JACK DONAHUE

THE LAST GREAT TWO-HAND SET SHOOTER 

As far as playground basketball legends go, his story will never appear in the major dailies. Yet Richie did score a record 63 points in the 2002 summer all-star game at Bill Marinís famous Philadelphia instructional camp for junior and senior high school students. 

The press was kept uninformed and everyone present at the game that day swore they would never leak the news about what happened. The problem for everyone, with the exception of Richie himself, was his advanced age. On that historic day, the league officials huddled in a corner of the gym, debating whether there were any loopholes in the leagueís rulebook that would allow them to negate each one of those 63 points. Not only that, they faced the embarrassment of having to award a 61 year old high school senior the MVP trophy. 

"I was redshirted for decades," Richie liked to joke whenever he was asked in private to tell his side of the story. Rumor has it that he was bribed to keep quiet. The exact nature of that bribe (whether there even was one or not) is a secret to this day. Richieís parents arenít even alive but the proud parents of the other boys threatened to boycott the tournament forever and to convince the parents of next yearís crop of gifted athletes to do the same. What really got to these good folks was the revelation that not only was the press barred from the entire season because of Richieís presence but so were the college scouts. 

Many of these families were counting on athletic scholarships for their boys and the specter of them having to pay tuition like everyone else really antagonized them. Richie did not engage in any of the arguments. He refused to either self-promote or even defend himself. After all, he was a mature 61 year old. In fact, he was not only older than his teammates and opposing players but he was also senior to all the coaches, referees, league officials and parents. If asked, he would probably admit that it was embarrassing for the league, that this incident would shave off some of the luster that made the Marin camp shine. But that was not his problem. He proved himself on the court where it counted the most. 

If the image of him lofting the huge MVP trophy over his head did happen to appear in the local papers, there would have been a snicker or two. His beard was definitely turning gray. His decided paunch pushed his uniform jersey eastward and his short legs, or what little was seen of them between the high top sneakers and the baggy shorts, had lost most of their muscle tone. In short, he didnít project the enviable athletic countenance of a well-conditioned high school player, whose body was tight and coiled, always ready to spring forth in a burst of pure, unbridled energy. Richieís prowess was dimmed somewhat by an insignificant physique. Rather, he looked like the panting, Sunday morning catch up for all those lost years over-the-hill non athlete that he was. 

But his patented two-hand set shot owned the court. It absolutely mesmerized and frustrated the much younger, much taller, and, luckily for Richie, much dumber players. Letís face it, he was on fire the day of the all-star game. He was unstoppable. The coach called every play for him. One of his teammates would set a pick, then Richie would bounce the ball once while stepping back and kind of rolling the ball upwards into his two hands which locked on the sides and then, as soon as it reached a specific spot just above his head, he let it fly. Score! Two points! Three points! From anywhere and everywhere on the court. His shot was as automatic as a well-oiled machine. The big, athletic kids were stupefied by this strange, archaic shot. Itís almost as if his carefully measured mechanical motion, which never once varied, of pick, step, grip, roll and release hypnotized them into a trancelike state. 

The opposing coach stuck his best defensive player on him the whole game. It had no effect. Whatever Richie threw in the air wound up finding the inside of the rim. All the opposing players, during a timeout in the first half, swore they were going to make him eat that basketball. By the time Richieís opponents woke up to the fact that he was much older, much slower and nearly stationery in his lone offensive move, it was too late. They were so mentally intimidated by him they couldnít even make simple, undefended lay ups. 

As the game wore on, they got madder and madder. At first, they just flew by him trying to block that stupid, antiquated two-hand set shot. But as soon as Richie released that round, friendly ball, it arced unfailingly toward the intended target. Swish! Inevitably, they started to hack him. That strategy turned out to be a huge mistake. He was a deadeye on the foul line as well. An undefended two-handed foul shot was more than automatic. It was a given. The scorekeeper once credited a point for Richie while the ball was still held in his hands. This official apologized to all those concerned. 

A few of the older men in the audience vaguely recalled a professional player also named Richie - Richie Guerin of the New York Knicks, who scorched the Philadelphia team one night for 58 points, with that same patented two-hand setshot. As they reminisced and got lost, as only sports fans could, in the arcane data of senseless dribble, Richie sat on the end of the bench, a towel draped over his head. A decision concerning the selection of the game MVP was near to being made. A thorough check on the rules revealed that no specific age was mentioned anywhere in their sparse literature. Richie, despite his advanced age, was a duly enrolled high school senior from a small public high school in the lit-tle town of Clarion, Pennsylvania. He quit school when he was a kid to help his Dad on the farm or some other sob story like that. 

The truth is, the game did take place. Richie was a legal player. He did break the league record by scoring 63 points. The decision was made and Richie agreed to it. It was Saturday. They would replay the all-star game on Sunday. The press and scouts would be invited to witness the game. Richie could keep his trophy as long as he kept quiet about it. He would not play in Sundayís game and was asked to leave the camp quietly and return to Clarion that night. A replacement trophy would be awarded to some deserving 17 year old on Sunday. The little world of Bill Marinís basketball camp could then creep back into normalcy. Pennsylvania parents could once again brag about their tall, skinny sons. Richieís 63 points would never appear in the record books. All knowledge of his magical, if ancient, two-hand set shot, would be buried in the stone sepulcher of sealed lips. 

Richie showered and dressed, then carefully placed the MVP trophy in the trunk of his 1984 Toyota. As he waved goodbye to his teammates and coach and drove away from the Philadelphia camp, only the sounds of gravel being displaced by rubber tires and Richieís loud humming of some obscure 50ís Rock and Roll tune could be heard. He left that basketball camp a happy man who lived his dream but was forbidden to brag about it.

© 2003 Jack Donahue
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