Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Coach and the Granny Shot

Les Hipple was the most studious of mentors, attending basketball and football coaching clinics every year, bringing home notebooks filled with meticulous diagrams and captions on the latest thinking on team sports.

Although he followed developments closely, he often chose not to adopt them for this own teams, sticking with techniques, plays, and formations that had proven their worth over the years.

He insisted, for example, that his players shoot free throws the old-fashioned way, with two hands in an underhand motion. He taught his boys to dip the ball between their knees and bring it up with the arms relaxed, letting the ball slide off their fingers with almost no wrist action. A dead ball was more likely to get a favorable bounce than a spinning one.

Some people called it the "granny shot," and it began to go out of style in the late 1940s. By the late 1950s the Marion Indians were essentially alone in their adherence to the underhand free throw. All their opponents were using the one-handed overhand form.

(Perhaps the last notable user of the underhand form was NBA star Rick Barry, who for many years held the career record for accuracy: .900. Barry said he shot free throws that way because the motion was simpler, involving essentially the shoulders, while shooting overhand required coordinated movements of the shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers--movements that could be easily compromised by fatigue or tension.)

One day in the late 1950s, some Marion players, no doubt tired of being razzed by opponents, gathered the courage to challenge Hipple's orders, claiming they could do better from the free throw line shooting overhand.

"All right, let's see you do it," Hipple replied. To add reality to the test, recalled Mike Smith, a player that year, the coach made them run and do calisthenics for most of the practice.

Then, when the boys were nearly exhausted, he sent them to the free throw line, telling them to shoot overhand first, then to shoot his way. When the results came in, "they weren't even close," Smith said. The granny shot won easily.

A few years later, school authorities, tired of hearing complaints from parents, overruled the coach, ordering him to allow his teams to shoot overhand. Relenting, he said, "They won't make as many." He probably was right.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Hoop Dreams

"Old man, I see your bald head in my dreams."

Those words, or ones very like them, are spoken by the character in the movie Seven Samurai played by Toshiro Mifune. He is addressing a wise Samurai leader who is putting together a group of warriors to defend a village against bandits. Mifune's character is a fake Samurai who wants to join the team, but has neither the credentials or the skills. Mifune is begging to be allowed on the team.

How like my dreams that scene is. Old athletes often dream of trying to get back on the team, and for years my dreams involved college football, which I dropped in my junior year. For years, the dreams came back, insisting that I try out for the team as a senior. But my attempts to do so were often frustrated by missing equipment, confused timetables, blind alleys--the stuff of nightmares.

As I worked on A Coach's Life, my dreams switched to high school basketball under Les Hipple. I was back in Marion seeking a position on the team. Hipple was as remote and iron-willed as ever. He did not welcome me back. Sometimes I couldn't get suited up. When he put me in I usually played awkwardly. I had trouble dribbling. I was slow getting to the ball.

But a few times I excelled. I discovered if I crouched very low before jumping, I could rise slowly above the rim, far above the defenders' hands, and drop the ball through the basket as I floated back to the court.

As I began to awaken from those dreams, I remembered I was writing a book about Les Hipple. Instead of trying to play for him, I thought, half awake, I should be interviewing him. Then I remembered that he had died long ago, and I was on my own.

-- Dan Kellams