IF THERE had been a three-point line in 1977, Portland State guard Freeman Williams would have needed binoculars to see it from where he stood. He doesn't remember exactly where he was on the court, but people who were at Portland's Stott Center on that long-ago night insist he had taken only two or three steps past the half-court line. A pair of defenders were harassing him in an area of the floor from which most players wouldn't even look at the basket unless they were launching a buzzer-beating prayer. But Freeman Williams was a gunner, and this is how the mind of a gunner operates: Double team? I'm open. Forty feet from the basket? I'm within my range."
This is an article from the Nov. 15, 2004 issue
Williams went up for a turnaround jumper--that's right, a turnaround jumper--which hit nothing but net. "The public address announcer yelled, 'Freeman Williams, from the parking lot!'" says Mike Richardson, one of Williams's teammates at the time. "I've never seen anything more fantastic than that shot." Williams himself was less impressed. "I think I hit a couple of deeper ones against Kentucky," he says now. "That was my job, to score. Guys like me, we shot it whenever and wherever we felt we could make it."
At one time there seemed to be at least one guy like Williams in every conference. From the 1950s through the '70s the high-scoring, no-conscience, shoot-the-ball-and-damn-the-consequences gunner was as much a part of winter as snow in Syracuse. From the 1953-54 season, when Furman's Frank Selvy led the nation by scoring 41.7 points a game, until 1977-78, when Williams won the scoring title with a 35.9-point average, 16 players averaged 35 points or more in a season, doing so a total of 20 times. (And that was before the introduction, in 1986-87, of the three-point shot, which would have raised many of their averages significantly.) Selvy, his teammate Darrell Floyd and Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson were the breakout scorers of the '50s, followed by such '60s point machines as Miami's Rick Barry, Niagara's Calvin Murphy, Purdue's Rick Mount and the greatest gunner of them all, the late Pistol Pete Maravich of LSU, who averaged 44.5 points as a senior in 1969-70 and 44.2 points for his career, both still NCAA records. Williams, Notre Dame's Austin Carr, Southwestern Louisiana's Dwight (Bo) Lamar and Mississippi's Johnny Neumann were among the parade of leading men in the '70s show.
Though they amassed their points in slightly different ways--Carr and Mount were mostly catch-and-shoot specialists; Murphy and Maravich were ball-handling wizards who could dribble through a defense or shoot over it--the gunners had the blessing of their coaches and teammates to monopolize the offense. "Back in my day," says Carr, who averaged 38.0 points in 1969-70 and 38.1 in '70-71, "if you could do it, they let you do it."
The Wild West connotation that the gunners' moniker carries remains appropriate, because the breed is now as dead as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Fifty years after Selvy unofficially began the era with the only 100-point scoring performance in NCAA Division I history--against Newberry on Feb. 13, 1954--the idea of such scoring gluttony being encouraged or even countenanced is as realistic a possibility as Dick Vitale in cornrows.
From 1953-54 through '79-80 the nation's leading scorer failed to average more than 30 points only once. (Seton Hall's Nick Werkman scored 29.5 a game in 1962-63.) But in the past 10 years only two players have eclipsed the 30.0 mark--Purdue's Glenn Robinson in 1993-94, at 30.3, and LIU's Charles Jones in '96-97, at 30.1.
Of course, the entire landscape has been altered. Last season teams averaged 69.6 points--which was the first time in the three-point, shot-clock era that the average was below 70 points. The main culprit? Declining field goal attempts. The average of 55.9 shots a game per team was also a historic low for the shot-clock and three-point eras and represented more than a 10-shot decline from Maravich's senior season.
How have times changed? Consider: Last season's high game belonged to Old Dominion center Alex Loughton, who scored 45 points during a 105-102 double-overtime loss to Charlotte on Dec. 6. That figure is less than a point higher than Maravich's career average.
A multitude of forces has conspired to drive the gunner to extinction, including the pull of the pros, the push of more physical defenses and the grip of controlling coaches. "There are still guys out there who could put up numbers like the old days," says Murphy, who averaged 38.2 points in his sophomore season (1967-68). "But the game has changed, the circumstances have changed, the mind-set has changed."
Most college coaches concede the demise of the gunner, but they hardly lament it. Instead, they preach the value of tenacious defense and balanced scoring--worthwhile goals to be sure--and point out that while many of those one-man gangs were entertaining, they weren't especially successful. Mount, whose Boilermakers lost to UCLA in the 1969 final, was the only pure gunner to reach the NCAA title game.
"Mike Miller averaged [a team-leading] 14.1 points his sophomore year, and we made the Final Four," says Florida coach Billy Donovan. "If he'd averaged 25 points a game, we would never have gotten that far. If you rely on one player so much, he can be stopped against a good team."
But fans who remember Maravich's end-to-end dashes or the freewheeling Neumann pulling the trigger from 35 feet surely miss the spectacular performances of players who could score from anywhere in the gym. "You've got guys today who can dunk it every which way," says Williams, who now lives in Los Angeles, where he gives shooting lessons. "You have to keep an eye on them when they get near the basket. But guys like us? You had to watch us from the time we stepped off the bus."
Those days--and the gunners who made them so entertaining--are gone, and sadly, they're not coming back. Here are some of the reasons:
THE LURE OF THE NBA
Maravich averaged 43.8 points in his first varsity season, as a sophomore. (Freshmen were ineligible at the time.) Had he done that in 1997-98 instead of 1967-68, he probably would have entered the NBA draft by the time his last jumper hit the bottom of the net--if, that is, he had bothered to play college ball at all. Today the lure of riches from pro contracts and endorsement deals draws potential gunners out of the college ranks before they get a chance to pile up prolific numbers. There is, for instance, a certain teenager who might have taken a run at Maravich's records, but "he's playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers right now," says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
If that wunderkind, LeBron James, who jumped straight from St. Vincent--St. Mary High in Akron to the NBA, and the Denver Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony, who left Syracuse after averaging 22.2 points in his one collegiate season, had played in an earlier era, they might be battling each other for the NCAA scoring title this season. "If Carmelo Anthony had stayed in school for four years, he would have averaged 30 as a sophomore, 40 as a junior and 50 as a senior," says former Nuggets coach (and current consultant) Doug Moe. James and Anthony aren't the only NBA stars who might have done wondrous things had they had long college careers. "Anybody who thinks Kobe Bryant or Amare Stoudemire or Tracy McGrady couldn't have averaged 35 or 40 points in college ball isn't paying attention," says Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Del Harris.
But the college exodus doesn't completely explain the disappearance of the gunner. Many of the pro stars who skipped or shortened their college careers during the last 15 years are big men, the type of players who rarely have the kind of diversified, inside-outside game that characterized the high scorers of the past. As dominating an inside player as Shaquille O'Neal was during his two seasons at LSU, his top average was 27.6 a game as a sophomore, and he left early in part because he was tired of being swarmed by collapsing college zones. The demise of the gunner has more to do with those who stay than those who leave.
DEFENSES THAT NEVER REST
The black-and-white footage of Selvy's 100-point game reveals a sleek, skilled player scoring almost at will, without so much as a defender's hand extended toward him. He drives to the hoop, weaving around Newberry players as though they're orange traffic cones. On one possession he beats his man off the dribble and goes past a second defender, whose back is turned to him, the kind of defensive lapse that would get a seventh-grader benched these days. "When I was playing, defenses weren't as aggressive, and they didn't do as many things," says Selvy, now 72 and living in Simpsonville, S.C. "I would drive to the basket and put up a shot without having to worry about somebody blocking it."
He also didn't have to worry about box-and-ones, matchup zones, half-court traps and the other defensive variations that today's top guns face. Defenses of the '50s, '60s and even '70s were almost primitive compared with today's alignments. Defenses these days are aided by advances in technology that allow teams to study opposing offenses in minute detail. "In the old days I would imagine most of the scouting preparation would be to call a coach you know, ask him what he did against a guy, study the stat sheets and a few box scores and play the game," says Ball State coach Tim Buckley. "But if you were defending Maravich today, for example, you'd have film of all his tendencies. You'd know which guys on LSU you could leave to double-team him. You'd know how he reacted when you doubled him, whether he liked to dribble through it or to pass to his right or his left. You'd know what would happen if you got physical with him. The preparation part of the game is just so different."
Defenses can hold dangerous scorers in check, sometimes literally. A deadly perimeter shooter like Duke's J.J. Redick rarely gets open for a shot without being bumped, grabbed or elbowed along the way. Defenses are allowed far more contact than they were in the days of the gunner. "I was watching tape recently of the 103-100 game between North Carolina State and Maryland [in the 1974 ACC tournament], and you could see how free-flowing it was," says ESPN commentator and former coach Fran Fraschilla. "The refs didn't let you play the physical defense then that you can today."
SKILLS THAT HAVE HIT THE SKIDS
Many coaches and former players believe that the advent of the three-point shot has actually hindered shooting. After years of toeing the three-point arc, players can drain the standstill shot, but they don't have the variety of moves that the gunners had, nor do they have the desire to develop such a repertoire. "I don't see anyone who can score as soon as he crosses half-court, as soon as he gets to three-point range," says Miami Heat assistant and former North Carolina star Bob McAdoo, a versatile scorer in his day. "I don't see the guys who can shoot it or drive it or make the midrange shot, who can hit from every corner on the court."
That's because young players today are more likely to imitate the flashy moves and alley-oops that they see on SportsCenter than they are to work on their midrange game or their pull-up jumper. "Kids today think they can learn the crossover dribble, dunk and put on a headband and make it to the NBA," says Houston coach Tom Penders.
TEAMMATES WHO WANT THE BALL
At a Portland State reunion game a few years ago Mike Richardson grabbed a rebound and threw an outlet pass to his old teammate Williams. "He put up the shot before I even reached half-court," Richardson says. "I thought to myself, I remember this feeling quite well." More important, he remembered it fondly. Players of earlier eras were far more willing to let the star gorge himself on shots while they made do with a diet of rebounding, screen-setting and feeding him the ball. (Part of the reason for their unselfishness was that few of them had NBA aspirations.) "I never had a teammate say anything to me about taking too many shots," says Williams, who hoisted 42.5% of the Vikings' shots in 1976-77. "If I scored 40, 45 points, they seemed to enjoy just being a part of that." The same appeared to be true of the teammates who watched as Maravich took more than half of LSU's shots in his three-year career.
Today, any coach who centered his offense so completely on one player would have a stream of transfer papers crossing his desk. "How are you going to recruit guys to your school when you tell them, 'Your job is to pass it to this guy, and he is going to shoot it every time? Enjoy your role,'" says Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser.
Maravich's average of 37.7 shots a game in 1969-70 seems astounding today, when a 30-shot game would be cause for headlines. For instance, Duke's Redick, who has a gunner's skills, averaged only 11.0 field goal attempts (and 15.9 points) last season for the Blue Devils. He finds it hard to imagine ever pulling the trigger 30 times in a game. The 61 shots that DaJuan Wagner (now with the Cavaliers) put up when he scored 100 points in a game for Camden (N.J.) High in 2001 boggles Redick's mind.
"If I did that," Redick says, "my teammates would beat my tail."
COACHES WHO WON'T LET GO
Given the way that today's coaches insist on controlling the tempo and strategy in their games, it's hard to believe that many would allow a gunner to emerge even if they thought he was their team's best hope. The coach who allowed one player to take over his offense wouldn't be considered much of a tactician by his peers.
While the gunners who played before the shot clock was introduced in 1985-86 were free to pull the trigger at the first sign of an opening, many of today's coaches want to milk each possession--or work toward the all-but-foolproof field goal attempt. That's largely why field goal attempts per game have dropped so significantly. "You know what a lot of coaches preach now? Don't get a good shot, get a great shot," says former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote.
But a great shot is in the eye of the beholder. Carr acknowledges that his teammates let him know about it when he took a few bad shots in a row. But when Williams is asked if he received any such reprimands, he recites what could be the gunner's motto. "Bad shot?" he says. "What's that?"
From '63-64 ...
Here are the leading scorers from 40 years ago
Here are a half dozen of today's top offensive talents, players who, if given free rein, might score like the gunners of old
Forward, North Carolina
20.0 PPG 47.9 FG% 40.8 3FG%
The 6'4" Tar Heels junior gave Georgia Tech a taste of his firepower last February when he scored 28 of his 31 points in the second half.
16.3 PPG 45.2 FG% 38.3 3FG%
The Wildcats' 6'1" senior southpaw massacred UCLA last Valentine's Day, going 13 of 17 from the field with seven treys while scoring 34.
16.4 PPG 43.2 FG% 32.5 3FG%
A quick first step allows the Cardinals' 6'7" junior to beat foes off the dribble; when they give him room, he drains the jumper.
17.6 PPG 39.4 FG% 38.0 3FG%
Unfazed by a 3-for-22 night at Nebraska last year, the 6'5" senior dropped 33 on Kentucky. He's extra deadly at the line (91.2%).
18.5 PPG 37.4 FG% 34.3 3FG%
Last season, as a sophomore, the 6'3" Hoosier took about 15 shots a game, less than half the number Maravich fired as a soph.
Guard, Oral Roberts
20.7 PPG 44.7 FG% 44.9 3FG%
Perhaps the nation's best deep threat, "King Tutt," a 6'1" sophomore, blitzed Western Illinois last year with 20 consecutive points.
1971-72, SW Louisiana
1976-77, Portland State
1988-89, Loyola Marymount
2003-04, Saint Peter's