The sports Americans have created, and still love best, all hinge on the flick of a wrist.
The spiral of a forward pass, the biting snap of a curve ball, the soft backspin of a jump shot are the hallmarks of our indigenous team games.
Among our native creations -- football, baseball and basketball -- perhaps there is no central weapon as democratic, yet undeniably aristocratic, as the jump shot.
Everybody's got one, but they sure aren't equal. Occasionally, a shooter can be made. But, mostly, they're born. The gift of "touch" is a silver spoon, even if it is discovered on the bleakest playgrounds.
The shot -- its quality and purity -- is the gold standard of the hoop world. The gifted shooter carries with him a sense of princely authority, a kind of regal legerdemain. To any predicament, he has the solution.Possessor of an invisible scepter, he is an heir to adulation.
"When you feel a streak conin' on, you become unconscious; you feel like you could lie on your back, close your eyes, and it would go in," says George Washington University Coach Bob Tallent, who has the highest scoring average (28.9) of any major college player in Washington area history (as a Colonial in 1968-69).
"You could feel 10 or 11 in a row comin' on," says Tallent. "When you get like that, it doesn't matter what defense they're in, or who's on your team.The rest of the game fades away.
"You get hot and that's it. The game belongs to you until you cool down. You know what you're doing and where you are, but it's like you're in a trance, or surrounded by some kind of aura."
Most of basketball humanity has to blend and flow, fitting into a five-man jazz ensemble where the riffs are shared and the harmony, not the solos, are what matters.
But the shooter always senses a higher possibility, the chance to wire into the collective fantasies of the crowd.
"Every fan is just waiting to get on your wavelength and give you their energy," says Tallent.
"The shot is a total motion, a groove. No two shooters are alike, but they feel the same when they're on," says Kevin Grevey of the Washington Bullets, lifelong bomber and NBA "H-O-R-S-E" semifinalist.
"With a crazy streak shooter like me, one or two baskets will trigger me. I'll start throwing them in from everywhere. It pumps up your whole game. You do everything better and your confidence and concentration are total." Like any gunslinger, the shooter has his nightmares.
"What you do to others, they can do to you," says Grevey. "If Cazzie Russell missed his first few shots, he'd play terrible defense all night. If he made his first one, he was like a man possessed.
"The in-your-face guys can drive you crazy. When Doug Collins (of Philadelphia) got hot against me in the playoffs one year (28 points in one half), I felt like that cartoon character Ricochet Rabbit. I thought I was a ball caught inside a pinball machine.
"When they shoot you down, you just want to hide."
The quarterback and the pitcher -- those other protagonists in our most common athletic fantasies -- always have forces working in opposition to them. They are always at the mercy of others to some degree, whether teammates or foes.
The shooter is the most nearly solitary of our team heroes. At his instant of truth, after he has dribbled, driven or scraped off a screen, there is nothing in his universe except the ball in his hand, the rim in his eye and the righteousness born of a lifetime's practice in his heart.
"Shooters are oblivious," says Catholic University Coach Jack Kvancz.Sometimes it seems like they don't think at all. They don't get the sweaty palm.
"When the game gets tight, they want it. They want it when everybody else is glad to give it up. Shooters, as a group, aren't even the best athletes on the team.
"How do you make people like that?"
Tallent knows where the making of a shooter starts. When he was 12 years old, growing up in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky where every Appalachian peak seemed to produce a Zeke From Cabin Creek, Tallent came under the sway of "King" Kelly Coleman.
"All shooters start by imitation," says Tallent. "I hitchhiked 13 miles each way so I could rebound for him and throw the ball back to him. I was in the sixth grade and he was averaging 18 points a game for Waylon High.
"Like all shooters, there were lots of tall tales about King Kelly, some of 'em pretty-near true.
"Adolph Rupp said he was better than Frank Ramsey and Cliff Hagan combined. So that's all you need to know," says Tallent. "But Kelly had a wild streak. Oblivious on the court and off it.
"I remember them throwing him in the shower for the whole first half of a high school game. He scored 42 in the second half.
"When he played my school, we double-teamed him from the moment he stepped off the bus," said Tallent. "We held him to 75 points."
"He was a big sloppy looking guy -- 6-foot-4, 220 pounds," recalls Tallent.
"But he could do anything. One time they booed him for three nights in a row in the state tournament, even though he scored 52, 46 and 29.
"He was crying after the third game and told the reporters, 'By God, I'll show these city people. I'll score 70."
"He didn't though," says Tallent. "He only got 68. But it's still the state tournament record."
Every area of America, from Iowa to Far Rockaway to Turkey Thicket playground in Northeast Washington has its King Kellys. For every long distance runner, there are hundreds who savor the loneliness of the long distance shooter, practicing from the moment the sun rises over the mountain or the tenement.
"The only generalization you can make about shooters is that they can all put it in the hole," says Bobby Dandridge of the Bullets. "There are pure shooters, improvisational shooters like me, mechanical shooters like Elvin Hayes, and guys like George Gervin with weird releases.
"I never went to any basketball camps," says Dandridge, with an appropriate curl of the lip. "I don't know any of that jive about finger tips and watching the rim and making your arm look like a box.
"I'm a playground scorer. I don't have a shot. I have many shots, says the owner of 15,000 NBA points.
"I may change my release two or three times a season. Sometimes I don't know if I release the ball with one hand or two. I go on my emotions. If my emotions say I'm going to make the shot, then I'm going to make it."
The inside of a shooter's mind is the last frontier. Perhaps no aspect any sport is as enexplicably streaky as shooting. Whole teams go hot and cold, defying probability by being both incredibly good and bad in the same game.
"Practice is different from games and even various parts of the game are different," says Kvancz. "Some guys can shoot at 4 p.m., but not 8. And some can shoot at 8, but not in the final minutes.
"I don't coach perfect form because, in the clutch, the elbow sticks out, the feet kick, and the kid reverts to all the habits he's had all his life. I tell 'em, "Drop kidk it in if you have to. Shoot the way it's comfortable, not the way that looks good, because it's mostly in your mind anyway.'"
In fact, the basket is rather wide. It is the mind that is narrow. If the hoop were only four inches wider, two balls could go through it at once.
"It's scary to see a good shooter go bad," says Kvancz. "One year, Glenn Kolonics (a top scorer at CU) was going so rotten that I ordered him to grow a beard. I told him he couldn't shave until he had a good shooting game.
"Well, Kolonics looked like Grizzly Adams before he ever got his touch back."
"I remember the shot when he got it back," says Tallent. "Kolonics came into our gym in January with this full beard. His first shot hit the back rim, bounced about 10 feet straight up and swished on the way down.
"That was it. You could see his eyes wake up. He lit us up for about 32 that night."
Most great shooters know they will be roughed up, punched, gouged and elbowed. It comes with the turf.And most react as Jerry West once did.
"Kentucky put in a big old horse named Allen Fedlhaus to do some enforcing against West when he was at West Virginia," says Tallent. "In two minutes, Feldhaus had broken West's nose and sent him to the dressing room.
"Jerry came back in the second half with a face mask on and scored 24 points. When you get the good ones angry, it just helps their concentration. When you're mad, sometimes you think you'll never miss again. Pat (Tallent) and I both kinda liked it rough."
Perhaps the most despised shooters are not the streakers, or the guys who talk trash or even those who seem to shoot better the more closely they are guarded. The worst are the shooters who add injury to insult.
"I used to hate Zelmo Beaty," says Bullet Wes Unseld. "He couldn't jump much and he couldn't shoot too well if he was closely guarded. So he worked out a shot to keep defenders away from him.
"His release was designed so that his follow through would clobber you in the face. He slugged me hundreds of times for free."
"The worst at that today is Lloyd Free," says Unseld's teammate, Greg Ballard. "He's got his leg kick at the end of his shot perfected so that he kicks you in the groin. Then he's the one who falls down, rolls around and gets the foul called his way."
A whole language has grown up around the jumper; Jack it up, stop-and-pop, shoot the J, fire the pill, shoot the rock, run-and-gun, hoist it, fill it up.
The permutations never end.
"They call me the Heist Man," says Barry Frazier, who was a 35-point-a-game jump shooter for the small-college University of the District of Columbia. "Why? Because I can really heist it."
Those occasional dark hours come when the shot disappears.
"Sometimes you think you couldn't throw it in the ocean," says Grevey. Adds Tallent, "I can't believe it but even Brian Magid (of GW) has gone into a slump. He's seven for his last 31, and he's got the longest range I've ever seen."
But, for the shooter, the dawn always comes.
"You get along in the gym and say, 'Think soft,'" says Grevey. "You see how many shots you can get off in 30 seconds. That way, you don't have time for flaws. You go back to your old instincts."
Or, like Bill Bradley, you start with layups and never shoot from more than 10 feet until you have made 25 in a row and thus reinforced your confidence.
Finally, the shooter gets the one break he needs -- a sloopy roll, or a bounce that goes straight up, then down and through. Suddenly, the fantasy, the dream of a thousand solitary hours, becomes a temporary reality.
"You're hot," says Tallent, remembering. "You and the crowd have a special relationship. They call you a gunner, and they never give you credit for the other parts of the game that you can play. But when you're hot, they're all with you.
"Was I a gunner?" Tallent laughes, the chuckle of a shooter. "Hell, yes. You're cocky. You can't believe it if you miss. You feel unstoppable.
"I always know that if I had room, if I could see the basket, that it was goin' up. And the hell with what anybody thought."
Does that touch ever leave?Can Rabbit Angstrom, years later, running through the back alleys of John Updike's mind, always pick up the ball from school children and recapture the sweet loneliness of the long jumper.
Tallent smiles: "It never leaves." CAPTION: Picture, no caption, From "best sports stories 1979"; Copyright (c) 1979 by Irving T. Marsh and Edward Ehre