3-Point Play Now in NBA

[Taking the long historical view, the impetus behind pro basketball’s three-point shot is Abe Saperstein, the owner-operator of the Harlem Globetrotters. In the 1950s, America’s fiery “Mr. Basketball” kept popping up at NBA Board of Governors meetings and popping off that the NBA was blowing it by promoting a monotonous, fan-unfriendly brand of basketball. “Fans are developing swivel necks,” he complained to The Sporting News about the NBA’s hurried 24-second blips of offense. “There’s no time to cheer, no time to savor a goal. Even the scorekeepers can’t keep up with the baskets.”

According to Saperstein, he was uniquely qualified to get the NBA on track as marketable, fan-friendly entertainment. His presumed NBA friends and colleagues (Saperstein had a small ownership stake in the NBA Philadelphia Warriors) just had to agree to give him more skin in the NBA game. That meant awarding him an NBA franchise on his own nod-and-wink, bargain-basement terms to make it worth his while. 

The NBA bosses, not too keen on being bossed around and possibly losing control of their league to the opportunistic Saperstein, passed on his kind offers. By the late 1950s, the league’s long-simmering tensions with the Globetrotter mogul came to a boil when Philadelphia owner Eddie Gottlieb, a long-time Saperstein crony, squabbled with his dear friend over who had first dibs on a once-in-a lifetime young talent named Wilt Chamberlain. When Gottlieb wouldn’t let go of Chamberlain, Saperstein vowed revenge in the form of the American Basketball League (ABL). For Saperstein, the ABL would be the in-you-face consummation of that more-exciting, fan-friendly brand of pro basketball that he’d been advocating.

Saperstein went on the offensive, publicly picking at the NBA’s supposed snooze of a product and its silly emphasis on size. “Look, over 80 percent of the adult male population in the U.S. is under six feet tall,” he told The Sporting News. “Yet the whole NBA last year had only one player under six feet, Slater Martin. Do you blame the public for not buying NBA basketball with its seven-foot skyscrapers and ridiculously high scores?”

Saperstein, who himself stood about 5-foot-5 and sported a Mr. Peanut physique, wanted the ABL to be a vicarious thrill for America’s 80 percent silent majority. Though it’s unclear who actually dreamed up the three-point shot during the ABL’s myriad planning sessions, Saperstein signed off on the idea as the league’s Mr. Big, recognizing that there was nothing to stop the vertically challenged from getting into the game, away from the pushing-and-shoving around the basket, to take these long, high-arching heaves. 

The ABL famously shot blanks and was out of ammunition in a season and a half, the victim of poor planning and Saperstein’s time-sucking overseas commitments with his Globetrotters. But NBA great Bill Sharman got his coaching start in the ABL and walked away impressed with its quirky three-point shot. When approached in the mid-1960s by organizers of the newfangled American Basketball Association (ABA), Sharman gladly shared his ABL experiences, including a thumbs up for the three-point shot. The organizers jotted down the idea and ran with it, thinking a three-point basket would fit the ABA’s self-described image as “The Lively League.”

Though jotted down early and then bandied about in the press, the three-point “home run” was officially approved quite late in the ABA’s planning process. But once official, like the ABA’s red, white, and blue basketball, the three-point shot became emblematic of the new league. 

This article from Sports Quarterly’s 1979-80 Basketball Special issue describes the NBA’s grudging decision to outfit itself in an ABA idea. Written by veteran New York Daily News reporter Joe O’Day, this brief article is a good place to start in learning more about the NBA’s decision to try out the three-point shot and, as history would show, remake the league in a manner that would bring a smile to the face of the late-Abe Saperstein.]

There is a continuity to nature . . . the seasons follow each other in an orderly fashion. Time was, too, in sports when there was a definitive line of demarcation, but that was before expansion and television. Now the seasons overlap. Pro basketball and hockey are hardly off the sports page and tube before a football camp is opening. The collegiate and pro grid seasons spill over into the World Series and basketball and hockey are not without guilt here too. 

It’s enough to drive a fan up the wall. But bear with it, though, even if on a frosty night this winter you hear an excited announcer—and are there any other kind?—scream: “It’s a home run, it’s a home run!”

No, you haven’t flipped your lid and don’t fast break it to the nearest psychiatrist, either. It’ s just the revival of the three-point basket, which in the argot of the defunct American Basketball Association was called a “home run.” The ploy will be implemented into the NBA this season on a trial basis and the Lords—the owners—hope it will create new fan interest to break the leveling off attendance figures and those skidding television ratings. 

Reduced to its simplicity, a player is rewarded with a three-pointer for any shot outside 22 feet in the corners and outside the arc that reaches 23.9 feet straight away, or two feet above the top of the key. 

In the old ABA, 15-point leads often vanished quicker than you could say “home run” and the league was loaded with “downtown shooters” like Daryl Carrier and Lou Dampier of Kentucky and Bill Keller of Indiana, along with Glen Combs of Utah. 

Dampier and Carrier, who played together at the University of Kentucky, were the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of the early ABA and could they hit the “home run.” The six-foot Dampier was the all-time ABA home-run hitter and he connected on 199 of 552 in 1968-69 and 198 of 548 a season later.

The deft-shooting Dampier made the transition to the NBA with San Antonio and, even at the age of 35, could hang on and be the Spurs’ “designated shooter” in clutch situations. 

Still, in the first season of the ABA (1967-68), it was Wes (Typo) Bialosuknia of Oakland who hit nine straight homers over a five-game spread. 

The ABA and NBA went their respective ways for nine years before the competition became so bitter that a merger was affected, to the monetary relief of all. But the Lords of the NBA acted just like the National Football League, which eschewed the two-point conversion in its merger with the old American Football League, and ignored the three-point play and even termed it “a gimmick.”

The survivors of the ABA and the vanguard of the NBA were as divided as the Democrats and Republicans in Congress. The surviving coaches and officials of the ABA, however, employed a subtle brainwash as first the three-point basket was tried during the exhibition season a year ago before the trial. 

The selling points were:

  • Excitement
  • Options at the end of the game
  • More defense farther out from the basket
  • Less double-teaming inside
  • More room for the big man to operate down low

Nets’ coach Kevin Loughery and his former assistant, Rod Thorn, now the Chicago Bulls’ general manager, were two of the leading campaigners for the three-point play, along with such other ex-ABAers as coaches Hubie Brown (Atlanta), Tom Nissalke (Utah), Slick Leonard (Indiana) and Doug Moe (San Antonio).

Finally, some flexibility surfaced in the person of Suns’ general manager Jerry Colangelo and San Diego Clippers’ coach Gene Shue, who had three downtown shooters like Lloyd Free, Randy Smith, and Freeman Williams. 

But it was Colangelo who put it in proper perspective when he said: “If it can add excitement to the game, then it’s a plus and I am for it.”

The general managers and coaches held their preliminary meetings before the summer meeting of the Lords of the NBA at Amelia Island, Fla., and their recommendations were passed along. The general managers voted for the three-point play, 15-7; the coaches, 15-5. But it was a verbal battle worthy of the United Nations. 

Blazers’ Jack Ramsay, president of the Coaches’ Association, and Warriors’ Al Attles, chairman of the Coaches’ Rules Committee, were two of the more outspoken rear-guard of the NBA.

“I’m personally against it,” Ramsay said. “I don’t think we need any gimmicks. I don’t think anything is wrong with our league to panic into change. What we need are some winning teams in New York, Chicago, and Boston. It will cure the league’s ills quickly. 

“The drawback is not to reward for distance. It just doesn’t sound sensible to me. It’s not done in other sports. I think we have to work within the framework of getting a good shot.”

Attles also seized on the gimmick angle but also threw in the whoopee angle . . . the lack of teamplay these past few seasons that was turning off the purists and fans alike. “Our first reaction was that we had good game,” Al explained, “and that it didn’t need to be tinkered with. We felt that once you started giving way on certain aspects of the game, then you’ll start to give way on others. Why not give three points to a team that executes the backdoor play and gets a layup? To me, that’s worth more than just pulling up and shooting. 

“This could send our individualists (the schoolyard types) haywire. We’ll just have to re-educate them and ourselves as to what we want to accomplish with this. That will be our main problem.”

General manager Eddie Donovan and coach Red Holzman of the Knicks had mixed opinions. “It’s a good game (the current game) and I don’t like to see a gimmick,” Donovan declared for an opener. “You’re teaching and preaching the team concept . . . and that was the thing that bothered me. Maybe a 30-second clock (the ABA used it) might have been good with it. You don’t want them to pump it up too soon.

“But we talked to Kevin Loughery and Rod Thorn. They were in both leagues and thought it was great. They said it helps if you’re down at the end of the game, and that it helps on double-teaming inside. But I still have mixed emotions about it.”

Holzman in presenting his side, added: “My first thoughts were that I was against it. I couldn’t see rewarding for distance and things of that nature were in the best interest of the game. But the fans evidently want it and they pay the way. 

“I don’t think it will change the game drastically though or the scores. You only use it in certain situations. The defense will have to be more honest now. It will definitely open things down low for the big man. 

“The fans wanted it . . . they got it.”

Asked how his 1970 champion Knicks would fare, Red almost salivated and said: “We were a great perimeter-shooting team. Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley could hit out of the corners, and Bill also could swing to the top of the key. Dick Barnett and Clyde (Walt Frazier) had excellent range, and even Willis (captain Willis Reed). Yes, Willis could go out there and do it.

“Then there was Jerry Lucas of our championship team in 1973. Wow, he would have been something with those mortar shots of his . . . maybe he’ll make a comeback.”

One of the more flexible critics of the three-point basket, of course, was Celtics’ president Red Auerbach, who according to one NBA confrere “is opposed to motherhood.”

“We don’t need it,” Auerbach said in defense of the status quo. “Leave the game alone. Putting in three-point plays reminds me of a team that trades four, five, or six players every year out of panic. Panic over attendance, particularly in the East, and poor television ratings prompted its adoption. 

“You’ll see a dramatic rise in the league next year when Bill Walton (now healthy and happy at San Diego), Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson come in. These players have charisma. There is no way you can measure it. Charisma starts before you can play the game.”

Then there was Eddie Gottlieb, one of the pillars of the NBA with the original Philadelphia Warriors. Gottlieb, the schedule-maker for the league and a rules consultant, fumed: “What makes that shot worth more than 50 percent than a difficult layup when a player reverses hands? The only thing I can see in favor of it is that they think it will close the score quickly. We’ve already proved that 10, 12 and 18-point leads can be overcome with two-point field goals.”

In analyzing the play, it is important to note that in the nine-year run of the ABA, the three-point play figured out to 32 percent of execution. Conversely, the NBA in order to tally as many points conventionally within the confines of the three-point arc or half-circle, would have to shoot 48 percent.

And how do the players feel about it? Don Buse, once a guard with the then ABA Pacers and now with the Suns, remembers it fondly with such pumping teammates as Billy Keller, George McGinnis, Mike Flynn, and Billy Knight. 

“We shot a few,” Buse recalled. “Slick (coach Bob Leonard) had certain plays set up for the threes, and we did use them at times. If we were down by two at the end of the game, sometimes Slick wouldn’t hesitate to go for the win with a three-pointer instead of working the ball inside for the better shot. 

“I used to shoot [it] a lot when we had McGinnis, when we’d post him down low and they double-team him. Chicago should be able to do the same thing now with Artis Gilmore. But the only time it will really change the strategy of a game, though, is right at the end. If a team is down by 15 points, it’s better for the fans, because you can get back into it with two or three shots.”

Well, the Lords of the NBA weighed the pros and cons, with the Board of Governors giving the three-point field goal a one-year trial. “It was a tough debate and very close vote,” Joe Axelson, then president of the K.C. Kings and chairman of the NBA Rules and Competition Committee, related. 

But to their credit, the league is trying it, and they might even like it . . . even a Red Auerbach. 

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