Players carried away with the art of dribbling

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Basketball's basic mode of transportation has undergone a radical transformation.

The dribble ain't what it used to be.

From rec leagues to the pros, players are getting away with what, for decades, was considered "carrying."

A carry - placing the hand on the side of the ball or even underneath it while dribbling - has become as acceptable as a bounce pass.

"If you call a carry on someone, people look at you like you're crazy," said Delmar Harrod, a longtime local high school and college official.

The change is part of an infusion of "street ball" influences that have changed the sport during the past decade, driving old-timers and traditionalists crazy but giving players the freedom to exhibit more individual expression.

They can now get away with an extra step on a drive through the lane or blow past a defender with a crossover move.

And they can dribble until they drop with their hands no higher than halfway up the side of the ball.

"It came from [pickup games in] the park," Maryland guard Steve Blake said, "and now you're seeing it everywhere."

Blake's freshman teammate, John Gilchrist, said: "Any move that involves a hesitation, you pretty much have to bring your hand under the ball. But you don't see it getting called unless it's really obvious. For the most part, the officials let you play.

"There's just a new way of playing ball now."

The Washington Wizards' Tyronn Lue is so accustomed to it that he recently said he "can't relate" to the idea of dribbling with his hand on top of the ball.

"And guys of my generation all play the same way," Lue, 25, said.

Purists are outraged, to say the least. Harrod said it was "sad" that carrying has become so prevalent. Author Pat Conroy is venomous on the subject in his current best-seller My Losing Season, which chronicles his senior season as a point guard at The Citadel in 1966-67.

"At the time I played, dribbling was an art form and few players could do it as it was supposed to be done," Conroy writes. "The fingertips controlled the ball entirely, and the ball was kept low on the floor. The fan of today can't appreciate the art I'm talking about. Great players of the later era - Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, John Stockton, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley - palmed the basketball every time they handled it.

"The game has retreated or advanced in such a way that what those players called dribbling, our referees would have called turnovers."

In Conroy's day, players were taught to dribble with their hand on top of the ball or, at most, slightly down the side. Such had been the case for as long as the game was played.

Then Archie Clark came along.

A ball-handling wizard from the University of Minnesota, Clark played for the Baltimore Bullets and four other NBA teams from 1966 to 1976. Though not regarded as a major historical figure, he is the father of the "crossover" move, in which a player fakes one way and goes the other while switching dribbling hands. Gravity pulls the ball toward the court while the move unfolds, forcing the dribbler to find a way to keep the ball aloft --- in other words, carry it.

"Archie Clark started it all. We used to call him 'Shake and Bake,' " said Morgan State coach Butch Beard, who played in the NBA from 1969 to 1979. "His hand was pretty far down the ball, a borderline carry, but the officials saw it as part of the game."

Hall of Fame guard Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, who played for the Bullets and New York Knicks from 1967 to 1980, also extended the boundaries of what was an acceptable dribble with his famed spin move.

"Most of Earl's moves were borderline [carries], but he was so smooth that it was hard for the referees to think he was getting an advantage, so they let him get away with it," Beard said.

After Clark, Monroe and fellow pioneer Pete Maravich cleared the path, Tim Hardaway developed the game's top crossover move in the '80s and '90s. Now, it's Allen Iverson.

Clark seems bemused by the latitude available to today's players.

"In our day, the referees were a lot more strict about calling a palming violation on the crossover dribble," Clark recently told The Sporting News. "Sometimes, we'd even get called for a carry if we dribbled behind our backs. Now these moves have evolved, and they aren't calling palming even though guys are carrying the ball all the time."

And unlike in prior generations, acceptance of the carry has come down from the professional mountaintop and spread throughout the game.

"It's become the standard way of putting the ball on the floor," Beard said.

"Go to a 9-year-old game, a 10-year-old game, and you're seeing it there," said Harrod, who retired from his job at Bethlehem Steel two years ago but still referees city high school games and youth games. "The game has changed. And it isn't going back."

Laranja Owens, a senior point guard at Annapolis High School, is evidence of that. He is brilliant and creative, one of the area's top ballhandlers, yet his hand seldom rises above the middle of the ball as he leads fast breaks.

"Dribbling has changed over the years," Owens said before a recent game. "Instead of being about technique, it's about being fancy, about having moves that you can develop. The referees understand that. They know everyone is dribbling on the side [of the ball].

"But it's not like it's taught at camps or anything like that. I learned it from watching older guys handle the ball in pickup games. You just pick it up and develop your own thing."

There are still times when a carry is a violation, at least at the high school level.

"If a player uses it to gain an advantage, you call it," Harrod said. "If he's just doing it while he dribbles upcourt, you don't call it. The key is whether an advantage is gained."

That's a subjective call, of course, as is what constitutes the "legal" placement of the hand on the ball. As a result, every official has a different standard for carrying, much like every baseball umpire had a different idea of what constitutes the strike zone.

"Some guys call the carry, some guys don't; it's different every night," Calvert Hall coach Mark Amatucci said.

And the higher you go in the game, the less the call is made.

Owens, the high school star, said he gets whistled fairly regularly, and seldom bickers.

"I know when I've done it," he said.

Blake, who plays at the top of the college game, said he hadn't been called for a carry since last season and "barely ever" gets called for it.

The NBA? Forget it.

"They never call it there," Amatucci said, "and that's why the kids are doing it. They see it and it looks cool and they want to do it, too."

Harrod said there is a reason NBA officials don't call the carry.

"People are paying $300 a ticket to see a guy make a move, and you're going to call him for a carry? Yeah, sure," he said with a laugh.

In other words, carrying is here to stay, one of basketball's new fundamentals. And Maryland coach Gary Williams, for one, is fine with that, even though he, like Pat Conroy, played point guard in the old-school '60s.

"Games evolve; that's just the way it is," Williams said. "Golf is different than 20 years ago because of new and better equipment. Basketball is different because players stretch and lift weights and are much quicker than when I played. This change in the dribble is just another way the game has evolved."

Sun staff writer Milton Kent contributed to this article.

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