SI Vault
Mervin Hyman
December 02, 1968
"Ask a boy what his strength is," says USC Coach Bob Boyd, "and he'll tell you he has a 17-foot jump shot that never misses. Or a great hook shot. Or he is a tremendous rebounder. I have yet to have one tell me that he likes to pass."
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December 02, 1968

The Passing Fancy

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The truth is, ball handlers have not been hiding; they have been in short supply. But those two new developments in the game—the zone press and combination defenses—are beginning to change that. The press, which harasses the mediocre ball handler and makes capital of his shortcomings, has become one of the most devastating weapons in basketball, as coaches of the many teams that have lost to UCLA in recent years have learned to their sorrow. Because of the stringent defenses, says Oklahoma State's Hank Iba, a dedicated believer in ball control, the day of the ball handler is returning. "It won't happen overnight," he says, "but it definitely is on the way back. There's no other way to beat the defenses now."

While most coaches merely brood about the shortage of skilled ball handlers, there are some who work at trying to develop them. Tennessee's Ray Mears, whose patient game depends upon good floor play for its success, works his squad 15 to 20 minutes every day, practicing one-on-one with reverse dribbles, dribbling between the legs and similar moves. Then one player works against two men, learning to bring the ball upcourt against pressure. The Vols are so good at handling the ball that they put on a drill before most of their games that reminds spectators of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Colorado State's Williams has devised several drills designed to sharpen his team's passing. "Many coaches don't bother coaching the ball handler," he says, "but the coaches who do are the ones who win."

Cousy, who now coaches Boston College, insists that the ball handler is the most important man on any team, even if he is not a shooter. "The worst thing you can have is your big guns in the back-court," Cousy explains. "The playmaker has to be a respectable shooter but scoring is not his real function. He has to keep the other four guys happy. He has to pass out the sugar."

Cousy feels so strongly about good passing that he may have stressed it to a fault this year. He has two superior backcourt men on his team, Billy Evans, a little fellow with brains, ideal quickness and a feel for the ball, and Jim O'Brien, a sophomore who, some think, could be even defter than Evans. Their problem is that they may not have many people to throw the ball to, not, at any rate, as many as Cousy would like to have.

Even so, Cousy wants his passers to direct the game. "I don't want our big men ever to put the ball on the floor," he says. "If our ball handler doesn't get the ball on the first pass, we don't fast break. He makes the pass that leads directly to the score."

While the ranks of truly gifted ball handlers are thin, there are some good ones to watch this season, among them Pete Maravich of LSU, Jo Jo White of Kansas, Butch Beard of Louisville, Calvin Murphy of Niagara, Billy Hann of Tennessee, Vince Fritz of Oregon State, Charlie Scott of North Carolina, Frankie Gillen of Villanova and Duke's clever sophomore, Dick DeVenzio.

Gillen is an excellent example of what most young players do not do these days. "I guess I started working on my ball handling in the fourth or fifth grade," he recalls. "I used to watch Guy Rodgers a lot. I loved the way he handled the ball, it just took me over. I used to play with older guys, so I'd work more on ball handling than scoring, leaving that for the big horses."

Maravich, who is big, loved ball handling as much as Gillen. "I've worked with a basketball ever since I was big enough to bounce it," he says. "I even practiced dribbling in the dark." That, as much as his shooting, is why Wooden calls Maravich the best of all the current college ball handlers. "He's as good a passer as anybody who ever played the game," says Wooden, who himself was a spectacular ball handler when he played at Purdue in the early 1930s.

But the Maraviches, the Gillens, the Whites and a handful of others are a lean minority in a sport that was once noted for its finesse. And what ever became of the bounce pass?

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