BASKETBALL, NOW, AND BASKETBALL, THEN!
James R. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D.
© March 22, 2011
Of late, I haven’t been taking my audiocassette recorder when walking. I know it is an ancient tool, but I am ancient so at least it has that consistency. Most of the time, in my peripatetic wanderings and wonderings, I excuse the dreamy suspension and consider my progress on the rewrite to A GREEN ISLAND IN A BLACK SEE. This is the exception.
* * *
Watching the NCAA Final 68 teams play on television, I could not help but note how radically the game of basketball has changed since I played four years of varsity ball at an Iowa class AAA high school. I went up to varsity as a freshman at sub state and stayed for the rest of my high school career. My comments here are based on that experience and are not meant to reflect an official commentary as to how basketball was played 60 years ago, but as an approximate calibraion of that era compared to now.
Basketball players today at the high school and college level – I’ve seen games played by both – indicate that it is common for players to be six feet or better and most are six-four to six-eight. It was unusual for my generation to be tall. I was six-one as a freshman and six-four as a senior, 175 pounds as a freshman and 190 pounds as a senior.
Basketball players today spend a good deal of time in the weight room, something that didn’t exist in my day. It shows in the definition of their muscles and in their bulk as well. It is nothing for a six-one player today to weigh 190 to 210 and look lean whereas that was not the case 60 years ago.
My grandson, sixteen and a junior, plays basketball and he is six-six and weighs about 265.
Basketball players today, especially the final NCAA 68 teams, not only demonstrate great athleticism, I would even call it remarkable, but have an agility never witnessed before. Were James Naismith to have lived until today – he died in 1939 -- he would not believe what an incredible sport he had created 120 years ago (1891).
Basketball players today have the moves of ballet dancers, the skills of gymnasts, and the jumping and leaping ability of track & field performers. They also have the speed and alacrity of sprinters, and the endurance of distance runners.
The supreme conditioning of athletes allows them to play a type of basketball that never existed 60 years ago -- full court instead of half-court basketball.
The fast break was exercised to precision by some teams 60 years ago, but not by most teams. Most teams relegated the game to a half-court game.
Basketball players 60 years ago displayed athleticism but nothing close to the agility of basketball players today. There are five-eight players in the NCAA tournament that can dunk. There were six-six players in my day that couldn’t, although the point is moot because dunking wasn’t allowed, and I do believe the basket wouldn’t count and the team would be given a technical foul for dunking. I may be wrong about this.
TYPE OF SCORING and BALL HANDLING
Basketball players 60 years ago scored lay ups, hook shots, set shots, reverse lay ups, and running jumpers.
Basketball players today more often dunk, and leave the floor to shoot jumpers no matter where they are on the court. They also arc the ball towards the basket so that a flying player can dunk on the run. Lay ups of all descriptions are still part of the game with the player often in the air so long that he can improvise as to how the shot will be delivered.
Scoring on the dribble was true 60 years ago, but like the psychological barrier of the 4-minute mile, no one could reach it until Dr. Roger Bannister did it in 1954, and now hundreds of runners run under four minute miles. Likewise, it was thought that a basketball player had to have a low center of gravity, or be small, say five-eight or less to be a good dribbler. Now, six-eight players can cover the full court on the dribble and score.
The current NCAA Tournament demonstrates that ball handling and dribbling is a common skill to the average player in this elite company of players.
Basketball players 60 years ago were unlikely to throw cross-court passes on the offensive side. They do it now as a matter of routine. Players 60 years ago were taught not to leave their feet on defense, whereas players do it all the time blocking shots because of their size and leaping ability.
Basketball players 60 years ago were two guards and two forwards and a center. Now, as demonstrated in the NCAA, there are often three forwards, a point guard and a center. There is also the designation of strong and weak side forward, players that have the size and girth of a center. It was unusual in my day, but I was a six-four guard, often playing the double post in center with the other center. This was meant to confuse our opponents and increase the options.
Now players rotate much more than they did in my day moving quickly and strategically without the ball. They still screen, and use a give and go routine that we used in grammar school. Players never passed between their legs, or dribbled between their legs as they routinely do now.
Strategies today are not that much different than 60 years ago. For example, the weak side forward may go over and screen for the strong side forward, or vice versa, to open the player for a shot. There are many other strategies, but what is different is that players today are more creative and spontaneous in reacting to defenses to discourage such strategies.
DEFENSE and FOULING
Basketball players today, if there is one distinct measure of their supreme superiority over players of 60 years ago, it is their incredible defensive ability. I marvel watching the NCAA Tournament how able these players are on defense.
Speed is of the essence today as the game is terribly fast, but defensive players can stay with their man, full court, in a way that anyone who has ever played the game has to marvel at the skill.
Perhaps the best measure of this is that these players today foul far less than they we did 60 years ago, yet they are more aggressive, tenacious, and effective than we ever were.
A basketball scorer 60 years ago could rest on his laurels hoping the rest of the team would take up his defensive slack or lapses, not so today. Everyone is a consummate defensive player who scores, or he is unlikely to make the team.
SHOOTING and FOUL SHOT PERCENTAGES
As anyone who has watched the NCAA Tournament this year, it is not uncommon for both teams to shoot from the field in the neighborhood of 50 percent, and at the line in the neighborhood of 70 percent. This despite three-point shooting should drop this average, as all NCAA teams today are good three-point shooters.
Basketball players 60 years ago could sometimes reach these percentages but more often than not the percentages were closer to half what they are today, and the defenses were not nearly as good then, and they are excellent today.
The three-point shot behind the key has changed the game, but what has changed the game more is the 24-second rule, or that the offensive team must hit the rim with a shot after crossing mid-court in 24 seconds or the ball is turned over to the opponent. How I would have loved the three-point shot in my day, as I could hit better from outside than a lay up.
Basketball officiating today is an art form. That is the only way I can put it. I think officials do a great job. They did a good job 60 years ago, but like everything else this has improved with the game.
Some forty years ago, I was asked to give a speech at a community center in a largely African American section of St. Petersburg, Florida. I came early, as was my inclination only to find the gym alive with about thirty African American boys playing basketball. They were all sizes and shapes, some tall and lean, others short and fat, some agile, some not, but all playing a spirited game. Players would substitute for each other so that ten players were always on the floor.
The only way I can put it is that I was mesmerized by the whole affair. They played hard and clean, and when someone was fouled, the player who fouled would say, shoot, meaning shoot a free throw. It was autonomous fun with no supervisors’ only young boys alive with the spirit of basketball.
In my speech, I mentioned my reaction and applauded the community leaders that allowed the gym to be open at night so these boys could play.
Over the years I have watched boys playing in outdoor courts, usually African American boys, seeing before my eyes the skill level increasing, and the inventiveness with it.
This is not a scientific declaration but I would say 80 percent of the players in the NCAA Tournament in 2011 are African American boys, boys, I suspect, who honed their skills a long time ago on some outdoor court, or in some gym provided by wise community leaders.
MEANING NO DISRESPECT BUT
It occurred to me watching women play in the NCAA WOMEN’S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT that they play more like men and boys played 60 years ago. They don’t leave their feet, as a rule, to shoot set shots, they play mainly a half court game, and even tall players don’t dunk. I don’t know if this is because they can’t or are disinclined to dunk. They are athletic but not as agile as the men’s basketball, but as athletic and agile in many cases as players were 60 years ago.
Where they are like men’s basketball today, which is different to men’s basketball 60 years ago, they are better at the foul line, and better scoring from the field. When they attempt to full court press, they remind me a lot of the problems we had with it in my day.
WHAT AM I TRYING TO SAY?
I am absolutely certain that were I a basketball player today with the same skill set I had 60 years ago I would not make the squad much less the first team. Moreover, I would say I would only have a marginal chance to make the girls basketball team today with that same skill set.
Girls’ basketball 60 years ago didn't allow the guards play in the offensive court, therefore they couldn't score. It was a different game. Now, girls’ basketball is played up-tempo with similar rules but with a smaller basketball than that of boys.
One young lady that I watched play in high school, who is now a student at Columbia, was an excellent ball handler, and scored over 1,000 points in high school. She decided not to go out for basketball in college. She is short, and like men’s basketball, women’s basketball in college has gone for size with it not being unusual to have several players in the range of six-four to six-eight class.
Sixty years ago it was unusual for many people to be six foot tall, now it is common. Not only are players taller but also they seem to have longer arms, bigger hands, bigger feet, greater wing span than players had 60 years ago.
I’m saying my nostalgia for basketball of another time is not diminished because of this great leap forward. I applaud this remarkable evolution of the sport, but still take solace with my memory of earlier days
THE FIRE WAGON FIVE.
When I was a boy, I was a tremendous fan of the “Fire Wagon Five” of Clinton High School, one of the larger schools in the state, a team that was expected to win the high school state championship for their legendary "fast break," that is, rebounding the defensive board and getting the basketball down the court before the opposing team could set its defense and scoring.
Clinton High School lost to the smallest school in the tournament. Danbury Independent School, a country school, 25 – 24 in March 1946, or sixty-five years ago.
Dean Burridge, five-eight, all-state first team in football, was also all-state first team in basketball, and my hero. He was fast and smart, but not on this night.
There was a little fellow named Dick Reicks of Danbury, who dribbled the game away. The only way he could be stopped was to foul him, and then he’d go to the free throw line, and score. Therol Petersen, Clinton High's center, was six-two, but was kept from scoring by Elton Tuttle, the six-four center for Danbury. The combination of Reicks and Tuttle killed Clinton’s chance for a state title.
Clinton’s Petersen went on to star in basketball at Iowa State University while Dean Burridge played football for Illinois Normal University.
It was a different kind of basketball, but I found it thrilling with my best friend, Bobby Witt, and write about it IN THE SHADOW OF THE COURTHOUSE.
Almost as a harbinger of things to come, on that Clinton High basketball team was a young African American, called Negro in those days, named Le Roy Watts.
Le Roy was six-four with the agility and wingspan of players of today. He never started a single game, always coming off the bench to rebound and score like players of today. It is said that this was his choice. In any case, he made history in 1946 in the Iowa High School Athletic Association State High School Basketball Tournament by being named to the all-tournament third team, setting a new precedence as a non-starter earning such distinction.
If you love this sport, I hope you find time to watch some great basketball as the "Sweet Sixteen" vie for the NCAA National Championship during this 2011 March Madness!
* * *