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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Dreaming of 3-pointers

I started watching the Larry Bird Celtics at a young age in the 80s, and 3-pointers were such a central part of Bird's greatness that I never imagined they were a recent invention. It seems that a Columbia University coach invented the 3-pointer in 1945 as one of several experiments in a single regular-season game with Fordham. Coach Howard Hobson also widened the key from 6 feet to the now-standard 12, and gave fouled players the option of shooting free throws from 21 feet instead of the usual 15--the farther free throws were worth two points instead of one.

Players and spectators liked the innovations, but remarkably, it took 34 years for the NBA to catch on. (Former Celtic and later Celtics coach Chris Ford made the first 3-pointer in the NBA in 1979.) 3-pointers were counted in the smaller American Basketball Association from its first season in 1968, and the ABA apparently (so says Wikipedia) used them, along with slam dunks, which were frowned upon by the NBA, to attract audiences (to famous effect with Julius Erving, Dr. J.). College basketball was even more slow to notice the improvement: the NCAA didn't adopt the rule until 1986, 41 years after Hobson's experiment.

As I age and realize how powerful inertia is, stories like this have an arresting power that they never had for me when I was younger. History is full of stories that children are taught as fact and not as wild risks: rebellions, sacrifices, gambles. And while It's not exactly becoming a partisan fighter against Franco or working the Underground Railroad, Coach Hobson's experiment took an uncommon amount of vision and chutzpah. He was probably laughed at by some and ignored by most, but he pushed to have his proposals tried in a real game and made it happen. Decades later, the game caught up with him and is deeper and more fun to play and watch.

I've been thinking basketball since it became clear that 1) the Celtics are at rock bottom and will have their best draft pick in years, and 2) Kevin Durant, a brilliant freshman adept at all positions, could be next year a brilliant NBA rookie adept at all positions.

Boston sportswriter Bill Simmons is rabid with lust for Durant (he calls Durant "an unfathomable cross between T-Mac and Plastic Man who can score facing the basket and from 25 feet away"), and has vowed to move back to Boston (from LA, where he pretends for ESPN to care about teams besides the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics, and the Holy Cross Crusaders) if the stars align and Durant becomes a Celtic this summer. (By the way, it's always awkward to be reminded of the name "Holy Cross Crusaders".)

Simmons has reposted his 2002 paean to the NCAA Final Four/March Madness tournament. It captures the intense personal involvement you feel when watching your favorite teams play, and in Simmons's signature style, airs the passionate and potentially embarrassing feelings of being a fan:
You check the clock. Ten minutes gone and we're still tied. One-fourth of the game. Not bad. You don't want to believe, not yet ... but you're intrigued. You fight off the urge to call one of your friends. Can't jinx it. Not yet.

You notice the television cameras keep showing the raucous rooting section for your school, those same familiar colors that you wore once upon a time. Your school. Makes you jealous. You wish you were there. You should have gone. You feel left out. But maybe if you had ventured to the game, they wouldn't be playing this well. You start thinking about weird stuff like that.

Now you're glancing at the clock incessantly. As long as the score remains close, you want that clock moving at warp speed. Faster. Faster.
The Elite Eight games are on tonight, and possible future Celtic Greg Oden is playing. Maybe one day soon the Celtics will have him or Durant and actually make the playoffs!

A final note--on the subject of Celtics and 3s, there are some great Larry Bird clips on YouTube. Just like many of the greatest Michael Jordan clips are really Jordan-Pippen plays, most of these are true Celtics plays, including several that include Bird, McHale, and Parrish passing to each other as if they were of one mind.


Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Mar 23, 01:27:00 AM:
I find the three point shot in today's college and pro ball both exciting and frustrating at the same time. Exciting in its ability to drive momentum - anyone who watched the Sweet 16 matchup between Tennessee and Ohio State would have seen Tennessee almost burying Ohio State with big three point shooting. Exciting also when seven footers like Dirk Nowitzski are draining big-time long distance shots. But then frustrating when guys like Jamal Crawford and Antoine Walker shoot 3's at close to 30%.

As for "possible future Celtic Greg Oden", here's to the emphasis on FUTURE. I hope we get him at Ohio State for another year - it'd be a terrible shame to see him toiling away in Celtic green at the bottom of the division.
Blogger Alice on Fri Mar 23, 04:53:00 PM:
OK, but Simmons' running diary of the first two days of this year's tournament was unreadable. You know how when you watch sports or 24 or something that inspires obsessive devotion, and you're hanging out with your friends, and you've all been friends long enough that you know one another's jokes before they say them, but you laugh at them anyway because it's a genial atmosphere... you don't really want to make a running transcript of these interactions because they're obnoxious to people who aren't there. Even when I thought so-and-so's joke about Billy Packer was funny, I was still gritting my teeth because I'd heard a variation on it a million times before.

Brette pointed out that I didn't need to read the running diary if I was going to fume about it. It's not like I didn't know the format and its limitations. But this running diary took all the worst tendencies of his other running diaries and magnified them to an infuriating degree. But that's the point of reading Simmons, right? And I did quote some of the comments later on that evening in recapping the games. So maybe it wasn't unreadable, I just hate myself for reading it.

I didn't make brackets this year because I'm so bad at it and I embarrass myself every year. So I had imaginary brackets that were still intact after the first round--but even those are destroyed now after Texas A&M's loss last night due to a questionable call from the refs. (I had the Aggies in the Final Four in these imaginary brackets. I'm very honest in scrupulously accounting for the non-recorded record of my failure.)