Doubt, disdain marked most NBA teams' first forays into 3-point land

When NBA adopted 3-pointer in 1979-80 season, many teams and players viewed shot as a publicity stunt

One afternoon in the early fall of 1979, shortly before the squeak sneakers welcomed the start of a new NBA season, the famed parquet floor inside the old Boston Garden was ready to get fixed. The workers weren’t instructed to pinch together the numerous gaps in the wood, however. They were there to apply lipstick to the wood.

The color of choice was black, and the painters brushed a thin stripe that arched from one side of the court to the other, a permanent swath that changed the game forever.

When he saw how they stained his floor, the balding man who lorded over the Boston Celtics surely snickered. Red Auerbach was not a fan of what he considered this gimmick, this novelty, this attempt to bring the carnival to the highest level of basketball.

“We don’t need it,” Auerbach huffed then. “I say leave our game alone.”

The idea of awarding three points to shots made beyond an arch stretching 23 feet, nine inches from the rim and 22 feet from the corners was unnecessary, Auerbach believed. And he was not alone in believing this was some sort of publicity stunt.

“I think all of us thought it was,” said Larry Bird, of all people, in hindsight.

Bird was a floppy-topped rookie then and the designated savior of a franchise gone stale. The Celtics had fallen on skid row, losing over 100 games the previous two seasons. Auerbach, their team president and former legendary coach, hadn’t fired up a championship victory stoogie in four years. The Celtics thought Bird would transform them.

He, along with fellow rookie Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, were the sizzle that energized the start of the 1979-80 season — not the 3-pointer (which was making a quieter and less welcoming debut).

But the shot was here to stay, and the Celtics, like the 21 other teams then, had to deal with it.

‘Nobody even thought much about the three’

Bird wasn’t a fan at first. He doesn’t recall Bill Fitch, his coach, spending much time in training camp discussing or game-planing for the shot. Which means, the Celtics didn’t open the season with a single play designed for 3-pointers. It sounds insane now, but imagine having a young Bird on the team and never freeing him up by design for the shot.

“It was never in our arsenal,” Bird said.

And then on Oct. 12, opening night of the ’79-80 season, with the Celtics playing the Houston Rockets, history happened in the first quarter. Chris Ford, a set-shooting journeyman and the only Celtic who bothered to shoot from deep in the preseason, trotted downcourt and happened to stand with his toes beyond the arch.

“Well actually,” said Bird, wisecracking, “they were double- or triple-teaming me and he was out there with nothing to do so I passed it to him.”

The game hasn’t been the same since. The 3-pointer is not only in demand by coaches and players today but even fans, making it rare when a player takes a jump shot that isn’t from deep. Ford was unique then because he was one of the few who ran to the 3-point line and waited. Almost every Houston Rocket (and many other players) does that now. But then? The 3-point shot was grudgingly accepted by a league that simply didn’t know what to do with it.

In the birth year for the shot, the average team took just 2.8 3-pointers per game. Only five players made at least 50 for the season. Ford and Bird were the only two players with at least 100 attempts to shoot 40 percent.

Last season, teams took 24 per game, 160 players made at least 50 3-pointers, and 30 players with at least 100 attempts shot 40 percent or better.

Stephen Curry took 886 3-pointers last season … which is 243 more than the team that attempted the most threes in ’79-80 (the San Diego Clippers).

“In the beginning,” said Lenny Wilkens, coach the Seattle SuperSonics in ’79-80, “nobody even thought much about the three.”

Value of 3-pointer loudly questioned

In the beginning, as in very beginning, the three was exactly what coaches and players once accused it of being: a novelty act. History largely credits Abe Saperstein, the swashbuckling brainchild of the Harlem Globetrotters, for mainstreaming the shot if not inventing it completely. Denied a chance to start an NBA franchise, Saperstein created the American Basketball League in 1961 and introduced the shot as a way to sell the league, which unfortunately didn’t last two years.

Five years later, the ABA adopted the shot on the request of the league’s first commissioner, George Mikan, using the shot and the red-white-and-blue ball to brand itself. After the ’76 ABA-NBA merger, the NBA admitted jealousy about the shot and a rules committee approved it starting in ’79-80.

Understand that the NBA’s thinking then was similar to that of the ABL and ABA: the league was gasping for popularity and the NBA Finals would soon be shown on tape-delay. The league needed some pop.

The 3-pointer was designed to become a crowd-pleaser and give the game a different style, which some believed had gone stale and predictable. It was also a life preserver for the little guy in a big man’s game.

‘[Bullets coach] Dick [Motta] never liked it. He said, ‘Grevey, that’s a gimmick from the ABA and the coaches weren’t consulted about this. … We’re not going to be influenced by this shot, nor are you. Get that ball down low to Elvin Hayes.’ ”

former Washington Bullets shooter Kevin Grevey

But too many coaches were old school. That season, the shot was mainly used in case of emergency, and the glass was typically only broken for the final few minutes of a game with a losing team frantically trying to rally. It wasn’t a weapon; it was desperation.

The Washington Bullets, who’d made the NBA Finals in 1978 and ’79 (winning it all in ’78), were typical of most, stressing post play and layups. They only had one pure shooter from distance: Kevin Grevey. As for coach Dick Motta’s belief in the shot, you might say the fat lady already sang.

“We never practiced it,” said Grevey. “In camp we never talked about it. Dick never liked it. He said, ‘Grevey, that’s a gimmick from the ABA and the coaches weren’t consulted about this. We’re not going to shoot the three point shot. We’re not going to be influenced by this shot, nor are you. Get that ball down low to Elvin Hayes.’ ”

The Bullets opened the season on the same night as Bird and the Celtics and Grevey did not get the ball to Hayes.

“First time I touched the ball, in front of our bench, I shot it,” he said. “I looked back at Dick and he shook his head. Well, I was a good shooter, and after about a month we had the ‘Grevey Rule.’ I was allowed to shoot it but nobody else.”

Grevey made that shot and when it swished there was a controversy: Was Ford the first to make a 3-pointer in NBA history, or was it Grevey? Play-by-play from those games is non-existent now, and this was obviously well before the internet, so details are hazy.

“It made no difference to me,” said Grevey, who is “officially” the second to make the shot. “At that moment I wasn’t thinking history. I was thinking Dick would bench me.”

There was no such hesitation on the other side of the country, where Clippers coach Gene Shue gave the shot the green light and red carpet. It helped that Shue had Freeman Williams (second only to Pete Maravich in scoring in NCAA history) and Brian Taylor (a more efficient shooter), as his guards. Also, center Bill Walton was supposed to revitalize his injury-wrecked career and jump-start the young franchise. But Walton only played 14 games that season and the Clippers needed a fallback plan.

“We had set plays for it,” said Taylor. “I’d go down to the corner, catch and shoot it. Gene Shue believed in it.”

Taylor took a league-high 239 shots and made a respectable 36.5 percent. Williams took 128. Curiously, the Clippers were led in scoring by World B. Free at 30.2 points. Although he was an unapologetic gunner, Free was bashful from deep, hoisting only 25 all season.

New shot, but old mentality reigns

Another reason for hesitation among players: They weren’t properly prepared. Even the best shooters hadn’t trained their muscle memory from that distance because the shot wasn’t in the college game.

The NBA game was heavy on centers and almost by instinct, teammates fed the post. The philosophy was to take shots as close as possible, because even in the event of a miss, there might be a foul. Three-point shooters were rarely fouled back then because defenders were trained to give the open 25-footer.

“I must’ve made another 25 3-pointers that season but I had my toe on the line,” said Grevey. “I got better at it over time but I’d be so disappointed when the ref didn’t put his hands up. Nowadays, guys are very natural about it, they step into the shot knowing where the line is. Also, I never took a three off the dribble or contested. I see guys do that now and it’s amazing. That is a hard shot. I was a catch-and-shoot-3, never off the dribble or moving.”

Grevey played 10 years in the NBA and had he come along today, he thinks he’d last at least another five.

“The biggest change in basketball isn’t the athleticism or even the money, which is substantial,” he said. “It’s the 3-point shot, which has totally changed the game, and for the better. It made the game exciting, fun and fast.”

Hubie Brown coached two seasons in the ABA, led the Kentucky Colonels to a championship and, therefore, had a history with the 3-point shot when he took over as Atlanta Hawks coach in ’79-80. Brown was a coach of convenience, though and his talent dictated the system to be used. Those Hawks weren’t built to shoot from deep and Atlanta made 13 3-pointers all season. (Or, what James Harden gets that in a weekend.)

“Our game was also built around defense, getting steals and getting up court quickly,” said Brown, “so we were in transition the majority of the game.”

The shot also came to the NBA too late to be seized by some of the all-time great shooters. Rick Barry’s final NBA season was ’79-80 with the Rockets, and while he had a taste of the 3-pointer during his ABA years, he never bothered with long two-pointers in the NBA prior to that last season.

“It was a new thing and people were just trying to experiment with it and see how it works,” Barry said. “Guys just weren’t used to shooting that far. But I had four of the greatest shooters in the game on my team, Calvin Murphy, Mike Newlin, Rudy Tomjanovich and Mike Dunleavy. If we worked on it and incorporated into our game we would’ve been dangerous, kind of like the Warriors are today.

“The defensive philosophy in basketball then was: make the team beat you from the perimeter, take away the inside game. Well the reality now is not only can some of these teams beat you from the outside, they can embarrass you.”

‘The game has changed’

Fred Brown was an even better example of opportunity lost. He had the perfect 3-point nickname – “Downtown Freddie Brown” — and would often pull up for jumpers a few steps beyond half court with the SuperSonics. The three wasn’t introduced until his ninth season, and by then, Brown’s touch had diminished.

“Fred would go to the corner and he could nail that shot,” said Wilkens, his coach. “Unfortunately it didn’t come early enough in his career or else he would’ve set a lot of records. If a player got hot, you could encourage them to take it, guys like Fred, who was a pure shooter. You encouraged guys who could make the shot, but not the pretenders.”

The Lakers won the championship in ’79-80 and Paul Westhead, who took over as coach after Jack McKinney suffered injuries in a bicycle accident that season. He stuck with the tried-and-true NBA formula: get the ball to the big guy (in this case, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). That, along with the Magic Johnson-fueled fast break, was the core of the Laker offense as they made only 20 3-pointers (out of 100) all season.

Curiously, Westhead was fired less than two years later after the players, led by Magic, complained about the rigid offense. When he returned to the NBA with the Denver Nuggets in 1990-91, Westhead did a 180 in his coaching style. He turned to an unorthodox and frantic offense that leaned heavily on quick shots – the Nuggets took a league-leading 13 threes a game — but was fired because Denver’s defense couldn’t keep up with the pace.

The great Celtics teams in the ‘80s were built around the fast break and therefore Bird had to warm up to the shot. After his rookie season, he attempted 74, 52, 77 and 73 3-pointers the next four seasons. Of course, Bird’s affection with the shot grew deeper. He eventually won three straight Three-Point Contests, made a career 37.6 percent and became one of the all-time clutch shooters from deep. The shot gave him another method to crush the spirit his foes, too.

“It’s strange when you think back,” Bird said. “I can’t remember even practicing the shot, unless it was for the contest. I really didn’t take that many, compared to today. I would take it if we were one or two points down and only if I was open from that distance. We only had one guy, Chris Ford, who you could say was a designated shooter from that distance. Nate Archibald never shot it. We never took the shot to the extreme. [Coach] K.C. Jones was saying we took too many.

“I was never really big on it. But when you made the shot, the fans would go crazy and it was demoralizing. I’ve changed my thoughts about it.”

Today as the executive responsible for building the Indiana Pacers, let’s just say Bird gives more weight to players who can shoot 3-pointers than his mentor, Auerbach.

“Everybody’s looking for shooters,” he said. “We get calls from teams looking to trade for our best shooters from that distance. And the shot is no longer for the little guy. Paul George takes a number of them, our young center Myles Turner is taking more than he ever had.

“The 3-point shot creates plenty of spacing. Guys are shooting 25 foot jumpers and opening the lanes. It’s a hell of a way to play the game. It’s very effective and if you get your team shooting 35-38 percent, it’s a major advantage. I think we’ll reach the point where 40 threes per game is the norm for teams.”

Forty 3-pointers? Back in 1979-80, when the 3-point shot was born, over half the league struggled to shoot that many in a season.

“The game has changed,” Bird said. “You have to keep up with it or fall behind.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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