Aram Goudsouzian is the author of “Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear” and “King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.”
‘I think the jump shot is the worst thing that has happened to basketball in 10 years,” griped Bob Cousy, one month before his retirement in 1963. The Boston Celtics guard was not your typical traditionalist — his fancy dribbling and passing violated the principles of every basketball manual ever written. Moreover, he played alongside Bill Sharman and Sam Jones, two of the greatest jump shooters of his time.
Still, Cousy preferred the two-hand set shot, which caused fewer mistakes. His complaint revealed the jumper as an emerging innovation, with profound implications for how we play and watch basketball. In “Rise and Fire,” journalist Shawn Fury tells the story of the jump shot, providing an enthusiastic and entertaining (if incomplete) romp through basketball history.
No single person invented the jump shot. In the 1930s, a few sporting rebels around the country experimented with the technique. During World War II, military service brought together men from different regions, exposing the shot to more players. The Marine Corps team starred Kenny Sailors and Jumpin’ Joe Fulks, who would become two of the greatest jump shooters in the professional leagues of the late 1940s.
By the 1950s, practitioners of the shot were no longer considered pariahs or outliers. NBA basketball was emerging as a major team sport, and jump shooters such as Bob Pettit, Paul Arizin and George Yardley ranked among the league’s top scorers. The rise of 1960s superstars such as Jerry West and Oscar Robertson reflected the jumper’s enduring power, despite Cousy’s grumpy declaration, and the next wave of scorers, from the flashy Pete Maravich to the smooth Bob McAdoo, came of age when the shot was already legitimate. Their high-scoring exploits in the 1970s shaped the game’s style.
The NBA adopted the three-point line in 1979, and the NCAA followed suit in 1986. “Because of the three-pointer,” Fury writes, “the jump shot has completely taken over basketball.” It took some time to adapt. In the 1980s, the three-pointer was still something of a novelty, and great mid-range shooters such as Bernard King, Mark Aguirre and Alex English filled the scoring columns. Over time, however, more teams oriented their offenses to exploit open three-pointers. Now, stars such as Stephen Curry are exploding our expectations of what is possible on a basketball court. During the 2014-15 season, Curry sank 286 threes — many from deep, off the dribble and with a hand in his face — while his Golden State Warriors rode the jump shot to an NBA championship.
Fury dutifully recounts the biographies of professional stars, but he is at his best when unearthing the buried tales of old shooting marvels. He chronicles tragic playground icons whose personal travails waylaid their potential, such as Raymond Lewis from Los Angeles and Jack Ryan from New York, and recovers the stories of long-forgotten college gunners from the 1970s, such as Dwight “Bo” Lamar and Travis “The Machine” Grant.
Fury also travels across the hoops hotbed of Indiana, interviewing local icons such as Bobby Plump, who hit the title-winning shot for tiny Milan High School in 1954, which later inspired the film “Hoosiers.” (They meet at his restaurant, Plump’s Last Shot.) Fury’s journey continues in Iowa, where he recalls the “Game of the Century” — the 1968 girls’ six-on-six state championship, when Jeanette Olson scored 76 points for Everly High School but still lost to Union-Whitten, which was led by Denise Long, who scored 64 points of her own.
The author is a happy tour guide. He dives into dusty newspaper accounts, relates tales from his cross-country jaunts and sprinkles in autobiographical tidbits. In one interesting diversion, he visits with professional shooting coaches, exploring both the technical aspects and psychological tendencies of great shooters. Like many of his subjects, Fury loves the pursuit of the perfect shot. He exudes a romantic appreciation for basketball — when he visits the gym where “Hoosiers” was filmed, he bathes in the mythology of the movie’s scrappy underdog heroes.
The book’s celebratory tone makes it fun, but there are moments when Fury might have placed the evolution of the jump shot into a wider context. Many different forces have altered the patterns of basketball. Coaches keep experimenting to exploit opponents’ weaknesses, and rule changes (such as the 24-second shot clock) have adjusted the game’s flow and pacing. Players, moreover, have innovated in ways beyond the jumper. When defenders such as Bill Russell started leaping to block shots, offenses needed to stretch out wider, and scorers such as Jerry West needed to play more vertically. When dynamic dribblers penetrated into the lane, it opened up space for shooters — and as jump shooters launched from deeper, it created new possibilities for high-flying, rim-shaking dunkers.
Ultimately, “Rise and Fire” is more about jump shooters than it is about jump shots. It traces the shot’s ascendancy through the eyes of the shooters themselves — as an individual pursuit, honed by stubborn and solitary practice. That perspective explains both the book’s charms and its limitations. Fury has not provided a big-picture explanation of the history and nature of basketball. But just like you want a great jump shooter on your team, you want this book on your shelf.
By Shawn Fury
Flatiron. 339 pp. $27.99