"You had to find something to do or you would go stir crazy," says Barker, "so I got a basketball from the Red Cross and started working with it." Barker spent hours, day after day, practicing dribbling and passing, and by the time he got back to Kentucky he was a wizard at handling the ball.
Perhaps the most spectacular of all the ball handlers—and the model for the few who are outstanding today—was Cousy, who gained his greatest fame as a pro with the Boston Celtics. Cousy had uncanny control of the ball and onlookers marveled at his ability to dribble defenders out of their high-rise sneakers. He could alternate hands on the dribble and change his pace, all in an instant. More important, he was a marvelous passer, whipping quick, blind tosses or low bounce passes to teammates cutting for the basket. Cousy's specialty was the behind-the-back switch with the ball, right to left or left to right. He used it on a driving layup, and nobody was ever sure which hand had the ball. Or whether he was eventually going to pass or shoot.
Cousy played at a time when superb ball handlers were still the rule rather than the exception. Every team had at least one: Bobby Davies of Seton Hall and the Rochester Royals, Dick McGuire of St. John's and the New York Knickerbockers, Slater Martin of Texas and the St. Louis Hawks.
"I had a tremendous natural advantage," admits Cousy, "because I was blessed with peripheral vision. I didn't have to look at the man I wanted to pass to. I always knew where he was. I had some other advantages, too. I was ambidextrous, and I could snap off my passes. My hands were big, too, much bigger than they should have been for my size. And I learned my basketball in New York. You just naturally dribbled, passed, faked, changed directions and played give-and-go. It was the finesse way to play basketball, and everybody I grew up with played it that way."
There are, of course, exceptions to everything, including trends in sports. For all its marvelous scorers, professional basketball has some exceptional passers: Guy Rodgers, Elgin Baylor, Walt Hazzard, Johnny Egan, Len Wilkens, Earl Monroe, Jimmy Walker, Gail Goodrich and Oscar Robertson, called by some the best passer of all time. The presence of so many good ball handlers per capita probably is to be expected in a sport as distilled as pro basketball, which each year takes in only a handful of the graduating college seniors who played basketball.
Not all college coaches agree that ball handling is a lost art. Loyola of Chicago's George Ireland, whose teams are noted for their running game, is one who does not. "How do you think we get down there so fast?" he asks. "The ball handling is much better now than it was in the good old days. Then it was a lot of individual stuff. Now there is more team play, fast passing, crisscrossing, cutting. I hope the old days never come back. What did you see? Ring-around-the-rosy, a lot of passes, a lot of meaningless stuff."
Villanova's Jack Kraft concedes that there may be a shortage of fine ball handlers elsewhere in the country but not in the East. "Our kids work on it," he says, "and teams like St. Bonaventure, Holy Cross, St. John's, Boston College and the Philadelphia clubs always have the passers."
Coach John Wooden of UCLA, who has had some good ones, denies that there has ever been a shortage of fine college ball handlers. "Maybe they're not so fancy today," he says, "but there are quite a few around I wish that I had found—or that they had found me."
Johnny Dee of Notre Dame goes further. "There hasn't been an outstanding team in the last 20 years that didn't have a super ball handler," he says. "Like Larry Siegfried at Ohio State, K.C. Jones at San Francisco, Walt Hazzard and Mike Warren at UCLA. You need the caddy who can get the ball up-court, the guy who can pass off to the man in the clear. Without him you just don't win."
Maybe so, but Butch van Breda Kolff, coach of the pro Los Angeles Lakers, has to be convinced. "If there's no shortage," he asks, "why are we all going around trying to make backcourt men out of college forwards? Where are they hiding?"