SI Vault
Jack McCallum
November 03, 1986
In an era when the big man is ever more dominant—when seven-foot forwards and six-seven guards are not uncommon—some astute students of NBA basketball believe that the players have outgrown the game
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November 03, 1986

The Incredible Shrinking Court

In an era when the big man is ever more dominant—when seven-foot forwards and six-seven guards are not uncommon—some astute students of NBA basketball believe that the players have outgrown the game

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Premise: Dunking is too commonplace, as are big men shooting gimmes inside. Raising the basket would force the big man to do something besides dunk and would help put the smaller, multiskilled player back into the game.

Notable quotable: Cleveland Cavaliers coach Lenny Wilkens says, "What was one of the really fun stories last year? Spud Webb winning the slam-dunk contest. With a 12-foot basket, you take that away."

The message that the basket should be 10 feet high did not arrive on Dr. James Naismith's doorstep via a burning bush. The balcony that ran around the gym at the YMCA College in Springfield, Mass., happened to be 10 feet high, and it was to that balcony that Naismith had two peach baskets attached on that fateful day in 1891. So the ordained height of a basketball hoop was neither miraculous nor scientific, but it has nonetheless stayed at 10 feet ever since.

Is that too low?

Way back in 1932, Forrest (Phog) Allen, the legendary University of Kansas coach, thought so. And since Phog's horn was a loud one, there was extensive experimentation with the goal at 11 and 12 feet during the next two years. The end result was that almost no one agreed with Allen. Field goal percentage went down when the basket went up, and shooters complained of added fatigue. (With the basket at 10 feet, shooting percentages have steadily improved, thanks in no small part to the dunk.) On a more pragmatic level, many gymnasium caretakers refused to raise the bucket. The argument continued into the '60s, when this magazine even staged a game with a 12-foot hoop and ran an article supporting the higher basket (SI, Dec. 4, 1967). But there was never enough support for permanent change nor substantial proof that a higher basket would help the little man. In fact, gurus like John Wooden, Red Auerbach and Pete Newell felt—and still feel—that a 12-foot basket simply makes the big man more important.

"Let's say shooting percentage goes down 20 percent with a higher basket," says Auerbach. "That's 20 percent more rebounds in a game, and most of them will belong to the big man. It is simply ridiculous to think that a higher basket would make the big man less important."

One of the few NBA people who will argue with Auerbach is Detroit general manager Jack McCloskey, who several years ago recommended that the NBA Rules Committee raise the basket to 11½ feet. In 1964, McCloskey had played in an intrasquad college game with the goal at that height and liked it. He liked it so much, in fact, that he kept an 8mm film of the game, which he still reviews from time to time. "The thing the higher basket does is make the big man shoot the ball," he says. But the idea was snuffed, rejected, Spalding-ed into the cheap seats, and chances are the same thing would happen today.

Why? Well, while the dunk would decrease in frequency, if not disappear altogether, there is no proof that a higher basket would enhance the athleticism of the game. As things now stand, big men with shooting skills earn everything they get from the outside—McCloskey himself has such a player in Bill Laimbeer. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's offensive preeminence over the last decade results as much from his uncanny sky hook, delivered from up to 18 feet away, as from his ability to dunk. With a 12-foot basket, big men who don't have shooting skills would simply attempt awkward-looking jumpers instead of awkward-looking short shots and dunks.

And what about the little man? "For outside shooters," says McCloskey, "it would just be a matter of putting more are on the ball." There is, however, no indication that NBA shooters would gladly learn their skills over again on a 12-foot basket. "I just figured out how to shoot it at 10 feet," says the Celtics' Sichting.

Furthermore, the dunk, though devalued over the years, remains enormously popular—it has that in common with the dollar. The dunk is the game's exclamation point, an in-your-face affirmation that basketball is fun. Conclusion: Don't raise the basket.

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