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IF THERE had been a three-point line in 1977, Portland State guard Freeman Williams would have needed binoculars to see it from where he stood. He doesn't remember exactly where he was on the court, but people who were at Portland's Stott Center on that long-ago night insist he had taken only two or three steps past the half-court line. A pair of defenders were harassing him in an area of the floor from which most players wouldn't even look at the basket unless they were launching a buzzer-beating prayer. But Freeman Williams was a gunner, and this is how the mind of a gunner operates: Double team? I'm open. Forty feet from the basket? I'm within my range."
Williams went up for a turnaround jumper--that's right, a turnaround jumper--which hit nothing but net. "The public address announcer yelled, ' Freeman Williams, from the parking lot!'" says Mike Richardson, one of Williams's teammates at the time. "I've never seen anything more fantastic than that shot." Williams himself was less impressed. "I think I hit a couple of deeper ones against Kentucky," he says now. "That was my job, to score. Guys like me, we shot it whenever and wherever we felt we could make it."
At one time there seemed to be at least one guy like Williams in every conference. From the 1950s through the '70s the high-scoring, no-conscience, shoot-the-ball-and-damn-the-consequences gunner was as much a part of winter as snow in Syracuse. From the 1953-54 season, when Furman's Frank Selvy led the nation by scoring 41.7 points a game, until 1977-78, when Williams won the scoring title with a 35.9-point average, 16 players averaged 35 points or more in a season, doing so a total of 20 times. (And that was before the introduction, in 1986-87, of the three-point shot, which would have raised many of their averages significantly.) Selvy, his teammate Darrell Floyd and Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson were the breakout scorers of the '50s, followed by such '60s point machines as Miami's Rick Barry, Niagara's Calvin Murphy, Purdue's Rick Mount and the greatest gunner of them all, the late Pistol Pete Maravich of LSU, who averaged 44.5 points as a senior in 1969-70 and 44.2 points for his career, both still NCAA records. Williams, Notre Dame's Austin Carr, Southwestern Louisiana's Dwight (Bo) Lamar and Mississippi's Johnny Neumann were among the parade of leading men in the '70s show.
Though they amassed their points in slightly different ways-- Carr and Mount were mostly catch-and-shoot specialists; Murphy and Maravich were ball-handling wizards who could dribble through a defense or shoot over it--the gunners had the blessing of their coaches and teammates to monopolize the offense. "Back in my day," says Carr, who averaged 38.0 points in 1969-70 and 38.1 in '70-71, "if you could do it, they let you do it."
The Wild West connotation that the gunners' moniker carries remains appropriate, because the breed is now as dead as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Fifty years after Selvy unofficially began the era with the only 100-point scoring performance in NCAA Division I history--against Newberry on Feb. 13, 1954--the idea of such scoring gluttony being encouraged or even countenanced is as realistic a possibility as Dick Vitale in cornrows.
From 1953-54 through '79-80 the nation's leading scorer failed to average more than 30 points only once. ( Seton Hall's Nick Werkman scored 29.5 a game in 1962-63.) But in the past 10 years only two players have eclipsed the 30.0 mark-- Purdue's Glenn Robinson in 1993-94, at 30.3, and LIU's Charles Jones in '96-97, at 30.1.
Of course, the entire landscape has been altered. Last season teams averaged 69.6 points--which was the first time in the three-point, shot-clock era that the average was below 70 points. The main culprit? Declining field goal attempts. The average of 55.9 shots a game per team was also a historic low for the shot-clock and three-point eras and represented more than a 10-shot decline from Maravich's senior season.
How have times changed? Consider: Last season's high game belonged to Old Dominion center Alex Loughton, who scored 45 points during a 105-102 double-overtime loss to Charlotte on Dec. 6. That figure is less than a point higher than Maravich's career average.
A multitude of forces has conspired to drive the gunner to extinction, including the pull of the pros, the push of more physical defenses and the grip of controlling coaches. "There are still guys out there who could put up numbers like the old days," says Murphy, who averaged 38.2 points in his sophomore season (1967-68). "But the game has changed, the circumstances have changed, the mind-set has changed."
Most college coaches concede the demise of the gunner, but they hardly lament it. Instead, they preach the value of tenacious defense and balanced scoring--worthwhile goals to be sure--and point out that while many of those one-man gangs were entertaining, they weren't especially successful. Mount, whose Boilermakers lost to UCLA in the 1969 final, was the only pure gunner to reach the NCAA title game.