Books from the attic: “Hoop Crazy: A Chip Hilton Sports Story”

Growing up, I loved the Chip Hilton books. Unlike the Tom Swift Jr. and Hardy Boys books, they had a real person identified as their author — Clair Bee, a well-known college basketball coach back in the 1940s. It seems pretty clear from the level of coaching detail in Hoop Crazy that he actually wrote the book.

Chip Hilton is a sports hero — like Tom Swift, he is blond, crew-cut, and lanky. Lankiness is apparently a requirement for these heroes. He lives in Valley Falls with his widowed mom and works at the drug store to earn money for his college fund when he isn’t playing sports with his chums Soapy and Speed and Biggie and Red.

It’s all pretty idyllic, until the stranger shows up in town.

Valley Falls is a one-industry town: pottery. The stranger knows something about pottery, and he needs money. So he decides to swindle the owner of the pottery plant, using formulas that he steals from a locked file cabinet in Chip’s basement. (Chip’s father was the head chemist at the pottery plant until he died saving a woman’s life in an explosion at the plant.) Whatever. This part of the novel is ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the stranger roils the hoop-crazy town by advocating the one-hand shot instead of the approved two-hand set shot. This is all very quaint. The book was published in 1950, and within a few years both of these shots would disappear in favor of the jump shot. Anyway, the one-hand-shot craze divides the town, wrecks team chemistry, and jeopardizes their chances of repeating as state champs.

OK, that’s also pretty stupid. But there’s also a subplot about a shy colored kid who just happens to be a better basketball player than anyone in town except Chip. How do the other players react to him? How does the town react? And the opposing teams? What happens when the Valley Falls team travels to play Southern and the kid isn’t allowed to stay in the hotel with them? This subplot comes out of the blue, and it’s actually pretty terrific. The author doesn’t know how to characterize a colored kid, who is treated as a saintly cipher. But everything else rings true, at least in the context of a Fifties YA novel.

Spoiler alert: What’s also interesting is that Valley Falls loses the big game. So we are taught a lesson about sportsmanship and accepting defeat gracefully.

Anyway, I was impressed.

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Malcolm Gladwell and the mystery of free-throw shooting

Here’s an interesting podcast in which Malcolm Gladwell confronts one of the fundamental mysteries of Western civilization: Why don’t basketball players shoot free-throws underhanded?  The evidence is incontrovertible that this method produces better outcomes than the overhand method.  And yet almost no one uses it.

This is of particular interest to me because, growing up, shot free-throws underhanded — I guess because my father did.  And I was good!  In the 7th grade, I was elected captain of my gym team, basically because I could shoot free-throws better than anyone else.  But this came to an end when the gym teacher noticed what I was doing and ordered me to cut it out.  So I did.  I was also pretty good shooting overhand, but nowhere near as good as I was underhand; it’s just harder.

Gladwell tells the story in his typical entertaining fashion, focusing on Wilt Chamberlain’s legendary 100-point game, which would never have happened if he hadn’t been going through a phase where he was shooting free throws underhand.  But then later, he changed back to the overhand method he was so bad at, because it made him “feel like a sissy.”  Wilt Chamberlain felt like a sissy!  Gladwell also brings in other standard examples from sports of people who can’t do the right thing even though they know better, like coaches who insist on punting when all the data says they should go for it on fourth down.

But, as usual, Gladwell’s explanation for this is, well, not that interesting, at least to me.  He uses the same theory of “thresholds” that he has also advanced to explain riots and school shootings.  Some people are go-it-aloners who don’t need to feel like they’re part of a crowd; for free-throw shooting, this would be Rick Barry, who didn’t care that no one else shot underhanded.  He knew he was right, and so that’s what he did.  He had a low “threshold”.  Most people have much higher thresholds; they can’t bring themselves to shoot free throws underhand or go for it on fourth down unless everyone else is doing it.  If everyone is doing the wrong thing, they will do the wrong thing–this might be the lesson of the Milgram experiments and others that emphasize the importance of situation in predicting human behavior.

Gladwell may be right; I don’t know.  But I’d have liked him to dig a little deeper.  Why would someone like Wilt Chamberlain feel compelled to be a conformist when it came to free-throw shooting, despite being as out of the ordinary as one could imagine in so many other ways?  What causes someone to have a different threshold?  No explanation is given.