The 3 Point Shot- Novelty Turned Strategy

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Basketball’s long-range shooting stars owe their celebrity status to a sports team entrepreneur they never met and a defunct league they never played in. 

Though the three-point shot was adopted by the NBA in 1979, it was first introduced in 1961 by Abe Saperstein, commissioner of the American Basketball League (ABL), a rival to the NBA in the early days. 

Founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, Saperstein formed the ABL in 1961 after being denied a coveted west coast franchise by the NBA.  Undeterred, the hard-charging basketball visionary assembled eight professional teams in a new league, which also included future Yankees owner George Steinbrenner as an investor in one of the clubs, the Cleveland Pipers. 

Ever mindful of fan entertainment through his Globetrotters, Saperstein instituted the three-point  field goal, stretching out the play geography, providing an equalizing platform for smaller players, and enhancing spectators’ experience. 

While the ABL only lasted a single season and folded at the close of 1962, the next serious league to challenge the NBA picked up on the same innovative concept.

The American Basketball Association (ABA) was created in 1967 and ran a flashier game than its established counterpart. It used a colorful red, white and blue ball, employed the three-point rule around an arc, and pioneered the slam dunk contest at an all-star game. 

The ABA merged into the NBA in 1976 but the point-rewarding throw would only be implemented a few seasons later, mostly as a marketing decision to address falling TV ratings.  

The downtown toss was still regarded by skeptics as a gimmick and novelty, used primarily in “Hail Mary” game situations. 

The first NBA player to net a three-pointer was Boston Celtics Chris Ford on October 12, 1979 against the Houston Rockets (official scorer's card shown above). 

The use of Saperstein’s old rule as a strategic offensive weapon didn’t take off until the mid-1980’s. The NCAA also absorbed the rule universally in 1986. 

Celtics Danny Ainge was one of the first to exploit it as a specialty, scoring a season record of 148-point 3’s in 1987/88. Knicks John Starks was the first to clear 200, netting 217 in 1994/95. Supersonics Ray Allen and all-time career holder of the long-distance throw came in at 269 in 2005/6. 

Recently, the game's point system was practically rewritten by Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry  who landed 402 in 2015/16. 

More than just strategy today, the three-pointer has evolved into a risk/reward calculated science, a long road traveled from its original marketing roots.

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