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United Press International

Basketball’s innovators are usually its offensive players--the ones whose shots, skills or size become their sport’s newest weapon.

UPI, in a search for the top innovators--five players most responsible for the revolution in professional basketball--turned for an answer to 69-year-old Red Auerbach, president of the Boston Celtics, who has seen them all in 41 years as coach or club executive.

Auerbach, a basketball Hall of Fame member, followed the traditional line by selecting four players who were offensive stars. The fifth is Boston’s long-time defensive mainstay who turned shot-blocking into a science--Bill Russell.


In Auerbach’s view, these are the four offensive weapons that revolutionized the game:

The inside play of George Mikan, the 6-foot-10 Minneapolis Laker who was the game’s first big center.

The playmaking of Celtics guard Bob Cousy and the artistry of teammate Sam Jones, who brought the bank shot into the NBA.

The sky hook of Los Angeles Laker center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose new weapon demanded a new name.

“It is like a war,” explained Auerbach. “You devise offensive weapons and then the defensive players devise ways to stop it. Sometimes they never do stop it. But sometimes they do: A guy has a two-handed shot, then they find they can block it, so he goes to a one-handed shot.

“The offense is the inventor and the defense catches up.”

Auerbach has been involved with the pros since 1946 when he became coach of the Wshington Capitols. He joined the Celtics in 1950 as coach and general manager and led Boston to nine NBA titles. In 20 years as Celtics coach, his teams won 938 games until he retired from the bench in 1966.

Boston’s general manager until 1984, Auerbach is now the team’s president and has been largely responsible for building the Celtics 16 championship teams. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1968.


The advantage of height in basketball was obvious as soon as James Naismith nailed up the peach basket to the gymnasium balcony in Springfield, Mass. But when Mikan came out of De Paul in 1947, he was still learning the sport and how to use his size.

“He was so overpowering, there were no centers around in those days who could cope with him,” recalled Cousy, who played against Mikan. “Our center was Ed Macauley, who was 6-foot-8 and about 185 pounds. He was a good functional center but he had a rough time with Mikan.

“Whenever we’d be walking through railroad stations with those massive high pillars, Ed would put his arm around one, look up at it and say, ‘How are you doing, George?’

“And George had a great killer instinct,” said Cousy. “He was no gentle giant.”

There was no 24-second clock during Mikan’s career and the Lakers would wait for the slow Mikan to get set underneath the basket before starting their offense. His effective low-post play and hook shot made him virtually unstoppable.

“On account of Mikan they widened the lane,” said Auerbach, “so you know he obviously had a great impact on the game.”

Mikan, who now runs a travel agency in Minneapolis, recalled, “They widened the (three-second) lane to take me further away from the basket and also legislated against me because I used to goaltend on offense and defense.”


Now 62, Mikan admits he did not have exceptional talent, “but Ray Meyer taught me how to play at De Paul and what I tried to do in playing was see what the weaknesses were of my man and then take advantage of them.”

Six months after Mikan retired in the spring of 1956, Russell came in and showed what a big man could do on defense.

Shot-blocking records were not kept in the 1950s and 1960s, but Auerbach says the 6-foot-9 Russell was unquestionably better than today’s best: 7-4 Mark Eaton of Utah and 7-6 Manute Bol of Washington.

“You can’t show me a better rebounder and shot-blocker than Russell,” said Auerbach. “As great as Eaton and Bol are, I just can’t buy it. Russell was a great intimidator and these guys don’t intimidate that much. Plus the fact that when Russell blocked the shot we got the ball.”

Boston Coach K.C. Jones played with Russell at the University of San Francisco and on the Celtics.

“Russell wrote the book on shot-blocking, and it is a lot of details other shot-blockers have no idea about. He knew the science of position, the read, the psychology, the intimidation,” Jones said. “Most shot-blockers today just react to the ball and mainly they are not in position. It’s the mind--the mind is what gets it done.”


Sam Jones is probably Auerbach’s surprise choice among the five who changed the sport.

The 6-foot-4 shooting guard from North Carolina played professionally for 12 years, averaging 17.7 points, many coming on bank shots from the left and right wings.

“Sam showed them how to use the bank shot,” said Auerbach. “He made it popular and he made it an art.”

Sam Jones recalls that when he entered the league in 1957, “Nobody was using the bank shot. It just wasn’t used in the NBA. But it was a shot I always felt I could make most of the time--I felt it was like making a layup.

“Rudy Tomjanovich used it a lot and you see (Larry) Bird use it, but he uses everything,” said Jones.

When Auerbach was coaching, the union of his fast break and Cousy’s ballhandling was the perfect opportunity for the 6-1 guard’s development into the prototype playmaker.

In Auerbach’s autobiography, he said: “Cousy didn’t really become great until his third season with the Celtics. After that, he was the best I ever saw for our type of game.”


Cousy, who now does commentary for Celtic television broadcasts, popularized the behind-back-pass, and relied upon deception more than physical attributes. He says that today’s point guards have more possibilities available to them than 10 or 20 years ago.

“Players’ shooting skills have gone through the roof,” Cousy said. “They shoot so well now that a guard has good shooters on both sides of him, which gives him more options on his passes. The prototype point guard is much more of a premium now than he was 20 years ago. The kids coming along aren’t as attracted to the playmaker role as they were. They are bigger and stronger and shoot better, but don’t pay attention to the playmaker skills.”

“Mo Cheeks of the 76ers is the prototype point guard. You don’t think of Mo as a scorer, he just takes enough to keep the defense honest, which is the way to go. The playmaker has to be concerned with passing out the sugar, giving the other players the ball and making sure they are happy,” said Cousy.

Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s leading career scorer, with more than 36,000 points. His sky hook is extraordinarily accurate and nearly impossible to stop.

“Abdul-Jabbar, with that jump hook is what all the players are copying now,” said Auerbach. “He developed what Mikan originally did.”

When he arrived at UCLA bearing the name Lew Alcinder, Abdul-Jabbar had a low-trajectory hook shot. In his book “Giant Steps,” Abdul-Jabbar recalled how he adopted the shot from another Bruin player.


“One of my teammates, forward Lynn Shackleford, had this ridiculous-looking left-handed jump shot that came off one shoulder like a shot put and mooned almost straight up until it dropped down with amazing accuracy into the hoop.

“He’d can these from twenty feet out in the corner, all net, all night. We’d joke about it, the weirdest shot on earth, but when I turned and tossed up this rainmaker hook, and it started to fall in like it was going down a funnel, I liked that a lot.”

Lakers Coach Pat Riley says Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook is basketball’s ultimate shot.

“Of any shot that has been developed in the history of the game, it is the most defined, most distinguished and most devastating,” Riley said. “There is not anybody that has developed an offensive shot that can duplicate it. He knows what he has to do with the shot, he does it right, he does it well, and he does it the same way every time.”