Hi, Mrs. Naismith. Is Jimmy home?"
"Well, hello, Orville and Wilbur. Yes, he's in his room. Oh, Jimmy, the Wright brothers are here."
"Hi, guys. How're things at the bicycle shop?"
"Pretty good. We've just hired a p.r. firm. These guys from New York say they can help us move a ton of bikes. Gave us a slogan: QUIT HORSING AROUND—GET WHEELS. What do you think?"
October 29, 1984
"Sounds good. But I thought you guys were getting out of the bike business. What happened to your airplane idea?"
"We've got the flying part down. But I want to go no-frills, and Wilbur wants food and a movie. I told him the food's got to be precooked, and the passengers will hate it. But he says, if they don't like the taste, what're they gonna do, jump out the window at 30,000 feet? But give us some time and we'll work it out. So what's with you?"
"Nothing much. Still tinkering on the game."
"Basketball? Jimmy, baby, enough with the peach baskets already. I admire your instincts, Jimbo. Sports are a gold mine. But baseball's got the market covered. Face it, the Doubleday kid's got legs."
"I'm not knocking baseball. But it takes up a lot of room, and you need 18 people to play it. You can play basketball in the middle of the city, Orville, and you can play one-on-one or three-on-three, as well as five-on-five. It's a much better urban game. I can foresee a day when city kids all over America will be dribbling...."
"Yeah, that's what I call bouncing the basketball."
"Jimmy, dribbling is for infants. What do you call shooting the ball, teething? You're a sweet guy, but you're crazy."
"You guys think people can fly, and I'm crazy? If God wanted men to fly, he'd have given us wings."
"And Jimmy, if God wanted men to dribble, he'd have given us bibs."
"Go ahead and joke. But if you really appreciated flying, you'd want to help me develop basketball. In a way, your airplane and my game are cousins. See, I'm gonna nail the peach basket up at 10 feet, so the only way you can get close to it is by jumping up at it. And years from now, when the game is all the rage, the fans will talk about a player who can really jump high, and say, 'That guy can fly!' "
"I can hear the cheerleaders now: 'Two, four, six, eight, come on guys, lev-i-tate.' "
"I'm serious. Look, you guys are what you might call aeronautical engineers, so you tell me if this is crazy. I think someday the players will go beyond flying. They'll go up to shoot, and instead of coming right down, they'll stay up in the air, kicking their legs, spinning their arms and rotating their bodies so they look like human eggbeaters, and they'll stay up there so long, it'll seem like they're suspended by invisible wires."
"And what will you call that, Jimmy?"
"I'll call that hang time."
"Isn't it rich?/ Are we a pair?/ Me here at last on the ground./ You in midair."*
Of course, hang time is impossible. You go up, you come down. You don't stay there. Galileo proved it when he threw a couple of bricks from a tower and they dropped at exactly the same rate of speed.
"From a standing plant and going straight up in the air, the illusion of hang time—and we've all seen it—is just that, an illusion," says Joseph McClure, associate professor of physics at Georgetown University. "The only way a person can stay in the air longer is by jumping higher or farther."
Fine. From a scientific standpoint and a standing plant there can be no such thing as hang time. But from a basketball standpoint and a strong first step, is there any doubt there is? Haven't we seen the three men we admire most, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost of Hang—Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan—ride their personal elevators up, step out on a high floor for a look-see and come down when the mood strikes them? Is it real, or is it illusion?
A little of both, probably. On the one hand: "Sometimes on a straight rise," Erving says, "you sort of put your air brake on and wait for the defense to go down—that's pure hang time."
And on the other hand: "Say I pick up the ball off the dribble and palm it," Erving continues, about to break the code of omerta of the magician's union. "At that instant you might think, 'He's gliding,' when in fact I'm actually taking the step without a dribble I'm legally allowed before going up. So I'm projecting the illusion that I'm sailing while I'm still on the ground. Then when I go up, complete my leap and shoot on the way down, it looks like I was up there forever."
Different truths evolve from different facts. "What you're calling hang time is a very complicated business," says McClure. "It has to do with a body being able to convert horizontal momentum into vertical force. How effectively you do that will increase your time in the air." And thereby hangs this tale.
Let's use an analogy from music to distinguish between hanging and leaping: Clarence (Frogman) Henry was a leaper, but Tom Dooley was a hanger. Basketball is thick with leapers who can, as Dick Vitale, the always understated ESPN analyst puts it, "say hello to God." High on the honor roll are such golden oldies as Jumpin' Johnny Green, Pogo Joe Caldwell and Darnell Hillman. The current float-illa includes Larry Nance of the Phoenix Suns, Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks and Darrell Griffith of the Utah Jazz, young men who may someday become certified hangers. The alltime legendary leaper was a 6'5" kid out of Brooklyn's Boys High and Virginia Union named Jackie Jackson. He never played in the NBA, but one time on a New York City playground, Jackson pinned a Wilt Chamberlain fadeaway jumper against the top of the backboard. People who were there say that Wilt gazed up at Jackson as if he'd just seen the face of God. But, again, guys like Jackson are leapers, not hangers. Hanging's too good for them.
Hanging is different. Leaping is the most obvious talent in basketball, hanging the most mystic. One is a gift; the other is sorcery.
"The great hangers seem to freeze people," says Jerry West, who, in his 14-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers had more hang time on his jump shot than anyone else ever, with the possible exception of the Cleveland Cavs' World B. Free. "They take a great first stride, and it looks like they're really going to explode into the air. But then they just sort of float up there. The defensive player sees that first stride and has a tendency to—bang!—go up way too soon. His timing is therefore off. The great hangers all deceive you."
As in, two points.
As in, chumped you.
For a working definition of hang time, we turn to someone who spends so much time watching basketball that his eyes have started sprouting seams, CBS college analyst Billy Packer. "Hang time occurs when a guy goes to score and leaves his feet unconcerned about what the defense is doing," Packer says, "because he knows that there is going to come a point when the defense just evaporates. It goes down, and he's still up there. Most players have to see the opening before they go up. A hanger doesn't care if the opening is already there, because he knows he'll have time to create one."
For a historical definition we turn to someone who couldn't jump, who certainly couldn't dunk, and who says that the only hang time he knew of while growing up was "hanging around the house on Sunday, waiting for my mother's sauce to simmer," North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano. "Hang time is a direct result of evolution. Is that incredible? No question," says the V. "Look, Hy Gotkin was one of the great players at St. John's. He was 5'6", and he had a two-handed set shot. Did he have hang time? Who knows? In those days the only hanging players did was around the gym waiting for the dance to start after the game. But then the jump shot came along, and suddenly all the offensive players were jumping. Being the geniuses that we are, coaches thought the defenders might want to jump also. So now the game starts getting athletic, and we started getting these superathletes who jumped way above the rim. When the shooters got there, they found that all the defenders were way above the rim, too. To get their shots off they had to do something creative in the air. That was the beginning of hang time. And the first guy to ever do it, the guy who invented it, the Wright brother of hang time, was Elgin Baylor."
Ah, Elgin, the 6'5", 225-pound Laker forward who from 1958 to '72 combined strength and grace as well as any ballet dancer you can name.
Always moving left to right, twitching, pumping, clutching—"Occupying several planes of space en route to the basket," is how Erving describes Baylor—kissing the ball in off the glass like a 9 ball off the side cushion.
Hey, Elgin, tell us how you were able to stay in the air longer than everyone else.
"That's the craziest thing I ever heard."
Come on, Elg. Don't play games. Tell us why Connie Hawkins said, "Nobody played like Elgin, nobody." Tell us why Rick Barry said, "Elgin was so far ahead of his time it was unbelievable." Tell us why Gene Shue said, "It was impossible to guard Elgin. He didn't get up that high, but he stayed up longer than you did."
But Baylor won't give in. "It's an illusion. There's no way," he says. "If you both jump together, and you both go up 30 inches, you'll both come down together. One guy can't stay up any longer."
But you did, Elgin. We saw it.
"Are you crazy? Hey, no way."
We'll be back in a moment with more tales of hang time. But first, here are some other kinds of time you might want to consider:
Tang Time: Wheaties may be the breakfast of champions, but Tang gets you up, up and away. You think Dr. J can rise? Astronauts literally go to the moon. (And there, with limited gravity, you're talking maximum hang time.)
Pang Time: This occurs at halftime, when you're so hungry, you jump out of your seat and hang on the hot dog line.
Kang Time: Named for Billy (The Kangaroo Kid) Cunningham, the acknowledged alltime white hanger. Cunningham, who played for Philadelphia in the NBA—he's the 76ers' coach now—and Carolina in the ABA, invented the double clutch. Before him it was just an oversized pocketbook.
Clang Time: Named for guys who can leap but don't shoot well from the outside. Buck Williams, Dennis Johnson and Kurt Nimphius rate a nod. One of the alltimers was Johnny Green.
Huang Time: You may not have heard of Huang Deng Xiao, but he averages 43 a game for the South Beijing Pandas. He's the George Gervin of China. They call him the Rice Man.
Fang Time: Dan Issel has great fang time. So does Jack Lambert. But nobody has fang time like hockey players. If Count Dracula walked into an NHL locker room, he'd think he was at his family reunion.
Sang Time: The honorific given to those who sing The Star-Spangled Banner before an NBA All-Star Game. The ultimate Mr. Sang Time? Marvin Gaye, 1983. Hands down.
Sprang Time: What maximum leapers have. Guys who go so high that you see the soles of their sneakers as they rise. Anyone named Helicopter has sprang time. (Not to be confused with Sprang Time for Hitler, a musical based on the 1936 German Olympic basketball trials.)
Slang Time: Language used by players to describe their talented peers. Last year's term was bitch. The current slang time choice is fresh, as in, "That boy's real fresh."
C.K. Yang Time: Decathletes must jump, you know. As Yang's father was heard to say, "The son also rises."
Flang Time: A description of what befell David Thompson at Studio 54 last March. "You hear about what they did to the Skywalker, man? Couple of dudes flang him down the steps."
Gang Time: A new subplot on Hill Street Blues. Jesus Martinez of the Diablos sidles up to Captain Furillo and says, "Yo, Frankie, I may be small, but I can sky. See you in the paint, bro."
Ooh-ee-ooh-ah-ah-ting-tang-walla-walla-bing-bang Time: Simon, Theodore and Alvin, a.k.a. the Chipmunks, go three-on-three with the Coyote Sisters. Film at 11.
Hangar Time: Charles Barkley, the human spaceship. The body of Wes Unseld, the agility of Erving. If he ever gets down to 250, fasten the seatbelts and clear the runway.
Twang Time: Larry Bird's new album, A Hick from French Lick Sings Willie Nelson.
GREAT MOMENTS IN HANG TIME HISTORY PART ONE
At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin, that crafty little playground guard from Philadelphia, said, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."
And now, some important questions and answers about hang time:
Q. If this is about hang time, why haven't you mentioned punters?
A. You've turned to the wrong page. You're looking for Dr. Z, not Dr. J.
Q. Do you need to be a great jumper to hang?
A. No. Some of the best hangers haven't been great jumpers. Earl Monroe and Tiny Archibald, for example. Two of the alltimers, Baylor and Hawkins, by their own admission, weren't leapers. "I always thought in terms of body control rather than just hanging," says Hawkins, who began his pro career in 1961 with the Pittsburgh Rens of the American Basketball League and ended it in 1976 with the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA. "My long arms and big hands, and the way I would extend them, probably contributed to the impression that I was jumping higher or hanging longer than I actually was."
Q. What are the keys to hang time?
A. 1) Timing.
2) Body control, the fluid movement of different parts of the body in various directions at once. Big, strong hands to take the ball up directly off the dribble and hold on tight as you shake it like a maraca. This was especially significant for Baylor. "Elgin had the strongest hands I've ever seen," says Rod Hundley, who played with the Lakers and now broadcasts the Utah Jazz games. "Once he had the ball in his hands, nobody took it away from him. When he went up, he carried you with him." And as that notorious negative hanger, Billy (The Whopper) Paultz, observes, "Big hands and hang time go hand in hang."
3) Confidence, almost to the point of arrogance. "Once I made my move, I didn't think anybody could stop me," Baylor says.
4) Court awareness, so you're better able to perform what Vitale calls "the four Ds—Drive, Draw, Dish and Deliver."
Q. Are some bodies better equipped for hanging than others?
A. Not necessarily for hanging, but for leaping. Dr. Frank McCue, professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Virginia, says the person best suited to try to overcome gravity—which is what leaping and hanging are all about—is one with high muscle mass and a low percentage of body fat. Because you want a higher center of gravity, disproportionately long legs help, especially length in the lower part of the leg, which gives you a mechanical advantage for jumping. Narrow hips help. Long arms and broad shoulders can give you greater momentum when you jump. In other words, a body like Jordan's? "That's, exactly right," says McCue.
Q. Can hang time be taught?
A. It's arguable. The Lincoln and Douglas of basketball commentary, Packer and NBC's Al McGuire, disagree. McGuire: "Only God can teach it." Packer: "I think it can be learned—the problem is that nobody knows how to teach it." Addressing that point, Valvano says, "Other than Cunningham, there's not a coach in the United States who has it. Most of us are ill at ease with hang time. But what are we supposed to say? 'You jump up and stay up there that long again, you're coming out?' Coaches like to have control, so basically we like a slow kid who can't jump. Then we work on his free throws, because all coaches are great free throw shooters."
But surely some players have mastered some of the style, if not all of the substance. West and Barry, a 6'7" forward who played in the NBA and ABA for 14 seasons, say they acquired some hang time by emulating Baylor. "You learn to be able to do something with the ball, not at the peak of your jump, but after," Barry says, "so that the ball is coming off your fingers as you're going down."
Q. Where do the great hangers come from?
A. The best of them used to come from Eastern urban playgrounds where schoolyard hangers like New York's Herman (Helicopter) Knowings and Earl Manigault became legends. (They say Knowings could hang so long on D that you'd be guilty of a three-second violation if you stayed on the ground waiting for him to come down.) Cunningham, who grew up in Brooklyn, says, "We played outdoors all year long. Because of the wind, there wasn't a great deal of outside shooting, so most players went straight up at the hoop. The basic rule was: No blood, no foul. You were going to get whacked anyway, so you had to go up strong and hang long enough to get your shot off. A lot of players learned body control by playing H-O-R-S-E, in which they'd practice all their crazy moves and still get their shots off."
Now there are exceptions to the city game theory. Jordan, for example, is from Wilmington, N.C. (pop. 44,000), where he learned to hang by playing one-on-one with his brother, Larry, on the nine-foot hoop in their backyard. They'd copy the moves they'd seen on TV and then take them a step beyond. "We would try to create new and outrageous moves and dunks and try to outdo each other," Jordan says. "That was the playground to us. My brother can hang even longer than I can, but since he's 5'8", nobody's heard of him." Jordan is the best hanger not from the urban East.
Q. Why are the great hangers mainly forwards?
A. Centers aren't as agile. They live in the paint, where they learn to go straight up and come straight down. You're asking a lot of a 250-pounder to get off the ground in the first place. That's why Darryl Dawkins's hang time is extraordinary. As they say about the Schnauzer who sang Figaro—the wonder isn't that he sang it badly, but that he sang it at all.
Many guards have great hang time. Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons and Sidney Moncrief of the Milwaukee Bucks do. Chamberlain remembers Guy Rodgers, his old Philadelphia Warriors teammate, hanging long enough to "put the ball around his back three separate times on one play before laying it off." Utah's Rich Kelley, who says he has "the least hang time in the NBA," remembers how Pete Maravich "would do anything to extend his hang time. I've seen him tuck his legs under him to get more time in the air and literally land on his knees and skid across the floor like a seaplane. But the most memorable hang-time move was Tiny Archibald's. If he couldn't get his shot off and still land on his feet, he'd dive through the air and simply land on his stomach, a total body flop. Then he'd thrash on the ground like a perch." But by and large, guards don't go low as much as forwards. The dramatic hangers do it inside, in traffic, when the defense forces them to do something they hadn't planned on. "They have the ability," says Lou Carnesecca, coach at St. John's, "to stay up there long enough to figure out some way to solve this thing."
Q. How do you get hang time?
A. "Either from early toilet training, or proper foot nutrition," says Valvano.
Q. Sportswriters use terms like "hover," "fly," "soar," "swoop," "elevate," "levitate," "sky" and "blast off" to describe various leap moves. What is the appropriate verb to describe a hang move, and could you use it in a sentence?
A. "To condor," as in, "He condored that sucker."
Q. Can you be an effective player without hang time?
A. Sure. A lot of guys go up three inches and get airsick; they're what McGuire calls "space eaters or dance-hall guys—pushers and shovers." Mark Eaton of the Utah Jazz is 7'3" and led the league in blocked shots last year, and he doesn't even get off the ground. "He used to get pumped up and go for every shot," says Kelley. "Now he's learned he doesn't even have to come close to jumping to get four or five blocks a game." Not only doesn't Eaton jump on defense, he doesn't jump on offense. When he does, it looks like the launch of the space shuttle; Eaton goes up slow and parts break off shortly after lift-off.
Q. How long can you last without hang time?
A. Paultz has played pro ball since 1970-71, and he counts his hang time in milliseconds. "I'm glad I never had it," he says, "because you can get injured. The higher you get, the harder you fall. Plus, you can get undercut. I never have and never will get undercut. Guys without hang time can't be faked off their feet, because they can't get off their feet."
Q. But can you be a great player without hang time?
A. Let's turn that around. Do the names Larry Bird, Moses Malone and Wes Unseld mean anything to you?
GREAT MOMENTS IN HANG TIME HISTORY PART TWO
How I Learned About Hang Time and That I Didn't Have It, by Jim Valvano: "In my senior year at Rutgers we were in the NIT against New Mexico. They had Mel Daniels then, and all the scouts were there to see him, but I figured I'd play great—walk onto the court a schlepper and walk off a first-round draft choice of the Celtics. So early in the game I get the ball in the corner, and Daniels is all the way over on the other side, but here he comes, running at me. I give him my smart little Long Island pump fake, the one I learned at summer camp, and he takes off. Now I've got him, right? He's up in the air, and everybody's saying, 'Sharp kid, that Valvano.' So I take off for my jumper, and I'm so pumped up you probably could have slid a thick piece of toast between my feet and the floor. I mean, I'm skying. But now that I'm up in the air, I'm waiting for light, because Daniels is 6'9" and he has to clear the area for me to see the hoop. I keep waiting, and now I'm on my way down, still holding the rock, and he's still up there. I'm thinking, 'Mel, gimme a break. My whole family's here to see me play, gimme a chance.' Finally, I shoot it, and the ball actually hits him in the armpit and lodges there! He was shocked. He wanted to block it with his hand, but it never got that high. I see the ball in his armpit, and I'm done for the night. I'm so embarrassed. So I turn to the ref and say, 'That's a foul, ref. Gotta be a foul. It's a foul on the playground, ref.' That's when I knew I had a career in coaching."
The alltime hang team—those players who most eloquently posted up Isaac Newton and facialized him—includes Baylor, Hawkins, Erving, Thompson (although some say he is more of a leaper than a hanger, because he wasn't as creative in the air as the others), Jordan and, as sixth man, Cunningham. One common behavioral thread among them, according to Erving, "is that we all were given the green light, we were all given the opportunity to dare to be great."
West on Baylor: "Defenders would come to cut him off, and he would just step to one side and go around them. It was like he had radar. He never extended himself on a jump; he never had to. And once he got beside you, you were whipped. You'd get to the moment of truth, and he was all alone."
University of Kansas coach Larry Brown on Hawkins, an ABA opponent of Brown's: "He was Julius 20 years ago. In his younger days, he was just incredible. By the time he got to the NBA, he was already bored with it."
Carnesecca on Erving: "I always had the feeling that one time he would lift off and rise through the glass, out of the arena, and disappear into space."
Valvano on Thompson: "Remember now, when he was in college dunking wasn't allowed. So he'd jump on the alley-oop, and sometimes he'd have to hang around for a while before they'd get him the ball. Then he'd get it, move it around a while and gently put it in. If that's not hang time, what is?"
Carnesecca on Jordan: "He's the guy with the real motor up his behind. He goes up, then goes up some more, then he goes up even more. You could eat a sandwich in the time it takes him to come down."
Baylor on Cunningham: "All of us are black except Cunningham, and maybe you'd better check on him."
And now, for today's Advice to the Hanglorn, we turn to Philadelphia and that noted pundit, philosopher and practitioner, Dr. J. Julius, some people have written in asking if you have to jump as high as you can to hang.
"I've always found that it's better not to go to your maximum on every jump," says the Doctor. "The less strain you put on your legs when you jump, the more body control you'll have in the air; you'll be able to shift direction. But if you put all your energy into your leap, go up in a tube as it were, you're usually committed to a particular direction, and when you get there, if there's no light, there's nothing more you can do. You've expended all the energy your bottom half has to give you. A good defender can make you eat your shot. Whereas if you've just used three-quarters of your jump, now you can kick your legs up or what have you. I think you have to leave something in reserve. And believe me, it's nice to have something left."
GREAT MOMENTS IN HANG TIME HISTORY PART THREE
In the 1970 Western Conference semifinals, Phoenix was leading L.A. three games to one with Game 5 scheduled for the Forum. Chamberlain was coming off knee surgery and was concentrating on defense. At 27, Hawkins was in his first year in the NBA after settling his antitrust suit against the league, which had barred him because of his alleged part in a point-shaving scandal while he was at the University of Iowa in 1961. The aptly named Hawk had averaged 24.6 points per game for the Suns and was on his way to becoming a first-team NBA All-Star. He was the most exciting new player in the league, and his quickness terrified defenders. His trademark was a swooping baseline move, during which he extended his long right arm like an elastic band and held the ball out as if it were a golden egg for all the world to see but not touch.
"Connie got the ball in the corner," Chamberlain says, "and as I started to come out at him, he put the ball on the floor and drove at me. I took a step backward to protect the basket, knowing that eventually he'd have to go up at me, and after one dribble he did. Now you have to remember that this is my home court, and I am ready for him. I prided myself on being The Man under the basket, and he knew who he was coming at. So he's up, and now I'm up. And then, suddenly, he goes around me in midair. He twists completely around, goes under the basket, comes out the other side and puts it up backward and in. He not only has to make a great move to score, as far as I'm concerned he has to make the greatest move ever, because he's doing it against me! No way in my mind does anybody—not even King Kong on a ladder—make that play. It's the most awesome play I've ever seen, and I am awed by it still."
One of the most instructive lessons about hang time is that some of those strongest at it are often the weakest at explaining it. Asking them about it is like putting the needle down on a gospel album, because in short order you're going to hear the phrase "God-given gift." Baylor in L.A., Hawkins in Pittsburgh and Jordan in Chapel Hill, N.C. all used it as their fallback position. And all, when first approached about the curious quality of hang time, asked why anyone would fly all that distance to ask them about something so preposterous. Better you should ask Einstein where he got those numbers or Picasso why he used those colors.
Not that they hadn't thought about it. Since Baylor was the first one to do it, he should be able to reconstruct the process in detail, like an architectural model, from the ground up. "I don't know what to tell you," he says, wearing an expression that can best be described like furniture, Colonial Bemused. "I just tried to develop my own style of play. I never tried to analyze what I did. I just did it. If you want to call it hang time, fine. I just thought of it as a terrific offensive move. For the most part I jumped horizontally, and the defenders jumped vertically; we were going in different directions. It might have appeared that I was in the air longer, but often I was releasing the ball just a split second before I touched down."
Hawkins, a quiet man with an almost regal bearing, stares out the window of his lawyer's office, 17 floors above the confluence of the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela rivers. "I've tried to come up with some components, and I can't come up with anything other than the fact that it's a God-given talent," he says, shrugging his broad shoulders, offering a wistful smile. "I did absolutely nothing to practice it. I'd like to make it out as a science, but it was just natural. I just did it."
Jordan, too, is willing to try to explain, but the specifics are beyond him. He has just come off the court at Carmichael Auditorium in Chapel Hill where, in a serious pickup game, he has repeatedly defied gravity. Once he went up into a forest of Carolina trees—6'11" Warren Martin, 6'10" Joe Wolf and 6'11", 325-pound alum Geff Crompton—outlasted them in the air by yo-yoing and finished the freestyle portion of his program with a crowd-gagging, tongue-wagging, arms-waving, legs-splaying, rim-shattering, reputation-flattering, backward two-hand, Richter Scale in Disarray tomahawk dunk. "I don't know why or how I hang," Jordan says, his body dripping with sweat so that he resembles Adonis sculpted in soft coal after a hard rain. Searching for a plausible explanation, he says, "I spread my legs pretty wide in the air. Maybe they're just like wings, and they hold me up there a little bit."
Finally, each of them is asked to recount his most notable hang time move. Jordan, the Chicago Bulls' rookie, is so young, none holds a mortgage on his memory yet. Hawkins speaks fondly of his triumph over Chamberlain. Baylor, the pragmatist, gives an example that defines the craft without disclosing the art. "We were playing against the Warriors, and Nate Thurmond, who was six inches taller than me and a really fine defensive player, was guarding me," Baylor says. "I made my move across the middle, and went up for the shot. But Thurmond was all over me. I was able to get my shot off, and it went in, but I didn't know how I did it." Now Baylor's eyes widen, like boiled eggs, and a certain mystical excitement, the kind you feel on hot August nights when the choir gets rolling and the preacher loosens his tie and jabs at the devil, begins to creep into his voice. "Maybe 10 years later I looked at film of it, and now I know I didn't do this. I mean, I couldn't have done this. But it seemed as if I just stopped in midair! And Thurmond went by me, and a space opened up, and I was able to see the basket and get my shot off at the last possible moment. You look at the film, and it really appears as though I just stopped." He's shaking his head in wonder even now. "It was the only time I ever asked myself, 'Gee, how'd I do that?' "
GREAT MOMENTS IN HANG TIME HISTORY PART FOUR
No treatise on hang time can be complete without mention of what most people consider the ultimate hang move, a.k.a. Erving's L.A. move. The situation: Game 4 of the 1980 NBA championship series. Fourth quarter. Philly, at home, leads the Lakers 89-84.
It was this memorable fusing of power and grace, of Carl Lewis and Mikhail Baryshnikov, of Goodnight, Irene and "what it is," that prompted Cunningham to later say, "I don't know that there's ever been, or ever will be, anyone with the soaring ability of Julius." It was this move that crystallized why Erving has the most spectacular plumage in the game's history; that inspired Grover Washington Jr. to compose Let It Flow ("For Dr. J"); that defied logic, gravity and whiplash.
The play began with Bobby Jones holding the ball on the left side. Erving, who had been near the basket, low down in the right lane, pushed off slightly on Mark Landsberger and flashed out high to the right side of the foul line. When Jones tossed the ball crosscourt, Erving got it about 18 feet from the hoop. Landsberger came out to check him, overplaying him toward the sideline. With his route to the paint blocked, Erving took a big first step and dribbled to his right, accelerating past Landsberger easily. Having drifted wide, Erving now turned sharply and moved along the baseline toward the hoop; his left foot was still outside the foul lane as he picked up his dribble and rose into the air from about 12 feet out. Although Landsberger was beaten, he leaped at Erving, extending his right arm like a clothesline to block Erving's clear line at the basket. As Landsberger was cutting off the outside path, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sloughed into the paint and, by raising himself to his tiptoes, denied Erving an inside path.
Having already rejected Plan A, throwing up a scoop shot immediately after getting around Landsberger, and Plan B, taking "a flyer" and arching the ball high enough to get it over Kareem, Erving seemingly had no place to go but off the court. So that's where he went, off the court, behind the basket. Everyone else would have come down in a photographer's lap. But Erving went to Plan C: After dipsy-doodling the ball, ducking his head so he wouldn't slap it against the back of the backboard and tucking his legs for some extra hang time, he reentered the court on the other side of the basket, and just before touching down inside the left side of the foul lane, he extended his shooting arm like a hydraulic crane and underhanded a reverse topspin floater off the glass, kissing it off the front rim and in. A U-turn with a diameter the breadth of Guatemala.
As in, ohmygod, he condored that sucker.
CBS showed the replay three times. The NBA put it in its highlight film. By now you've probably seen it 30 zillion times. Each time, it's just as amazing.
Although Erving says that when he finished it, "I thought I'd done it 1,000 times before," Cunningham still can't believe it, and he was watching it, live, from the bench. "You had to figure that the official missed it, that Doc came down and went up again," Cunningham says, shaking his head in wonder. "Because, how could anybody do that?"
The most incredible thing of all is how long Erving stayed in the air.
A stopwatch timed it at .7 of a second, almost no time at all.
And you could have sworn he was up there forever.
*© Beautiful Music, Inc. & Revelation Music Pub. Corp., 1973