"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."
What Boyd does not say is that most of today's players hardly know how to pass; with rare exceptions, they have failed to learn what was once considered the basic fundamental of the game, ball handling. That lovely art was, in fact, threatening to become as extinct as the center jump until, ironically, the full-court press forced a review. Now there are a number of coaches who contend that ball handling, in the next few years, is going to be revived, out of necessity if nothing else.
In defense of the players, it is easy to see why the passers and ball handlers, who used to rate top billing (yes, Virginia, there really was a Bob Cousy), passed largely from the scene. The big men and the newfangled jump shooters took their places. But, while the bombers were exciting to watch, the game they played was beginning not to be. College basketball, in fact, was and still is in serious danger of becoming stereotyped, just like the pro game. In too many cases coaches lucky enough to have a cadre of pure shooters—and who does not have them today?—simply shrugged their shoulders and said, "We'll outshoot 'em." And even this season, with an increasing number of coaches seeking new ways to circumvent the harassment of the pressing defenses, it will be much of the same thing: big men with big point totals.
Coach Dean Smith of North Carolina calls the present game power basketball. It is that and it is fast-breaking, free-lancing basketball. The shooters are so proficient that it is almost impossible to stop a good one. Why waste time passing the ball three or four times, ask the coaches, when you can get to your shooter right away, and he'll put it in the hole?
The player who can execute the reverse dribble or snap off crisp, accurate passes with either hand (sometimes behind his back) is regarded as something of a maverick. When he pulls off one of the oldtime moves, usually he is accused of showboating. The give-and-go, in which one player hands the ball off to a teammate, then cuts around the defender for a return pass, is tried so seldom that when it works, spectators, especially the younger ones, seem to think it was a lucky-dumb accident, not a planned play. These same people do know their shooters, a point that has not been lost on the players. The shooters get the headlines. The ball handler gets a pat on the back.
"You can't find a high school kid who really knows very much about ball handling," says Colorado State Coach Jim Williams. "They think more about scoring." Kansas Coach Ted Owens says, "Look at the kids playing around a garage or backyard basket. You don't ever see any of them practicing passing or dribbling. Mostly, they'll be shooting." Says Coach Tates Locke of Miami of Ohio, "Kids aren't respecting the ball the way they once did."
Nostalgic nonsense? Not entirely. If the emergence of the one-handed shot has made basketball scoring more efficient, it has also made it less fascinating. Before, youngsters spent their time on basketball courts practicing the skills of ball handling—passing, dribbling and protecting the ball. Particularly proficient were New York players who trained in the schoolyards of the city. "We used to say they had the 'smarts,' " recalls Pete Newell, the former University of California coach.
New York teams coached by Nat Holman of City College, Joe Lapchick of St. John's, Howard Cann of NYU and Clair Bee of LIU were a delight to watch. They moved the ball skillfully until someone got loose for a crackling pass and a layup. "That was the beauty of the game," says Lapchick. "Those kids knew what to do with a basketball."
Nowadays, however, even the New York City schoolyards have a changed look. Youngsters still play endless games of two-on-two and three-on-three but now they work on their shooting.
New York City was not the only place where you could find slick ball handling. Holy Cross, coached to a national championship in 1947 by the late Doggie Julian, moved the ball around so fast that sometimes the players forgot to shoot. Cousy and Joe Mullaney, now the coach of Providence College, were the stars of that team. Coach Adolph Rupp's 1947-48 Kentucky team, called the "Fabulous Five," won the national championship and the Olympic gold medal in 1948. In addition to Ralph Beard and Alex Groza, a member of that team was Cliff Barker, who had been an Air Force sergeant in World War II. Barker learned to handle the ball in a prisoner of war camp after being shot down on a mission over Germany.