The Yin and Yang of Basketball

Roman Mars:
With our Golden State Warriors in the playoffs, we thought we’d rebroadcast this piece about the design of basketball. So we’ll give you nerds something to say when everyone is talking about the playoffs. It’s one of my favorite episodes. Hope you enjoy it.

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Archival Tape:
“Tomorrow night 15,000 cheering fans will pack Madison Square Garden in New York City to witness a giant basketball doubleheader. In that cheering crowd sitting in row C, seat 11 will be a modest 77-year-old man. Those fans won’t know that he made possible the game they are watching, but you’re going to meet him now.”

Roman Mars:
That tape is from an old New York radio show called ‘We, The People’. The guest is James Naismith. 125 years ago in 1891, Naismith was a PE instructor at a small college in Springfield, Massachusetts, when a particularly bad snowstorm struck.

James Naismith:
“For days, the students couldn’t go outdoors, so they began roughhousing in the halls. We tried everything to keep them quiet. Something had to be done. One day I had an idea. I called the boys to the gym, divided them up into teams of nine and gave them an old soccer ball. I showed them two peach baskets I’d nailed up at each end at the gym. I told them the idea was to throw the ball into the opposing team’s peach basket.”

Roman Mars:
A lot of sports don’t have such a definitive point of origin, but this one does.

James Naismith:
“I blew a whistle and the first game of basketball began.”

Roman Mars:
That day in 1891, James Naismith invented basketball.

Journalist:
“And what rules did you have for your new game, Dr. Naismith?”

James Naismith:
“Well, I didn’t have enough and that’s where I made my big mistake. The boys began tackling, kicking, and punching in the clinches. They ended up in a free for all in the middle of the gym floor.”

Roman Mars:
In subsequent weeks, Naismith would go on to make more rules for the game. Some of those are still around today, like the one that says players can’t run while holding the ball. They have to dribble it. There was one thing, not so much a rule, but a design decision that he made back in 1891 that continues to define the way the game is played.

Cari Champion:
He had to decide how high to hang the peach basket.

Roman Mars:
That’s Cari Champion. She’s an anchor at ESPN and host of the ‘Be Honest’ podcast and she’s going to help us tell our story today.

Cari Champion:
Naismith chose to hang the peach basket at 10 feet above the court floor. There was a running track that went around the court at that level, but otherwise, the decision was pretty random, and just a little higher, or a little lower, and everything would be different.

Roman Mars:
That arbitrary decision to put the basket at 10 feet caused the game of basketball to take shape around the tallest players, but it happened gradually. In fact, in the beginning the game was played by shorter, less imposing players.

Andrew Heisel:
In the very early days of the game, people didn’t really have a conception of height having really any importance to the game.

Roman Mars:
That’s writer and journalist Andrew Heisel.

Andrew Heisel:
So a lot of the high scorers in the very early days were guys who were six foot tall. It was not until a few decades in that teams started recruiting really tall guys. At the time they were sort of referred to often as goons.

Cari Champion:
Nowadays, if you play a little rough or dirty, you might be called a goon. Back then big men were sometimes called goons just because they were big. The first so-called goon to have a major impact on the game was a big white dude named George Mikan who played for the Minneapolis Lakers from 1948 to 1956. He was a six-foot, ten monster who wore big round spectacles when he played. Mikan towered over his opponents and broke scoring records with his strength and accuracy.

Roman Mars:
Mikan was such a force they actually had to change some rules in the game to offset his advantage. For example, the rule against goaltending came about because of Mikan. Goaltending is the act of catching or batting away another player’s shot as the ball is on a downward path toward the basket. Mikan was so tall he could just stand under the basket and swat away shots by the other team. Goaltending was banned in 1945.

Cari Champion:
But rule changes didn’t stop George Mikan or his fellow big men from dominating defensively and offensively.

Andrew Heisel:
You started to see people saying, like, it’s too easy to score. They were really disgusted. They thought this should be a triumph to get the ball in the hoop, not something that happens a hundred times a game.

Roman Mars:
The ease with which these super tall players could put the ball in the basket was alarming people. The traditionalist didn’t like the way the game was going, but they had no idea what was about to hit them.

Announcer:
“Slam dunk!”

Roman Mars:
The dunk, sometimes called the slam dunk. The first one in an organized game happened in 1936 but dunking didn’t really get going in basketball until the 1960s.

Cari Champion:
And man, the traditionalists, they hated the dunk, but not just because it was a new unconventional way to put the ball in the basket. The dunk became political.

Matt Andrews:
The key year is 1966.

Cari Champion:
That’s Matt Andrews.

Matt Andrews:
My name is Matt Andrews. I teach American History at UNC Chapel Hill and I have a particular focus on sport and society.

Cari Champion:
So, it was in 1966-

Matt Andrews:
In the NCAA championship game, Texas Western with an all black starting five, easily defeat Adolf Rupp’s all white University of Kentucky team.

Roman Mars:
This win by Texas Western against Kentucky was a big deal in the college basketball world. Kentucky was one of the last major college teams in the country that still didn’t have any black players. The coach of Kentucky was a guy named Adolph Rupp. Many viewed him as a racist. According to the sports correspondent Frank DeFord, who was in the Kentucky locker room that night, the language Rupp used against the Texas Western players, sent a chill down his spine.

Cari Champion:
There was this moment right at the beginning of the game where Texas Western’s David Latin gets the ball and makes a move toward the hoop.

Roman Mars:
The defender in front of him is Pat Riley. He’d go on to win nine NBA titles as a player, coach, and executive. Latin flies over him. Riley’s six-foot-four, stockily built and Latin just rises above him and slams the ball through the hoop.

Roman Mars:
Texas’s victory and Latin’s dunk were seen as direct challenges to the establishment.

Cari Champion:
After all, this was 1966. There was a lot going on in America. The Black Panthers have become a visible force.

Roman Mars:
In Oakland the Panthers had armed and organized themselves to protect their communities from brutal racist police.

Cari Champion:
Many white Americans were worried a revolution was about to take place. ‘Black Power’ was this new evocative phrase.

Andrew Heisel:
What’s so interesting about this phrase is its lack of specificity. No one is exactly sure what ‘Black Power’ means.

Roman Mars:
Into this context comes the dunk and the dunk seems to be ‘Black Power’ manifested on the basketball court.

Andrew Heisel:
The dunk is physical, the dunk is forceful. When you lay the ball in, you’re laying the ball in, but when you dunk, you’re doing it to someone. At a time when so many white Americans are uneasy with the specter of black violence, the dunk becomes suspect.

Roman Mars:
Then to scare people like Adolph Rupp even more comes a player called Lew Alcindor. He would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and become one of the most exciting and famous players in the history of the game. In 1967 he was a young man, seven feet, two inches tall and already tearing up the college game with his vicious dunks and fast movement.

Cari Champion:
So the NCAA, that’s the National Collegiate Athletic Association, made a decision. The only way to stop this guy was to get rid of the thing he did best. The slam dunk. In 1967, they banned the dunk and for 10 years there’s no dunking in college basketball.

Roman Mars:
Lew Alcindor, aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was not happy about this. In fact, he explicitly said that the only reason for the ban was because they were scared that black guys like him were going to take over the game. Although he used much stronger words. Regardless, the slam dunk was done and college basketball was sent back in time for 10 years.

Cari Champion:
Basketball was in a bad place. The NCAA administrators had made an arguably racist decision to ban the slam dunk.

Roman Mars:
Meanwhile, in the professional league, the NBA, players could still dunk but fans were losing interest. Here’s Andrew Heisel again.

Andrew Heisel:
This is, for the NBA, considered the low point of the league. There are all of these pieces written about how the game is dying and nobody wants to watch it. There’s all these questions about why.

Roman Mars:
Naismith’s original, accidental design decision to put the basket at 10 feet had inadvertently given us this beautiful and exciting slam dunk, but it had also caused the professional game to revolve too much around these super tall players.

Cari Champion:
The game had gotten jammed up around the net. People weren’t passing as much. They’d just hand the ball to the giant guy and he’d stand under the basket trying to put it in. This had the effect of slowing down the play and that slowness was draining the game of its excitement.

Roman Mars:
Basketball needed a design solution.

Cari Champion:
People suggested a lot of fixes, no backboard, a convex backboard, a smaller basket, a bigger ball, a smaller ball, a no scoring zone around the basket, and even a height cap. Another group of coaches called for the hoop to be raised to 12 feet. None of those changes caught on and then this guy comes along.

George Mikan:
“We feel that those people who are not under a contractual obligation, if they’d like to take a look at us we would certainly…”

Roman Mars:
So remember George Mikan, the original NBA goon, six foot, ten inches tall with big rounds specs? Well in 1967, he was working as a travel agent in Minnesota where he used to play, when he gets a call from a couple of guys asking if he wants to head up a new professional basketball league that would compete with the NBA.

Terry Pluto:
I mean it really was a sort of making up as you go on. It was simply let’s get an idea and let’s see what we can do here.

Cari Champion:
That’s Terry Pluto, who wrote a book about the founding of this new league. They called it the ABA, the American Basketball Association, and George Mikan and became its first commissioner. They were trying everything to get fans re-engaged in the game. Sometimes they featured cow milking contests for entertainment and one half time show in Indiana involved a wrestling bear called Victor.

Roman Mars:
Most of their ideas didn’t stick.

George Mikan:
A lot of times good ideas are like that. They’re one of 12 things that people stuck to the wall and out of the 12 one became really good, one helped a little bit, and the other 10 were almost embarrassing.

Roman Mars:
In this case one of the ideas was really good. In fact, it’s the design solution that arguably saved basketball. The secret star of this story that we’re telling right now.

Cari Champion:
The three point shot.

Roman Mars:
All you sports fans know this, but originally shots from the field were all worth two points, but the ABA’s innovation, which they actually borrowed from an earlier defunct league, was to draw an arced line about 22 feet away from the basket and any shot made from behind that line was now worth three points.

Cari Champion:
The ABA was trying to please the fans. Fans get excited when they see a three pointer, but they can also go and practice the shot at home.

Ramona Shelburn:
It’s more egalitarian.

Roman Mars:
That’s Ramona Shelburne, senior writer for ESPN.com.

Ramona Shelburn:
It’s the sense that if I practice hard enough, I don’t have to be the most athletic guy in the court. I don’t have to be an incredible dunker. It’s something that when fans watch it, they think, I could do that too.

Roman Mars:
In 1976, the NBA merged with the ABA and three years later they brought in the three point shot. At first it was about pleasing the fans, but they slowly came to realize something about the three point shot.

Ramona Shelburn:
When you’d study it, if you shoot 35% on three pointers and you shoot 45% on two pointers, if you break it down it makes so much more sense to build a team around three point shooting because you’re going to score more points and that’s the point of the game.

Roman Mars:
Now some teams have decided that the way to win is to concentrate on three-point shots.

Cari Champion:
When the NBA first introduced the three-point shot, games featured only a couple of three-point attempts. This season it’s more than 10 times that. If there’s any team that’s demonstrating the value of the three-point shot right now it’s the Golden State Warriors from California and Mr. Steph Curry.

Roman Mars:
If you don’t know who Steph Curry is, he’s about six foot, three, so he’s shorter by NBA standards, but this hasn’t stopped him from being the star of the team and of the whole NBA.

Ramona Shelburn:
I think every kid growing up in America now is trying to be Steph Curry. He is skinny and doesn’t seem to have anything physically dominant about him and yet when you watch him play, he’s electric.

Roman Mars:
Curry can hit three-pointers for Golden State from really anywhere he likes, which makes it hard to defend against him and balances the influence of the big men.

Cari Champion:
Because if there are guys like Curry who can score from anywhere, then the seven-foot guys have to move away way from the basket, where they’re most useful, to defend.

Roman Mars:
Once you allow players to score an extra point from shooting further out, the game spreads out, you get a whole new game.

Jerry Harkness:
The game has changed for the better. There’s no doubt about it.

Cari Champion:
That’s former Indiana Pacer, Jerry Harkness.

Roman Mars:
Harkness was a player in the NBA and the ABA.

Jerry Harkness:
Because the game is exciting. The game is run and shoot, quickness, defense, opening the game up, making it more aggressive.

Roman Mars:
But even though the three-point shot has had a balancing influence, some traditionalists still don’t like it.

Greg Popovich:
“I don’t think it’s basketball. I think it’s a circus sort of thing. Why don’t we have a five-point shot and a seven-point shot? Where does it stop? That sort of thing. But that’s just me. That’s just old school.”

Roman Mars:
That’s San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich speaking to ESPN about Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors last year.

Cari Champion:
What Popovich is saying echoes what people said about the dunk 50 years ago.

Roman Mars:
That it’s a trick, a departure from the fundamentals of basketball.

Cari Champion:
I kind of agree with Coach Pop.

Roman Mars:
But even Popovich seems to think that the three-point shot is here to stay.

Greg Popovich:
“To a certain degree you better embrace it or you’re going to lose. Every time we’ve won a championship, three-point shot was a big part of it.”

Roman Mars:
Instead of designing the beautiful, powerful dunk out of the game, we designed a counterbalance, the three-point shot and now the game is more inclusive than it’s ever been. You’ve got these little guys that can shoot bombs from anywhere on the court and there’s still room for the big guys close in. The three-pointer and the dunk have become the yin and yang of basketball.

Cari Champion:
All of this has sort of been by accident, the 10-foot tall basket, the dunk, the three-point shot, but then again the game wasn’t carefully designed in the first place. Really it came about because all James Naismith wanted was to stop some rowdy kids from getting into too much trouble.

James Naismith:
“The whole thing started with a couple of peach baskets I put up in a little gym 48 years ago. I guess it just goes to show what you can do if you have to.”

Roman Mars:
The Houston Rockets actually broke the Golden State Warriors’ record for the most three’s in a season this year, but the Warriors, led by Steph Curry, are still dominating the NBA from beyond the three-point arc. In game two of the 2017 NBA finals, Golden State set a new record for the most three-pointers in a final game.

Roman Mars:
This episode was a collaboration with our friends at ESPN and is part of a podcast mini-series they produced called ‘Dunkumentaries’. It’s a collection of stories all related to basketball’s slam dunk. It ran last year, but it’s still available on the ESPN mobile app, iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Roman Mars:
Joe Sykes reported and produced this story for us and for ESPN with help from Ryan Nantell, Emma Morgenstern, Delena Turman, Joe Fuentes, and Kevin Wildes. Special thanks to Jody Avirgan for hooking us all up. Also, check out Cari Champion’s podcast, ‘Be Honest’, where she has candid conversations with some of the biggest names in sports, music, and entertainment. This piece was inspired by a ‘Vice’ article by Andrew Heisel. We’ll have a link to it on our website.

Credits

Production

Joe Sykes reported and produced this story for us and for ESPN, with help from Ryan Nantell, Emma Morgenstern, Delena Turman, Joe Fuentes, and Kevin Wildes. Special thanks to Jody Avirgan.

This episode featured the voices of Cari Champion; writer and journalist Andrew Heisel; Matt Andrews, teacher of American History at UNC Chapel Hill; former ABA and NBA basketball player Jerry Harkness; and Ramona Shelburne, senior writer for ESPN.com.

This piece is part of a podcast mini series ESPN is launching later this spring called “Dunkumentaries.” It’s a collection of stories all related to basketball’s slam dunk. The feed is live and you can subscribe to it on the ESPN mobile app or iTunes.

Music

Reversing – Four Tet; This Unfolds – Four Tet; Circling – Four Tet; The Horse – Cliff Nobles & Co; Chop Your Hands – Onra; L’ Automne A Barbes Rochechouar – Jean-Claude Vannier; Stop Parching Yourself – Kelpe; Assinator – Copy; Choices (Yup) – Warriors Version, – E40

  1. Evan O

    I love the show. This episode however is incredibly poorly researched. The popularity of basketball and the 3 point line have very little to do with each other. Basketball regained popularity because of the dynamic personalities and skills of Magic, Bird, Dr. J, and the greatest of all Jordan. The effects of the 3pointer and its usage in the current game are unknown. If anything the dunk saved the game. Dr. J and Jordan made it art. The Bird Magic rivalry saved the game. The sheer physical brilliance of LeBron are the reason for the games popularity. Not the 3 point line. We will know the effects of the current game 10 years from now.

  2. Mike Gonsalves

    You might be hearing from a lot of Canadians on this one, James Naismith is one of our heroes, I mean a Canadian who invented one of Americas games! But sadly, it was not mentioned that Naismith was a Canadian working in the US.. I’m sad now..:(

  3. Aaron

    If you are going to talk about 3 point shots, you have to bring up Oscar Schmidt and the 87 gold medal the US lost in Indianapolis.

  4. Aaron

    If you are going to talk about three-point shots, you have to talk about Oscar Schmidt and the gold medal the US lost at home in 87. I was a kid then but I remember that was the first time the importance of the three-point shots were made clear to me. What a match!

  5. Tom Parmenter

    Naismith had lots of good ideas. The second one was taking the bottom out of the peach basket so they didn’t have to haul a ladder out to get the ball back in play. Whoever came up with reversing the play after every basket was another important gain.

  6. Kip Such

    Dear 99% Invisible crew,
    Brilliant and excellent episode as always! The only thing with which I was disappointed was the omission of the fact that James Naismith was a Canadian.
    So many of the acknowledged heroes in the world are American, and I believe that the rest of the world should have a chance to celebrate our inventors, designers, and role models. Every country shows its brilliance, and every architect (of buildings or LEGOs) needs to know that their country can shine just as bright as any other.
    It is a small thing, but by giving a three-second nod to another country besides the United States, it shows future entrepreneurs and beautiful nerds that there is more to the world than the U.S., and that one need not be strictly American to be relevant.

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