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Tony Kornheiser
October 29, 1984
As Dr. J proved in the 1980 NBA finals, leaping is something lots of guys can do, but hang time is the stuff of dreams
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October 29, 1984

They've Got The Hang Of It

As Dr. J proved in the 1980 NBA finals, leaping is something lots of guys can do, but hang time is the stuff of dreams

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A. Not necessarily for hanging, but for leaping. Dr. Frank McCue, professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Virginia, says the person best suited to try to overcome gravity—which is what leaping and hanging are all about—is one with high muscle mass and a low percentage of body fat. Because you want a higher center of gravity, disproportionately long legs help, especially length in the lower part of the leg, which gives you a mechanical advantage for jumping. Narrow hips help. Long arms and broad shoulders can give you greater momentum when you jump. In other words, a body like Jordan's? "That's, exactly right," says McCue.

Q. Can hang time be taught?

A. It's arguable. The Lincoln and Douglas of basketball commentary, Packer and NBC's Al McGuire, disagree. McGuire: "Only God can teach it." Packer: "I think it can be learned—the problem is that nobody knows how to teach it." Addressing that point, Valvano says, "Other than Cunningham, there's not a coach in the United States who has it. Most of us are ill at ease with hang time. But what are we supposed to say? 'You jump up and stay up there that long again, you're coming out?' Coaches like to have control, so basically we like a slow kid who can't jump. Then we work on his free throws, because all coaches are great free throw shooters."

But surely some players have mastered some of the style, if not all of the substance. West and Barry, a 6'7" forward who played in the NBA and ABA for 14 seasons, say they acquired some hang time by emulating Baylor. "You learn to be able to do something with the ball, not at the peak of your jump, but after," Barry says, "so that the ball is coming off your fingers as you're going down."

Q. Where do the great hangers come from?

A. The best of them used to come from Eastern urban playgrounds where schoolyard hangers like New York's Herman (Helicopter) Knowings and Earl Manigault became legends. (They say Knowings could hang so long on D that you'd be guilty of a three-second violation if you stayed on the ground waiting for him to come down.) Cunningham, who grew up in Brooklyn, says, "We played outdoors all year long. Because of the wind, there wasn't a great deal of outside shooting, so most players went straight up at the hoop. The basic rule was: No blood, no foul. You were going to get whacked anyway, so you had to go up strong and hang long enough to get your shot off. A lot of players learned body control by playing H-O-R-S-E, in which they'd practice all their crazy moves and still get their shots off."

Now there are exceptions to the city game theory. Jordan, for example, is from Wilmington, N.C. (pop. 44,000), where he learned to hang by playing one-on-one with his brother, Larry, on the nine-foot hoop in their backyard. They'd copy the moves they'd seen on TV and then take them a step beyond. "We would try to create new and outrageous moves and dunks and try to outdo each other," Jordan says. "That was the playground to us. My brother can hang even longer than I can, but since he's 5'8", nobody's heard of him." Jordan is the best hanger not from the urban East.

Q. Why are the great hangers mainly forwards?

A. Centers aren't as agile. They live in the paint, where they learn to go straight up and come straight down. You're asking a lot of a 250-pounder to get off the ground in the first place. That's why Darryl Dawkins's hang time is extraordinary. As they say about the Schnauzer who sang Figaro—the wonder isn't that he sang it badly, but that he sang it at all.

Many guards have great hang time. Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons and Sidney Moncrief of the Milwaukee Bucks do. Chamberlain remembers Guy Rodgers, his old Philadelphia Warriors teammate, hanging long enough to "put the ball around his back three separate times on one play before laying it off." Utah's Rich Kelley, who says he has "the least hang time in the NBA," remembers how Pete Maravich "would do anything to extend his hang time. I've seen him tuck his legs under him to get more time in the air and literally land on his knees and skid across the floor like a seaplane. But the most memorable hang-time move was Tiny Archibald's. If he couldn't get his shot off and still land on his feet, he'd dive through the air and simply land on his stomach, a total body flop. Then he'd thrash on the ground like a perch." But by and large, guards don't go low as much as forwards. The dramatic hangers do it inside, in traffic, when the defense forces them to do something they hadn't planned on. "They have the ability," says Lou Carnesecca, coach at St. John's, "to stay up there long enough to figure out some way to solve this thing."

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