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Let's say we're at Springfield 76 years ago, and I'm Dr. Naismith," says Coach Jack McCloskey of Wake Forest. "I nail a hoop somewhere on the wall and we start playing. The big fellows are tapping in shots and stuffing the ball into the basket, and it looks too easy. What do I do? I raise the baskets! So why not try it now?"
There are, of course, many ramifications to the overall debate that presently engrosses more and more thoughtful coaches, but McCloskey's statement is the heart of the argument for raising the baskets to 12 feet (see cover). When Dr. Naismith dreamed up the game in 1891 he never envisioned such now elementary refinements as five men to a side, backboards or Lew Alcindor. He simply nailed his peach baskets to the lower railing of a balcony in the old Springfield College gym and let his boys take aim with a soccer ball. The balcony rail happened to be 10 feet above the floor, and—thanks to this scientific precision—the hoop has been 10 feet high ever since.
In the early days of the sport, the height of the basket was almost incidental. Everyone threw the ball at the basket; that's what you were supposed to do. Today that height puts an inordinate premium on growth hormones, excessively benefitting both the tall athlete and the nonathlete who happens to be tall. This season nearly 100 seven-footers will be playing basketball in the U.S., and very few of them have anything like the ability of UCLA's Alcindor. They have thrown the game out of kilter.
"College basketball is in grave danger of sinking in a mire of boredom," says University of California Athletic Director Pete Newell. "It was meant to be a game of balanced skills, but they are fast becoming overshadowed by the tall player with his control of rebounds, easy tip-ins and shot-blocking. The game is cluttering itself up around him."
To combat the giants, coaches and rulemakers have searched everywhere, including the loony bin, for ideas. They put a time limit on staying in the foul lane (1936), eliminated the center jump after every basket (1937), outlawed goal-tending (1944), widened the foul lane (1956), banned dunking (1966)—and continued to recruit big boys for their own teams. They also have slowed the game down on occasion to the pace of a chess tournament, on the theory that the fewer chances the giants have to get at the ball, the less harm they can do. All along, say the advocates of the 12-foot basket, the major solution has been to change the game's critical dimension by two feet.
McCloskey, who staged a game with 11�-foot baskets several years ago when he coached at Penn, says, "Basketball is unique in this respect—I don't know another sport where a player can be so dominating and actually lack talent. Why is there so much resistance to change? Unfortunately, too many coaches don't look at it as something good for the game. They're only concerned about whether it is good for them.
"I'm not talking against the big man if he has talent. With a 12-foot basket, he would still be a factor. But he would have to shoot the ball instead of tapping it down. The 10-foot basket is just no longer adequate. Chamberlain is a good example of why it isn't. He's broken every record for scoring and for shooting accuracy, but you put him 15 feet from the basket, at the foul line, and he's the worst."
With the higher hoop, it is claimed, the big men would have to learn the real skills of the game—shooting, dribbling, passing and defense. More important, it would bring the talented little man back to a position of relative value on a par with his skills. Fewer of his shots would be blocked because he would be shooting with a higher arc to reach the goal. He would have a better chance at rebounds because many of them would bounce farther away from the rim than formerly. Given time to adjust to the new height, today's good shooters would still be superior to the others—and the little men are often the best on the team.
Still, the majority of coaches are indignant at the mere mention of changing anything about basketball. (Few have ever seen a 12-foot basket.) "I like the game the way it is," says Shelby Met-calf of Texas A&M. "I wish they'd leave us alone and just let us play." Loyola of Chicago's George Ireland calls the whole idea "silly," and Syracuse's Dr. Fred Lewis insists, "The only reason to do it would be to legislate against the big man. It's just not right to penalize a player's talents." ( Lewis has a 6'11" youngster on his freshman team whom he already compares favorably with Alcindor) Abe Lemons, the country humorist at Oklahoma City U., says flatly, "Most defensive coaches like it because it would cut out the shooters. All they know is one end of the court, anyway." But, adds Abe, who is noted for his run-and-gun game, "it really doesn't make any difference where they put the basket. We'd find it if they put it under the stands or in the parking lot."
Notre Dame's Johnny Dee reacts like any coach who has just recruited two 6'9" freshmen. "The game would be like water polo," he claims. "Everyone sloshing around under the basket and no scoring. You'd have to take the shot, hope for the rebound and then work it in again." (And what, ask the advocates, is wrong with that?) John Wooden of UCLA does not like it either, and he says his opinion is not based on Alcindor's presence for two more seasons. "Why tamper with the basic concepts?" he asks. "I was opposed to it 10 years ago and I will be against it three years from now. If you're really trying to help the little man, then lower the basket—and I'm against that, too. The whole thing is so farfetched that it is ridiculous for anyone to even experiment with it."