The game of basketball was invented in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith in Springfield, Massachusetts. Initially created to serve as a gym class activity that could be played indoors during cold winters, basketball has emerged over time into a multi-billion dollar business. It has evolved from being a simple game with thirteen basic rules into an extremely elaborate world of its own. Despite the dramatic evolution, the primary objective of the game remains the same: put the ball in the bucket. In this series, Matt Babcock shares some personal experiences and lessons he has learned, related to the most important part of the game of basketball: shooting.
On June 6, 1984, Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics beat their archrivals, the Los Angeles Lakers and Earvin "Magic" Johnson, in Game 4 of the NBA Finals — an epic series that the Boston Celtics would go on to win. Coincidentally, that was also the same day I was born. My dad, Dave Babcock, was an assistant coach at San Diego State University at the time, and as a result of him being a coach, I was practically born with a basketball in my hands. I was also born to be a Larry Bird and Boston Celtics fan, inherently, due to my family roots in New England. These influences would prove to steer an extremely significant part of my life — my life as a basketball player.
Having been raised as a coach’s son, I was thoroughly taught the fundamentals of basketball as a child. Even today as an adult, my mind is tattooed with memories from my childhood doing "Pistol Pete" ball-handling drills, the “flip drill”, and receiving coaching from my dad to execute the “gooseneck” when following through on my shooting release — just to name a few things. The combination of being coached well and having done my best to mimic my childhood hero (Larry Bird) by working on my game religiously, I had developed an advanced skill level at a young age.
In the fall of 1998, I was a freshman at Shorewood High School in Shorewood, Wisconsin — a suburb just outside of Milwaukee. A young, skinny, six-foot kid that could barely even touch the ten-foot-tall rim, I was asked by Shorewood’s head basketball coach, Vince Peterson, to be the starting point guard for the varsity team. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that playing on varsity as a freshman was even a possibility, much less being the lead guard. I was honored and proud.
In the first part of my freshman season, I experienced some growing pains as a player. I did okay but certainly nothing worth writing home about. However, once the first semester of school had finished, several of our top players were ruled academically ineligible to play for the remainder of the season. This allowed me the chance to fill a more vital role within the team, as I was asked to step up to be an assertive scorer. Prior to this opportunity, although I started, I was more of a complementary player. My team was desperate for me to produce more in order for us to have the chance of winning any more games that season. To add to the drama, our next scheduled game was against the number one team in our conference, Slinger High School, a team that was undefeated at that point in the season. I remember the night before that game vividly. I stayed after our team’s practice to shoot by myself, as I did regularly. I knew that was what Larry Bird would have done. I spent a lot of time trying to perfect my rhythm and my shooting release. I projected what shots would be available for me within our offense and practiced those shots over and over again. I also visualized making every shot. I was able to get a lot of shots up that night. By the time I left the gym, I felt extremely confident, knowing I was prepared.
The next night I showed up for our game at the Shorewood gym ready to go! I was asked to step up and that’s exactly what I did. In that game versus Slinger, I netted seven three-pointers and scored 27 points, leading our team to victory. As the buzzer sounded, the announcer could be heard throughout the gym: “Freshman, Matt Babcock… 27 points!” I proceeded to celebrate with my teammates and coaches as we gradually made our way to the locker room. Someone in the crowd shouted: “Babcock, where did you come from?” I seemingly generated quite a buzz in the gym that night and I could feel everyone’s eyes on me. Once we got to our locker room our team continued to celebrate -- everyone was pumped up, myself included!
After showering, changing into regular clothes, and catching my breath a little bit, I needed to meet my parents because, well, I needed a ride home (I was only fourteen years old). I walked up the stairs from the locker room back onto the court and there was a large congregation of people to cheer us on some more. I saw my parents, both smiling ear-to-ear. I knew I had made them proud, which was one of the most gratifying parts of that night.
In hindsight, I may have surprised everyone with my individual performance but I was not surprised. I had worked extremely hard on my game and my outside shooting, specifically. I had practiced the shots I made that night thousands of times by myself. I visualized making those shots way before I was ever given an opportunity to take them — I expected to make every single one.
That next morning, to my surprise, I awoke to my parents hooting and hollering. “You’re in the paper!” my dad shouted with excitement. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s headline of the sports page read: Babcock, Shorewood, Shock Slinger. The attention I received walking the halls at school that day was somewhat overwhelming but intoxicating at the same time. Regardless if I knew them or not, it seemed as if everyone I crossed paths with would mention something about the previous night’s game. I had never experienced anything like that before — it was unbelievable! The attention didn’t stop there. A day or two later, a local newspaper requested to interview me and subsequently wrote a story. My dad had spent so much time working with me on my game and I had spent hours and hours by myself in the gym. Although I was only a fourteen-year-old freshman at the time, I had lived my entire life as a self-proclaimed “basketball player.” To be recognized on that level for the first time was very rewarding. I was able to enjoy the fruits of my labor and it was an experience I will never forget.
I had always been taught to put the work in on my skills behind closed doors, and although the breakout game my freshman year of high school was not the biggest stage, it was the first time I was able to see for myself that proper preparation does lead to success. A saying that I have come to appreciate that I think fits this story well is, “Preparation breeds confidence. Confidence breeds success.” I believe this is a concept that can be applied to just about anything in life — but especially shooting a basketball.
After my sudden arrival as a freshman, I went on to make many more three-pointers in my four years of high school, and I was subsequently labeled a “shooter.” I was fortunate enough to be recruited to play in college, and although I was recruited by some Division-1 schools, I chose to go to a junior college in Panama City, Florida for a season, in an effort to boost my stock in hopes of receiving offers from what I considered to be more desirable schools the following season. Before I left home for Florida, I was invited to participate in a three-day session of shooting workouts with then-NBA player Mike Wilks, led by veteran NBA assistant coach Gerald Oliver. During these workouts, Coach Oliver utilized some unorthodox tactics to open up our minds to a deeper mental approach to shooting a basketball. The lessons from that three-day session are invaluable to me until this day, and I would like to share them with you.
Which leads me to my next article: Shooting the Rock, Part 2: Three Days with Gerald Oliver.