ONE LAST IMPOSSIBLE SHOT AT FAME

Having failed to make his mark in the traditional manner, the author perfected a skill so incredible that even now no one believes in him
December 06, 1971

Nowadays, as Marshall McLuhan has it, kids get the message from radio and television. When I was in high school, 20 years before TV, I suppose I got messages from radio, but the one I really remember came from two basketball players who had come north from California to star on the college team in my home town.

The message was delivered one afternoon when my brother and I were shooting baskets in the Albany College gym along with the two ballplayers. Their names were Stultz and Bradley, and they didn't kick us out of the gym because our father was a professor.

"Don't need to look at the basket," said Stultz, a 6'3" pivot—a big man in the '30s. "Shoot from a spot." And he canned a 10-foot hook, his head turned in the other direction.

"You mean you really don't look?" I asked.

"You know where you are," said Stultz. "You know where the basket has to be."

"Me, too," said Bradley, who howitzered tremendous two-handed set shots from way out. "I always close my eyes when I shoot, but then I open them because I like to watch the ball drop through."

I believed every word they said.

Then Stultz came up with the message. "You practice an impossible shot 20, 30 years," he said, "you could hit with your eyes closed and never miss." That was the moment that my 30-Year Impossible Shot Plan was under way.

Stultz was a white Meadowlark Lemon, and Bradley flipped the ball into the hoop with the consistency of Hal Greer, except that he used the old two-handed set, and from five to 10 feet farther out than Greer shoots his jumper. This was long before the days of the NBA, but if there had been one, Stultz and Bradley would have been in it. They had played industrial basketball for a while and afterward found themselves in Oregon at Albany College on basketball scholarships. They lived in the gym, shot baskets all afternoon and seldom went to class. But when they showed up to play, everyone in the Willamette Valley came to watch.

Even Slats Gill, who was coach at Oregon State in those days and for years after that, attended the games. He sat in front of my dad and mother, my brother Vic and me when Albany played College of Puget Sound. On the opening tip-off, Stultz tapped the ball to Bradley, who turned to the basket and fired a 45-footer right through the hoop. This was in the days of the center jump after every basket, and Stultz and Bradley toyed with every team they played that season. A rumor went around town that Gill was going to get them to transfer to Oregon State, but he never did. I don't know if he ever tried. They played for Albany in the Pacific Northwest conference that year, and then they disappeared.

Because Stultz used to look at the floor when he shot and because Bradley said that anyone could learn to do it, I have looked away and shot for more than 30 years. And in only the Impossible Shot has there been any improvement over the years. I still dribble as if I'm pushing away a beagle, and on my jump shot I never get off the floor. I take that back—I have shown improvement in two areas. I have spotted some of the greats before they got there. I predicted that Elgin Baylor would be a superstar when he and R. C. Owens were playing for College of Idaho. And as soon as I saw the UCLA freshmen play in 1966, I made three bets totaling $35 that the UCLA varsity would not lose a game the next season, and, of course, they won and I won.

But back in school I wasn't good at basketball or anything else. I didn't realize that a kid of 14 usually isn't good at anything. I thought normal red-blooded American boys had to dive off bridges, apply artificial resuscitation and win games. But I never seemed to succeed.

I tried breath holding, underwater swimming, even first aid. For instance, for three months I carried adhesive tape. I hoped for a bloody, but not too bloody, accident, preferably involving Elizabeth Something, a long-haired blonde with big eyes she never opened all the way. Finally the accident happened during a high school picnic that ended at a roller-skating rink.

It wasn't Sloe Eyes; it was a pretty red-haired sophomore who flew off her feet into the boards and grazed her knuckles. I admit it, I clipped her. She landed on top of me. There I was with an injured damsel at hand and my first-aid can in my hip pocket.

Well, it didn't come off. I had the can open, the gauze unraveled and the iodine stopper in my teeth. "What's that?" asked Barbara.

"Iodine," I said, teeth together like Kirk Douglas.

"What?"

I took the stopper out of my mouth.

"Iodine," I said.

"I'm very sorry," said Barbara softly, "but I'm a Christian Scientist." I stopped carrying the converted beef-bouillon case after that.

One more story, so you'll understand that the odds were against me when I finally got into basketball. The baseball coach in my high school thought I should be able to play since my brother Vic was a shortstop; he had the best arm in our town. He threw a rock across the Willamette River at Bryant Park one summer when the water was very low. No one else could get more than a splash halfway across.

The coach assumed that I could throw, too. He put me at second base, and it didn't take him long to find out. The only double plays we ever made were third to short to first. I threw like Aimee Semple McPherson, an arm-waving evangelist of that day. I had a glass arm. A living glass arm. It shattered the first day of baseball practice. It was raining, my arm was cold and I threw as hard as I could. It burned right down the middle of the bone whenever I picked up a bat or even waved goodby; when I threw, it was like plugging in a toaster with your fingers in the socket.

The final game in the spring of 1935 for the local championship was between Albany and Lebanon at the strawberry festival. Loggers came out of the hills to Lebanon by the tens, mostly to get a free piece of the BIGGEST STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE IN THE WORLD, as the banner across Main Street read. Albany was the big city team, because we were the county seat; we had 450 in the high school. Lebanon had two hardware stores, so it wasn't all that small, but the loggers in the stands adopted Lebanon because it was closer to the hills and their camps.

And there I was, disguised as a second baseman. My batting average wasn't what kept me on the team; I didn't have more than six official at bats all season. My sole reason for being in uniform was the old get-on-base stomach-cramp crouch; it gave me a strike zone about the size of an envelope. The pitchers we were up against couldn't hit it three out of seven times, so I'd walk.

"Make him stand up!" the fallers yelled.

"Ball one," said the umpire. "Straighten up, kid."

"Hit 'im in the head!" shouted the whistle punks.

"Ball two," said the umpire. "I told you to stand up."

"Chicken!" screamed the buckers.

"Ball three," said the ump. "I'm warning you. You don't stand up, I'll call a strike."

"Big city sissy!"

The next pitch hit the dirt, bounced over the catcher and the umpire and into the stands, so I straightened up and trotted to first. But in the third inning the nightmare had its première. There were four balls hit to me at second base. I've never forgotten them in all the years that I have tried. Each was an easy bouncer with a big handle. I stopped them. That was the easy part. But my throws to first were a little high. Maybe a little more than a little high. They went over the first baseman's head.

It really wasn't as simple as that. If it had been, I don't think those nightmares would have lasted so long. The first ball I shotputted. It got away and sailed out among the cows in the pasture next to the strawberry festival fairgrounds. My arm was throbbing.

The second batter hit another slow bouncer right to me, and I scooped it up and overheaved first, about 12 feet over. My arm felt as if the toast were burning.

The third time the crowd quieted down, as if they were aware that something unearthly was happening at second. I shouldered the ball very quickly, trying, in a way, to sneak it in. But I bounced this one over first, and there were obscene noises. Even now, I sometimes still hear them at night, and it makes me hunch my shoulders and try to duck.

The fourth error was a monument of some kind, like Arnold Palmer's 12 at the Rancho golf course in Los Angeles. I was enveloped in a confusion some baseball players and many Arabs know. I prayed that the ball be hit to anyone except me. When it did come, it came to my left. There was nothing to do except wait. I couldn't fake a stumble and let the rightfielder handle it. I moved halfway to first base and took the ball on the second bounce. There was plenty of time. The runner was slow. And then I did it again, but this time with an almost Biblical grandeur. I had the feeling that a dramatic act would set everything right, and then everyone would forget what had happened before. So I tiptoed daintily toward first, like a bullfighter getting ready to set the banderillas, stopped about 10 feet from the bag and lobbed the ball to Bud Robertson on first. A slow, high, easy arc. It went three feet over his head.

All through high school and partway through World War II, about once a week, I had this nightmare, and it went as I have described it. Sometimes even now I can hear the cackles of the loggers. Judging by their hysteria, it was the brightest moment of the summer of 1935 for most of them.

So I decided to forget baseball. I remembered the Stultz and Bradley message and would work on The Shot. Mine went like this. I stood directly under the hoop, facing the opposite basket. Then I dribbled one step toward the foul line, away from the basket. Without looking back, I lifted the ball, arm straight, eyes on the center circle. From three feet out, I grooved the motion so the ball came off the backboard and fell through the hoop. By moving out one more step, the same motion put the ball through without hitting the backboard. When I made 10 in a row, I moved out another step.

Seven years later, I was shooting from the bottom of the key. Here I settled for eight out of 10, which was a better average than I had shooting free throws. By 1950 I had moved to the foul line, still sighting at the opposite basket and flipping them up without looking. Two years ago I had edged out a couple of feet beyond the top of the key.

Here in Portland there is a basketball tournament at the downtown YMCA every noon, except weekends and Christmas. That's 260 tournaments a year. We play four-on-four, losers out, game is 21. Winners stay, and a new team fights its way up from the other end of the court. None of the players are professionals. Not professional basketball players, that is. Occasionally we'll get a wrestler, and frequently, during the summer, old football players like Mel Renfro, Abe Woodson, Terry Baker and George Shaw show up. No referee; everyone calls his own fouls. Maybe not all—maybe about half.

I've heard that there are other groups just as obsessed with basketball in the United States, but I've never found them. Occasionally when I am in New York I try to get in a game at the New York Athletic Club, but they play three-on-three, the basketballs are like old bowling-ball luggage and they go at it only three afternoons a week. I have worked out a couple of times at the West 63rd Street YMCA. Frank Gifford got me started there. Three-on-three, a heavy ball, a dark gym and only 10 fellows in the gym. Outside there are millions.

About Gifford. He's what you call a ball hawk when he's on your side and a hatchet man when he's against you. He has to win—he'll do anything to keep from losing. I have the feeling that if he couldn't swim, and he found himself in a swimming meet, he'd clobber the water so hard he'd be able to scuttle along the bottom. He plays basketball as if he's in a swimming meet.

I hit my overhead.

"What kind of shot was that?" Frank asked.

"Been practicing it a while," I said.

Little did he know.

"Lucky," said Frank. "But watch it. You're liable to throw this game away."

When he doesn't know what else to do, he throws the ball against the backboard. Then he knows what he's going to do. He knocks down the defensive halfback.

When Gifford was playing football for the New York Giants, he'd always manage one basketball game a year with a group of friends, including Bob Cousy, Jerry West, Paul Hornung, Bobby Hull, Terry Baker and Timmy Brown. He told me he'd rather get in a game with Cousy than golf with Ken Venturi or Dave Marr. So would I, I told Frank.

One time he invited me to play with Cousy. It was in Acapulco on an outdoor basketball court on the waterfront. Cousy, Hull, Hornung, Baker and Gifford versus a swarm of 5'4" Mexicans, who obviously had been watching the Harlem Globetrotters all their lives. Every pass they made was behind the back, every try at the hoop was a hook from the corner.

I was shooting a 16mm film of the game, but halfway through the first period Frank ran over and said, "Homer, here's your chance. Go in for me. I'll run the machine." I went in and took the ball off the board, broke for the foul line and started an overhead. Halfway up, I chickened out. So I did what the Mexicans were doing. I made the old grandstand behind-the-back pass. Only it wasn't to anyone I saw—I passed it blind behind my back, just the way the Mexicans were doing. Where it went I knew not. My move had all the dramatic ingredients of a second baseman throwing to first.

The ball bounced about eight feet behind me. It wasn't even a straight behind-the-back pass. It went through a Mexican or two, and then right into the hands of Bob Cousy. Mr. Basketball was under the basket. He spun it off the backboard, and it went in. Cousy two, give Groening the assist. Now, I wouldn't dare bring it up except that what happened is now on film. Frank got it all. It's in the film called Acapulco, which he narrated. I have probably the only print that still exists.

An assist to Cousy, it seems to me, is like finding out that your caddie is Jack Nicklaus. Or like putting a bandage on Florence Nightingale.

Now I can tell you about the Big Day, April 11, 1967. Twelve o'clock noon, Portland YMCA, the west basket. Four-on-four, of course; five regulars (Dick Marlowe, Dale Garrett, Bob Morrison, Chief Red Thunder and me) and three strangers who wanted in.

All I remember is that the first time the ball was passed to me, I dribbled to The Spot at the top of the key and threw it up. Of course, it went in. The three strangers were my teammates, and there was scorn in their manner. I usually end up with the oddballs.

I feel the way a man plays basketball—particularly whether he passes more than he shoots—is a key to his personality. An unhappy basketball player seeks happiness by passing the ball to what he hopes are his friends. He assumes that he will get approval by giving them the ball and allowing them to shoot, and he will pretend that this approval will result in happiness. The shooter, on the other hand, does not know that there are such things as friends or happiness. All he knows is that he is unhappy when he isn't shooting. But those who shoot just hoping the ball will go in get nothing but scorn. I've been told that making the overhead isn't so great. It's having the guts to fire it in the first place that is hard to believe.

The three strangers were not seeking happiness; they did not pass the ball to me. When the ball happened to bounce to me, however, I did look earnestly for approval. I passed back to the strangers, but their scorn did not disappear. I decided not to seek approval. I said to myself, maybe this is The Day. It was.

I put myself on The Spot. I turned away from the basket and put up an overhead from the top of the key, 20 feet out. That was two in a row.

"Goodness gracious, crikey!" exclaimed the strangers, as they do in YMCAs. "What the hell kind of shot is that?" I smiled enigmatically. No need to drag this out. I made a third, then a fourth. Then I missed one. Then I made another. And another. I think that you should picture the next one. After all, that will be seven out of eight.

I placed myself under the backboard and waited with my hands cupped, like an empty ice-cream cone held under a Dairy Queen spout. When the basketball dropped into my hands after one of the strangers missed his shot and everyone else missed the rebound, I dribbled fast to the foul line.

It is hard to believe, but the defense was trying to keep me away from the top of the key. "Pass the ball!" suggested one of the strangers. I sidestepped my own outstretched leg. "Get rid of it!" yelled another stranger. I switched the dribble to my left hand. I can bat the ball once left-handed, and then I have to recover it with my right. "Don't shoot!" said the third stranger. Well, of course, I did.

I sighted down the court to the other end of the playing floor, brought my arm up straight through the line that intersected the distant basket and lofted the ball just as I had been doing for 30 years.

And that was it. Seven out of eight overheads, without looking, from the top of the key, in actual competition.

Later I was in the locker room, laughing to myself. I overheard the three Strangers talking about the game as they were getting dressed a couple of locker rows from me. "You know that old fat guy on our team," said one. "He sure didn't have any idea where that ball was going."

"Yeah," said another. "Luckiest bunch of shots I ever saw."

"He made at least 10 in a row," said the third.

"Twelve," said the first.

Then they went into the shower, and I headed back up to the gym. It was empty, and I shot two-handed sets for half an hour. It felt funny to be facing the basket for such a long time, but I got used to it. I called my secretary and told her I'd been delayed, but I would be back in the office as soon as I could get away.

TWO ILLUSTRATIONSROBERT VELDE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)