Son of three-pointer's inventor recalls backyard experiments

Bob Steitz, an athletic director at Villanova, remembers his father, Ed Steitz, having him take shot after shot.

Growing up outside Springfield, Mass., Bob Steitz had a regulation basketball court in his backyard, half-court.

It was more like a laboratory.

Steitz, now the senior associate athletic director at Villanova, is the son of the longtime rules czar for college basketball. Ed Steitz was editor of the NCAA's basketball rules committee from 1968 until his death in 1990.

"When I was playing high school basketball, [when] I was a sophomore . . . he started to chalk this line around the top of the key," Bob Steitz said.

The son asked his father what he was doing.

"At some point, the game is going to need a three-point shot," Ed Steitz told his son.


"Because of the rough play," Ed Steitz said, as his son remembers it. "We need to free up the congestion around the basket. If we make something more valuable farther from the basket, it's going to make defenses have to extend the game."

This was about 1974, Bob Steitz said, more than a decade before the three-point line entered college basketball.

"He gives me a basketball," Steitz said. "I was a decent outside shooter at the time. It's not a difficult shot when you're standing there by yourself. I'd take 10 from the corner, 10 from the top. This went on for a couple of months. Then he'd start guarding me a little bit."

He asked his father, who had been a college coach and athletic director: What are we doing?

"I need some data just to get going on this a little bit," Ed Steitz told him. "I think the percentage that we'll need - to determine where the line gets placed - we'll need about 34 to 36 percent."

He thought that was the proper risk-reward ratio. Using his chalk, Ed Steitz played with different lengths.

"My buddies get involved," Bob Steitz said. "My high school team gets involved. All this experimentation in my backyard."

College coaches always were lined up on both sides of the issue, Bob Steitz said. But his father lobbied members of the rules committee, and eventually, in the 1980s, enough proponents emerged to push it through. That was a time when there was a lot of publicity about rough play, especially in the Big East.

Ed Steitz was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984. When he died, the headline in the Washington Post was, "Basketball innovator dies."

Before his death, Ed Steitz saw enough data to believe he'd gotten it right. The first college experimentation was a shorter line in the Atlantic Coast Conference, before 19 feet, 9 inches was settled on. Division I three-point percentages have been between 34 and 36 percent for 18 of the last 19 seasons. Before the 2008-09 season, the line moved back a foot. The percentage dropped a little, from 35.2 to 34.4, but still was within Ed Steitz's intended range. Bob Steitz said his father thought the line - the placement of it - could be a fluid thing. The percentage, that risk-reward ratio, was the important factor.

That's because the line was never just about the three-point shot.

"It certainly had a huge impact on the game," Bob Steitz said. "I think he had to defend it early on. I remember him going on ESPN with Dick Vitale and they got into an argument. My father said, 'This is going to be very good for the game. It's going to provide excitement. It's going to put the little man back in the game. It's going to take the excessive fouling away because defenses are going to have to extend to guard away from the basket.' I think it accomplished all those things."

Ed Steitz often said he viewed the three-point line as the most important change in college basketball since the 1937 elimination of a center jump after every basket, and even a bigger change than the introduction of the shot clock in 1985-86.

Even the line's opponents had to adjust. Some adjusted quicker than others.

"One of the biggest opponents of it was Bobby Knight," Bob Steitz said. "The first championship with it, Steve Alford hits seven three-pointers, and Indiana wins the national championship."

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or