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New York City’s Inwood Hill Park covers 196 acres on the northern tip of Manhattan, about twenty-five minutes on the subway from Times Square. Visitors roam Manhattan’s largest remaining ancient forest in this park, a green paradise unlike any other place in the city, home to springs, swans, rock caves, salt marshes, and, some longtime residents say, ghosts. In 1626, Dutchman Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from Native Americans. A plaque in the park marks the supposed and disputed location of the infamous real estate transaction. In the middle section of Inwood Hill Park, tucked next to the baseball diamonds and the tennis courts, you’ll find one of the city’s hundreds of outdoor basketball courts, home to thrilling full-court five-on-five showdowns between superb young athletes and hard-to-watch half-court one-on-one battles between middle-age teachers who are one torn ligament away from permanent retirement.
The Inwood Hill Park court has never been one of New York City’s famous playground venues, like Rucker Park or the Cage at West 4th Street, courts that earn headlines and make or ruin reputations. Filmmakers haven’t created documentaries focused on Inwood Hill Park’s players or games. The court isn’t even the most famous playground in the area. About ten blocks away, in Monsignor Kett Playground, the court that’s commonly called Dyckman Park attracts some of the top players in the city during an annual summer tournament and boasts a bit of historical heft—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar grew up in the area and played there when he was a kid and still went by the name Lew Alcindor. I live five minutes from Inwood Hill Park, and on a 73-degree September day the court remains the perfect spot for a thirty-eight-year-old has-been with no quickness who still loves the game and, above all, still loves to shoot. City schools are in session so the court sits empty when I arrive just past noon. I remove my sweatshirt, perform a cursory leg stretch, pull my $22 Target ball out of my duffel bag, test it with three dribbles, palm it in case this is the day I throw down the first one-handed dunk of my life, and walk toward one of the court’s four baskets. Two of them have nets, two of ’em don’t—and nobody voluntarily shoots on one without the cords.
Out on the court, I’m a bit uneasy in my elements, at times feeling out of place as I shoot alone. No one looks twice at an out-of-shape forty-year-old man in tan shorts who strikes a solitary figure on a driving range, pounding away on a bucket of balls with the driver he received for Christmas. But how many times do you see an adult alone in a public park at a basket, shooting some hoops for the hell of it? In the suburban backyard, on the basket he constructed out of love for his three kids? Sure. At the YMCA as he waits for the other goggles-wearing, knee-brace-sporting, noon-hour warriors to arrive? Of course. But it feels a bit strange to perform as a solo act on an outdoor court, taking four dribbles before every free throw and firing 23-footers from behind the three-point line.
I’m here for the exercise. Running for running’s sake has always seemed like a punishment and holds no appeal for me. Chasing after an errant shot remains more enjoyable than pedaling on a stationary bike. Mostly I’m here because I love the game. And there’s nothing I love more about basketball than the jump shot. When kids pick up a basketball, the first thing they do is throw it in the air. They fire a shot, often before they dribble. Even if it’s on a Nerf hoop, anyone with a ball and a target wants to shoot. Growing up in Minnesota, I learned to shoot on a hoop attached to my neighbor’s garage and in my small town’s park, on a basket six inches too high. I spent countless hours playing on those baskets and hundreds more shooting at my grandpa’s farm, drilling jumpers on the basket my dad and his brothers attached to a white barn decades earlier. In the winter I would wear two pairs of gloves—thin ones I called my shooting gloves—and shovel snow off of the city park’s concrete court in zero-degree Minnesota weather, all so I could practice my shot. Throughout those years I probably won a thousand imaginary NBA titles and a hundred fictional high school state championships with my jump shot. At first, like everyone who starts shooting as a kid, before I developed the consistent form and performance that comes with age and height, I shot from the hip, heaving the ball instead of shooting with proper mechanics, hoping and praying for good results instead of expecting them. As I grew and matured and learned to shoot from above my head while leaving the ground—the coordinated actions finally creating a fundamentally sound and effective form—the jump shot became my first love during my days playing high school and college ball.
And now, out at this New York City park, as I self-consciously jog after shots that bounce off the rim and roll to the far side of the court, I find a rhythm. Starting with little four-foot bank shots, I follow with free throw line jumpers. Dribble out and launch threes from the baseline. Head to the top of the key for a straight-on three. Come off the dribble for a 15-foot pull-up jumper. Now do it while dribbling to the left. Hope that no one’s watching. Ignore them if they are. Because today, roughly thirty-four years after I first picked up a ball, there’s still nothing like being on a court—inside or outside, with teammates or alone—firing away with the jumper.
Rise and Fire celebrates the jump shot, examines its origins, explores its fundamentals, and honors those who dominated the game with it. Consider it a love letter to basketball and the jump shot, and a profile of how it changed the game. The jumper remains the most important play in basketball. When the first jump shooting pioneers introduced the shot, it changed the sport. Experts still debate who invented the jumper. No single correct answer exists. But no one debates the impact the shot had on the sport. Players no longer found themselves earthbound. Defenses controlled the game in the early years, or, perhaps more accurately, subpar offense ruled. To adapt, players jumped to get their shots over the raised hands of defenders, and at the same time rose above the game’s conventions. Basketball was never the same. The jump shot created offense, excitement, fans, and legends. Games that formerly ended with scores fit for a football field soon saw both teams reach triple figures.
In the decades since, the jumper expanded its dominance, becoming the most prevalent shot, the toughest to perfect, and the most important to master. Basketball styles change, and the jumper has always led the charge. It increased scoring in the 1950s. Great guards used it to win titles for and against great big men in the ’60s. High-scoring gunners shot their way to absurd numbers in the 1970s. The midrange dominated the ’80s. And today the three-pointer dictates pace and strategy, as even the game’s big men gravitate farther away from the basket. No one knew what to make of the jumper when it first arrived, and the same was true for the three-pointer. But eventually people saw the power in both.
Along the way, jumpers created the game’s most memorable moments, from high school to the pros. The movieHoosiers celebrates the underdog, hard-ass coaches, tough-talking tutors, and Indiana high school basketball, but it ends with a jumper by the monosyllabic Jimmy Chitwood. The movie fictionalized and immortalized the real-life 1954 Indiana state champions. But the movie ending was true to life—Milan’s Bobby Plump hit a 15-foot jumper at the buzzer that looked very much like the one on the big screen. Many people call the Kentucky-Duke Regional Final in 1992 the greatest college game in history. Its unforgettable ending? Christian Laettner draining a 15-foot buzzer-beater to cap a perfect shooting performance in a near-perfect game, a shot that made all of Kentucky—and at least one Duke teammate—bawl. Michael Jordan’s leaping ability earned him millions of dollars and Phil Knight billions, but his jumper sealed his legacy. Perhaps the three most memorable shots of his career were jump shots. As a skinny freshman at North Carolina—where TV announcers called him Mike for part of the season—he emerged onto the national scene with the game-winning jumper from the left side against Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA title game. Seven years later, now a global icon with the Bulls, his jumper, known as The Shot, over a helpless and eternally tormented Craig Ehlo in the Eastern Conference playoffs gave Chicago a series victory and provided photographers with another unforgettable Jordan moment—his leap and fist pump on the sidelines in front of shattered Cleveland fans. And finally, in 1998, a time when an aging Jordan didn’t leap as high or fly as far or sky much at all, his slight push-off and jump shot over Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the NBA Finals gave the Bulls their sixth NBA championship.
This book highlights the greatest shooters of all time at every level and from every era, from the Hall of Famers who changed the NBA to the little-known legends who only ruled in high school but are remembered forever. I researched everything involving the jump shot, from the techniques of the most accurate shooters to shooter’s gyms. I spoke with as many great shooters as I could find. I spent time talking with players involved in the greatest shooting duels, and players who made thousands of shots but can’t forget a devastating miss. While researching I traveled to fourteen states, from Georgia to California, sat in the living rooms of great shooters from the ’50s, and worked on drills with NBA shooting coaches. One morning I talked on the phone with Kenny Sailors, an early jump shot pioneer out of Wyoming, one of the last of the original shooters who was still alive when I worked on the book. At ninety-three, hard of hearing, having told his story hundreds of times, Kenny’s enthusiasm for the jump shot, which he first took eighty years before our chat, was still obvious. When I finished talking with Sailors, his friend Bill Schrage, who helps him with interviews and operates a Web site dedicated to Kenny’s career, told me Kenny sported a smile as he left for lunch at his assisted living facility in Laramie. The grin wasn’t because of the meal. Memories of the jump shot still make Kenny smile. Millions know the feeling.
Rise and Fire is about the secrets of the shot and the superstitions of the players who live by it. It’s a sentimental, historical, personal, scientific, and critical examination of the jumper. This book is not an encyclopedia of every great shooter. That book would run 10,000 pages. But it profiles many of the shot’s masters. A path connects the first shooters to modern marksmen, and I wanted to explore that road and show how basketball got from point A to point B, from the set shot to the jump shot and beyond.
Coaches preach about team defense, rebounding, boxing out, sharp cuts, hitting the open man, switching on defense, running the floor, filling the lane, getting a hand up, looking up, fighting through screens, moving the ball, and shuffling your feet. These are all important things, and I’m sure, occasionally, defense, pure defense, wins championships—but only if there’s someone capable of making shots. My favorite saying in basketball has always been “Great offense beats great defense.” I also believe it, as do many of the shooters featured in Rise and Fire. Go ahead and play tight defense—a locked-in shooter won’t even notice.
This is a biography of the shot everyone tries the first time they pick up a ball and the one they shoot on lonely city playgrounds long after they’re past their prime. This book details the evolution of one shot—and how it revolutionized a sport.
Copyright © 2016 by Shawn Fury