Knowing when to embrace a controversial change and when to resist isn’t as easy as it looks, except in retrospect. That certainly was true for a number of college basketball’s most prominent coaches and media wiseguys when the 3-point shot was introduced 30 seasons ago.
Much like last year’s shortening of the shot clock, some considered introduction of the 3-point field goal in 1986-87 as needless tinkering, an over-reaction to rough play in the post and slowdown tactics that depressed scoring. Others dismissed the new shot as a gimmick, a marketing ploy, and did their best to ignore it. On an early-season TV show Mike Krzyzewski, fresh off his Duke program’s first Final Four appearance, mockingly drew four- and five-point lines on the court, with attempts from the midcourt circle counting for 10 points.
Today it’s difficult to imagine college competition without the 3-pointer, the Blue Devils without robust perimeter shooting, or ACC history without daring marksmen such as Georgia Tech’s Dennis Scott, N.C. State’s Rodney Monroe and Duke’s J.J. Redick. The shot’s appeal is so ubiquitous in the contemporary game, last season it was tried by all but 18 of 123 ACC players who saw at least 300 minutes of action.
In the pros Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors have raised the three almost to an art form. Chatter persists about adopting a uniform 3-point distance for college, pro and international ball, but virtually no one questions the shot’s transformative role in the modern game. Nor are there laments about the way it stretches defenses, fuels rallies and enhances the value of smaller or otherwise athletically challenged players.
“It’s amazing,” North Carolina coach Dean Smith said after both a shot clock and 3-pointer became permanent after extended experimentation. “Everybody got upset – ‘We’re ruining the game’ – and now everybody likes it.”
Fellow Hall of Fame coach Pete Newell was remarkable for how quickly he grasped the three’s impact soon after it was unveiled. “I think it was possibly the most important change that’s come into the game since the elimination of the center jump and the installation of the 10-second mid-court line as far as changing the game, how it’s played,” said Newell, citing tweaks made in 1937-38 and 1932-33, respectively.
The 3-point field goal was first installed in the short-lived American Basketball League in 1961, then popularized during the late 1960s by the American Basketball Association. The ABA played a more free-wheeling, entertaining style than the NBA; the sight of its red, white and blue basketballs arching through the air from previously injudicious distances was a key part of its charm.
Krzyzewski quickly became a convert to the new college rule, especially after speaking with Newell, one of three coaches, along with Smith and Bob Knight, to win both NIT and NCAA championships and a gold medal directing a U.S. Olympic team (in 1960). “You’re stupid to fight it,” Krzyzewski said a year after the three was instituted. “The good coach takes advantage of all of the rules of the game.” (This year, incidentally, the Harlem Globetrotters announced they’ll be using a 4-point line.)
In 1987 Duke averaged 11.2 shots from beyond a 19-foot, 9-inch arc. Last season, shooting from a line that’s moved back a foot over the years, the Blue Devils attempted 23.6 threes per game, right at the highest usage of Krzyzewski’s Hall of Fame career.
“I think it really grew on Mike that it was a hell of a weapon, it really grew on him especially when he got Bobby Hurley (in 1989-90),” says Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, then a Duke assistant. “You had a guy who could get into that spread-the-floor, ball-screen (offense), and he could get into the lane and kick out and make plays.” The result was trips to consecutive NCAA title games from 1990 through 1992, and championships the final two years.
Rick Pitino took no convincing to exploit the 3-pointer at Providence College. The Hall of Famer had spent two years during the mid-1980s with the NBA’s New York Knicks as an assistant to Hubie Brown, an ABA coaching veteran. Pitino, currently Louisville’s head coach, says the pro experience “had a profound effect on my thinking.” The NBA had incorporated the 3-pointer in 1979-80, three seasons after merging with the ABA.
I needed a gimmick at the time besides the full-court press to get over the hump and get to the NCAA tournament.
Pitino was in his second year at Providence when the three went into effect. “I think he was as aggressively innovative, if that’s the right way to say it, as anybody,” offers Mark Gottfried, N.C. State’s coach, who got an uncomfortably close perspective during the ’87 NCAAs.
“I needed a gimmick at the time besides the full-court press to get over the hump and get to the NCAA tournament,” Pitino recalls. “I told the team if we lead the league in threes, that will propel us to the NCAA tournament.”
Providence, paced by guard Billy Donovan, finished fourth in the Big East and stunningly reached the Final Four. In a Sweet 16 upset of Alabama, the Friars hit 14 of 22 from 3-point range; Wimp Sanderson’s Crimson Tide focused on feeding the ball inside to big man Derrick McKey, the SEC player of the year. The decisive loss ended Gottfried’s playing career, but not before the shooting guard became another beneficiary of the new rule.
“For me personally, it was a dream come true,” he says of the 3-pointer. “I shot the same shot I was shooting the year before, I just got three points instead of two.” Gottfried enjoyed a .485 conversion rate on 167 long-range tries that season, still the Alabama mark for 3-point accuracy in a career.
Godfather of the 3
On the year Pitino’s squad made 280 threes, still a school record, even as established Big East coaches like Villanova’s Rollie Massimino, Georgetown’s John Thompson, and Lou Carnesecca of St. John’s shunned the shot. “They were so much against it,” Pitino notes, “they were taking fewer than eight threes per game.”
His strategic adaptation as others hesitated earned Pitino enduring respect among peers. “Some called me the godfather of the three,” he says with amusement. “It’s better than being the godfather of the Mafia.”
The ACC experienced a similar philosophical divide. Bobby Cremins’ Georgia Tech squad went four entire games in ’87 without attempting a shot from the bonusphere. The Yellow Jackets failed to hit a 3-pointer in 10 of 29 games and made just 59 on the season. Interior-oriented Virginia was even more parsimonious – Terry Holland’s Cavaliers tried 130 threes in 31 games, making 43. By contrast, North Carolina’s Kenny Smith was given the green light to sink (87) and launch (213) more threes than either the Jackets or Cavs.
Most ACC teams attempted 3-pointers with restraint in 1987 – 6 of 8 made at least 40 percent from long range. Last year only Tony Bennett’s UVa squad was so discriminating. In keeping with its controlled, close-to-the-vest style, Virginia also averaged four fewer 3-point tries (15.0) than the ACC average.
“I think coaches, over time, have utilized the 3-point line a lot more strategically,” Gottfried says. “You’re always trying to be creative, to find ways to integrate that into your game plan.” Last season even Bennett’s cautious Cavs remained in step with the times, taking and making more threes than any ACC team ventured 30 years ago.