When the shot went up, so did the voice of ABC’s legendary broadcaster, Mike Breen. “Curry! Way downtown! BANG!” It all happened so fast. It was a regular season game in Oklahoma City on 27 February 2016. The Golden State Warriors were on a magical run that would see them break the single-season wins record, going 73-9, pre-playoffs. That year, Stephen Curry earned his second-straight MVP, unanimously. He achieved that feat because he’d turned the three-pointer into a weapon unlike anyone else in history.
The game-winner against the Thunder on that February night marked the beginning of a new chapter in the NBA. Not only did it clinch another win for the Warriors, but it cemented the three-pointer as a play en vogue in the NBA. A season later, after the Thunder’s Kevin Durant defected from the team and joined Golden State, he hit an unprecedented, walk-up three-pointer over LeBron James to all but clinch the 2017 NBA finals. Durant later told GQ, “That was the best moment I ever had.” The modern game was unfolding before our eyes.
But how exactly did we get here?
Dr James Naismith invented the game of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts on an otherwise gloomy day in December 1891. From then on, for most of basketball’s history, the game has been dominated by big men, those 7ft giants, who, by virtue of their size, are closer to the 10ft rim and, thus, more capable of scoring with relative ease. From George Mikan in the 40s, to Wilt Chamberlain in the 60s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 70s, Moses Malone in the 80s and Shaquille O’Neal in the 90s, and beyond, big men largely ruled the roost. But now, though, thanks to players like the 6ft 2in Curry, the game’s focus has moved away from the hoop towards the three-point arc.
The history of the three-point shot is one of seemingly constant evolution, from its inception in the American Basketball League in 1961 to its adoption in the American Basketball Association in 1967 and later in the NBA in 1979 after the league and the ABA merged in 1976. Since then, it’s been spotlighted at times, ignored at others, moved in, moved out, mastered and, some say, abused. And with the likes of Curry, who is now the all-time leader in three-point makes, the shot can be so devastating that it can feel like it’s worth somehow more than even three points.
“I’d been practicing it even back in my high school days,” former 90s NBA sharp-shooter Terry Mills tells the Guardian. “But the thing was [back then], big guys at 6ft 9in or 6ft 10in, you weren’t really allowed to shoot the ball out there, just like you weren’t allowed to dribble the ball.”
Yet the 6ft 10in Mills, who played for five teams in the NBA over 11 years, later became so adept at shooting from distance that he earned the nickname, “Three Mills.” He boasts a career average of 38.4% from behind the arc, sinking 533 three-pointers. Mills started his college career at the University of Michigan, where he works today as a radio broadcaster for the men’s basketball team. There, however, he says he didn’t make a single three-pointer (he thinks he went 0-4). Shooting from distance wasn’t considered something a big man like Mills should do, nor was it part of his repertoire.
But when he played for the Detroit Pistons in the mid-90s, things began to change. His coach, Doug Collins, came to Detroit in 1995 and encouraged Mills, who was already testing his skills from long-range in seasons prior, to keep shooting. Suddenly Mills, who played power forward, was beginning to help define the concept of the “stretch-forward,” meaning a big player who can “stretch” the floor and create space on it given his prowess from distance (in the modern era, think of Dirk Nowitzki or Karl-Anthony Towns).
“When I first got to the Pistons, I was primarily a post-player,” he says. “When Doug Collins came in, he recognized I could shoot the basketball, and said I could be a specialist. Of course, I wasn’t buying it at first. But it became a niche of mine. I’d come off the bench, they ran plays for me. All of a sudden, it started working. I was a believer.”
In the 1980s, teams averaged just a few three-point makes per game. Bird, who boasts a 37.6% career percentage from distance, has long been considered the best shooter of all time. But throughout his 13 years in the NBA, he averaged fewer than two three-point attempts per game. In 2016, Curry averaged 11.2 attempts per game and two years ago it was 12.7. Like home runs in baseball and passing plays in football, there was a dearth of three-pointers in the early years of the game.
But with the advent of the three-point contest at the NBA All-Star game in 1986, the shot became cooler and more respected. Bird, of course, won the contest in its first three years. Soon, deadeye shooters became folk heroes. From Bird to Miller to Mark Price and Curry’s father Dell, to lesser-known players like Craig Hodges, Dale Ellis, Tim Legler and Steve Kerr, Curry’s current coach, who holds the all-time record for three-point percentage at 45.4%, NBA fans came to love long-distance marksmen.
“I practiced at it,” says Mills, who took part in the three-point contest in 1997, losing out head-to-head to the Sacramento Kings’ Walt Williams. “But it was just something totally different. I would consider myself more of an in-game-type of three-point shooter as opposed to stand still in front of a crowd and shoot.”
In games, Mills was deadly, often running the “pick-and-roll,” where a ball-handler takes advantage of a screen set by a teammate that forces defenders to make a split-second decision. With the Pistons, All-Star Grant Hill would have the ball and Mills would screen for him, popping out behind the arc and, thus, give Hill space to either drive to the hoop or pass it back out to Mills for a deep shot. As a big man, Mills’ defenders would also regularly run back on defense, trained to think they’d meet him under the rim. But in his new role as a stretch-forward, they lost track of him at the arc, where he was open for threes. To prepare for this role, he’d take 500 shots a day after practice. Later, while playing for the Miami Heat, Mills would engage in shooting competitions with teammates like Dan Majerle, another deadeye, sometimes betting dinner on it.
In the heart of Mills’ career, the NBA decided to move the three-point line in, most likely to increase scoring in a league that was defined by rough-and-tumble teams like the New York Knicks. Certain players, like Mills and the Orlando Magic’s Dennis “3D” Scott, along with Miller, thrived. In the three years the NBA’s three-point line moved from 23ft 9in to 22ft – from 1994-95 to 1996-97 – Mills shot a whopping 40.4% on nearly four attempts per game.
“You still had the same principles of trying to stretch the floor even though they moved the line in,” Mills says, adding, “I have no idea what the reasoning was behind [the league moving the line in]. It was just one of those rules that changed. If you were a guy able to knock them down, you were licking your chops.”
Today, players like Curry and James Harden, who averaged 13.2 three-point attempts per game in the 2018-19 season, have changed the game again. So, too, did the famed “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns with their run-and-gun offense in the early 2000s. Now, players all over the world, from kids to adults, shoot three after three. So much so that many two-point shots that were once encouraged are frowned upon.
But some aren’t head-over-heels with the new look. Legendary basketball analyst and former college coach Dick Vitale made his thoughts known on Twitter in May, writing, “Look the NBA features the greatest athletes but I’m curious as I admit that I’m reaching the point of BOREDOM watching @NBA PTPer firing up 50 3’s per game in many cases.(where is cutting/ ball movement etc) /For me it’s NOT FUN TO WATCH. Do u agree or disagree? @ESPNPR.” To which former Chicago Bull and three-time NBA champion Ron Harper replied, writing, “It’s call bad basketball @dickieV.”
Mills, however, doesn’t think the current barrage of long-distance shots is an issue. Nor would he alter the rules when it comes to the use of the arc. Mills embraces the state of the game, even if the current three-point revolution came a bit too late for him to take advantage of it, financially.
“One thing I can say is that times have changed,” says Mills. “People already remind me of the type of money I could make today. They say, ‘Man, can you imagine the type of money you could make right now?’ I tell them I don’t need a reminder! But no, I wouldn’t change anything. I’d leave it the same. The three-point shot is a major thing as far as basketball is concerned. I don’t think it should get [changed] to, say, a four-point play. It’s perfect the way it is. I wouldn’t change a thing.”