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Joe Dean called it “string music.”
Cawood Ledford – and I humbly apologize for juxtaposing those two names – described it by many melodic monikers, such as “rambling the ropes,” “tickling the twine” or “nothing but nylon.”
Wannabe athletes have for decades created catchy calls, but ultimately they wind up with a simple, elegant word: “pure.”
But, whatever you call it, the ability to shoot a basketball remains nothing less than this: the essence of its sport.
In football, you need 11 guys working together to score.
In baseball, you need someone to throw the pitch before you hit it.
In golf, you strike the ball in a variety ways before it goes into the hole – usually.
In hockey, who knows? A bunch of guys run into each other, and the puck winds up in the net sometimes.
In soccer, well, we’re waiting for something to happen.
But in basketball, you grab the ball yourself, dribble to a spot you like and then let it fly, do or die.
Forget the dunk, the give-and-go, the pick-and-roll, the two-man game, the alley and the oop and the twist-and-shout flavor-of-the-month.
You catch and release, and if you can make the rawhide hit the net more often than not, you have a chance to play the game.
We won’t belabor the point, but that was why those dreaded Dukies were able to get past beautiful Butler and win an NCAA title on Monday. They simply made shots that the Bears missed.
This game and this remarkable, dramatic tournament returned basketball to a simpler form, when shooting was the premium and far more valued than the simple ability to run, jump and do all sorts of acrobatics as you get near the rim and fling the ball earthward.
Is there a more beautiful thing in sports than a ball floating on a high arc and coming down to swish the very bottom of the net. There’s a unique sound when that happens, and those guys from Duke played that chord too often.
Shooting is what separates all good college basketball players into the elite in the NBA. Athleticism is important, but if you can’t float like Dr. J or Jordan or overpower like Wilt or Shaq, you find your spot and perfect your move and, when it’s your turn, bury your shot. Careers are made on one shot a week. Just ask Steve Kerr, John Paxson or Robert Horry.
Guys who were decent shooters in college become great in the NBA – Jordan is testimony to that – because they devote full attention to perfecting form and finding their spot without those bothersome classes to attend.
And think about your own experience with basketball, no matter how inept it may seem. Sure you dreamed of being able to soar up and drop the ball over the rim, but your short, stiff legs made you proud just to be able to scrape the rim with your finger tips, much less get the ball higher than that.
Minus that, you were valued on your ability to shoot. Your technique may have been awful and the angles unique, but if the ball hit the net, then you were gold for games.
Remember how it worked in pickup games? You had to shoot free throws to see who got to play. You learned to make them or to sit for a while, even if when the games began friends such as Walt, Bob and Don embarrassed you with their precision.
That only made you watch, emulate and practice like the best you saw. You read of how the great Indiana shooter Steve Alford never left practice without “hanging the net” – the purest note to a symphonic shot – and you tried to do that and saw how difficult it was.
A generation of boys and girls learned the game by listening to Ledford describe the exploits of Kentucky star Louie Dampier: “30-footer by Dampier! Goooooood!!!!!
He was a man whose stature and quickness would not have allowed the long and successful professional career he enjoyed if he had not been the consummate long-range bomber, an artiste who made the 3-point shot his canvas when the ABA unveiled it for America.
So you tried to bomb like Louie or maybe shoot the stiff-armed push shot of Mike Casey, the low-rising, long, arching set shots of Bill Busey and the straight-on jumpers of Terry Davis.
You watched Kyle Macy wipe his socks before free throws, Darrell Griffith soar so very high before releasing his shot down at the basket and were in awe of any of the magic that Pistol Pete Maravich brought to a grainy TV set.
You played horse and pig and 21 and Around the World, all games predicated on shooting, with either hand and from all angles.
You shook your head when you saw Mitch Bailey unleash a 2-hand set shot from near his waist and almost never miss one. Or a guy named Micky Harrington, who shot this big, over-the-top hook shot from 15 or 20 feet from the rim and at a much lower altitude than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook. But they always went in.
But like so many of life’s most basic and wonderful elements, the ability simply to shoot consistently well seems lost in the days, when the spectacular is more valued than the consistent, when style beats form and poetry outstrips prose. If it’s flashy, it is seen as the greater.
What do you think John Calipari would have given for a Richie Farmer, a Tony Delk or even a Cameron Mills? UK would be parading today, if he had one great shooter.
Where would U of L’s dunking and funking champions have been without guys like Pancho Wright and Jeff Hall?
Who was Jordan without Paxson and Kerr, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan and a host of others without the heroics of Horry? They were great players but probably not champions as often as they were.
But other than Duke’s disgusting display this weekend, perhaps there is one man who can change the focus of the nation back to shooting the basketball, back to history and not the histrionics.
And that’s our president, Barack Obama, whose left-handed jump shot last week netted him a victory in a 3-point shoot-off with former Ohio State All-American-turned-broadcaster Clark Kellogg.
It was a game called POTUS, but it was all about a guy in a shirt and tie making left-handed jump shots from various spots around the 3-point arc.
Yes, it was corny TV, but it also was basketball at its essence. And it was wonderful.