Ed Steitz's 3-point dream turns 25
The kids in town were used to it. For as long as they knew Ed Steitz, or Doc as they liked to call him, he was tinkering with basketball.
So when Doc called the kids over to his half court in the backyard and asked them to guard his son, Bob, as he shot from various taped markings on the court, they shrugged and went along with it.
"OK, Bob, shoot from here," Doc would say.
And Bob would take 10 shots while his dad recorded his makes and misses.
"Now try here," he'd say, again writing down the results.
"OK, try it with a hand in your face," and Doc would grab one of Bob's buddies and ask him to sag off the shooter just a hair.
"Now let's get some real defense," and the kids would go at Bob as if it were a real game.
Finally someone got curious enough and asked Doc what exactly he was doing.
"I remember he said, 'Well I think there might be a time where we have to add another shot to the game and maybe it will be worth 3 points or something like that,'" recalled Bob Steitz, now the associate athletic director at Villanova. "And we all laughed. 'Sure. A free throw is 1 point, a regular basket is 2. Why not 3?"
Little did the kids know during those days in the early 1970s that they were changing basketball history.
In 1986, based on the research presented by Ed Steitz, the secretary-editor of the NCAA basketball rules committee, the 3-pointer was officially introduced into college basketball.
Received then with all the enthusiasm of a root canal, the 3-pointer celebrates its 25th anniversary this season. What was once viewed as "a Mickey Mouse rule," as Lou Carnesecca called it, is now an integral part of the game, an equalizer for mid-majors and a crowd-pleaser in lockstep with the dunk.
It has been around long enough that the current generation of players has never played the game without it and even the shot's saltiest critics have found its value.
Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who once argued "you should have to work hard to get a basket," a month ago said that the biggest shot in his program's history wasn't Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater against Kentucky.
It was a Bobby Hurley shot in the 1991 NCAA tournament semifinal game against UNLV.
"He cut out two possessions, but he also cut out part of their heart," Krzyzewski said.
Ed Steitz wasn't so much stubborn as he was responsible. The one-time athletic director at Springfield College -- the same place Dr. James Naismith invented the game -- inherited the position of rules editor from his predecessor at Springfield, John Bunn. His was a labor of love -- back then this wasn't an NCAA paid position -- and Ed Steitz believed it was his job to take care of basketball.
But he also believed that nothing was sacrosanct and basketball should constantly evolve. It was Steitz, who died in 1990, who helped reinstate the dunk in 1977 after a 10-year hiatus, eliminated the jump ball except at the start of the game and overtime, and introduced the shot clock.
He even tinkered with the height of the rim. At the 1974 Final Four in Greensboro, N.C., he pitted two teams against one another in a closed game with baskets set at 12 feet.
"The funny thing was the rebounds," Bob Steitz remembered. "Guys couldn't get the timing right. He told me he didn't expect to see that in his lifetime but maybe mine."
Never knee-jerk, Ed Steitz studied, documented, analyzed and researched every decision he made, including the 3-pointer. Along with the anecdotal evidence supplied by his basketball-playing son, he visited camps and clinics to watch the game. He collected shot charts from countless games, studying to see where players were shooting from and how often the shots were falling.
He mailed out questionnaires to every coach in the game -- from NAIA to Division I, Division III to junior college -- soliciting both their opinions and expertise.
This, of course, was long before the Internet, so the Steitz home in rural Massachusetts was a documental ode to 3-point analysis.
"We'd tally the surveys for hours," Bob Steitz said. "And there were stacks of paper everywhere. It drove my mother nuts but we had all of this data to tabulate."
Data was Ed Steitz's backbone. In looking at the numbers, he immediately deemed the ACC's experimental 3-point line of 17 feet, 9 inches too short. He believed that a team should make between 36 and 38 percent of its shots beyond the arc. Anything less would be ugly; anything more would damage the integrity of the game.
"The distance," Bob Steitz said, "was critical. He knew you had to protect the delicate balance between offense and defense."
But in the numbers, Ed Steitz also saw why the game had to be changed. Dominated by post play, basketball was turning into a scrum, with guys huddled and bottlenecked underneath the basket. The little men -- the guards -- had been virtually eliminated from the game.
By the time he got around to actually implementing the 3, at 19 feet, 9 inches, the brute Big East had gone to six fouls in an attempt to keep guys on the court.
"It's going to force teams to play more defense away from the basket," Ed Steitz said when the 3-pointer was adopted. "People will say, 'You're putting the little man back in the game,' and that's good."
Good? That wasn't exactly the overwhelming response. The 3-pointer was received with about the same enthusiasm as New Coke.
In a preseason poll, the National Association of Basketball Coaches voted 65 percent to 35 against the rule change.
And in Philadelphia, Rollie Massimino led a charge of his Big 5 peers to begin a letter-writing and phone-calling campaign to have the 3-pointer erased from the rulebook.
"If you pick up a paper someday and read they can't find me," TCU coach Jim Killingsworth told Sports Illustrated, "I'll be over on the Trinity University bridge with a rock tied around my neck."
Some of the reticence was typical reluctance and fear of change.
But at the time the 3-pointer was added, college basketball also was at a peak. Two years earlier, Villanova outdueled Georgetown in what remains one of the best national championship games, and the NCAA tournament was growing into the March monster it is today.
The old "if it's not broke" adage was certainly in play.
"I don't see the need for it," Louisville's Denny Crum said.
Though 12 people other than Ed Steitz technically voted the rule into play -- Steitz did not have a vote -- he took the brunt of the heat.
Disparagingly called the "Three Stooge," he was vilified for turning the game into little more than H-O-R-S-E.
Bob Knight said he hoped Ed Steitz would be remembered about as fondly as the inventor of the Edsel.
Ed Steitz didn't back down. He stoically absorbed the criticism, asking people merely to give the rule time and then make a judgment.
"We had a harder time with it as a family, all these people attacking him," Bob Steitz said. "But he never minded. You had to know him. He could be pretty forceful, plus he had all this information. His thing was, the game needs it, not me."
Like the arc of a 3-pointer, the 1986-87 season began low for the new shot and ended up swishing nothing but net.
Those who cried foul at the game's new gimmick were handed all the more fuel for their fire at the start of the season. In the Tip-Off Classic, Kenny Drummond was inaccurately awarded a 3 by an official, allowing NC State to beat Navy. In December, Oklahoma State topped Baylor on a game-winning 3, prompting Baylor coach Gene Iba to gripe in Sports Illustrated, "We were beaten by the rules committee and a man with a paintbrush."
But while some coaches flat-out ignored the 3, others embraced it. Jerry Tarkanian and UNLV rode the arc to the Preseason NIT title and at Providence, a young coach by the name of Rick Pitino used it to turn his Friars team into a surprise Final Four participant.
Blessed with good shooters and cursed with little size, Pitino saw the 3 as an equalizer for his team.
"It's not what I saw in the 3-point shot so much as what I saw in our team -- overweight players who couldn't play," Pitino joked. "We needed to find a gimmick and we found two. The full-court press was good to us and the 3-point shot, once Billy [Donovan] went from Billy the Pear to Billy the Kid, we became a very good team."
While most other coaches were waging war against the rule, Pitino had his assistants put an arc of tape on the floor as soon as it was adopted. Then he told his players to shoot over and over again, using repetition to not only develop their accuracy but their comfort level.
"The worst shot, he said, was when your foot was on the line," Donovan said. "A lot of coaches let their guys take them -- long 2s they called them. He didn't want us taking any of them, so the amount of shots we took was astronomical. We ended up with this incredible awareness of where the line was without looking down."
Pitino initially planned for his team to take about 15 3s in a game, with the hope that the Friars would make five. At the start of the season, though, Providence played a loaded Russian national team in an exhibition game. The 3-point line already had been in play in the international game and the Russians took close to 30 in easily beating the Friars.
Pitino changed his numbers. He wanted his team making between seven and eight 3-pointers per game.
In actuality the Friars would average 8.2 per game and though they were not the most accurate team in the country, no one would make more 3-pointers per game.
In fact, in the 1986-87 season, teams on the average attempted only 9.2 3-pointers.
"For us, it was basic mathematics," Pitino said. "We could shoot a lower percentage and still score more points. It was a godsend for our team."
If the 3-point shot had a coming-of-age moment it was on March 30, 1987 in New Orleans. In front of a then-record crowd of 64,959, Steve Alford single-handedly outshot Syracuse, 7-of-10 from the arc to 4-of-10, to lead Indiana to the national championship.
Unlike Pitino, Bob Knight didn't reinvent his entire offense to cater to the 3.
He wasn't a big fan of the shot, after all.
But in Alford, Knight simply had a guy who could make them.
"Nothing changed for us, we ran the same stuff," Alford said. "The only thing he stressed was that when I ran my cuts, I was either in front of the line or behind it, not on it. We ran our man offense pretty high, so it seemed like when I went back and looked at the previous three years, a lot of the shots I was taking were behind the line anyway."
At the postgame news conference, Knight grudgingly acknowledged the man he had hoped would end up next to the Edsel.
"I sit here, look at the box score and the thing that I like least of all in basketball is the 3-point shot," Knight said. "And we make three more points from the 3-point shot than Syracuse does, and that's the difference in the ballgame. So, uh, thanks Ed."
If Ed Steitz was privately pleased, he never let it show. Not one to gloat, according to his son, he merely stood behind his numbers and insisted that the 3-pointer was in the game to stay.
Slowly and sometimes reluctantly, he gained followers as coaches realized that the shot changed the game but did not horrifically alter it.
For us, it was basic mathematics. We could shoot a lower percentage and still score more points. It was a godsend for our team.” -- Rick Pitino
In 1986-87, for example, two teams combined to average 136.7 points per game. In 1987-88, the number jumped to just 145.5.
Though plenty of people insisted that at the very least the line should be moved back -- which it was two seasons ago to 20 feet, 9 inches -- they came to accept it as part of the game.
By the end of the first season, the same NABC survey that previously found just 35 percent of its members in favor of the 3-pointer revealed that a full 80 percent were on board.
The explanation is simple: Coaches recruited players who could shoot the 3 and adjusted their defenses to stop it.
Over time, the numbers have adjusted accordingly. Last season, teams on average made 6.25 of the 18.2 3-pointers they attempted, or 34 percent. But that's down from the 38 percent average in the shot's first two years.
Today you would be hard-pressed to find a team without a 3-point ace or a coach who hasn't learned how to exploit the shot.
And the crowd's cheer for a made 3 is as much an iconic sound of the game as the squeak of a sneaker.
"Really? It's only 25 years old?" Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine said. "Wow. I can't imagine playing without it. That seems crazy."
It seemed crazy in 1986, too.
To everyone except one man.
"It's neat for me to see how the game has evolved," Bob Steitz said. "I think my dad would be pleased but not surprised. He really believed it would work."
He had the data, not to mention the evidence from his own backyard, to prove it.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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