Word spread around the camp like a brush fire. As soon as one kid at the Wally Walker basketball camp at Millersville University heard the news, it was all the true believers could do to contain themselves. After all, they had seen it before. They had seen the magic and knew that it was real.
This guy can stand all the way on the other side of the court and take a normal shot and it will go in. He bounces it in! He takes a shot and it bounces in!
Truth is I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. How could a guy shoot a shot from the opposite foul line and bounce it in? No, not bank shot, but a bounce shot. From 80-feet away.
But who was the guy? Some coach? Some coach we had never heard of because in our little world of kids off at sleepaway basketball camp in the early 1980s, we thought only of the big time. It was Wally Walker’s camp and he already had two NBA championship rings with Portland and Seattle, was MVP of the ACC Tournament for the University of Virginia, a top five overall draft pick, and was washed up all before the age of 30.
So we waited for Marc Iavaroni from the world champion 76ers and watched demonstrations on how to best score points. Wally Walker ran an offense camp for us junior high kids, probably because everyone likes scoring and shooting. No, not everyone can score or shoot—even some of the best players out there struggle from time to time, but what we were about to see was someone who really liked to shoot and probably could do it better than any person on the planet.
Herb Magee was the best shooter I had ever seen hold a basketball. That’s the way it was when I was in sixth grade and I imagine Herb can still stick them from any spot on the floor. In fact, I’ll be willing to wager that Herb Magee, the coach for Philadelphia University with more wins than any college coach who ever lived, can bounce one in from the opposite foul line.
Magee was elected to the basketball’s Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame on Monday, a huge honor for a Division-II college coach, but also one that was long overdue. After starring for West Catholic High with Jimmy Lynam, Magee went to Philadelphia Textile (later renamed Philadelphia University) where he set the school record for scoring. After graduation, Magee was drafted by the Boston Celtics, but instead he chose to stay in Philadelphia and coach at his alma mater.
Since 1967, Magee has been the main man at Philly U., piling up 922 wins, 30 20-win seasons, and a National Championship in 1970. Also, Magee works with NBA players on honing their shot and the Sixers’ Evan Turner will be his next project this summer. A few years back, Larry Bird, yes, Larry Bird, one of the greatest shooters ever, asked Magee to work with his Indiana Pacers.
Of course he’ll take the time in August to be inducted in the Hall of Fame along with Dennis Rodman, Chris Mullin, Tex Winter, Tara VanDerveer, Artis Gilmore, Arvydas Sabonis, Teresa Edwards, Reece “Goose” Tatum and Tom “Satch” Sanders.
“This is the highlight of a career, an individual award,” Magee said from Houston on Monday where he was introduced along with the latest class of Hall of Famers. “Certainly winning a national championship was the highlight of my coaching career. But as far as individual, this takes precedent over [Phillies president] David Montgomery. I'll have to apologize to Dave when I see him, but if he wants me to do it again, I'll do it.”
But back to the 1980s…
Now when Herb showed up at camp he didn’t walk into the gym and just start gunning from all over the place. No way. He was there to teach us the proper shooting technique, which started with form. There was a proper way to shoot a ball and telltale signs if it was done correctly. For instance, a shooter was doing it right if his shooting hand was covered with dirt, but the palm, where the ball never touched if held correctly, should be clean.
Dirty schoolyard, dirty ball, dirty hands, but clean palm—a shooter never had a dirty palm.
Then again, a shooter was always known on the schoolyard. Shooters, after all, are the home run hitters. They are the ninjas of the game, typically blending in until sides are chosen and the first attempts at the hoop are up. See, a shooter is like a black belt in karate who gets into a back alley brawl in that he must identify himself. It’s only fair, after all, for some poor sap to know what he’s up against and if it’s a black belt standing across from him, last-minute negotiation might be in order.
Of course negotiation on the court is conducted like a chess match. When the shooter is identified, the defense must make its move. Against a guy with a midrange shot, a zone could be pushed out past the key, or, old-fashioned man-to-man could be the call. However, if the guy had range like Reggie Miller or Chris Mullin, some sort of gimmicky box-and-one might be the best defense. As the standard thinking goes, it’s fine to be beaten because the opposition had a better scheme or moves, but not if the ball was going to be kicked out to some guy standing away from the fray who can drop them in from 25 feet.
That’s like an overhand right that you see coming, but can’t do anything about.
As one of those black belts who fantasized about a foot of open space that gave enough breathing room to squeeze off a 20-footer, Herb Magee was mesmerizing. With just a right hand he set the ball just so and buried shot after shot from inside the key. Slowly, after the ball ripped through the net and spun back to him after bouncing on the floor, Magee took steps back. Nothing changed. He held the ball in his right hand, released it, followed through as it arced like a rainbow and ripped through the twine.
But as shot after shot went through, never even nicking the iron, Herb really showed us what made a good shooter. Oh yes, the form and technique was important, but confidence was paramount. We saw that oh-so subtly as Magee shot without looking at the basket and talked to the other campers. Mostly the jokey chatter was about the manner in which he was going to make the shot, all while making cracks about girlfriends, pre-Air Jordan era sneakers, and anything else that kids thought was funny.
These kids knew funny, too. Actually, they knew how to talk trash better than they knew funny. See, the kids I spent the week with in the Millersville dorms were from Columbia, Pa., a town the reeked of the underdog that had pushed around far too much for its own good. It was sewn into the history of Columbia, which when it was founded, wasn’t called Columbia at all.
It actually changed its name to Columbia with the hope that people would like it better.
Back when the Continental Congress was figuring out where to locate the permanent capital, a little down in Pennsylvania called Wright’s Ferry decided to lobby for the gig. Figuring its location along the banks of the mighty Susquehanna River that separates York and Lancaster counties was perfectly located and easy for delegates from the other colonies, Wright’s Ferry challenged for the privilege to be capital.
First things first… Wright’s Ferry had to do something about its name. It needed something catchy or something that befit a burgeoning nation. Therefore, in 1789 Wright’s Ferry changed its name to Columbia.
Perfect, huh? With a name like Columbia, how could the little town on the western edge of Lancaster County go wrong?
Name? Done, done, done and done.
Let's build the capitol dome.
Nevertheless, southern states Maryland and Virginia carved out a rectangle of unwanted swamp land along the Anacostia and Potomac rivers not too far from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Next thing the folks in Columbia, Pa. knew the District of Columbia had edged it out by one vote and the rest is history. Some influence that George Washington had, huh?
Anyway, since it had the name and the location, Columbia attempted to become the capital of Pennsylvania. Again, it had the location, the name but maybe not the influential supporters. Instead, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania went with the more centrally located Harrisburg to be the seat of its government.
Since then, Columbia became most well known for burning down the bridge connecting it to Wrightsville in York County (called the Wright's Ferry bridge – picture above) to ward off the approaching Confederate Army in 1864. As a result of this act, the Confederates and Union armies got together in Gettysburg for one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.
And perhaps once again, Columbia missed out on centuries worth of tourists and historical fame.
But they played some pretty good basketball in Columbia, too. They were tough kids and what they lacked in size and ability, they made up for with anger and competitiveness. It was never easy to play against those Columbia kids, because they weren’t smart enough to realize they weren’t as good as other teams. Besides, they were kids who usually went up against bigger schools in the Lancaster-Lebanon League, which served it well when it was time for the Double-A state playoffs. In 1987, Columbia High won the state championship with some of the kids at Wally Walker’s basketball camp with me—the same kids that told me all about Herb Magee’s shooting before he showed up.
He bounces it in from the opposite side of the court…
Still, I couldn’t figure it out. Just how did he bounce it in and when was he going to do it? He already amazed with shots from half court, shots from the corner while looking away, shots from the other side of the basket… shots from standing in the bleachers that only touched the net and looked perfect from set to release.
Finally, he was standing at the other foul line and with a little leap into the air and he let it go with perfect rotation and the arc so high that the ball could have drawn rain.
But the shot looked like it was going to be short. From 80 feet, Magee’s shot landed a few feet in front of the foul line he was shooting at. However, like out of a dream, the ball bounced off the floor and toward the rim as if Magee was shooting those one-handers from the paint.
Yep, swish. Bounced it in from 80.
As far as I was concerned, Herb Magee should have been put into the Hall of Fame on the spot.