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The game's real charm, of course, has little to do with cost. For the spectator, basketball is colorful and exciting and full of action, and even the relatively uninformed find it an easy sport to watch, understand and appreciate. This team up here wants to take the ball and throw it into that basket down there. The other team, in theory at least, wants to stop them, although in recent years this has become somewhat of a secondary consideration; what the second team really wants is to get ahold of the ball so it can do a little throwing at baskets itself. For the knowledgeable observer there is, of course, a great deal more: the fine points of the game and an appreciation of tactics and timing and finesse.
At some colleges basketball is more than just entertainment. For every great university which competes not only in basketball but in a dozen other varsity sports as well, there is the smaller college which has never played football or seen a crew race or had a fencing team and is totally unaware—and would hardly be impressed even if it knew—that ski jumping and calf roping are intercollegiate sports. On campuses like these, basketball is the sine qua non of intercollegiate athletic competition.
If basketball is fun, however, it can also at times look a little foolish. No game can be all things to all men and basketball has always had its share of voluble critics. Some of the game's weaknesses are so apparent, in fact, that even its staunchest disciples have to admit they exist.
Basketball finds itself involved far too often, for example, with gambling, and although the great point-shaving scandals of 1951-53 exposed and helped to clean out much of this corruption, the unsavory air has a tendency to linger on. Even today, more care is needed in the selection of not only competent but also completely honest officials (SI, March 4). And although far less guilty than college football, basketball has been known to engage in nefarious recruiting activities, too. "Six-foot-four high school basketball players are a dime a dozen," says one nationally famous coach, "but, boy, you should see the scramble when a good six-nine kid comes along." There are also the more or less intramural problems of too much shooting or not enough shooting or the stall or the zone defense, and the business of sectional differences in rules interpretation always seems to keep popping up. But basketball's biggest headache revolves like a double-post offense around its oldest and most inherent problems: excessive whistle tooting and domination of the game by the big man.
If anyone has a solution for the former, basketball fathers await him with open arms and a solid gold lifetime pass. Basketball, a noncontact sport, has long been concerned with how to keep the players not only from bashing each other on the nose but even from slapping each other on the wrist. Solutions have been suggested ranging from a) abandon the noncontact clause altogether, to z) make the penalty for an infraction so severe that it means instant dismissal from the game, but each has its evident drawbacks. The first, for example, might be fun for the spectators but a little hard on the players, and, anyway, a 20th century version of the Roman Colosseum wasn't exactly what the good Dr. Naismith really had in mind. The other extreme wouldn't work either; both teams would probably run out of eligible players shortly after the opening tip-off.
So the rulesmakers have had to look elsewhere, and the free throw, as unsatisfactory as it may be, apparently remains the best bet. No one likes fouls and the resultant abrupt halt in a fast-paced flow of action. No one likes the monotonous fiddling around at the foul line. No one, on the other hand, has ever been able to figure out anything better; 10 large, healthy young men were never meant to be caged up in a small area, given just one ball to play with and then told, "No, no mustn't get rough." It is the one jarring note in the entire concept of the game and it is perhaps a tribute to man's respect for law and order that basketball players for more than half a century have managed to contain themselves as well as they have.
When Dr. Naismith was wondering where to hang his peach baskets, his first thought was to get them up high. "In order to avoid having the defense congregate around the goal," he wrote later, "it was placed above their heads, so that once the ball left the individual's hands, it was not likely to be interfered with." Little did he know how healthy the human race would become in the next few years or how tall some of its members would grow. The rim of a basket has always been 10 feet above the floor. Today there are a number of basketball players who can jump high enough to look it straight in the eye.
Critics say there are far too many who can do just that; the extremely tall player has turned the whole thing into a farce. This time, basketball men do not agree. They feel that height prevails, perhaps, but domination is something else, and that there will always be a place in the sport for the good little man. For every Mikan and Pettit and Russell, there is also a Cousy and a Sharman and a Slater Martin. Last year, alongside Chamberlain, SMU's Jim Krebs, Louisville's Charley Tyra and the other giants, the All-America selectors placed little Chet Forte, a deadly 5-foot 9-inch sharpshooter from Columbia, and Gary Thompson, the brilliant 5-foot 10-inch ball hawk from Iowa State. And this year, while some coaches bemoan the lack of a man like the 7-foot Chamberlain or Rice's 6-foot-10 Temple Tucker or 6-foot-9 Jack Parr of Kansas State, there are others who need backcourt help just as badly. They, in turn, gaze wistfully toward such supercharged shorties as Temple's Guy Rodgers, Don Hennon of Pitt, Charles Brown of Texas Western and Joe Stevens of Wichita. A good case in point is Kansas itself. Even with Chamberlain back, the Jayhawks are not expected to reach the NCAA finals again. Reason: gone are the two good little guards, Maurice King and John Parker, who made the attack go.
No one close to the sport seems to worry much any more, however, about this rather academic question of domination by height. The game has advanced so much that to be merely very tall is no longer enough; even the big man must be a well-coordinated and agile athlete with a great deal of skill, and the advantage he gains is no longer due entirely to how many feet separate his cranium from the floor. The coaches themselves, who used to worry a great deal about all of this since they were never absolutely certain they weren't creating a Frankenstein, are now happy that everything has turned out so well. They have even grown fond of their towering infant. "It is the only sport," says Hank Iba of Oklahoma State, who has coached teams to victory in almost 600 games, "in which the really tall man can compete."
The best college teams in the nation this year will have tall men and short men and men in between. They will come from North Carolina and Kentucky in the South (see SCOUTING REPORTS page 43); Bradley, Kansas State and the Big Ten triumvirate of Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State in the Midwest; Rice in the Southwest; Temple in the East; Utah in the Rocky Mountains; and San Francisco, Washington and Seattle on the West Coast. They may, of course, also come from somewhere else. Regardless of which school wins the NCAA's university division championship at season's end, however, the NCAA college division winner—considered too small to compete in the top class—will feel that it could whip the big boy if it had the chance. And the littlest champion of all, the NAIA winner, will be certain that it could beat them both.