Phog champion of higher hoops

Allen insisted 12-foot goals would neutralize 'goons'

Who can even dare to dream how the game of basketball would look and be played today if a Kansas University icon had been able to convince his peers of the merits of 12-foot hoopla?

In the early 1950s, concerned college basketball officials noted the growing impact of big men in the game and were giving at least moderate consideration to raising the basket level, from 10 feet to as high as 12. And the increasing trend for dunking had not even begun to reach the epidemic proportions of today.

While that was startling news in some corners, it didn’t raise many eyebrows around Lawrence. KU’s Phog Allen, the father of court coaching, had been campaigning for the higher buckets for about 20 years. “Let’s do it,” he had commented, time and again. Allen got the notion in the early 1930s and at one point had visions of dozen-foot hoops being the norm by the 1940s.

Didn’t happen, but Allen always insisted it should.

His 1940 Kansas team with nobody taller than 6-foot-4 had reached the NCAA finals and Phog admitted he was worried about the increasing heights of competitors.

Said Allen, as only he could: “If we raised the goals, these mezzanine-peeping goons wouldn’t be able to score like little children pushing pennies into gum machines. They would have to throw the ball like everyone else. They would have to make the team on real skill, not merely on height.”

He noted that James Naismith in inventing basketball at Springfield had nailed peach baskets at the 10-foot level only because the indoor running track where he attached them provided 10-foot levels – not because of any visionary or vital reasons.

Phog, to make his points, set up some 12-foot goals in old Robinson Gym where the Jayhawks practiced and had his boys work with them to encourage better trajectories for their shots and rebounds.

He contended that higher hoops would allow wider dispersal for rebounds of missed shots, helping smaller and more agile people to outmaneuver the “goons” for possession. There would be less congestion, fewer fouls, no goal-tending and removal of the “goalie” from basketball. Doc periodically referred to his game as “hockeyized jargon.”

Exhibition Experiments

To open the 1934-35 season, KU and Kansas State decided to experiment, with each successful shot on the higher goals counting for three points instead of two. K-State won the first match, 39-35, on Dec. 14, 1934, at old Hoch Auditorium. KU won the second test game, 40-26, on Dec. 18, 1934, at Manhattan. All-American Ray Ebling was the first Jayhawk ever to hit a three-pointer, albeit a much different trey from what we see today.

Also in those ’34-’35 meetings, each 12-foot hoop was placed six feet from the baseline rather than the normal two feet.

Naismith, the game’s inventor, onetime KU coach and Allen’s mentor, was at the Lawrence game and quickly said he didn’t like the changes. Yet his protege was undeterred.

John Bunn had played ball at Kansas under Phog Allen. As coach at Stanford in 1931, probably after Phog’s urging, he studied his team’s scrimmages with baskets at 10, 11 and 12 feet.

Commented Bunn: “One might draw the conclusion on the basis of this report that the raising of the goal is undesirable from practically every standpoint that was investigated.”

That’s Stanfordese by the scholarly Bunn for “keep the hoops where they are.”

Phog’s failed forecast

In 1939, Phog continued campaigning with remarks such as, “The 12-foot basket is coming as sure as death and taxes.” He even bet a friend a new hat if the higher hoops weren’t in vogue by the mid-1940s. He never mentioned if he paid off.

Allen never stopped trying, though. His classic case for argument was Oklahoma A&M’s 7-0 Bob Kurland, who led the Cowboys to 1945 and 1946 NCAA titles. “When you have 7-footers competing against 6-footers, that just isn’t basketball,” Phog noted after A & M defeated Kansas in a 1946 NCAA playoff game in Kansas City.

KU, with one of its finest teams, had a glossy 19-2 record in ’46, but both losses were to Kurland, Hank Iba and Oklahoma A & M. The KU roster included Charlie Black, Ray Evans, Otto Schnellbacher, Gib Stramel and Owen Peck.

Wilt, Russell change game

Kurland’s defensive bat-aways brought about the defensive goal-tending rules that now exist. Then along came San Francisco’s Bill Russell and Kansas’s Wilt Chamberlain in the middle 1950s to mandate offensive goal-tending, or “funneling” as they often referred to it. Russell for a while would get four or five baskets a game when teammates would pitch the ball randomly at the hoop and Russell would guide it in. ‘Frisco won the NCAA titles of 1955 and 1956 with Russell as the focal point.

By the time KU’s Chamberlain opened his varsity career in 1956-57, there could be no more intervention in the “cylinder,” on offense or defense. While Wilt may have “fiddled around” with 12-foot baskets and dunkathons during his career, nobody seems to have any reportage of such. Those who knew Chamberlain as the sensational athlete he was contend that had he concentrated on such things as 12-foot dunks, he’d have been in the forefront of such achievements – which since have led to “world record” efforts by the likes of Wild Thing Gibson of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Basketball-dunking, of course, is now a staple of the game at all levels. How would the slam figure in the proceedings if the hoops were up to 12 feet?

The 10-foot peach-basket level has survived every attempt to alter it, even in the face of constant derision from the incomparable Phog Allen. There was even momentary consideration by the professionals for a change to lessen the dominance by big men.

That soon faded after a 1954 test game between the Minneapolis Lakers and Milwaukee Hawks proved little or nothing to anyone. The Lakers won, 65-63, and the talk about 12-foot baskets, never terribly loud, grew even more muted.

There is no evidence of any new groundswell to inaugurate 12-foot buckets.

Pros try higher hoops

A Kansas University basketball immortal took part in a brief professional experiment with 12-foot baskets – something his legendary coach had advocated at least 20 years earlier and continued to promote in 1954.

The player was Clyde Lovellette, coached by Allen at KU. Both had been brilliantly spotlighted in 1952 when coach Allen’s Jayhawks hubbed by Lovellette won the NCAA title and figured heavily in the United States’ Olympic victory in Helsinki, Finland. Lovellette had a brief stint with the Phillips 66ers of AAU fame before shifting to the professional Minneapolis Lakers for a 1953-57 period.

Coach John Kundla led the Lakers to five National Basketball Assn. titles and was blessed with lineups that included hall-of-fame operators like George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Vern Mikkelsen and Slater Martin, a waterbug guard from Texas who orchestrated the Minneapolis follies. KU’s 6-9 Lovellette saw a lot of action as a sixth- and seventh-man contributor, later starred for the St. Louis Hawks and also won title rings as a Boston Celtic.

The Laker frontliners in 1954 averaged about 6-8, and there was constant criticism because they controlled the backboards so effectively. In effect, other pro teams were taking the “that’s not fair!” approach and wondered if anything could be done to give them a better shot at glory.

So in 1954, when college coaches actually were considering raising the hoop from 10 to 12 feet, a 12-foot pro game between Minneapolis and the Milwaukee Hawks was set up.

Phog Allen, naturally, was interested because he had felt for a long time the hoops should be raised. In the 1930s, he had some 12-foot baskets installed in old Robinson Gymnasium where his Jayhawks, including Lovellette, practiced for their games in Hoch Auditorium. Long critical of how big men were increasingly impacting the game, Allen had his players use the 12-foot hoops to get better elevation on their shots and to work on rebounding trajectories.

But while Lovellette and his title-winning teammates trained on the higher baskets, they had little interest in making them a staple ingredient. Lovellette was no more convinced after the 1954 pro trial.

Responding to critics who thought their height was aberrant to the game, the professional Lakers agreed to a 12-foot test case.

Stew Thornley, author of “Basketball’s Original Dynasty: The History of the Lakers,” chronicled the experiment beautifully, as he did so many Laker events and players. Milwaukee got off to a 6-0 lead and once led 22-15, but Minneapolis trailed by only two at the half. Mikan had missed his first 12 field-goal tries but hit two baskets to spark a Laker comeback in the third period. The Hawks never could regain control.

The Lakers shot only 28.6 percent from the field but finally won 65-63. The 6-7 Mikkelsen called the test “a horrible flop even though it gave a big, strong rebounder like me another 10th of a second to get set after a shot.” He led his club with 17 points.

“It just makes the big man bigger,” said the 6-9 Mikan. Most of the other Lakers concurred.

“It killed the tip-ins,” said KU’s Lovellette, the soft-handed ex-Jayhawk who was known to record quite a few stickbacks in his time. He wanted no more to do with the high hoops than he had experienced in old Robinson Gym.

Coach Kundla: “Nobody could hit the darnn thing. The guys who usually couldn’t shoot were the ones who hit the most. And the big guys still got the rebounds.”

Best jibe came from 5-10 point guard Slater Martin: “I advocate a six-foot basket. It would make a Mikan out of me.” Fellow guard Bob Harrison said, “It’s screwy; it’s terrible. I’ll take the old game.”

That’s how it’s been ever since.

Kansas introduced the remarkable 7-1 Wilt Chamberlain in the mid-1950s and most agree that an athlete of his prowess and stature could have mastered dominance and dunks on 12-foot hoops if anyone ever could.

But there seems to be no published evidence that The Big Dipper ever tooled around with 12-foot goals, or cared to even try. By the time he was enrolled at Kansas (the fall of 1955), the Jayhawks worked out in Allen Fieldhouse and the old Robinson goals became things of the distant past.

“Wild Thing” Wilson

How would today’s sky-scraping Dr. Dunkensteins fare with their basketball slam attempts if they were dealing with 12-foot hoops? Maybe not as well as you might think, although running starts would help.

The famed Harlem Globetrotters for a long time had contests for guys doing standing dunk attempts, vertical dunks they called them, on 12-foot buckets. As late as 2001, Michael “Wild Thing” Wilson of the Trotters who had set the world record at 11 feet, 11 inches for a standing dunk tried for a new mark at the 12-1 level and couldn’t quite do it. Others have unofficially topped 12-2 since and chances are some current athletes – Wilt Chamberlain could have – can take a run and dunk at 12 feet. But if the hoop were that high in games, you probably wouldn’t be seeing very many such feats.

Would widened free throw lanes prevent “camping out” by leapers? Further, what physical harm might be courted by dunkers trying to maneuver in jammed-up areas?

The Harlem Globetrotters contributed immensely to the game with development and refinement of such activities as fast-break offenses, the figure-eight “weave” offense, a scouting system to recruit players for their intricate and hilarious dribbling and passing shows. Then they got serious about the dunk business, which they were conducting quite well long before it became so commonplace. Since 10-foot slamming was routine, the Globies stole a page from the Phog Allen notebook and began to conduct standing or vertical dunk contests.

As far as we can tell, Michael “Wild Thing” Wilson, a 6-5 forward with the Trotters, was the first person to officially dunk on 12-foot hoops well enough to be included in the Guinness Book of World Records. Others may have topped his “record” 12-2 slam, but Wilson is still regarded as one of the highest flyers of all-time, perhaps because he worked on his act so often and so intensively. Yet was he a true, all-around player or a performing specialist?

Wilson played college ball at Memphis University where he teamed with Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. Hardaway wound up in the NBA while Wilson earned fame and his “Wild Thing” nickname with the Globetrotters because of his aerial acrobatics.

As they say, “You do what you gotta do.” If there were 12-foot baskets in the game or even if they were instituted now, it wouldn’t be too long before higher-level dunks would be making inroads, although the frequency would be nothing like it is today.

Kansas’s Wilt Chamberlain never worked much on 12-foot baskets because there was no reason unless it was for some exhibition. Wilt detested exhibitionism. North Carolina State’s David Thompson is recalled by many as one of the most stratospheric operators of all time; we can be sure Michael Jordan would have figured a way to go 12 feet and beyond.

But the game has just never demanded such. Up to now it’s been a matter of show business versus practicality and what it takes to claim the big paychecks and endorsements. Fears of injury also factor into the equation.

Consider, too, just for fun, how stubbies such as Muggsy Bogues, Monte Towe and Calvin Murphy would have fared with their 5-6 and 5-7 heights.

Globetrotter Sky-Walkers

Fortunately, the Globetrotters have kept track, with dates and places, of the feats of their 12-foot conquistadors. In reverse chronological order:

March 30, 2001: Wild Thing Wilson sought to break his own world record in the vertical jump which he set in 2000 during NCAA Final Four weekend. Three of the nation’s top college seniors were invited to challenge the record during halftime of an all-star game in Minneapolis. Wilson narrowly missed dunking on a basket set at 12-1. Each player got three attempts.

Terry Black of Baylor, Travis Williams of Hampton College and David Walker of Alabama-Birmingham all dunked successfully at 10-6. Black then dunked at 11-0 but was eliminated at 11-6. Williams made 11-6 on his third try but could do no better. Wilson of the Trotters made every level on his first attempt until the hoop was set at 12-1. No go.

Since then, there have been several successful slams recorded in the 12-2 to 12-4 range. These were standing attempts. Perhaps with run-ups, the mark would be higher. But how could players safely maneuver for such in the heat and congestion of combat? What goes up must come down, but in what physical condition?

April 1, 2000: Wild Thing Wilson dunked on a 12-foot hoop, breaking his own record of 11-10 during Final Four Week. It was captured on film and televised nationally by Fox Sports.

Feb. 27, 1998: Before a nationwide audience on “Good Morning America,” Wild Thing Wilson and Fred “Preacher” Smith tried for a new mark at 12 feet and fell short.

Oct. 25, 1997: Wilson and Smith set a new world record of 11-11 as part of Warner Brothers’ “Space Jam Tour” in Birmingham, England. That made the Guinness Book of World Records.

Aug. 30, 1997: The Guinness Book acknowledges a new record of 11-10 by Wilson and Smith in Dusseldorf, Germany, as part of the “Space Jam Tour.”

March 2, 1997: Wild Thing Wilson goes 12-2 at the Los Angeles Forum but it was not koshered as official by anybody.

Feb. 16, 1997: Sean “Elevator” Williams and Fred “Preacher” Smith successfully dunked at 12 feet at Madison Square Garden but it was ruled “unofficial.”

Sept. 16, 1996: Wild Thing Wilson and Elevator Williams establish an official world record of 11-8 at Walt Disney World in Orlando. The recognized mark at the time was 11-7 by former Arizona State guard Joey Johnson.