It has been almost three full seasons since Dr. Edward Steitz, the surgeon general of college basketball's rules committee, foisted upon the game the 19'9" three-point shot. When the rule passed, I was as strident a critic of the change as anyone. I was sure that the doctor's shot—touted as a vaccine to keep games close, unclog the low post and empower the little guy—would have all sorts of onerous side effects.
Well, I still think the 19'9" three-point shot is a joke. But I've come to recognize that, like most jokes, it has a certain entertainment value. With Steitz's recent announcement that he'll retire as athletic director of Springfield College in September, now is as good a time as any to assess how profoundly his greatest legacy has affected the game.
A couple of unlikely scores from one week in December will help illustrate the three-point shot's impact: Princeton, for which a six-point win is a blowout, sank 10 threes to beat South Carolina—ranked No. 16—by 11 points; Iowa—No. 4 at the time—went down to Division II UC Riverside by 18 when the Highlanders converted 21 of 36 attempts from beyond the stripe.
All of this may sound like a travesty of basketball, but I can't say I dislike it. Upsets, or at least their abiding possibility, have always been one of sport's great appeals. And the upset-minded have never had a better ally than the three-point shot, one of the least athletic acts in the game.
February 20, 1989
Now whenever I run into Steitz, who actually has a Ph.D. in education, not an M.D., he greets me with a countenance that all but shouts, "I told you so." I feel like one of those crotchety alums who howled when the old school went coed, but now insists his quarrel was never with allowing women on campus, only with having the decision to admit them "rammed down our throats."
College players, too, are getting more comfortable with the shot. All told, teams combined for an average of 18.3 three-point attempts per game in 1986-87, the rule's first season; at midseason this year the number was up to 23.1. Of course, three-point shooting percentages have come down as more treys have gone up—but only marginally, from 38.4% two years ago to 37.6% today.
Evidently word is getting around: 'Tis better to shoot a three-pointer than a two, so long as you make at least 33.3% of your threes. Bucknell, Boise State and The Citadel—hardly schools bulging with talent—make almost as many treys as they miss. That means, given 80 shots in a typical game, each of those teams would score about 110 points if it took nothing but threes. An opponent taking deuces only would have to shoot a prohibitive 69% just to keep pace.
Rick Pitino knew all this two years ago, when he coached an ordinary Providence team to the Final Four with an offense that all but passed up open shots in the paint. Yet Pitino went off to the NBA before the full impact of his system could course its way through college basketball's coaching orthodoxy. Now he's doing the same thing, to startling effect, with the New York Knicks, the extra distance of the NBA's 23'9" three-point line be damned.
I haven't forgotten my initial objections to the rule: among them, that the game shouldn't provide disincentives to working the ball inside for the traditional "good shot." But after watching teams that could bomb with aplomb—Providence and Nevada-Las Vegas two years ago, Oklahoma and the Soviet Olympians last season—I believe there's nothing unworthy about an offense that uses the entire floor.
Meanwhile, all the original arguments in favor of the doctor's J have turned out to be valid. Only the most egregious mismatches are being decided before halftime. Guards such as Ohio State's Jay Burson, Boston College's Dana Barros and LSU's Chris Jackson are dominant players in the stoutest of conferences. And as defenses become more and more distended, post players—even such leaden-footed specimens as Villanova's Tom Greis and Stanford's Eric Reveno—are finding all sorts of room to roam in the paint.
I'm just afraid that one of these days some coach is going to lock a graduate assistant in a room with a stack of game tapes and have him plot how often missed three-pointers end up in the hands of the shooting team. My guess is he'll discover that errant three-pointers result in offensive rebounds a whole lot more often than do garden-variety bricks in the lane. Once that secret gets out, college teams will be eyeing and flying three-point shots every time down the floor. Scores of 6'9" high school studs will go begging. And Steitz will decree that the game be known henceforth as moonball.
That's where I would draw the line—and I would draw it farther back. But for now, as long as the have-nots make better use of the shot than the haves, I'll take the three and call the doctor in the morning. To tell him he was right.