost to UCLA in recent years have learned to their sorrow. Because of the stringent defenses, says Oklahoma State's Hank Iba, a dedicated believer in ball control, the day of the ball handler is returning. "It won't happen overnight," he says, "but it definitely is on the way back. There's no other way to beat the defenses now."
While most coaches merely brood about the shortage of skilled ball handlers, there are some who work at trying to develop them. Tennessee's Ray Mears, whose patient game depends upon good floor play for its success, works his squad 15 to 20 minutes every day, practicing one-on-one with reverse dribbles, dribbling between the legs and similar moves. Then one player works against two men, learning to bring the ball upcourt against pressure. The Vols are so good at handling the ball that they put on a drill before most of their games that reminds spectators of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Colorado State's Williams has devised several drills designed to sharpen his team's passing. "Many coaches don't bother coaching the ball handler," he says, "but the coaches who do are the ones who win."
Cousy, who now coaches Boston College, insists that the ball handler is the most important man on any team, even if he is not a shooter. "The worst thing you can have is your big guns in the back-court," Cousy explains. "The playmaker has to be a respectable shooter but scoring is not his real function. He has to keep the other four guys happy. He has to pass out the sugar."
Cousy feels so strongly about good passing that he may have stressed it to a fault this year. He has two superior backcourt men on his team, Billy Evans, a little fellow with brains, ideal quickness and a feel for the ball, and Jim O'Brien, a sophomore who, some think, could be even defter than Evans. Their problem is that they may not have many people to throw the ball to, not, at any rate, as many as Cousy would like to have.
Even so, Cousy wants his passers to direct the game. "I don't want our big men ever to put the ball on the floor," he says. "If our ball handler doesn't get the ball on the first pass, we don't fast break. He makes the pass that leads directly to the score."
While the ranks of truly gifted ball handlers are thin, there are some good ones to watch this season, among them Pete Maravich of LSU, Jo Jo White of Kansas, Butch Beard of Louisville, Calvin Murphy of Niagara, Billy Hann of Tennessee, Vince Fritz of Oregon State, Charlie Scott of North Carolina, Frankie Gillen of Villanova and Duke's clever sophomore, Dick DeVenzio.
Gillen is an excellent example of what most young players do not do these days. "I guess I started working on my ball handling in the fourth or fifth grade," he recalls. "I used to watch Guy Rodgers a lot. I loved the way he handled the ball, it just took me over. I used to play with older guys, so I'd work more on ball handling than scoring, leaving that for the big horses."
Maravich, who is big, loved ball handling as much as Gillen. "I've worked with a basketball ever since I was big enough to bounce it," he says. "I even practiced dribbling in the dark." That, as much as his shooting, is why Wooden calls Maravich the best of all the current college ball handlers. "He's as good a passer as anybody who ever played the game," says Wooden, who himself was a spectacular ball handler when he played at Purdue in the early 1930s.
But the Maraviches, the Gillens, the Whites and a handful of others are a lean minority in a sport that was once noted for its finesse. And what ever became of the bounce pass?