By: Allen St. John
The New York Times
When Balzac got writer’s block, he took off all his clothes and hung a wreath of garlic around his neck. When I get writer’s block, I play basketball. When the paragraphs aren’t flowing, and I find that I’m spending more time checking the word count than adding to it, I lace up my Chuck Taylors, grab my well worn Wilson from the bathroom closet and make a beeline to the hoop attached to my garage.
And then I take a side trip to the Madison Square Garden of my mind, complete with a Marv Albert play-by-play. “Knicks down by two, the clock’s running down. Sprewell at the top of the key, double-teamed, he passes to St. John,” me, “who fakes left, moves right and shoots. It’s, it’s an airball.”
Like so many red-blooded American men, my basketball development was stunted by the equipment I was given. When I was learning to ride a bike, I didn’t make my first wobbly solo on a 10-speed. When I was learning to play baseball, my Dad din’t hand me a bat made for Willie Stargell.
But when I first began dreaming those Julius Erving dreams, I learned with a full-size ball on a regulation 10-foot basketball rim that Dr. J. could have tomahawked-dunked on but that a 9-year-old need a stepladder to reach.
So I hurled the ball with two hands, as if I were piling sandbags on a dike. Needless to say, this approach was neither efficient nor elegant. And when it became apparent that I wasn’t going to grow tall enough to play above the rim like my heroes, I sadly turned my attention to other things.
And truth be told, although I’m now a foot and a half taller than I was in sixth grade, my shooting form hadn’t changed proportionately. I was putting in plenty of time at the garage, but I was simpley practicing bad habits.
This really hit home early in the autumn when I invited a group of friends. Manhattanites with no hoops of their own, to my New Jersey home for a little basketball and barbecue.
After the last hamburger was devoured, my friend Lance picked up the ball and started a game of horse, the old schoolyard game in which you have to match your opponent’s shot and are penalized with a letter if you miss; the first to get H-O-R-S-E loses.
Unfortunately the home court advantage didn’t help me much: A 12-footer, short: H. A hook shot wide weft: O. A bank shot, no chance: R. A 20-footer, in and out: S. As that last 15-footer went clanging off the front of the rim: H-O-R-S-E.
That’s where Dave Hopla came in. He has played professionally in Europe and is one of the top shooting coaches in America. He teaches clinics throughout the country and has worked with everyone from grammar-school youngsters to National Basketball Association stars like Kobe Bryant and Stephon Marbury.
While he lacked the height or the foot speed to play in the N.B.A., he is one of the best shooters you’ll ever see. In practice, he’ll routinely hit 99 of 100 jump shots. But more important, he’s a true student of the game.
After five minutes in the gym with him, at Christian Brothers Academy, near his home in Keyport, N.J., I discover that he’s broken down the jump shot the way George Balanchine picked apart the plié
Only a bit over six feet tall, the genial Mr. Hopla gives hope for those of us who are too short to dunk but still harbor dreams of draining jumper after jumper.
He didn’t ask me to take any shots so he could analyze my form, and he didn’t ask me what I want to work on. No, the coach was going to do to my shot what the engineers did to the $6-Million Man: rebuild it.
His first point was simple, if not obvious. “You shoot a basketball with one hand,” he explained. To demonstrate, he placed the ball in his right palm the way a bellhop receives a tip. he casually rotated 180 degrees at the elbow, and moved the ball into a shooting position just in front of his right eye. With this left hand behind his back, he casually drained 10 in a row. “Here, you try it,”, he said.
At first I felt like a rookie busboy balancing a dinner for seven. But that was the whole point. In order to keep the ball from flopping out of my hand, I had to spread my fingers, keep my elbow tucked in, my wrist flexed and in general hold the ball in a proper shooting position.
“This isn’t just a beginner’s drill,” he emphasized. “I do this every day.” Before too long, I was making one-handers with some regularity, if not with Mr. Hopla’s almost robotic precision.
“Of course, this doesn’t work in a game,” he said with a laugh as he swatted the ball out of my hand. to ward off defenders, he had me move my left hand – the balance hand, he called it – to the side of the ball, where it could help my right hand move the ball into position but not interfere with the good form I’d begun to develop. I took a shot. Swish. Now we were getting somewhere.
Once I internalized Mr. Hopla’s first law of shooting, we started sweating the details. He began from the ground up, selling each point with an alliterative touchstone.
“Toe to the target.” Mr. Hopla made sure my right foot was always slightly ahead of my left, and always pointed toward the basket.
“L’ with the elbow.” Even though I was shooting with two hands now, he checked to make sure my right elbow stayed tucked in and bent at 90 degrees, no more, no less.
“Wrinkle the wrist.” I should, I learned, cock my wrist just enough to wrinkle the skin.
“Elbow over the eyebrow.” The actual shooting motion consisted of straightening my elbow and my wrist so that I end up reaching for the sky.
“Freeze the follow-through.” After releasing the ball, I’d stop for a second, exposing my form, or lack thereof.
As I incorporated each of these revisions into my shot, he began moving me around the court, tossing me passes from the right, from the left, then working on my dribble.
“Think of a dribble as a pass to yourself,” he exhorted. After a half-hour of this, I was looking, if not like Kobe Bryant, at least like a guy who might have played shooting guard on his high school team instead of the guy who covered the team for the school newspaper.
There was still one problem. My shot looked better, yet the results were still erratic. I was making maybe half my shots, which was a definite improvement. But it was hard to be satisfied with a 50-50 chance after watching Mr. Hopla. We’d been on the court for 45 minutes, and it gradually dawned on me that he didn’t miss. Never. Not once. Even when he was tossing up and awkward “bad example” shot, it’d rattle around and go in.
Now it was time for a little personal instruction. My main problem was that my shot lacked arc. Like the shots of even many N.B.A. players, my jumpers traced a flat trajectory on the way to the basket, more like a Derek Jeter line drive than a Mark McGwire pop fly. The reason why so many of them clanked off the rim, Mr. Hopla said, was simple geometry.
“The rim is big,” he said. “If you tried to sit on it, you’d fall right in.” If the ball rises only a foot or two above the plane of the rim, that big hoop looks more like an ellipse from the ball’s point of view. No margin for error.
But if the shot has a high, lazy trajectory – think McDonald’s golden arches – the hoop starts to look like a giant circle again. And there was enough leeway for even a middle-aged sportswriter.
To banish my bad habit, Mr. hopla reiterated his last two alliterations. “Elbow over the eyebrow” would put more arc on the shot, and “Freeze the follow-through” would tell me in no uncertain terms if I really did it.
“Say it,” he said. “Out loud.”
I felt a little shy, but we were the only ones in the gym. “Elbow over the eyebrow,” I said as I bounced the ball, one last time. “Freeze the follow-through.”
As I released the shot, I stopped in my tracks with my hand hovering over my head as though I were waiting for a high five from Patrick Ewing. The ball seemed to go into low earh orbit, but just as Mr. Hopla promised, the re-entry was true. Nothing but net.
My moment of truth came a couple of days later. I should have been writing an overdue magazine article, but I found myself spell checking the first three sentences over and over again. So, I headed hoopward. I dribbled down the driveway.
“Houston drives, he dishes to St. John on the left wing, who’s been on fire in this fourth quarter, hitting 9 of 10 from the floor. Wait, he’s saying something to Scottie Pippen. It sounds like ‘Elbow over the eyebrow.’ he takes a 20-footer. Yessssss! And the Knicks win the N.B.A. championship!”
I peek over my shoulder to make sure none of the neighbors are around, and I do a little victory dance that stops a squirrel dead in its tracks. Then I go back to work.