It’s hard to believe that there was a time when the jump shot didn’t exist in basketball. When the sport was invented in 1891, players would take set shots with both feet firmly planted on the ground. Defenders controlled the sport, the pace was slower, and games would frequently end with scores fit for a football field. It took almost forty years before players began shooting jump shots of any kind and sixty-five years before it became a common sight. When the first jump shooting pioneers left the ground, they rose not only above their defenders, but also above the sport’s conventions. The jump shot created a soaring offense, infectious excitement, loyal fans, and legends. Basketball would never be the same.
Rise and Fire celebrates this crucial shot while tracing the history of how it revolutionized the game, shedding light on all corners of the basketball world, from NBA arenas to the playgrounds of New York City and the barns of Indiana. Award-winning journalist Shawn Fury obsesses over the jump shot, explores its fundamentals, puzzles over its complexities, marvels at its simplicity, and honors those who created some of basketball’s greatest moments. Part history, part travelogue, and part memoir, Rise and Fire bounces from the dirt courts of the 1930s to today’s NBA courts and state-of-the-art shooting labs, examining everything from how nets and rims affect a shooter to rivalries between shooting coaches to how the three-pointer came to rule the game. Impeccably researched and engaging, the book features interviews and profiles of legendary figures like Jerry West, Bob McAdoo, Ray Allen, and Denise Long---the first woman ever drafted by the NBA, plus dozens more, revealing the evolution of the shot over time.
Analyzing the techniques and reliving some of the most unforgettable plays from the greats, Fury creates a technical, personal, historical, and even spiritual examination of the shot. This is not a dry how-to textbook of basketball mechanics; it is a lively tour of basketball history and a love letter to the sport and the shot that changed it forever.
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Rise and Fire
The Origins, Science, and Evolution of the Jump Shotâ"and How it Transformed Basketball Forever
By Shawn Fury
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2016 Shawn Fury
All rights reserved.
ORIGINS AND MYSTERIES
It's a tribute to Wendell Smith's rich life and groundbreaking career that his possible role as one of the inventors of the jump shot didn't even make the first paragraph of his obituary. Smith remains best known for the crucial role he played when Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947. A longtime sportswriter and sportscaster, Smith, a Detroit native, recommended Robinson to Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey. He accompanied Robinson during his first season with the Dodgers and cowrote Robinson's autobiography. Throughout his career, Smith wrote about segregation in baseball, but he was also a general columnist and respected boxing scribe. Right out of college he worked for The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most prominent African American newspapers in the country, and in Chicago he wrote for newspapers and anchored on WGN. Smith was the first black sportswriter to receive the J. G. Taylor Spink Award for his contributions to baseball writing, given posthumously in 1993. People who didn't know Smith's story learned about him in the 2013 Robinson biopic 42, in which actor André Holland portrayed the writer, who's shown in the movie sitting in the stands with his typewriter.
Smith died in 1972 of pancreatic cancer at the age of fifty-eight. But Smith's obituary from UPI included a line that didn't appear in most stories about him, and it didn't come until the sixth paragraph. "An athlete himself in both high school and college, Smith was credited with taking basketball's first jump shot while playing for West Virginia State." When his old paper The Pittsburgh Courier covered Smith's funeral — about 200 people attended, including Chicago sports legends Gale Sayers and Billy Williams — its story waited until paragraph seven to reveal Smith's historic achievement on the hardwood: "He earned a bachelor of science degree from West Virginia State College in 1937 and was a star for the basketball and baseball teams. He was credited with introducing the one-handed jump shot to the game of basketball, but it was in the field of sportswriting that he earned his reputation and his living."
Introduced the one-handed jump shot? Took the first jump shot? What day? Where was the gym? Who was the opponent? And did he celebrate when he swished the shot or curse when it rimmed out? The mentions in those stories provide just two hints of the odyssey awaiting anyone who attempts to track down the first jump shooters. Just when you think you've found a unique nugget that perhaps unearths the first shooter ... four more names of early shooters emerge from the archives. Forget about finding the absolute first. Historians have debated the question of who took the first jump shot for decades, but fresh claims about the original shooters still emerge from old sources, thanks to a newly discovered tattered newspaper from the 1920s or a dusty school yearbook from the '30s. Or a forgotten obituary from the 1970s. A dozen people might have invented the jump shot, or a hundred — but no one patented it. The early shooters operated in isolation, independent of each other, mostly away from what little media existed. We know some names — John Cooper, Joe Fulks, Kenny Sailors, Glenn Roberts — but others like Barney Varnes, Jimmie James, and Belus Smawley also made claims, some of them even legitimate, about being the first jump shooters. But finding the first is impossible. A fourteen-year-old Nebraska boy might have picked up a ball one summer morning in 1930 and jumped into the air while shooting at a basket attached to a red barn and never thought of it again after getting called over to finish his chores. A college player in Maine might have found himself six inches off the ground while shooting with two hands above his head and realized he did something wrong when the coach benched him. A black professional player on a barnstorming tour in the Midwest might have jumped on every 15-foot shot he took in an exhibition game inside a dance hall and thought nothing of it because that's how he played the game every night: in the air. And, yes, it's possible future sportswriter Wendell Smith, best known for his skills on the baseball diamond in college and his passion for social justice in and out of press boxes, took the first jump shot — although he probably didn't.
"You'll never get to the pioneer, the absolute Adam of jump shooters," author John Christgau told me during a visit in his Northern California home, and if anyone should know, it's Christgau. He spent years working on his 1999 book, The Origins of the Jump Shot: Eight Men Who Shook the World of Basketball. Christgau traveled to about a dozen states and identified eight players who were among the first to leave the ground. Fifteen years after the book's publication, people still e-mail Christgau every week about a great-uncle who took the first jump shot in high school or a grandfather who made the first jumper in junior college. Hunting for the original jump shooter presents a fun challenge, but discovering a single creator isn't as important as learning why the first players went into the air. Whether those innovators jumped because they went against taller players or because they expressed creativity while growing up in rigid households, their inventions helped the game evolve, ushering in changes that turned basketball from a boring, low-scoring affair into an exciting, high-scoring game. They were artists and rebels, altering a game controlled by scientists and conformists.
James Naismith invented basketball in 1891, but it basically took forty years before players began shooting jump shots of any kind, sixty-five before they became a common sight, and more than seventy before people realized the shot wasn't going to ruin the game. Set shots ruled. And that's because coaches and instructors ruled the game. For years players shot with two hands on the ball, feet nailed to the floor, metaphorically only because the law didn't allow coaches to take a hammer out on the court and make it literal. Variations included underhanded shots and shots taken from the chest. Shooters could step into a push shot and occasionally lift a leg. In his book Big Leagues: Professional Baseball, Football, & Basketball in National Memory, Stephen Fox highlighted books published by famed college coaches Walter Meanwell from Wisconsin, Illinois's Craig Ruby, and Kansas legend Phog Allen. Fox revealed how each coach described the shots of the day.
Meanwell called it a one-hand push after a high jump, with the ball banked off the backboard. Ruby called it a two-hand shoulder shot: a player moving away from the basket, toward the left sideline, jumping off his left foot to face the hoop and shooting with both hands from a point to the right of his head. Allen called it a push arch shot: the player with the ball springing up and back off his rear leg, extending his front leg in protection, and shooting a soft, loopy ball to the rim.
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Fox noted these shots were "glorified layups, mainly used close to the basket after a lateral jump off one foot instead of a vertical, two-legged leap."
Physical educators played a big role in the development of basketball — they're the ones who first taught the game and contributed to its growth around the country. Author Bob Kuska has written several books about the game's early years. "If you were going to win, there was a very scientific way to play basketball," he says. "All the coaches bought into it. The prominent coaches bought into it. It very much trickled down to the players that if you're going to play, you have to play in a very scientific way. You can go back and look at the textbooks — if you're going to shoot a shot from afar, you've got to come to a complete stop and you have to have both feet on the ground."
Improvising players — not coaches drawing it up on a chalkboard — invented the jump shot, creating a weapon that defied rules and angered coaches who feared a future where the jumper allowed individuals to trump the team. Through passing and screens, players worked themselves open until they had a clear look at the basket and an opportunity to shoot — with two hands, feet on the floor. Jump shots worked against tough defenses, but that was part of the problem: Coaches didn't want players taking contested shots, not when their offenses were designed to move the ball until someone was wide open — even if a play now existed that worked against any defender.
Unlike many trends, the jump shot started in small towns and migrated to the big cities. The early jump shooters did not inspire an immediate revolution — the jump shot confused teammates who were unable to duplicate the jumper when they tried it on their own and were fearful of the coach's wrath if they succeeded. The early jump shooters persisted through doubts, benchings, raised voices, and eyebrows, sticking with their aerial theatrics, fully aware of how the jumper changed their own games, even if they couldn't fathom how the shot would alter an entire sport.
When I talked with Kuska, he said finding the first shooters wasn't as important as who popularized the shot. Taking a jump shot in isolation made a player a pioneer, but not necessarily a revolutionary. Still, while it's impossible to find the Adam of shooters — or the Eve — the stories of the innovators shed light on how they changed the sport for the better. But, before getting to those players and their tales of childhood hardships, poverty-stricken upbringings, rebellious natures, accidental discoveries, and war heroics, we should first recognize a player who did not invent the jump shot — but changed the game forever with his shooting.
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Even hard-core basketball fans struggle to name the players most identified with the early days of the jump shot. To many, their knowledge of basketball history begins around the time Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell started dominating the NBA. The jump shot was just always there, wasn't it? When I started working on this book, I had never heard of men like Glenn Roberts or John Burton. I knew nothing of their accomplishments, and I'm not alone. But if you took a poll of fans who had some knowledge of the past and asked them to name the first person to take a jump shot, the leading response — after a few seconds of contemplation and an acknowledgment that they're not sure — would probably be, "Hank Luisetti." Many people have heard of Hank Luisetti, even if their knowledge of him is a bit hazy.
Luisetti, a San Francisco native, starred for Stanford in the 1930s. A high-scoring forward in a low-scoring era, Luisetti famously scored 15 points against Long Island University on December 30, 1936, in a 45–31 victory at New York's Madison Square Garden. At the time, each region played a distinct brand of basketball. Many thought East Coast ball — with its countless passes, weaves, and deliberate style — was the proper way to play the game compared to West Coast teams that relied on a faster pace of play and more freedom. As Fox wrote in Big Leagues, "Skeptics called it the avalanche system, pell-mell, wild and woolly, racehorse, fire-horse basketball." Stanford and Luisetti fit in with their left coast brethren. Luisetti unleashed his running one-handed shot against Long Island, baffling his foes and simultaneously stunning and delighting the crowd, all while helping Stanford snap LIU's 43-game winning streak. In later years, Luisetti said a player for LIU told him he got lucky the first time he made his one-hander but "didn't say a word when the next one dropped in." Francis J. O'Riley wrote in The New York Times, "Some of his shots would have been deemed foolhardy if attempted by any other player, but with Luisetti doing the heaving, these were accepted by the crowd as a matter of course." That crowd consisted of a record 17,623 fans, with many more unable to get into the famous arena. Stanford's six-foot-three Italian star played like that for years out west, but doing it in the media capital changed the game. Not everyone appreciated Luisetti's flamboyant, whirlwind style. A great passer and driver who attacked from all angles, Luisetti played with a flair that was foreign and infuriating to longtime watchers. In addition to the one-handed shot, Luisetti passed behind his back and sometimes hovered in the air on drives, long before the concept of hang time entered the basketball world.
Veteran coach Nat Holman, an early star player in the game's history, said after Luisetti's display, "I'd quit coaching before I'd teach a one-hand shot to win a game. Nobody can convince me a shot that is more a prayer than a shot is the proper way to play the game. There's only one way to shoot — the way we do it in the East. With two hands." Years earlier, Holman complimented the East Coast way of playing basketball, because if players didn't have a wide-open set shot, they resisted firing from a bad angle. Instead, "He throws the ball back to one of his mates, and the play is started over again." Those days were dying, a fact Luisetti brought home in New York.
Luisetti learned his move on the playground, battling older, taller players (a theme that appears over and over with the early shooters). Stanford coach John Bunn encouraged his trendsetting star, confident the results — Luisetti set numerous scoring records and was the first college player to get 50 points in a game — spoke louder than the complaints. The LIU game turned Luisetti into a celebrity. Two years later he starred with a young Betty Grable in Campus Confessions, a "comical campus romance" about a dean's son who becomes a basketball player but struggles academically and ... well, it failed to win an Oscar.
But the fame he garnered from the one-handed shot outlasted movie stardom. Others shot one-handers earlier, but as Kuska explained, no one popularized it like Luisetti, who took full advantage of the Big Apple stage. But he didn't create the jump shot. When Christgau researched his book, he telephoned Luisetti, who died in 2002 at the age of eighty-six. "I never had a jump shot," Luisetti told Christgau. "I admired the jump shot, but I never had one. I had the running one-hander, and that was it." Throughout his life, Luisetti downplayed the idea that he invented the jump shot, sometimes in stories that carried headlines crediting him with that very accomplishment. He once explained, "I didn't jump and shoot at the height of my jump, the way they do now. I'd let the ball go right near my face; I'd push and shoot, off my fingertips."
So if it wasn't Luisetti, who were some of the first classic jump shooters? The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame unofficially recognizes Glenn Roberts as one of the originators, although in a profile of the star from tiny Emory & Henry, the Hall notes, "There is of course no absolute proof that Glenn Roberts was the first person to shoot the jump shot. He was simply the first to use the new shot to reach such high-scoring exploits." Meanwhile, the NCAA's archives honor John Cooper, a star forward for Missouri in the early 1930s.
Both Roberts and Cooper grew up in rural settings — Roberts in Virginia, Cooper in Kentucky. Roberts lived on a farm with his folks and six brothers and attended school in Pound, a town of 150. He graduated from high school in 1931 and led his team to a state championship. In college at Emory & Henry — a small Methodist school in the Virginia mountains — Roberts averaged more than 19 points per game, in an era when many teams barely scored 20 points. He often outscored opponents by himself. At college, he played in an indoor gym for the first time. His hometown of Pound only had outdoor courts. Mud made it impossible to dribble on these courts and missed shots at one hoop in town meant the ball disappeared down an incline. Accuracy became a necessity. The youngsters from Pound played what could be considered a version of the classic playground game 21 — when it's every man for himself and whoever gets the ball tries to score against the other players, no matter if it's seven guys playing or twelve. Roberts once explained, "By starting to jump as high in the air as I could after recovering the ball and releasing the ball after jumping out of reach of the others, I got the ball to the basket consistently, and before long I even succeeded in making some baskets without depending entirely on luck."
Excerpted from Rise and Fire by Shawn Fury. Copyright © 2016 Shawn Fury. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
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Table of Contents
SECTION ONE: IN THE BEGINNING
Chapter One: Origins and Mysteries
Chapter Two: Jump Shooting Marines
Chapter Three: 1950s: Naysayers and Trendsetters
Chapter Four: Buckets, Balls, and Shooter's Gyms
Chapter Five: 1960s: Big Shots, Big Men
SECTION TWO: THE JUMP SHOT TOUR
Chapter Six: Legends, Tragedies, and Families
Chapter Seven: Denise, Jeanette, and the Game of the Century
Chapter Eight: The Rocket and the Splendid Splinter
Chapter Nine: The Miracle, the Movie, and the Miss
SECTION THREE: GUNNER'S PARADISE
Chapter Ten: 1970s: No Conscience Required
Chapter Eleven: The Machine
Chapter Twelve: Bob McAdoo: The Revolutionary
SECTION FOUR: THE MODERN GAMEChapter Thirteen: 1980s: Small Forwards, Big Scorers
Chapter Fourteen: Bird
Chapter Fifteen: Instructors: The Shooter, the Lab, and the Rebel
Chapter Sixteen: 1990s and Beyond: Land of the Three
Chapter Seventeen: The Greatest