Rich LaRocco

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Basketball jumping jacks and how to deal with them

by Rich LaRocco

Jumping ability. It comes naturally to some, after a great deal of work to others, and never to most.

In my own case my coaches told me I could improve my jumping ability if I bought and wore ankle weights during scrimmages and did jump rope exercises faithfully. Indeed, my ability did improve, but no matter how hard I worked I couldn't jump more than about 29 inches from a standing stop and 32 inches with a good running start. At 6'4" and with relatively short arms, that meant I could get my wrist on the rim, but my hands were not quite big enough to palm a ball, and so dunking was difficult. I consistently was able to dunk for two years and dunked a basketball for only four years before my jumping ability dropped two or three inches. I never dunked in a game.

In those days coaches discouraged players from lifting weights. It wasn't until later that they discovered that lifting weights could improve speed, quickness and strength without harming shooting ability or agility. Proper techniques and exercises can help all players improve jumping ability.

The last time I dunked was at age 29 during the summer when I was playing almost every day. The next year a back disc ruptured, destroying forever the little jumping ability I had. Now I joke that I get the most out of my astounding 18 inches. One immediate result of the injury was that my waist expanded from 34 to 38 inches within two months. Going from a great deal of physical activity almost every day to lying flat on my back and unable to walk at all for a week or so and poorly for another three weeks took a toll.

My best jump happened one night during a fast break when I was running behind a teammate who usually threw the ball off the backboard too hard. I timed my jump perfectly, hoping to catch the ball above the rim and jam it home. The ball came off too high, but my elbow hit the rim. That would be about 11 inches higher than my usual jump at the time, which says something about how adrenaline can improve performance.

That jump gave me some insight into one of the most incredible athletic feats I had ever witnessed, Bob Beamon's long jump in the Mexico City Olympics, where he broke the world record by 21 3/4 inches. Usually the long jump record is broken a quarter of an inch at a time. Beamon's record stood for 23 years until Mike Powell broke it in 1991. Powell's record still stands more than 20 years later.

The dunk and the high-flying shot block are two of the most popular and awesome plays in basketball. Nothing is quite as spectacular in all of sports as an impressive slam dunk by LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Julius Erving or The Human Highlight Film himself, Dominique Wilkins. LeBron performed one of the most impressive dunks I've witnessed when he ran past a defender and reached back and stuffed the ball behind him as he flew by at full speed.

Dunks can be even more impressive when accomplished by a short player. Ronnie Price's dunk over Carlos Boozer will never be forgotten by Jazz fans who witnessed it, and later he came to play for Utah and had several more impressive dunks over taller players.

Many fans are upset that the best dunkers nowadays stay away from the annual NBA dunking contest, which is held during All Star Game festivities. Currently the champion is relatively unknown Jeremy Evans of Utah, an amazing leaper who plays very few minutes for the Jazz but has become famous for his alley oop dunks and shot blocking. And he isn't the only relative unknown to have won this contest. For some of them the contest was the apex of their careers.

The first great jumper I saw in Utah played for Utah State University and was named Steve. A dark-skinned black man, Steve jumped to start each half and usually outjumped a taller opponent to give the Aggies two extra possessions per game. Nowadays, of course, if a team doesn't get the opening jump ball, they are automatically awarded the ball to start the second half, and in college all tieups during the game result in the rewarding of possession alternately.

Carl Pollard, a 7'3" center who used to play for the BYU Cougars, surprised me when I asked him whether he believed the stories that Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul Jabbar could pick a dime off the top of a backboard. "Sure," he said, "I used to be able to do that myself."

Jumping attracts attention, not just by the crowd but by coaches and professional scouts. Players who jump well usually go higher in the NBA draft than players who can't jump well, even if they're better shooters and rebounders.

I've seen some great jumpers in my day and have played against quite a few. But in my opinion, using your brain to make good decisions, passing the ball to the open man, employing proper blocking-out techniques while rebounding and excellent shooting ability trump shooting ability. Many excellent jumpers lack some of these skills. But when a player has a high level of basketball skills and unbelievable jumping ability, the result is memorable.

It's not true that all white men can't jump. Two of my Caucasian friends who are about 5'9" easily could stuff the ball when they were younger. Of course, one of them was the world champion karate fighter in his age class. The other simply had a goal to dunk the ball and did exercises and jumped every day until he could accomplish his goal. But even if you're color blind, you must admit that the majority of great-jumping basketball players have been black. I've heard all sorts of theories to explain that, but the only important thing for me is that they can.

But don't think that all whites have white man disease. When Gordon Hayward was selected with the ninth pick of the draft by the Utah Jazz, fans booed. Now that they see how well he shoots, how well he passes and how well he jumps, management is forgiven.

One year a friend who was a high jumper decided to compete for the slam dunk contest to be held during halftime of a Utah State University basketball game. He won. And then a week later he won the three-point shooting contest. He was only 5'10" and told me he had wanted to play basketball for the school but couldn't get the coach's attention. Just another unsung talent going to waste.

When you play against a jumper, you must get a body on him and keep him away from the hoop. But if he gets by you, just stand there and admire the dunk.

If you are being defended by a shot blocker, my advice is to step outside and hit a couple of long shots. Now run around the whole time you're on offense and try to get open outside. Your defender will eventually get tired of following you, and you can drain a couple of more shots. Eventually, he'll end up like a deer in the headlights and will stay away from the key but not close enough to you to stop you from shooting. Meanwhile, the middle has opened up for your teammates. Keep the blocker away from the basket, and his jumping ability has been nullified.

Shot blockers also tend to jump at every fake. So pump the ball up hard, even going to your toes if necessary, and when the defender is off balance you can drive to the hoop. Watch for somebody else to meet you, and then bounce a pass to your open man.

Another good point is to go to the shot blockers body. That won't work in pickup ball because nobody likes to call fouls, but if you're in an officiated game, you'll draw some fouls and make the shot blocker back off.

If the shot blocker is a poor foul shot, a good tactic is to foul him hard every time he touches the ball. Your teammmates will have to share in this duty so that nobody gets too many fouls too quickly. A 50 percent foul shooter averages only one point every time down the court, and if your team can average even three-fourths of a point per possession, you'll come out ahead. Don't try to beat a team with a shot blocker by shooting exclusively outside unless you have a shooter who can make close to 50 perdcent of three-pointers. Then you can average 1 1/2 points to each 1/2 point by the shot blocker, and you'll force the opponent's coach to make a change.

This tactic can backfire if the shot blocker is the type of poor foul shooter who is capable of doing well if he focuses. I once fouled a 6'10" center I was guarding several times toward the end of a close game, and he made both foul shots every time. The rest of the year he made probably 30 percent of his free throws. Shaquille O'Neal was notoriously bad from the charity stripe, and yet he seemed to make them, as promised, when they really counted. Many a time he forced an opponent to abandon the Hack-A-Shaq tactic.

So if you have exceptional shooting ability, my advise is to learn and practice proper rebounding technique and practice your foul shots.