Every so often I find myself unable to face such complex
subjects as black holes or string theory that tax my feeble brain
to its utmost. At such times, I search for a simpler subject that I
can actually understand. Basketball certainly should be a topic
that fits the bill and was the subject of two recent articles. One
article was by Curtis Rist entitled "Underhanded Achievement"
in the October 2000 issue of Discover magazine. (Rist,
incidentally, is also the "as-told-to" writer of a recent Mr. Fix-It
book illustrated by our own Lamb creator, Harry Trumbore.)
The other article, in the July 2001 issue of Scientific American,
was by Alison McCook and was titled "Napoleon''s Revenge".
I''m both ashamed and proud to admit that these articles aren''t
really all that "recent". Proud because it means I''ve actually
cleared the piles of unread journals and magazines that have been
scattered throughout our house all these years.
If you think me unqualified to talk about basketball, you
obviously never saw the over-the-head hook shot from the corner
that I banked into the basket in an interfraternity game at
Dickinson College. Or that same hook shot, this time from
center court, that I sank much to the amazement of myself and
the others in a game at our local YMCA some 30 years ago.
When I was in my youth, we all shot our foul shots by holding
the basketball with both hands and lofting the ball from between
our knees with a motion akin to starting to shake out a rug. Rist
terms this underhand type of foul shooting the "granny" shot,
which stands in contrast to the more macho overhand style
employed by today''s players. Surely, the foul shot has to be one
of the simplest, most easily repeatable actions in all of the sports
played with a round spherical object. The basket is always the
same height, the distance from the basket is the same and the
opposing players aren''t allowed to "disconcert" you by waving
their arms in your face. Yet, some of basketball''s best players
have been abysmally incompetent when it comes to the foul shot
or, as it''s known in the trade, the free throw. Indeed, just last
night I heard our local sportscaster bemoaning the miserable free
throwing of the Boston Celtics in a play-off game.
Although Hall of Famer Rick Barry was the last player of note to
employ the underhand granny shot, one certainly couldn''t accuse
him of being a wimp. A visit to the Web site www.hoophall.com
reveals that Barry was known for his slashing drives to the basket
and his overall aggressive play. As a result he was often fouled
and his granny shots passed through the hoop 89.3 percent of the
time. This free throw percentage ranks him second in
NBA/ABA (American Basketball Association) history.
Rist''s article in Discover contrasts Barry''s free throw prowess
with that of Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt the Stilt could barely
manage 5 out of 10 shots, versus Barry''s 9 out of 10. Why the
difference? Peter Brancazio thinks he has the answer - it''s
simple physics. But I think there''s a bit of Einstein thrown in.
The official diameter of the hoop is 18 inches, while the
basketball is about 9.5 inches. This gives ample room for the
ball to swish through the basket. But, as Einstein showed,
everything is relative. Let''s pretend that you''re a basketball. If
you''re directly over the basket, it looks like you''ve got the full 18
inches to play with - swishing through the hoop is a piece of
cake. With the granny shot, you''ve been launched from a low
elevation in a high arcing path. While you aren''t directly over
the hoop, you''re coming in at a high enough angle that the hoop
still looks big enough that you won''t have much trouble going
Now suppose you''ve been launched by a Wilt Chamberlain
overhand shot. Wilt is already over 7 feet high and he sets you
off on a much shallower arc. Coming into the basket, the hoop
looks more like an oval or tight ellipse than a circular opening.
As a result, you''re going to find it more difficult to swish through
that hoop than if you''d been launched by Rick Barry''s granny
style. Chances are good that you are going to hit the back rim of
the basket. You may still drop in but you could easily bounce off
into the hands of the opposition rebounder.
There''s another factor that helps the granny-shooter, according to
Brancazio. With the underhand granny style, you''re going to be
launched with some backspin. Golfers will know that backspin
will cause a golf ball to stop and then roll back. If you''ve got
backspin and you''re a basketball and happen to hit the back rim
the backspin will tend to stop you and send you back a bit.
You''re more likely to pass through the hoop - not that graceful
swish, but one point nonetheless.
But there''s more. Tom Steiger, an assistant professor at the
University of Washington, maintains that the granny shot helps
to relax the muscles in the hands and that the underhand motion
is easier to control. An overhand shot requires positioning and
movement of the wrists, elbows and shoulder. The involvement
of these three components makes it more likely that the ball will
deviate from the proper course to the hoop. Bottom line - today''s
players should emulate Rick Barry, ignore those who might call
them wimps and pay attention to the physics of the foul shot.
Harking back again to my youth, anyone who was 6 feet in
height was considered to be really tall. Then, when I was in
high school, Jeb transferred into our school in Mechanicsburg,
Pennsylvania. Jeb was 6''5", give or take an inch, and was the
tallest person we had ever seen. The fortunes of our basketball
team immediately improved to a remarkable degree. Wilt
Chamberlain, at 7''1" and 275 pounds, was unique in the pro
basketball circles and a powerful force to be reckoned with. In
the article in Scientific American, Alison McCook deals with the
question of height and the trend of us humans to get taller and
taller. Of course, the prime example of this trend lies in the
NBA. Back in the early 1960s, only Chamberlain and two other
players were in the 7-foot category. Today, the number in the
NBA exceeds 40. Obviously, we humans are destined to evolve
into a race of Wilts in the distant future.
Or are we? Admittedly, the average height in the United States
today is some two inches higher than back in Civil War days.
However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, we stopped growing taller back in the 1960s. How
can this be with all these tall people populating the NBA? The
answer lies in the game of basketball itself. These tall fellows
are recruited for that particular physical attribute from all over
the world these days. Essentially, the NBA is serving as a
concentrator of tallness. Actually our average height has
remained at 5''9" for men and 5''4" for women for decades.
It is generally agreed that the spurt in height that occurred in the
20th century was due to better nutrition and the average height
increased substantially over the years. The increase of two
inches in average height occurred as the children of
malnourished immigrants or of poorer parents grew taller than
these parents, thanks to the calorie-rich diet that has morphed
into the fast food culture of today.
McCook cites two anthropologists, William Cameron Chumlea
of Wright State University and Claire C. Gordon of the Army
Research Center. Gordon supports the constant height thesis by
noting that army uniforms, in contrast to basketball uniforms,
have stayed constant for quite some time. Chumlea, as well as
William Leonard of Northwestern University, agree that from the
genetic standpoint we''ve reached the constraint level set by our
genes. The exceptions that we see on the basketball court or in
the pygmy world at the other end of the scale prove the rule, I
For the record, Rick Barry wrested the scoring title from
Chamberlain in Barry''s second season in the NBA. I would
imagine the granny shots helped considerably. In case you''re
wondering, Mark Price was the best foul shooter, with an
average of 90.7 percent. According to Rist''s article, Price was a
genius in play-offs, making 202 out of 214 free throws! My
calculator says that''s 94.4 percent. I don''t know if he used the
granny or the overhand style but Price gets my nod as a true
If all this sports trivia makes some of you readers think that
you''ve stumbled onto Bar Chat by mistake, rest assured that
Bortrum will return to more conventional science next week.
Allen F. Bortrum