Years ago, if atmospheric conditions were just right, I could occasionally dunk a basketball, particularly at one local gym where pick-up game artists like me knew that one rim was at least three inches lower than regulation height. It was a popular spot for wannabe John “Hondo” Havliceks like Jimmy Chaney, Donnie Gambill, and me, who won more than one imaginary championship in our own backyard arenas.
For a while now, some critics have advocated a basic change in college and professional basketball that, in their opinion, would revolutionize the game and neutralize the effect of the seemingly ever-increasing size of the latest generation of players: raising the height of the basket.
In fact, that innovation had a trial run more than 50 years ago when the National Basketball Association actually tried it in an official game. On Sunday night, March 7, 1954, the NBA raised the basket to 12 feet for a game between the Milwaukee Hawks and the Minneapolis Lakers.
The reviews were mixed.
Steve Thornley, author of “Basketball’s Original Dynasty: The History of the Lakers” — a writer that Gary Fears put me onto — writes that Laker behemoths like George Mikan, and eventually our own local boy, Clyde Lovellette, prompted the wider 12-foot lane change in 1951. It was hoped that doubling the width from the original six feet prevented players like the bespectacled Mikan and Cloudburst Clyde (the late Al McGuire referred to such men as “aircraft carriers”) from camping out under the basket. Why wouldn’t raising the rim help cut those giants down to size too?
Thornley maintained that critics of the era believed it was simply too easy for big men to score. “Something has to be done to make a basket worth a cheer,” said one sports writer. It’s an argument that any casual fan of the NBA might be echoing today.
Besides raising the basket, the Milwaukee-Minneapolis contest was unusual in another way. League officials also called for another potential change to be experimented with too: no free throws would be shot during the first and third periods. “Instead, they would be held in ‘escrow’ and shot at the end of the period,” Thornley wrote. An added twist was that the accumulated free throws would be totaled, and each team’s would cancel the other’s out. For instance, if the Hawks had seven free throws coming, and the Lakers five, the Hawks shot two.
It’s obvious that the 12-foot bucket never caught on. The Lakers won the game 65-63, shooting only 29 percent from the floor in doing it. Mikan missed his first 12 shots but was instrumental in the Minneapolis win. He said after the game that the change “just makes the big man bigger,” a sentiment voiced before the game ever began by Dick Cullum of the Minneapolis Tribune who said, “the higher basket will hurt the little fellow more than the tall one.”
Have basketball players gotten too big for the game? I don’t mean their hat sizes or their ridiculous contracts either. In an era when the average size of players dwarfs those in Mikan and Lovellette’s era, should this basic change be considered again?
It may have been five decades ago, but what Lakers assistant coach Dave MacMillan said probably still rings true: “No matter what you do, the big man still has the advantage over the small one.” Vern Mikkelsen, who led the Lakers with 17 points in the game, still called the change “a horrible flop.” Lovellette in a typical understatement simply said, “It killed tip-ins.”
A few years ago, the great John Wooden was asked what changes he’d like to see in the game. He said he’d abolish the dunk and move the three-point line back. If the dunk couldn’t be dumped, at least make it worth only a single point, perhaps that would raise the value of a traditional lay-up. He feels the pro game is marred by individual play and showboating, but I don’t think that raising the basket two feet is going to change that.
Personally, I’d hate to see the basket raised and the dunk abolished. Why, just the other night I dunked one on our backyard goal in a hand-blowing-cold game of H-O-R-S-E with my son.
Adjustable goals are great if you still want to win those backyard championships.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the passing of Mike Phillips earlier this month. I can think of a long list of superlatives about Mike — that he was a fine basketball player, that he was great proponent of all things Sycamore Blue, that he had an infectious laugh, that he was committed to his family and community — but I’d still come up pretty short of what I want to say. He was a good man.
You can contact Mike Lunsford by e-mail at email@example.com or by regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star, PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808.