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Talk hoops all year long in Luke Winn's blog, a journal of commentary, news and reader-driven discussions about the college game.
12/23/2007 02:45:00 PM

Breaking Away

Arthur Ehrat
Arthur Ehrat, with one of his "Rebounder" rims, in Virden, Ill.
Courtesy of Arthur Ehrat

Last December, around Christmastime, Arthur Ehrat sent me this seven-line e-mail in all caps:







PS US PATENT 4365802 ISSUED 12-28-1982

Ehrat and I had corresponded a few times prior, mostly about his invention's pending inclusion in the Smithsonian. I regrettably didn't make time to write about it then -- blame Bob Knight for dragging out his pursuit of the all-time wins record late last December, maybe, or my being asked to cover the Orange Bowl -- but this is a more appropriate year to discuss Ehrat's niche in basketball history anyway. Friday is the 25th anniversary of the issue date of Art's patent for the first breakaway rim.

Ehrat's rim patent, which was issued on Dec. 28, 1982.
Courtesy of Arthur Ehrat
Ehrat was never a basketball player. Nor was he a coach. He was barely even a fan of the sport. Much of his life was spent as the manager of the grain elevator at Farmers Elevator Company in Lowder, Ill.; he held two patents for farming products before he delved into rims. His link to the hardwood was through a nephew, Randy Albrecht, who was an assistant coach at St. Louis University. Albrecht inquired, in 1975, if Ehrat had any ideas for creating a basketball rim that wouldn't put players -- as well as backboards -- at risk from aggressive dunks.

The slam had been outlawed in NCAA games since 1967, mostly as a result of Lew Alcindor's dominance as a 7-footer at UCLA. But the aerial stylings of Dr. Julius Erving in the ABA were making the dunk en vogue again, and it was being reconsidered for the college game in the mid-'70s. When the NCAA reinstated the dunk for the '76-77 season, Ehrat already had a prototype in the works.

Ehrat was a child of the Great Depression, and spent his would-be recreation time as a youth in Shobonier, Ill., doing farm work. This was where he gained his early mechanical skills, operating and repairing his family's agricultural equipment. "I didn't even see a basketball until the age of 10," he told me last year. Encouraged by his nephew, a 55-year-old Ehrat bought a $20 test rim in '75 and began to experiment. His laboratory was a friend's shed, outfitted with a portable heater.

After rejecting one prototype that featured a door-hinge mechanism, and another that used magnets, Ehrat found the magic part: a coil from a John Deere cultivator. The spring was strong enough not to budge on normal shots, but would yield when 125 pounds of slam-dunk force was applied. Ehrat called it "The Rebounder." How many modern-day hoop-heads are aware that an octogenarian in rural Illinois with a John Deere cultivator coil has as much to do with the evolution of the dunk as Dr. J and Michael Jordan?

The breakaway rim's patent application -- in which it's officially named the "deformation-preventing swingable mount for basketball goals" -- was filed by Ehrat in 1976 and, after numerous legal challenges, finally issued in 1982. (Another inventor, Frederick Tyner, had independently begun work on a rim in the spring of '76, one year after Ehrat, but Tyner was first to file for a patent.)

Ehrat's rim made its high-profile debut at the time of the 1978 Final Four, in St. Louis. Albrecht had put two of the "Rebounder" prototypes up at Forest Park Community College for one of the earliest college slam-dunk contests, and Ehrat and his wife drove down from Virden for the occasion.

"There wasn't even 100 people there, and I was sitting next to John Wooden," Ehrat said. "I remember him saying, 'They've gotta take those rims down, they're both broken.' He didn't know they were breakaway rims."

Ehrat's invention has since made its way into the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center as well as the archives of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. The NBA eventually opted to use a later model of breakaway rim as part of its official backboard, but Ehrat's "swingable mount" was licensed to 12 companies and emerged as a must-have feature for any respectable gym.

Among the things Ehrat e-mailed me a few weeks ago, upon request, was an image of one of his original documents that promoted The Rebounder. It's a type-written, 10-point plan from the late '70s, with phrases capitalized for emphasis, such as, "WILL TAKE THE SHOCK OFF THE GLASS." After extolling all of the mechanical benefits in the first nine points, the 10th stated an opinion: "I feel the REBOUNDER WILL BE A GREAT ASSET TO THE GAME."

Ehrat's invention has become so ingrained in the modern game that when a player like Tyler Hansbrough rips down a dunk, compressing the spring on a rim, and it thwacks! back into place, we think nothing of it. That's just what we expect a rim to do. It has, no doubt, saved many a backboard from shattering from the stress of Shaq-like slams. And it's kept its inventor engaged in the sport -- even if he cares little for most of what happens on the floor.

Ehrat also sent along a few newspaper clippings, including an article from 2005 in which he explained his continued interest in basketball. "Honest to pieces, I know practically nothing about the damn game," he said then. "I pay attention to the dunk. That's the only thing I wait for."
posted by Luke Winn | View comments (10) |


Posted: 12:29 PM   by Anonymous Anonymous
Awesome piece. It really strikes me as amazing that someone who really doesn't know much about the sport helped introduce a piece of technology that helped lift the mega stars of today to their perch. I wonder if the NBA of NCAA have recognized him for his contribution to the sport. It would be nice to know.
Posted: 9:33 AM   by Anonymous Anonymous
Great reporting, Luke. Very interesting.
Posted: 4:37 PM   by Blogger Big Dave D.
Has this great invention really been recognized for what it has allowed? It may have been the singular most important thing to happen to college and pro basketball since getting rid of the fruit bushel basket. Have the major TV company's paid this man for all the dollars he's put into their pockets? I hope this great man continues with his ideas of saving something, the world needs a lot of help! Nice work, Arthur...
Posted: 1:59 PM   by Blogger Karen Smith
Art is my dad's cousin and I thank you for such a great article about him. He is a gem of a guy and deserves attention for the great contribution he has made to basketball. The entire family is proud of his accomplishments and is thrilled each time he receives recognition. Thanks again!
Posted: 9:14 PM   by Anonymous Anonymous
Posted: 10:33 PM   by Blogger Dave K
Great Article! I find it very interesting that it took a farm boy from Shobonier, Illinois to come up with an idea like that.
Posted: 9:26 AM   by Anonymous Anonymous
The Break Away rim is just one idea of a man that has had many ideas. Knowing Art for many years it is easy to say he is one of a kind.
Posted: 5:39 PM   by Anonymous Anonymous
Good job Luke, Nice story and thanks also to my grandpa "Arthur Ehrat" I have a couple of pictures of one of the prototypes that i had given to me from my Grandpa if you want them.
Jacob Edwards
Posted: 11:37 AM   by Anonymous Anonymous
Great piece.
Funny that this seemingly simple invention was first used at the '78 Finals. That event led me to purchase another new invention, an $800 VCR a year or so later. I had recently moved to St. Louis. Working overtime on Saturday and evening shift on Monday I managed to miss every minute. I vowed never again and forked over the cash for the VCR.
The VCR is already near extinction, but "The Rebounder" seems sturdy enough to last forever.
Posted: 4:10 PM   by Anonymous el guapo
I don't know what is more amazing-the completely American combination of genius insight and hard work or that the #1 fan of dunking is an 82 year old white guy. Awesome story-I used to wonder about how the breakaway came to be standing under the hoop as a kid. Many thanks sir!
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