How a Driveway Dreamer
Was Turned Into a Slam-Dunker
By Allen St. John
The New York Times
Friday, December 24,
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
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
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
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
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 pliť
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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.