When the NBA Gets Experimental

I’m celebrating a birthday this week, and I was thinking about how birthday parties are really just big experiments.

You go through the trouble of planning something with your family and friends, but you don’t truly know how it’s going to go.

Maybe your friend from one friend group hates a friend from your other friend group, and the two cause a Jersey Shore-esque scene (that’s still a topical reference, right?).

Perhaps you planned a shindig at a venue and then you come to find out they don’t provide sour cream, which really throws your baked potato bar station out of whack.

But sometimes, things align perfectly and you get a year where everything works out, and your plan of playing laser tag and then eating pizza and drinking beer is such a smash hit (perhaps because of its simplicity) that you go BACK for another round of laser tag with the friends who couldn’t make the first round.

In that scenario, you end up running around after downing several pieces of pizza, which is not highly recommended.

But hey, it’s my party and I’ll have gastrointestinal issues if I want to.

Some of the NBA’s finest ideas started off as experiments. Here’s a look at one that revolutionized the game and another that, thankfully, has stayed in the past.

The Good: The Three-Point Line

Much like they’ve brought us Coney Island, Broadway, and the “hey, I’m walkin’ here!” catchphrase, we have New York to thank for the three-point line.

The first occurrence of a three-point line came way back in 1945, when Columbia and Fordham (both schools in New York) tested out a 21-foot line for one game.

The idea was short-lived since it was a full 13 years before we saw it in another college game. This time, St. Francis (NY) and Siena (more New York schools) gave it the ol’ college try with a 23-foot line.

In 1961, Abe Saperstein of the American Basketball League teamed up with Ray Meyer and kind of arbitrarily measured out a 25-foot three-point arc. Former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was involved, too.

The ABL shut down by 1963, meaning it still lasted longer than fantastic and/or promising shows such as Freaks and Geeks and The Mayor. But the idea of a three-point line kept gaining speed.

Soon, the Eastern Professional Basketball League adopted it. Then the American Basketball Association picked it up.

The ABA used three-pointers and slam dunks as part of its marketing to compete against the NBA. These are probably the two most exciting shots in basketball today, and it’s bananas how both were kind of seen as gimmicks.

Critics certainly felt that way when the NBA tested out the three-point line during the 1979-80 season. It was seen as a desperate move from a flailing league that was strugg-a-LING to attract and keep fans.

Turns out it was a pretty good idea. Today, we’ve got more three-pointers than ever.

Some wacky three-point fun facts

Who made the very first NBA three-pointer? On October 12, 1979, Chris Ford of the Boston Celtics swished a basket and was awarded three points. People in the crowd unfamiliar with the new rule were probably very confused.

In college games, the NCAA officially rolled out the three-point line in 1986-87, though the organization had been using the line in conference play for a handful of years already.

The distance of the three-point line varies based on the league and people competing. For instance, the NBA’s line is 23 feet, 9 inches from the center of the basket. But in the National Federation of State High School Associations, the three-point line is 19 feet, 9 inches from the center of the basket. That’s a full four feet (or nearly two-thirds of me) shorter! Wild stuff.

In that first NBA season, teams averaged 0.8 made three-pointers on 2.8 attempts per game, shooting at about a 28.6% rate.

Today, teams make 12.4 threes on 35.2 attempts per game. Coincidentally, that equates to a 35.2% shooting percentage, as well.

The NBA first introduced the three-point line in 1979, but it took 15 years until they gave a player three free throws if they were fouled shooting a three-pointer.

If you have 12 minutes, The Score put together a fantastic video about the history of this gimmick and how it changed the game forever.

The Bad: The Slam Dunk Wheel

NBA All-Star Weekend is a fine time to experiment. Technically, none of the festivities actually count, so why not try some shenanigans?

Well, someone thought a giant wheel was a good idea, and on February 9, 2002, the NBA trotted out said wheel during the Slam Dunk Contest.

The basic premise: in the first round, each dunker got to do a dunk of their choosing, then had to do a dunk with a teammate, and then had to spin a wheel and do whatever type of dunk popped up on it.

Then, in the final round, Dr. J spun the wheel and both players had to replicate it.

While a wheel is integral to a show like The Price Is Right or Wheel of Fortune, it did not fare as well in the NBA Dunk Contest.

Take a look at the carnage here. Desmond Mason literally has time to tie his shoes while the wheel is spinning, which is a lot of added downtime. Steve Francis can’t palm a basketball, then has to do a dunk that requires him to palm a basketball.

Plus, NBA players typically prep for these dunks weeks beforehand, and you’re asking them to just re-create something on the fly? It would be like walking into a boardroom and being asked to present on, say, the mating habits of the Danish landrace goose.

The 2002 contest was the only time the wheel was trotted out. Though with the lackluster results of this year’s dunk contest, maybe it’s time we give it another try.

Or just bring fans out and try to have them dunk. Surely nothing could go wrong.