On the eve of his Baskeball Hall induction, Herb Magee stays on subject: Shooting

Posted: August 06, 2011

Herb Magee was excited. This was like a holiday. "The greatest day ever," he said. A new NCAA rule had been passed, bringing in the three-point line, awarding an extra point for shots made from behind that line. Philadelphia Textile's coach called the best shooter on his team, asked him to get to the gym at 8 the next morning.

When Mike Doyle got there, they started measuring where the line would be. They didn't put down any tape, just worked out the distance then imagined the line underfoot.

The best part: After they figured out the measurements, Magee did all the shooting. Doyle, who would make 52 percent of his three-pointers over the next two seasons for Textile, spent that session rebounding for his coach.

"He was swishing everything, nothing but net," Doyle said.

Magee, who will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, has coached many fine shooters in his 44 seasons as head coach at Textile - now Philadelphia University - but it is accepted as fact that none could shoot it as well as the coach. Magee figures that in his own career at Textile, when he scored 2,235 points - 24.03 points a game - he averaged 10 or 11 field goals a game, and seven or eight of those came from jump shots taken behind the three-point line, if only there had been a three-point line.

"I always felt as a player, if I'm going to be an asset to the team, I have to shoot," Magee said. "I have to. Because I'm not going to help you in too many other ways. I'm going to score the ball. . . . I loved to play so much. But I knew I wouldn't be able to play unless I made shots, because I was a little skinny guy. Freshman year [at West Catholic], I was maybe 5 foot, maybe 102 pounds."

Baby Jesus, the older guys at Textile used to call Magee when they were good-naturedly giving him the business when he was a freshman. Their coach, an ex-Marine named Bucky Harris, was known as God, and Herb was Bucky's boy, believed to be the first full-scholarship basketball player at Textile. Even as a freshman, Textile's offense was designed pretty much for one purpose, to free Magee for jumpers.

"My job was to set screens for Herb and get rebounds," said Magee's oldest friend, Paul Crunkleton.

Sometimes, that was everyone's job. His junior year, Magee averaged 29.1 points a game.

"I would start from the left side of the court," Magee said, explaining a typical play designed by Harris. "Whoever had the ball would make a move to give me a handoff. So now I have it. Now around the top of the circle, there was another screen, set the correct way. If I didn't shoot it there, I went around a double screen which was around the right elbow, with the freedom to back up and shoot it, or go around and shoot it. Invariably, I'd end up in the right corner."

Magee's friends love to razz him that the No. 4 hung in the rafters at Philly U. is actually his career assist total. But here's the twist: Magee may be the greatest assist man ever in local hoops, teaching several generations of youngsters and his share of NBA players the simple and proper technique of shooting a basketball.

Magee, 70, will enter the Hall of Fame as the winningest men's coach in NCAA history with 922 victories, all accumulated at the same university. However, Magee believes that he wouldn't be inducted if he had merely coached all those winning games. He's at least as well known for his side job.

Teaching technique

"Not that ball, son."

A camper had tried to grab the well-worn basketball off a bench, but that was Herb's shooting ball. He'd brought it to this camp in the Poconos where red wooden cabins dot the hillside overlooking a pool and the basketball courts.

"My first speaking engagement as a coach was at this camp, 45 years ago," Magee said as he drove up the Northeast Extension to the Pocono Invitational. "Bob Kennedy, who started the camp, asked me, 'What do you want to talk about?'

" 'Anything . . . ballhandling, rebounding, defense. Whatever you want.' "

" 'No, you pick the topic.'

" 'Shooting; I'm a good shooter.' "

Since that day, how many have heard Magee distill his specialty? It has to be well into the hundreds of thousands. Since that initial nudge, Magee said, he has never spoken at a camp or a clinic or put out a video on any other subject.

Six decades ago, kids didn't learn to shoot by going to clinics, since here weren't any clinics. Magee mimicked the greats of his day - Paul Arizin was his first role model. He could walk from home at 45th and Baltimore to Convention Hall to see the Warriors. But he didn't look at the process too closely, just copied the basics and took 500 shots of his own a day. When Magee began teaching technique, he studied photos of his own shooting, learning exactly where his own guide hand was on the ball, how he followed through.

Shoot through your guide hand. (Hear the sound of it?) . . . Don't follow your shot, MAKE your shot. . . . If you don't follow through, you can't know WHY you missed. Look at where your hands are. They'll tell you the story.

"If you practice by yourself, I don't think you can get better," Magee said. "Finishing, in my opinion, is the thing that separates a good shooter from a great shooter. A good shooter can get it off, snap the wrists, all that stuff. But somebody who can finish their stroke, that's your person who can become a great shooter."

The talk never varies much, Magee said. The technique is the same, whether for Charles Barkley or Evan Turner or a 10-year-old boy or girl.

Magee shoots as he talks, usually missing only when he's demonstrating bad technique. For Magee, a free throw has no more degree of difficulty than a layup, and a basketball rim exists pretty much to hold up the net. Magee perfected his own technique years ago on West Philadelphia playgrounds or after prying open the gym door at St. Francis de Sales when he couldn't find the pastor to give him the key.

Magee didn't need much in the way of props, just the ball, his own shooting form, and an old green folder of photos of the greats of the game. One photograph, laminated for safekeeping by Magee, showed Ray Allen of the Boston Celtics ("the greatest shooter today") about to release a jumper. The ball rested only on Allen's index and middle fingers. Another was of Kobe Bryant, his shooting and guide hands in perfect position despite the fact that a defender had smashed his hand into Bryant's face.

"All great shooters look like great shooters," Magee told the campers as he passed around a photo of Michael Jordan taking the last free throw of his career, his elbow locked in perfectly.

Never bad shots

Magee, knocked off his feet under the basket, looked up to see who had done it.  

Bucky?

This was at a summer tournament at a playground in Southwest Philadelphia, the story of how his recruiting by Philadelphia Textile really began.

"I was the youngest guy on the team, probably a junior in high school, but I was the leading scorer," Magee said. "In the championship, we're playing against Textile. Bucky had his whole team in there. So I'm killing them. On a drive, somebody took me out, put me into the pole supporting the basket. As I looked up, it's Bucky Harris, the coach, who was playing. He took me out. Now what am I going to say? The other guys on my team came to my defense and there was almost a full-fledged riot. But it calmed down. They ended up beating us best out of three, but I still scored."

That winter, Magee walked into the gym at Monsignor Bonner before a game. (Magee was part of a famous West Catholic team that also featured Jim Boyle and Jim Lynam). Seeing Harris, he told a buddy, "That's the guy who cut my legs out." Next thing he knew, the guy who cut his legs out offered him a scholarship.

It wasn't the last time Magee got knocked around.

"I lost all my teeth, got hit with a forearm against Gannon my junior year," Magee said.

But the best shot at winning was getting Herb the ball. By then, he had shot up to 5-foot-10.

"I never saw him take 30 shots and make seven, that type of thing," Crunkleton said. "There were very few times he'd go through a lull. He might miss a couple. And I never saw him take a mental break. He was always in the game, regardless of the score."

One other thing, Crunkleton said. At Textile or in hundreds of playground games, he never saw Magee take a wild shot. He always took a lot of shots, but never bad shots. Shooting was never a lark for Magee. He understood real life. His mother died when he was 12 years old, and his father the next year. He was raised from there by two uncles, one a priest.

From an early age, Herb had his own calling. After graduating, Magee stayed at Textile as an assistant under Harris, worked for a season under Jack McKinney, then became the head coach at age 25. John Pierantozzi, who was on that team, remembered being excited, figuring practices would be one long shooting drill.

"Lo and behold, he had adopted all of Bobby Knight's defensive drills," Pierantozzi said. "He had this little pamphlet Bobby Knight wrote. It was nothing but rebounding and shuffling and checking-out drills, diving-on-the-floor drills. He was going right through the pamphlet. I don't think we shot a ball for three weeks."

In Magee's third season, Textile won a national title.

"He wouldn't mess with your shot so much," said Mike Lynam, also on that championship team. "At the end of practice, we would play one-on-one to one. He would hold court against you. He initiated a three-dribble rule, from the top of the key. He would start shooting jumpers. As soon as it left his hand, he'd say, 'Sit down.' "

Tremendous confidence

Driving back from the Poconos through a pelting rainstorm, Magee told tales. One he told on himself was about his year as an assistant under McKinney. Late one game, that team's star, Cleveland Smith, was on a tear, up to 46 points.

"We're killing Susquehanna. I go to Jack, 'What are you leaving Cleveland in for? He could get hurt.' "

McKinney was no fool, Magee said. He asked what the record was.

" 'What record?'

" 'For most points in a game.' "

"I don't know, Jack," Magee said.

Then, Magee said, "A manager, Steve Glickman, I'll never forget, leans in, says, 'Coach McKinney, Coach Magee has it, and it's 50.' Jack says, 'Oh yeah, wise guy? Watch this.' He calls time out, tells them, 'Feed Cleveland every time.' He ends up with 54 points."

When it came to shooting, Magee never doubted his own expertise. He told about the time his old friend Dick Harter, then an Indiana Pacers assistant, had invited him out to work with an Indiana Pacers reserve, Mark Pope. While he was doing that, another Pacers assistant, Rick Carlisle, wandered over.

"He says to me, 'You know, you're doing this all wrong?' " Magee said. "I said, 'Really?' I knew who he was. I said, "Let me ask you a question: Who are you?'

" 'I'm Rick Carlisle, an assistant coach here.'

" 'What would you do?' He said, 'In our league, it's all footwork.' I said, 'You don't talk about grip? You don't talk about hand positioning?' 'No.' I said, 'OK, will you do me a favor and leave me alone now?' "

Magee said he knew Carlisle was a fine golfer, and asked if he began to play that sport by learning the grip or footwork. Magee always had that confidence - and the story is even better, now that Carlisle won an NBA title as Dallas Mavericks coach this year.

"Obviously, he didn't talk to Dirk Nowitzki too much about shooting," Magee said.

"He just thinks he can walk on water," ribs an old Textile backcourt partner, Butch Iancale. "To me, that's what made him as good as he was. He just had a tremendous confidence. Coming out of time-outs, he'd always say, 'Butch, just give me the ball.' "

Both men still joke about how they don't know how Iancale managed to average double-digit points one season playing alongside Magee.

Iancale certainly wasn't surprised Magee ended up coaching.

"He's got a photographic memory," Iancale said. "Here's a guy who never studied in school and he got all A's and B's. Believe me, never say anything to him you want him to forget."

After passing Knight last season to go on top of the all-time NCAA list, this rowhouse kid is headed into the Hall of Fame. But there's one milestone Magee can't quite let go of: What his collegiate scoring total would have been if the three-point line had been around in his day.

That day they tested out the line in 1986, Doyle remembers Magee saying it was the greatest day ever. He also said, "I would have had 4,000 points."


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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