Hubie Brown laughs when he thinks of how he was introduced to the American Basketball Association way of doing things as the new head coach of the Kentucky Colonels.
“It’s the first day of practice,” says the Hall of Fame coach and announcer. “We’re doing a standard two-on-one fast-break drill. The guys are coming upcourt and Louie Dampier runs to the corner instead of angling to the basket. He makes a three. I say to him, ‘What the [naughty word] are you doing?’ He says, ‘That’s what I do.’ I said, ‘Every time you don’t make, it will cost you.’ ”
Welcome, Hubie, to the world of the three.
A brief history of the 3-point shot: It entered basketball in 1961 as the gimmick of a promoter, Harlem Globetrotters impresario Abe Saperstein. He had formed the American Basketball League in the hopes of competing with the NBA and the three would help shape the new league’s separate identity. When the league folded in the middle of its second season it was adopted by the Eastern Professional Basketball League, then, without question, the second-best collection of basketball talent in the world. The ABA incorporated the three when it began operation in 1967. It came into the NBA in 1979, and into college ball in 1986.
What this all means is that any basketball fan under the age of 50 has no serious recollection of a world without the three.
Brad Stevens was 3 years old when the NBA adopted the three. He was 10 when it came into the NCAA. He’s never had anything against the three, especially since his 10-year old basketball-loving Hoosier self was cheering madly as Steve Alford nailed seven threes in the 1987 NCAA championship game to lead Indiana past Syracuse.
With Stephen Curry as its reigning high priest, the 3-point shot has now managed to secure a hostile takeover of the game, the operative phrase being, “The worst shot in basketball is the long two.” It is generally acknowledged that most nights you live or die by the three.
Given the disproportionate importance of the three in today’s game, it is somewhat surprising to learn that the shot hardly took the NBA by storm when it was introduced 43 years ago. In fact, some of the early numbers were somewhat laughable.
Take, for instance, the Atlanta Hawks. In the first year of the rule’s existence the Hawks were 13 for 75 on 3-point shot attempts. For, yes, 82 games. The Lakers were 20 for 100. The Kansas City Kings 25 for 114. Portland was 26 for 132. The 76ers were 27 for 125. OK, you get the idea.
The Celtics? You know, of course, that Chris Ford made the very first one and that Larry Bird was a highly respectable .406 shooter (58 for 143). As a team, they were 166 for 422 (.384).
Oh, and guess who was coaching those timid Hawks? Hubie Brown, that’s who. The simple fact is he just didn’t have anyone who could make them with any regularity. He had left Louie Dampier behind.
Cedric Maxwell isn’t surprised to learn all this. “In the beginning everybody looked at it like it was fool’s gold,” he recalls.
Now, you would think there would be a gradual acceptance of the concept as NBA teams adapted to the brave new world. So I was stunned to discover that after five full seasons with the rule, there were nine NBA teams in the 1984-85 season that took fewer 3-point shots than they did in that first year.
In some cases, such as the Spurs (206 to 202), SuperSonics (189 to 185), Nuggets (255 to 235), and Pistons (219 to 199), the difference was marginal. But after taking a league-leading 543 3-point attempts in the first year, the Clippers dropped to 188 in Year 6. It must be noted that the Clippers’ Brian Taylor led the league in attempts (239) and makes (90) that first year. The Celtics also had a big dropoff, going from 422 attempts to 309 six years later.
What, I wonder, does this mean? “You’d have to ask those coaches,” Stevens says.
One of those coaches was Brown, who had moved in the interim from Atlanta to New York. You still went with your strengths, he explained, and in his case his big strength was the extraordinary skill of Bernard King, who was on his way to scoring 32.9 points a game while going 1 for 10 on threes for the season.
But, in time, things would change, and Hubie says it had to do with a specific emphasis on individual improvement and an important rule change. Teams begin expanding their coaching staffs, with full-time shooting instructors bringing in new drills and making sure things would be carried out over the summer.
Equally important in transforming the game was the elimination of hand-checking and a new fear of flagrant fouls.
“Look at the Detroit Bad Boys,” Brown points out. “Michael Jordan was on the floor more times against them in 15 minutes than guys today are in 82 games.”
The fact is that Curry never has to worry about such things.
There is no question the players are now aligned very differently. Stevens finds the whole topic fascinating.
“When I see those old films, I marvel at the post players of the day,” he says. “They had so much less space to work with.”
Maxwell (1 for 19 lifetime on threes) is the first to tell you he would have had to reinvent himself somewhat in order to keep his job today.
“I remember talking to Elton Brand a number of years ago,” Maxwell says. “I was kidding him about leaving the low post to spend more time outside. ‘You’ve gone over to the dark side,’ I told him.”
Speaking of dark sides, what can one say about going an embarrassing 4 for 42 on threes, which the Celtics did Dec. 29 against the Clippers? Shouldn’t they have a Plan B when the bombs aren’t falling?
“I couldn’t believe that when I saw it,” Brown says.
“I know the analytics guys might disagree,” says Stevens, “but I believe when things like that happen you need to get to the basket, get to the rim, and maybe get to the foul line. It’s helpful just to see the ball go through the basket.”
Like it or not, it’s the new game and it isn’t going away.
“Do people really want to see teams taking 40 or 50 threes a night?” Brown inquires.
For most of the fans, it’s all they know. I guess they answer is, “Yes.”
Bob Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.