On the night of April 29, 1970, Jerry West launched a shot that should have ranked with Babe Ruth's famous called-shot home run, Gene Sarazen's storied double eagle in the Masters or any left hook Jack Dempsey ever threw. It should have gone down alone in basketball history, rated a plaque on the floor, a song in the charts, a legend in the making.
Here are the circumstances: It was playoff game No. 3 between the Lakers and the New York Knicks for the championship of all basketball. The series was tied at one game apiece, but the Knicks were ahead, 102-100, and there were only three seconds left.
Wilt Chamberlain, of all people, inbounded the ball. The Lakers knew there was no time for a layup, a dunk. They needed a 60-foot basket, not one of Wilt's three-footers.
They got it. Jerry West took the inbounds pass, flicked past Willis Reed on the dribble, then pulled up and fired. Walt Frazier, standing nearby, remembers thinking, "He's crazy!"
He wasn't. The shot went through the hoop without touching iron. It tied the score.
Now, the reason that shot doesn't reverberate down through the ages is that it only tied the score. It didn't win the game.
It's historic injustice. Not too many years later, in the same decade, the National Basketball Assn. went to the three-point shot. Anything more than 23 feet 9 inches counted an extra point.
With that rule in effect, West's shot would have won that playoff game in 1970, 103-102. It might also have won the championship. The Lakers won the next game, also in overtime, and winning that second game would have given them a 3-1 lead in games. They could have won the title in six. Instead, they lost it in seven.
Because West's shot only tied the score, the Knicks that night were able to come back and win the game, 111-108, in one of the most galling anticlimaxes in sports history.
I was strangely reminded of that game and sad episode the other afternoon when I went to a college game in Pauley Pavilion: UCLA vs. Louisville.
It was not a key game--UCLA had won its conference title and, assuredly, an NCAA bid. What it was, was a festival of moon-shooting.
You see, the college game has gone to the three-point basket this year. With interesting results.
The knock against Walt Hazzard's 1986-87 UCLA team has been that it doesn't have an inside game.
It doesn't need one. It's like putting the knock on the 1927 Yankees because they couldn't bunt. The UCLA Bruins are the home run hitters of college basketball. They don't need the dribble-drive, the driving layup, the under-the-basket reverse flips. What do you need with hand-to-hand combat when you've got the world's finest air force?
The Bruins filled the air with basketballs at Pauley Pavilion Saturday. It was like railroad guns lobbing shells at Paris, buzz-bomb basketball. They put up 16 three-point shots--the college range is 19 feet 9 inches. They made nine of them. Laid end to end, they would have reached the Pacific.
They added up to 27 points. In light of the fact that the Bruins only won by 13, it can be seen that the bomb, the home run ball is as important to the Bruins as it was to the Ruthian Yankees. The Bruins are the Murderers' Row of basketball.
The Bruins disdained the 45-second clock. They shot like the NBA All-Stars. They didn't even need a backboard. The incomparable Reggie ("I take care of business.") Miller shot three of them, but a 6-4 guard from Hillsboro, Ore., Dave Immel, attempted 11. And made six. He scored 18 points on three-point shots and only 5 points otherwise.
In the locker rooms afterward, it would have been possible to know who won without having seen a scorebook, a statistics sheet, or even the game.
Listen to Denny Crum, Louisville coach, after being asked what he thinks of the three-point basket: "I don't like it. You know, we're the only sport that has changed its scoring rules. A run is a run in baseball whether it's scored by four singles or one home run or two triples. A field goal (in football) is three points whether it's 55 yards or 55 feet. A touchdown is six points whether it's a 70-yard pass or a 1-foot plunge. I don't see that a 20-foot basket is any harder than one under the basket."
Minutes later, UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard was asked what he thinks of the three-point basket. "I would like a four-point basket and a five-point basket and a six-point basket with circles going out," Hazzard happily noted.
The players call them rainbows, the high-arcing multipoint swishers. UCLA has put up 285 of them this year and found gold at the end of their rainbows 124 times.
That's 372 points in 27 games. The difference. It's the Bruins' edge.
The collegiate distance is deemed by some to be too short. For Denny Crum, probably speaking for a majority of college coaches, any distance is too short.
"For us, of course, it's too far," he said. "But for them, it's not far enough. Anyway, it changes the game."
But, Crum had a warning. For UCLA, he noted, it may be a curse in disguise.
"It masks their weaknesses.," he warned. "They shoot from anywhere. They can score from the balcony. But it distracts attention from the fact they have no inside game and defensive weaknesses their long game may cover up."
Coach Hazzard disagrees.
"We had to take what they gave us (three-pointers)," he said. "Our team played 94-feet (the length of the court) basketball today, but we had to take the three-pointers because that big (Pervis) Ellison was spiking everything within five feet of the basket."
Ellison, 6-9 Louisville forward, rejected six shots, five in the second half.
The Bruins may be the greatest perimeter team since Custer's Indians. But all season long, all they hear is the complaint: "All they can do is shoot."
That calls to mind the time when Red Grange's football coach, Bob Zuppke, was told: "All Grange can do is run," and Zuppke retorted, "Yeah. And all Caruso can do is sing."
As with Bunker Hill and Annie Oakley, shooting may be enough. Particularly since a bonus comes attached. After all, if home runs suddenly began to count 1 1/2, who would be signing banjo hitters?