For years the men who run the NBA had been looking for an ingenious follow-up to the league's masterstroke of the decade—the invention of the "loose ball foul" in 1970, a piece of work that basketball scholars are still studying for a sign that it was conceived by some form of intelligent life. When the league's board of governors convened last June on lovely Amelia Island (just off the coast of Florida, not far from Veronica Lake), the owners finally did it. By a vote of 15-7 they adopted a rule for a one-year trial that—shades of the scorned ABA!—gives three points for extra-long field goals. "I think that I shall never see a thing more lovely than a three," said Commissioner Larry O'Brien, gaveling the meetings to a close.
Clearly, the idea of bestowing an additional point for throwing up a shot that violates long-standing coaching precepts, had its detractors. Golden State owner Franklin Mieuli was so disgusted he stalked out of the meeting, saying that if the vote was final he would never attend another owners' meeting.
"Changing the two-point basket is immoral," Mieuli said at the time. "The ABA had it and folded. What have we done except hurt ourselves? We have separated ourselves from the main body of basketball by tampering with a game that has lasted for 90 years. We have paid too high a price. I could even accept raising the basket, which has always been 10 feet up, because the people are bigger. But two points for a basket is a good concept. Otherwise it wouldn't have lasted this long. Everyone else from kids on the street on up will give two points for a field goal, but the NBA will give three for outside shots. We are going to destroy the team concept."
Despite Mieuli's vision of impending doom, the three-point field goal hasn't ruined the game; if anything, it has enhanced it. Boston, with the NBA's best won-loss record, is perhaps not coincidentally also the leading percentage shooting team from three-point range (.376). Two of Boston's victories this year were made possible by three-point baskets that put games into overtime, and the Celtics won a third because Guard Chris Ford hit three against Milwaukee, including one at the buzzer that beat the Bucks 97-94. Most of the Celtics' early success with the shot has come because they have had the good sense to make it a regular part of the offense, and the good fortune to have Ford to shoot it for them.
Ford's .472 shooting percentage from behind the three-point stripe (which is 22 feet from the basket in either corner and extends out to 23'9" just beyond the top of the key) not only leads the league, but it also stacks up well against his .486 mark for all his shots from the field. And, if you care to get nasty about it, Ford's rockets are considerably more accurate than the free-throw shooting of Denver Center Kim Hughes, whose career average is .329.
Ford essays most of his three-point attempts from the corners, often after he has come down as a wingman on the Celtic fast break. "The number of times you can use it is fairly minimal," Ford says. "I don't just come down and fire it up. My coach has confidence in me to pick my spots, and so does the team." Ford's teammates haven't been slouches either at using the shot strategically. In a game at Detroit in early December, Boston trailed by three points with eight seconds remaining and had the ball out of bounds. Center Dave Cowens took the inbounds pass and tried a three-pointer, but the ball bounded off the rim and into the hands of Forward M. L. Carr. Carr could easily have taken the ball right back up and scored two points—something Celtic rookie Larry Bird said later he would have done without thinking—but instead he dribbled out to the three-point line and fired. The ball sailed through the nets as time expired, and Ford added another three-pointer to help the Celtics get a 118-114 overtime win.
While Ford has been making good use of the shot all season—he is as likely to fire it in the first quarter as in the fourth—most NBA teams have employed it "as a weapon of last resort," according to Phoenix Assistant Coach Al Bianchi, once the head coach of the ABA Virginia Squires. "In the ABA," says Bianchi, "a lot of teams used it to change the complexion of games in other periods as well as the fourth. I think the fact it is an ABA thing made a lot of NBA people hesitant about using it. The funny thing is, it's harder to hit three-point goals in the last few minutes when you're playing catch-up because teams will concede the two-pointers and pressure your three-point shooter."
The notion of each NBA team having a "three-point shooter" it could bring in when it is behind is not that farfetched, or ridiculous, depending on whom you talk to. Ford says, "I don't think teams are going to go out and get somebody like a DH in baseball." But a lot of players disagree. In any case, the frequent comparison of the three-point shot to the American League's DH rule is spurious, because the designated hitter rule removes certain options from a manager's strategy. In basketball the opposite is true. "Some coaches don't like it because it forces another strategy decision on them, and they feel they have to make enough of those already," says Utah's Tom Nissalke, another former ABA coach. "But it was instrumental in a lot of outcomes in the ABA, and I think it will reach that same status in the NBA. Teams will start drafting better long-range shooters."
One veteran NBA coach who likes the rule is Gene Shue of the San Diego Clippers. The Clippers not only lead the league by a wide margin in three-point attempts, but San Diego Guard Brian Taylor by himself has outshot every team in the NBA except Boston and New Jersey. Through the Clippers' game with Washington last Saturday, Taylor had taken a whopping 119 shots from three-point country, hitting 47 of them. "Gene told the guards he wanted us to look for that shot to open up the middle and force the other team's guards to play us more honestly," Taylor says. "He thinks it's an easy shot."
Shue frequently fools around with the shot himself during Clipper practices, as does Kansas City Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. The difference is that Shue believes in the shot; Fitzsimmons may enjoy launching toy rockets in practice, but he doesn't want to see them in the Kings' offense. Once Kansas City's outstanding shooting guard, Otis Birdsong, asked Fitzsimmons, "What if Scott [Wedman] and I are lightin' it up some night? Can we shoot it then?" Fitzsimmons said no. "That's why our percentage for that shot is so low [eight of 56 for .142]," says Bird-song. "We only shoot them as a matter of desperation."
Taylor is no stranger to the three-point shot; one year he led the ABA in shooting it. In the post-merger NBA he needed a couple of minutes to readjust. After that he came out blazing. "It took a while for me to get my confidence at it," Taylor says, "because I'm basically a good percentage shooter." And playing alongside Lloyd Free, the league's second-leading scorer, hasn't hurt. "A lot of times my man just runs and double-teams Lloyd," Taylor says. "But I'd say over half of my three-pointers have come from our center popping the ball back out to me when the other team's guards are sagging in on him."
In Seattle, on the day after Christmas, Taylor hooked up with Downtown Freddie Brown of the SuperSonics in what may have been the best three-point duel of the year. Taylor got things rolling late in the second period with a three-point jumper from the top of the circle, a shot that Referee Darell Garretson ruled was only good for two because, according to Garretson, Taylor's foot was touching the line when he took the shot. The rules allow a shooter to cross the line as he jumps into the shot, but his feet must leave the ground from behind the boundary line. Taylor thought he had been wronged, so the next time he brought the ball up the floor he returned to exactly the same spot and let loose another one. Again it went in, and this time Garretson raised both arms to signify a three-point goal. Then he laughed. And Taylor laughed. But Freddie Brown didn't even smile. He headed Downtown.
At the opposite end of the floor, Brown pulled up at the identical spot from which Taylor had shot twice and pulled the trigger. Three points! While Taylor was tearing downcourt a crowd of nearly 25,000 Sonic fans started trying to tear the Kingdome down. When he reached the top of the circle, he paused for a moment and then, with a fine sense of theater, let fly. Again the ball seemed to catch only the bottom of the net as it dropped through for three more points.
Brown was unable to answer on the next exchange, missing from just inside the boundary. The whole sequence lasted only half a minute or so, but as Taylor would later note, "It was great while we had it going. The crowd was freaking out, and I was tripping on it myself." For the night Taylor hit on four of his five official three-point attempts and finished with 28 points, even though his team lost 124-104.
Many experts were surprised that Brown didn't immediately take command of the three-point scoring leadership this season, so noted had he become for his airmail specials. He has made only 18 of the shots and stands third in accuracy, which disturbs him not at all. "What a lot of people don't realize is that basketball isn't meant to be played from that far out," Brown says. "Most guys can't shoot from there."
While this may seem surprising talk from so noted a long-range gunner as Brown, his is not a lone voice. Only recently has New Jersey's Kevin Loughery, another ex-ABA coach, begun to find that other teams are utilizing the three-pointer correctly. "I've always been a proponent of the shot," Loughery says. "It can be very exciting for the fans and very effective within a game. You can hit a few early and turn a game around. But until recently, there was too much wild shooting. In games that were already decided, guys would come downcourt and just let fly. It was very bad for the game, bad for basketball's image. But lately things have settled down and teams are learning how to use it. It's not a good percentage shot, so you have to pick your spots. If you find the right ones, it can help you win a ball game here and there."
Certainly no team has been helped more by the rule during the past dozen years than the Indiana Pacers. Back in the old shoot-'em-up days of the ABA, the Pacers had three-point specialists such as Rick Mount, who once hit three three-pointers in 40 seconds to put a game into overtime; Roger Brown, who hit seven of them in the sixth game of the 1970 ABA championship series with Los Angeles; and, of course, the immortal Billy Keller, who did everything with the shot that has ever been done, including once hitting nine three-point baskets in one game. He would have had 11 had he not stepped on the line on one and slightly out of bounds on another. One night he hit seven in a row—seven in a row!—against San Antonio. "They all came on fast-break situations and it was boom, boom, boom," recalls Slick Leonard, Keller's coach and still the coach of the Pacers. "He was the type of shooter that, when he had it going, he could have drop-kicked it in."
Keller, who isn't dead or anything, just immortal, was one of the most feared three-point shooters of all time in the ABA, and it was in that league that the shot became a near art. During the ABA's nine-year life-span, an average of 7.85 three-point shots were attempted in each game, and 2.33 were made. The three-pointer even brought Les Selvage from obscurity to a place in the record book. On Feb. 15, 1968 in the Denver Coliseum, Selvage scored 10 three-point field goals for—who can forget them?—the Anaheim Amigos against the old Rockets. Selvage took 26 shots from three-point range that night. In contrast, NBA teams are only attempting 4.38 shots a game, and they are making an average of 1.11, for a .252 shooting percentage.
It's only a matter of time, Leonard says, before "somebody will hit five or six three-pointers. I never felt it was an impossible shot. I remember back when Dolph Schayes was playing for Syracuse. He used to shoot a two-handed set shot at least five feet behind where that line would have been if they had had a three-point shot back then."
Joey Hassett, who is called Sonar by some of his Pacer teammates, is the latest in Indiana's long line of long shooters. Hassett has gotten the Pacers into three overtime games, two of which his team won, with shots at the buzzer. In one of those victories, over New York, he entered the game with two seconds remaining after having been on the bench the entire second half. Indiana, trailing by three points, inbounded the ball to Hassett, who had sheared off a double pick. He turned and released the ball. Had a Knick player fouled Hassett or some other Pacer before he could have attempted the shot, Indiana would have had to go to the free-throw line and settle for no more than two points. Unfortunately for the Knicks, and indeed for many NBA teams this season, no one thought of giving the intentional foul that would have ensured victory. "It's funny," says Ed Rush, an NBA official who worked in the ABA for three years. "In the old league you had to turn and fire as soon as you got the ball inbounds, no matter how many seconds were left, so you wouldn't get fouled and lose the game. Those guys don't seem to have caught on to that yet."
When they finally do—and they will, they will—the owners will have to do something to balance the scales again. "All our rules are designed to help the team that's behind catch up," says Rush. "It's to keep the fans in their seats." That, of course, raises the ugly specter of a new NBA free-throw shooting rule: four chances to make three!
You think that you will never see a thing as ugly as four to make three? Don't bet on it.