SI Vault
Jeremiah Tax
February 04, 1957
Today the 200-point game is a commonplace, which leads many to believe that the sport is becoming a FREE-SCORING FARCE
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 04, 1957

Free-scoring Farce

Today the 200-point game is a commonplace, which leads many to believe that the sport is becoming a FREE-SCORING FARCE

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue




Smith, g




Jones, g




Brown, c




Snow, f




Crosby, f




In the first period of the recent East-West All-Star game in Boston, the East team broke fast after the West missed a shot. Bob Cousy was a few steps ahead of his man, in full flight, more than three-quarters of the way upcourt, when Teammate Bill Sharman let fly a long leading pass. Cousy and ball were supposed to meet just under the basket; instead, the ball, traveling on a flat, bulletlike trajectory for 70-odd feet, swished through the cords without even touching the rim. In the resultant uproar from a packed house (10-year-old Jerry Sharman was screaming "That's my daddy" at the top of his lungs), Sharman turned to the West player who was guarding him, Dick Garmaker, and said, "The trouble with you, Dick, is that you don't play a tight enough defense."

In kidding Garmaker, Sharman was also taking aim, perhaps unwittingly, at one of the popular myths about professional basketball, which is that the pros simply trade baskets, paying scant attention to the defensive aspects of the game. Those who foster the myth point to the current high team scores (the Celtics hit 140 against Syracuse last week) and the amazing individual per game averages ( Bob Pettit's is now close to 28).

There are, however, three good reasons for these scores. None has anything to do with defense, which the pros actually concentrate on so heavily that, each year, several graduating All-Americas fail to make the grade solely because they have not received solid grounding in this area from their college coaches.

The first reason is the 24-second clock, which obliges a team to shoot within that time or lose the ball. The clock has made basketball a faster hustle-all-the-way game than ever, principally by forcing more shots—which leads to higher scores. The second is simply that today's pro players are better than ever at their trade—in every department, including shooting.

But the most important reason is that public attitude toward all sports which rates highest the most spectacular bit of action that each game offers. It is the attitude which has gradually transformed baseball, for example, from a tight, hit-and-run tactical contest into a free-scoring exhibition in which the home run is the chief weapon. The change came when baseball's top management discovered that fans preferred to watch the long-ball hitters. They helped the trend grow with a livelier ball, the buggy-whip bat and with higher salaries, generally, for home run specialists than for other players. In some places, they even moved in the fences.

The same thing has happened in basketball, with players—aware of the public's preference—developing all manner of spectacular shots like one-handers, hooks and jumps. Defense against these is admittedly difficult, often limited to harassing the shooter's teammates to keep them from getting the ball to him. Only recently have a few extremely agile players like Bill Russell and Walter Dukes demonstrated that a perfectly timed leap may enable a long-armed defenseman to block the shot in midair.

Further influencing the trend is today's reporting of games, which seldom fails to give top billing to top scorers, at the expense of those players who may be far more important to their teams. This extends even to the box score, which is supposed to present, statistically, a picture of the game but instead is often downright misleading. Here is a sample:

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

All the emphasis is on scoring, and Brown, with seven field goals and three free throws for 17 points, appears to be the most valuable man on the team. Here, however, is another box score of the same game, far more accurate in its portrait. The A is for assists—passes which lead to and often set up scores—R is for both defensive and offensive rebounds and E for errors.

In this truer summing up, both Smith and Crosby are shown to have been far more valuable than Brown. Both have fewer errors and more rebounds, and Smith is far in the lead in the key category of assists. Statistically, this method proves the same point. Accepting the figure that many coaches use as representing the value of possession of the ball—1.4—and adding for rebounds and subtracting for errors, Brown turns out to be worth only 17.2 points to his team while Smith's total is 25.

Continue Story
1 2