Only as good as your last shot

Alcindor There is nothing as sad or depraved than a man in the depths of a shooting slump. Sometimes it feels like locking your keys in the car or repeatedly punching yourself in the face… by accident. Eventually, it becomes so frustrating that each missed shot or rebound that turns to a change of possession is like a free fall where a ripcord is just a millimeter out of reach.

Yes, a shooting slump is like falling from the sky. Shots that might have splashed through the net with that sonorous, swish! are replaced with soft deflections off the rim that barely sail far enough for a long rebound. After the ball nicks the iron, that’s it. No more chances.

But that’s not where it gets frustrating. Through no discernible reason, sometimes the ball doesn’t go where it’s supposed to. Even though the form is the same, the touch and rotation is no different than any other shot, but for some stupid reason something is off.

Could it be the humidity? Maybe someone opened a door to get into the gym and a breeze knocked the ball off its target?

Whatever the reason, a shooting slump sucks. It sucks to watch and it sucks to go through. Don’t believe me, get ready for a couple of stories. One comes from a high-school hot shot who once believed he was the best shooter walking the earth, and the other is about a budding NBA star that once filled it up for 54 to set the single-game scoring record for Kentucky.

First things first, though. A shooter in basketball is a special breed. They aren’t like the big men that coaches and the media go crazy for because of the gift of height and build. Everyone loves the big man, because they can be taught to do things no one else can do. See, it’s not like a pitching coach like Rich Dubee for the Phillies who’s main job, essentially, is to shut up, stay out of the way and make sure his ace pitchers know what time the bus leaves for the ballpark. For instance, do you think Kareem was given that sky hook when he was Lew Alcindor or was he taught it because he was so much bigger than the other kids at school?

Think anyone else at young Lew’s school was taught a sky hook?

Anyway, a shooter has to work constantly. A shot is built from trial and error and then honed trough maddening, psychotic repetition. And then, the shooter has to figure out a way to get off the shots. That’s because even on the schoolyard, the shooter is identified and singled out. 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 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.

A shooter can carve your eyes out if he isn’t identified early, so the sporting thing is to get the word out.

But once the game begins, 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, Larry Bird 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.


But to miss shots—shots that normally would go down like turning on the faucet, well, that’s different.

“When you miss a lot of shots it can be demoralizing,” said 76ers head coach Doug Collins. “It takes a little bit of your spirit away.”

Collins knows because he was a shooter. In parts of eight NBA seasons covering 415 regular-season and 32 playoff games, Collins scored 18.2 points per game. That comes to more than 7,400 points in an era before there was such a thing as a three-pointer. In fact, of the 6,375 shots Collins took in official NBA games, only one was a three-pointer. What this means is Collins knew how to put the ball in the basket. “Scoring the ball,” as he calls it. Give it to him and he’ll generally figure out a way to get two points out of it.

That goes for the famous game during the 1972 Olympics where it appeared as if Collins had sunk the game-winning foul shots to win the gold medal game against the Soviet Union. Technically, the Soviets were awarded the gold medal, but they really didn’t win it—at t least not honorably, anyway. Because after two in-bounds plays and two do-overs, Collins was poised to be the hero and win that championship. He nearly had to be knocked out in order for it to happen, but those two foul shots with three seconds left appeared to seal the gold medal for the U.S.A.

Watching the many documentaries about the ’72 Olympics and particularly the gold medal basketball game, one can watch Collins steal a pass at midcourt, race to the basket for a layup and then get smashed in the basket support.

Collins told Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith in 1992 that U.S. head coach Hank Iba came running to his aid as he was lying on the court, dazed by the blow he had just absorbed. So too did assistant coach John Bach, who told Iba that they were going to have to find someone to shoot the free throws for Collins. 

“But coach Hank Iba says, ‘If Doug can walk, he'll shoot,’ ” Collins told Smith. “That electrified me. The coach believed in me.” 

Collins made both shots, putting the U.S. ahead, 50-49, with three seconds left. 

The Soviets inbounded, but the clock was stopped with one second remaining, amid a dispute over whether or not the Russians had called a timeout. 

Three seconds were placed back on the clock. The Soviets inbounded again, but this time a horn sounded after a single second ticked off, apparently ending the game. The U.S. players celebrated, but the horn had gone off because there had been a timing error… for some reason 50 seconds had been placed on the clock. 

So the Soviets inbounded once more. And this time they scored on a court-length pass to win at the buzzer. They were given three chances to beat the U.S., and thanks to some help from the officials and the Olympic brass, they did it. Collins told us that during the confusion he remembered watching the referees fight over the ball while arguing with each other in languages they didn’t understand.

If Collins had missed one of the foul shots and the game had gone to overtime, maybe the ending would have been different. Maybe the U.S. team wears down the Soviets in the extra frame and wins the gold without controversy. What if?

Whatever. Shooters don’t ever try to miss. The misses will come and when they do they will feel like daggers.

Doug-collins ***

Anyway, there was a hot-shot kid who felt that if the ball was in his hands anywhere past the half court line that he was a threat to score. Truth is the kid spent all his free time hoisting up shots at a backyard basket. In the morning he dressed, ate and dashed off to score just so he would have extra time to shoot in the schoolyard before the rest of his classmates arrived. After school, he would run home, toss his backpack in the house, and head for the backyard hoop. Sometimes there would be other kids to play with, but that was unusual. The kid’s appetite for the game and the solace he found in the routine was insatiable. Making baskets made him feel good and it got to the point where he felt like he could do it better than anyone in the world.

There were a few public displays that he was pretty good, too. For instance, in a sixth grade CYO game, the kid scored all but two of his teams’ baskets. There were top of the key shots which would have counted for three points in later years, but were rightly recognized as a long bomb for a sixth-grader. Then there were shots from the corners with three defenders draped all over him. Those high-arching shots seemed to be a homing device zeroed in on the space just over the lip of the rim, and when they splashed through touching nothing but the net it sounded like a bomb had detonated.

Swish!

Later that year, the kid participated in the annual sixth-grade hot shot competition where each shooter had a minute to rack up as many points from various spots on the floor. To qualify for the championship round to take place on the court at halftime of a game at the city high school, the kid scored so many points that the officials didn’t believe him. When his classmates explained that, yes, the kid made 36 baskets in a minute, the head of the competition accused them of a conspiracy.

Thirty-six shots in a minute? Hell, the kid did that routinely by himself at the backyard hoop. Thirty-six was what he called a “soft” record in that it was better than what anyone else could do, but not unbreakable.

So with the ability to shoot, a growth spurt that pushed him to 6-foot-1 by the ninth grade, and an eighth-grade CYO season that ended with a buzzer-beater from the elbow in the league championship, the kid expected to shoot his way onto the varsity team in high school. Quickly, that’s where the kid learned that there was more to the game than just “scoring the ball.” As it turned out, high school coaches liked defense better than offense. Actually, the coaches loved defense and often had posters and t-shirts printed up espousing the virtues of good defense. They had little time for hotdog freshmen who liked to shoot the ball as often as possible. Moreover, they had very little patience when the kid missed two or three shots in a row on consecutive trips up the floor.

“Kid,” the coach called out, “you better start making those shots. You better start making those shots if you want to play on this team.”

The kid never heard that kind of talk before. After all, most coaches tolerated his misses because he made so many shots. Like the time he scored 17 points in the first quarter of a 28-minute game, he needed to take 15 shots. No matter how it’s examined, that’s some serious gunning.

But to hear the words, you better start making those shots if you want to play… that planted a seed of doubt. To that point he never thought about making shots, he just did it. Now what had been second nature was something that had an outside force attached to it. There was an end result—pressure—and it was a weird feeling.


***

“The main thing is confidence—just working on making shots,” said Sixers’ guard Jodie Meeks. “Once that’s down I made sure I knew how to shoot and made sure my mechanics were right.”

Meeks is a shooter, and a pretty good one at that. Better yet, Meeks fits the profile of the quiet schoolyard assassin who until he starts burying shot after shot, no one knows if he can play. Meeks is listed at 6-foot-4 and a shade over 200 pounds, but that might be cheating an inch or two. Just 23-years old, Meeks looks younger with a face and attitude not yet hardened by years on the road and lots of late-night room service.

Truth is, Meeks looks like a lot of shooters he followed when he was a kid in Norcross, Ga.

Reggie Miller, Rip Hamilton, Michael Jordan,” Meeks answered when asked which shooters he followed. “I’d go outside with my dad and work on my shooting and he’d kind of tell me how to play.”

Actually, Meeks has a look that helped him blend in when he was an undergrad at Kentucky. After two seasons where he averaged a little more than 8 points per game, Meeks went for nearly 24 points a game in his third year at the school. In one, Meeks broke the school record held by Hall of Famer Dan Issel when he scored 54 points, 30 of those points came on three-pointers. The 54-point game was the best in the nation during the 2008-09 season and his 46 and 45-point efforts were the second and third highest scoring games of the college season.

It was the ability to shoot that made Meeks skip his last season of eligibility and enter the NBA Draft, though it was also the draft where he learned that there was a lot more to the game than just being able to “score the ball.” When his name was finally called by Milwaukee at the draft in June of 2009, there were only 19 picks remaining and of those 19, only seven of those players saw a tick of NBA playing time.

However, Meeks also learned that a little perseverance and the ability to shoot the ball can create a lot of opportunities, too. Traded from Milwaukee to Philadelphia at midseason, the asking price was just Royal Ivey, Primoz Brezec and a second-round pick. When it comes down to it, the Ivey, Brezec and a second-round pick for Meeks could go down as one of general manager Ed Stefanski’s shrewdest moves, though it didn’t seem like that at first.

Meeks was just another player dotting the stat sheet in a lost year for the Sixers last season. Yet when Collins took over at the start of this season, Meeks was inactive for the first six games of the season. Imagine how that must have felt… the biggest scorer in the country as a junior apparently was only good enough to be a second-round pick. Then, to get traded by the team that drafted him for the proverbial bag of balls, only to start a new season with a new coach on the bench in a suit instead of a uniform, the self-doubt was understandable.

But Meeks shot his way off the bench and into the starting lineup. Better yet, by the end of the season Collins was asking himself, “What was I thinking.”

“He missed the first six games because I wasn’t smart enough to dress him,” Collins said.

“Jodie has been amazing. He’s still just scratching the surface. His next growth will be being able to play pick-and-roll. Right now I have limited that for him because I don’t think he’s very comfortable doing that and making decisions, but in the summer, he can get in the gym and learn to play off the dribble and expand his game.”

He sat, waiting to get a chance he could only hope would come.

“It wasn’t very confusing. When I got traded I was happy to be here and thankful I was in a situation where they liked me,” Meeks said. I knew eventually I would get a chance. My whole life I’ve been the guy who helped the team by shooting.”

Meeks made 138 three-pointers this season and averaged a little better than 10 points per game. His 89.4 percent foul shooting was fifth-best in the NBA, and, according to the advanced metrics, the Sixers were four points better per 100 possessions when Meeks was on the floor rather than off it. That’s fairly significant considering that the Sixers were only 1.5 points per game better than the opposition in 2010-11.

“It’s hard to get him off the floor now,” Collins said. “His shooting, his toughness, his energy—when he’s out on the floor with the quickness that he brings, [he] can cover a lot of spots on the floor.”

That’s what a shooter does. Oh sure, Meeks gets out-muscled by the bigger 2-guards in the league and his defense is still in development. But when a guy shoots nearly 40 percent from beyond the three-point arc, it gets attention.

When the shots stopped falling, though, things didn’t go so well for the Sixers. Meeks closed out the season shooting 3-for-27 from three-point range. That offset a stretch where he went 19 straight games with a three-pointer and made 31 of 64.

But then he started missing them and there was no real reason why. He was open, his form was as true and solid as ever, it’s just that the ball would start to go down before popping out. There was even a three-pointer at the end of a game against New York that if it would have dropped, Meeks would have given the Sixers a back-breaking four-point lead. Instead, the Knicks rebounded the shot after it seemed to touch the twine and had enough left for a late rally.

Fortunately for Meeks, he was told to keep shooting. Not once was he looking over his shoulder wondering when Collins would be there with the hook.

“I told Jodie I used to tell [former Bulls’ guard] John Paxson, unless you’ve missed five shots, you haven’t taken enough, because I always feel that way about good shooters,” Collins said.

“All [Meeks] has to do is keep shooting,” said Andre Iguodala, who has been a mentor to Meeks this season. “He could be 0 for 100, but we’ll stick him in there and throw it to him again. He’s been a huge factor for us, and in order for him to be effective on the team he has to have confidence. It’s just about that. He had a good look, and it went in and out. It’s a fine line between winning and losing. If another goes down then you’re talking about something different.”  

So after closing the season with a shooting slump in which the Sixers dropped five of their final six games, Meeks is finding his stroke. In his first two playoff games, the guard made 3 of 5 three-pointers, but only 3 of his 8 two-pointers.

He has at least two more games to figure it out.

Meeks ***

“I honestly believe poor shooting [can be] debilitating,” Collins said. “If you ever played in the game where you keep getting the shots and you can’t make them, it takes a lot out of you.”

It can, as Collins said, crush your spirit.

By the time the kid was into his high school career, the coach was completely fed up. He didn’t want a backyard shooter at all, but knew they had value. For instance, there was the time the coach had the kid check into a game just as a technical foul was to be called on the opposition. When it happened, the coach had the kid shoot the foul shots and then immediately pulled him out of the game.

For those scoring at home that’s two points without a second ticking off the clock.

Another time the coach tore into the kid for passing up an open 16-footer on the wing to drive and dish off to a teammate for a basket. He didn’t care about the basket, just that the kid broke some unknown edict against dribbling the ball.

“Your job is to shoot the open shot and nothing else. Don’t dribble. You catch it, shoot or pass and then get back and play defense,” the coach shouted. “That’s all you’re here to do—shoot an open shot. That’s it.”

He wasn’t finished. There was something about the kid’s ability to make shot after shot that drove the coach mad. Something about a kid who grew to 6-foot-1 by the ninth grade only to never gain another inch of height, speed or coordination. It wasn’t the kid’s fault… sometimes people peak early.

“That goes for all you white guys… just shoot open shots like you’re in your parents’ driveway. Don’t drive. The black kids drive. Yeah, there are the rules—white kids shoot the jumpers, and the black kids drive to the basket.”

“What about the Puerto Ricans,” asked the point guard, Julio Garcia.

“You Puerto Ricans,” said the coach without missing a beat, “can go work on my car.”

The ‘80s… apparently this type of thinking straight out of Welcome Back Kotter was still en vogue. But it wasn’t as spirit crushing as a handful of missed shots in garbage time of a blowout victory. The fact was the coach seethed when the kid missed some shots late in the game that had been decided by halftime. It was an act of selfishness, the coach believed, where the kid was just trying to put his name in the book. To the kid, it was nothing more than firing up an open shot in a game that was already put to bed.

Hell, the kid thought the white kids were supposed to shoot the open shots.

“I know what you were thinking. You thought, hey, I’m finally in the game, I’m going to get mine. I’m going to take my shots and score some points and screw everyone else,” the coach seethed while looking into a mirror above the locker room sink. “You’re not helping yourself or the team. You’re just out there for yourself. That’s why you took all of those shots.”

Before the kid could respond, with tears streaming down his cheeks, the coach tucked his black comb into his back pocket, took one more look into the mirror, and walked out of the locker room.

Yes, missed shots can take away a bit of one’s spirit. It can be demoralizing, too. Then again, it’s always a matter of moments until that next shot comes around. A shooter is always one shot away from going on a hot streak.

After all, made shots are contagious, too. A shooter is always one away from being the difference.