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"I've always found that it's better not to go to your maximum on every jump," says the Doctor. "The less strain you put on your legs when you jump, the more body control you'll have in the air; you'll be able to shift direction. But if you put all your energy into your leap, go up in a tube as it were, you're usually committed to a particular direction, and when you get there, if there's no light, there's nothing more you can do. You've expended all the energy your bottom half has to give you. A good defender can make you eat your shot. Whereas if you've just used three-quarters of your jump, now you can kick your legs up or what have you. I think you have to leave something in reserve. And believe me, it's nice to have something left."
GREAT MOMENTS IN HANG TIME HISTORY PART THREE
In the 1970 Western Conference semifinals, Phoenix was leading L.A. three games to one with Game 5 scheduled for the Forum. Chamberlain was coming off knee surgery and was concentrating on defense. At 27, Hawkins was in his first year in the NBA after settling his antitrust suit against the league, which had barred him because of his alleged part in a point-shaving scandal while he was at the University of Iowa in 1961. The aptly named Hawk had averaged 24.6 points per game for the Suns and was on his way to becoming a first-team NBA All-Star. He was the most exciting new player in the league, and his quickness terrified defenders. His trademark was a swooping baseline move, during which he extended his long right arm like an elastic band and held the ball out as if it were a golden egg for all the world to see but not touch.
"Connie got the ball in the corner," Chamberlain says, "and as I started to come out at him, he put the ball on the floor and drove at me. I took a step backward to protect the basket, knowing that eventually he'd have to go up at me, and after one dribble he did. Now you have to remember that this is my home court, and I am ready for him. I prided myself on being The Man under the basket, and he knew who he was coming at. So he's up, and now I'm up. And then, suddenly, he goes around me in midair. He twists completely around, goes under the basket, comes out the other side and puts it up backward and in. He not only has to make a great move to score, as far as I'm concerned he has to make the greatest move ever, because he's doing it against me! No way in my mind does anybody—not even King Kong on a ladder—make that play. It's the most awesome play I've ever seen, and I am awed by it still."
One of the most instructive lessons about hang time is that some of those strongest at it are often the weakest at explaining it. Asking them about it is like putting the needle down on a gospel album, because in short order you're going to hear the phrase "God-given gift." Baylor in L.A., Hawkins in Pittsburgh and Jordan in Chapel Hill, N.C. all used it as their fallback position. And all, when first approached about the curious quality of hang time, asked why anyone would fly all that distance to ask them about something so preposterous. Better you should ask Einstein where he got those numbers or Picasso why he used those colors.
Not that they hadn't thought about it. Since Baylor was the first one to do it, he should be able to reconstruct the process in detail, like an architectural model, from the ground up. "I don't know what to tell you," he says, wearing an expression that can best be described like furniture, Colonial Bemused. "I just tried to develop my own style of play. I never tried to analyze what I did. I just did it. If you want to call it hang time, fine. I just thought of it as a terrific offensive move. For the most part I jumped horizontally, and the defenders jumped vertically; we were going in different directions. It might have appeared that I was in the air longer, but often I was releasing the ball just a split second before I touched down."
Hawkins, a quiet man with an almost regal bearing, stares out the window of his lawyer's office, 17 floors above the confluence of the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela rivers. "I've tried to come up with some components, and I can't come up with anything other than the fact that it's a God-given talent," he says, shrugging his broad shoulders, offering a wistful smile. "I did absolutely nothing to practice it. I'd like to make it out as a science, but it was just natural. I just did it."
Jordan, too, is willing to try to explain, but the specifics are beyond him. He has just come off the court at Carmichael Auditorium in Chapel Hill where, in a serious pickup game, he has repeatedly defied gravity. Once he went up into a forest of Carolina trees—6'11" Warren Martin, 6'10" Joe Wolf and 6'11", 325-pound alum Geff Crompton—outlasted them in the air by yo-yoing and finished the freestyle portion of his program with a crowd-gagging, tongue-wagging, arms-waving, legs-splaying, rim-shattering, reputation-flattering, backward two-hand, Richter Scale in Disarray tomahawk dunk. "I don't know why or how I hang," Jordan says, his body dripping with sweat so that he resembles Adonis sculpted in soft coal after a hard rain. Searching for a plausible explanation, he says, "I spread my legs pretty wide in the air. Maybe they're just like wings, and they hold me up there a little bit."
Finally, each of them is asked to recount his most notable hang time move. Jordan, the Chicago Bulls' rookie, is so young, none holds a mortgage on his memory yet. Hawkins speaks fondly of his triumph over Chamberlain. Baylor, the pragmatist, gives an example that defines the craft without disclosing the art. "We were playing against the Warriors, and Nate Thurmond, who was six inches taller than me and a really fine defensive player, was guarding me," Baylor says. "I made my move across the middle, and went up for the shot. But Thurmond was all over me. I was able to get my shot off, and it went in, but I didn't know how I did it." Now Baylor's eyes widen, like boiled eggs, and a certain mystical excitement, the kind you feel on hot August nights when the choir gets rolling and the preacher loosens his tie and jabs at the devil, begins to creep into his voice. "Maybe 10 years later I looked at film of it, and now I know I didn't do this. I mean, I couldn't have done this. But it seemed as if I just stopped in midair! And Thurmond went by me, and a space opened up, and I was able to see the basket and get my shot off at the last possible moment. You look at the film, and it really appears as though I just stopped." He's shaking his head in wonder even now. "It was the only time I ever asked myself, 'Gee, how'd I do that?' "
GREAT MOMENTS IN HANG TIME HISTORY PART FOUR