May 17, 2006

At the keyboard or on the court, 'Shooter' has a great touch

May 17, 2006

Providence Journal, Sunday, May 7, 2006

by Jim Donaldson, Providence Journal Columnist

For years, I've kidded Billy Reynolds about how my dad, a high-school basketball coach, used to ask me if I wanted to go to a Brown game.

"Billy," I'd say, giving him the needle, "I remember my dad asking me if I wanted to go to Marvel Gym to see Bill Bradley and Princeton, or, a few years later, Geoff Petrie and Princeton. I remember him asking me if I wanted to go see Jim McMillian and Columbia. I remember him asking me if I wanted to go see Jimmy Walker and the Friars. But I don't ever remember him asking me if I wanted to go see Bill Reynolds and the Bears!" The truth is, Reynolds was worth watching.

He was no Bradley, or Petrie, or McMillian, or Walker, who were among the best college players in the country and went on to stardom in the NBA. But he was the best player Brown had, at a time when the Ivy League was stronger than it is now -- indeed, when it could boast of two of the best teams in the country in Princeton and Columbia. Billy also was a better player than most readers, who know him primarily as a writer, ever realized. If, in fact, they even knew he played college basketball.

Billy went into the Brown Athletics Hall of Fame last night as a Basketball/Special inductee, and the folks who came up with that category were accurate on both counts, because Reynolds is, indeed, special. He writes well about any subject, but no one -- no one -- in the country writes better about basketball. The game he has loved, and played and covered for all his life.

He has written numerous books about the sport, including Fall River Dreams, Big Hoops, Born To Coach, Cousy (his latest), and, my personal favorite, Glory Days.

In the epilogue to Glory Days, Reynolds wrote: "Even though I haven't been a real player since 1968 and now have been writing professionally for over two decades, I still consider myself a basketball player first, a writer second. Having played basketball at the level I did is still the thing I take the most pride in. Shooting a basketball is still the thing I did best in the world.

"I know this is foolish.

"I also know it's never going to change."

I beg to differ. To say that Billy is an even better writer than he was a basketball player is not to demean his athletic ability, but to praise his writing talent.

Because Billy was a player. More specifically, he was a shooter. Some of his friends call him that: "Shooter." Jimmy Walker did. Whenever they'd play against each other in pickup games around the city, Walker would guard Reynolds, proclaiming: "I've got the shooter!"

Because defense was not Reynolds' forte, he wanted no part of guarding Walker. Assigned to guard Walker in the closing minutes of a game at Marvel, Billy purposely fouled him -- and fouled out -- so he wouldn't risk falling down and being embarrassed.

But it was no fun to guard Reynolds, either. Although he didn't have Walker's moves -- who did? -- what he had was a deadly accurate jump shot he could hit from incredible range. He wasn't the sort of player who was going to drive by you. But he could drive you crazy by nailing shot after shot with a hand in his face from as far out as he had to go to get it off. Although many -- most? -- of his shots came from what today would be 3-point range, his career field-goal percentage was .446. He is fifth on Brown's all-time free-throw accuracy list at .795, and shot better than 80 percent from the line his last two years.

He was used to being guarded by the best players. He was Brown's best -- a cynical sports writer might say "only" -- scoring threat. He averaged 15.8 points a game as a junior and 15.4 as a senior, leading the team both seasons.

He should have been the hero of what would have been a monumental upset of Princeton in 1967 in Marvel Gym. The Tigers came in 18-1, ranked fourth in the country, and featured a couple of talented big men in Chris Thomforde and Ed Hummer, along with a senior point guard by the name of Gary Walters, who later coached at Providence College.

The Tigers had blown out the Bears earlier in the year at Princeton, and expected to do so again. But, when Reynolds connected from deep in the right corner with 1:58 remaining for his 17th and 18th points of the game, Brown led, 54-53. Less than a minute later, Reynolds stole a pass -- who said he didn't play defense? -- and the Bears had the ball, leading by one. They wound up losing, 57-54, when a Brown player blew a layup after making a backdoor cut and taking a perfect pass from, yes, Reynolds. It still bothers Billy to talk about that game.

He had many other good games. Twice he scored 27 points, once as a junior in a loss at Cornell, once in a 79-77 win at Dartmouth. He had 19 as a senior against Columbia, which that year had beaten Wes Unseld and Louisville in the Holiday Festival in Madison Square Garden. But the Reynolds shot I'll always remember came in the Carrier Dome in 1986.

That was the year Brown won its only Ivy basketball championship, and Billy and I were in Syracuse to cover the Bears in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament against the Orangemen.

Near the end of Brown's practice in the cavernous arena, a ball bounced over to us. Billy caught it and asked: "What will you give me if I make this shot?"

We were standing in the corner, a few feet off the court. He was wearing a dress shirt and slacks, with street shoes. The dimensions of the Carrier Dome made depth perception difficult. He had not, of course, warmed up at all.

"I'll buy your beer for the rest of the weekend," I replied, confident my money would remain in my pocket.

Billy hoisted the ball over his head and, with that oh-so-smooth motion honed over many years in countless gyms, sent it arcing through the air with perfect rotation and into the hoop, hitting nothing but net. Fortunately for me, Billy's not a big drinker. He's a shooter. And a writer. And, deservedly, a Brown Athletic Hall of Famer.