Here’s something you might not know about the jump shot, seemingly the most unassuming of fundamentals: It very nearly RIPPED THE GAME YOU LOVE APART.
This is hard to imagine in an age of 14-step dunks and no-look passes and the way Steph Curry can go from one location to another with apparently visiting the space between, but not terribly long ago the fiercest controversy in basketball involved guys who had the audacity to shoot the ball while, get this, jumping off the ground. That’s because for the first half-century post-Naismith, there was basically no such thingas a jump shot. “It’s now impossible to imagine the game without it,” says Shawn Fury, author of Rise and Fire, a new biography of the jump shot, “but for the first several decades it didn’t exist.”
The jumper, Fury writes, was a blasphemous disgrace upon its debut in the 1920s, or 1930s, or 1940s, or whenever it actually debuted. It’s impossible to know exactly when; Fury scoured the country for its “inventor,” but that invention happened in an era where people failed to obsessively document the activity of high school athletes for some reason. What he does know is that that the jumper shocked coaches, unnerved defenses, and rattled the era’s sportswriters, all of whom seemingly tore off their fedoras in disgust and hammered their typewriters in cigar-fueled rage. We talked to Fury about why they went so nuts.
We’re talking about the jump shot, right? Like, shooting while jumping?
Right! It seems like something Naismith would have said in his first-ever game: ‘If you jump, you have an advantage.’ Instead, it took nearly 50 years for the jump shot to become common practice. There’s a note from Joe Lapchick, who coached the Knicks and St. John’s, talking about how you can’t defend it because the shooter knows when he’s going to shoot and the defender doesn’t. It seems so simple, and he said that in the mid-’50s!
Basketball was invented in 1891—so that’s a long time.
It was a sea change. Guys were rebels to leave the court. The most surprising thing in my research was seeing how early shooters not only changed the game but fought the establishment do to it.
Why were coaches so panicked?
Well, basketball’s the ultimate team game. So suddenly, instead of teams passing five or six times, setting screens and finding the open guy, one guy could get the ball, take a few dribbles and rise up. Coaches worried about the power of the individual, how one guy could go off on his own and dominate.
Was part of this a general, crusty-old-man resistance to the new? The ’40s and ’50s weren’t real big on, you know. Change.
Maybe a little bit. Even the first jump shooters were putting up ridiculous numbers, shattering all these scoring records. Teams had barely been scoring 20 points a game, and all of a sudden one guy could do that. In the ’30s, this guy Glenn Roberts averaged 20 points in the time of the center jump after every basket. In the ’50s, Frank Selvy scored 100 points a game. By the time of Pete Maravich, Rick Mount, and Austin Carr in the ’60s and ’70s, coaches were conceding the point and giving free rein.
Who’s the most natural shooter in the game right now?
Obviously Steph Curry’s become an insane, iconic player in the last year and a half. I finished the first draft of the book in January 2015 and he was on his way to being MVP but hadn’t become this ridiculous scoring machine. I was able to write a little more about him in the second draft. He’s the standard right now. But Kevin Durant’s effortless with his shot, too; he can just flick it from 25 feet. With the guys I talked to—even older players, who can be grouchy about the new guys—those two always earned accolades. Kyle Korver can hit from anywhere; he maybe doesn’t do other things great, but he’s a great, great old-school shooter. I love watching Klay Thompson shoot. The crazy thing about Golden State is they’ve got Curry, who in 10 years might be considered the greatest shooter who’s ever played, and he might not even be the best shooter on his team.
You write about the final game scene in Hoosiers , where Jimmy Chitwood (the fictional version of Milan, Indiana’s Bobby Plump) hits the game-winning jumper and everybody loses their minds. You argue that every basketball movie should end with a jump shot.
That hit me as I was thinking about iconic moments. Michael Jordan is famous for his dunks, but his most important shots were jump shots, like the last one against Utah (in the ’98 NBA Finals), or against Georgetown in college. Or Christian Laettner in the Duke-Kentucky game, that turnaround jumper at the free throw line. Every memorable moment seems like it’s a jump shot.
It hangs there, stops time, builds that tension.
There’s that famous picture of Jordan taking that shot against Utah, where the ball’s about to be released. Look at the expressions in the background — some people are looking on in horror, others are already cheering. They’re waiting for that moment. If LeBron ends a game with a dunk, it’s explosive, there’s no time to contemplate it. Half-court shots are prayers: No one really thinks they’re gonna go in, and if they do it’s a shock. But with jump shots, both sides are hoping and wishing. So much can happen in those few seconds.
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