Revisiting the under-appreciated legacy of Louie Dampier, basketball’s first great 3-point shooter

Suzanne Higdon is no stranger to the sights and sounds of basketball. Her husband, Steve, routinely hosts Kentucky basketball royalty as both a lifelong fan of the ABA’s Colonels and chairman of an organization working to bring the NBA to Louisville, so the natural melody of her adolescent son competing in a game of H-O-R-S-E in the backyard should have been nothing new. But on this seemingly ordinary afternoon a decade ago, Higdon heard something unique. 

“What is that noise when the ball goes through the net?” she asked. The culprit was a 60-year-old visitor fresh off a day on the golf course. Louie Dampier, still wearing his cleats, had just nailed eight consecutive 3-pointers, and the sound the ball made as it went through the net was unlike anything the awed onlookers had heard before. “He literally shot the ball with a spin on it that when it hit the net, it swooshed,” her husband explained. “That was the noise. It was a swoosh.” It was a sound that Dampier’s Hall of Fame teammate, Dan Issel, knew all too well. “I don’t know if you could hear it during games,” Issel told CBS Sports. “But you could sure hear it during warmups.”

There’s something fitting about the greatest shooter most fans have never seen needing to be heard to be believed. As the game has evolved and the record books have been rewritten, the contributions of earlier marksmen have been largely forgotten, as if as disposable and fleeting as the sound of a ball spinning through the net. While the 3-point revolution may have peaked in Golden State over the past several years, the longball traces its roots back to a defunct league in a state four decades removed from hosting professional basketball. Before there was Stephen Curry, there was Louie Dampier, history’s first great 3-point shooter. 

Dampier laughs off the idea that he gave his legendary jumper an auditory signature, but he credits its possible existence to the league that he played in. To combat his poor eyesight, ABA commissioner George Mikan created the league’s famous red-white-and-blue basketball in the mid-1960s. In addition to helping the league stand out visually, it made tracking the ball significantly easier for elite shooters. 

“That’s why I liked the red-white-and-blue ball,” Dampier said. “Because you can see on its way to the basket what kind of spin you had on it, and I always tried to make sure I had the regular backspin coming right back.”

While that innovation may have inadvertently helped Dampier, Mikan’s other great contribution to the game was geared specifically toward players like him. Mikan, the NBA’s original giant, wanted to level the playing field for guards against the centers that were dominating the game at that time, so his league instituted a 3-point line. 

Despite being tailor-made for a shooter of his ilk, Dampier very nearly missed out on it entirely. Like most collegiate stars, Dampier had his sights set on the NBA after three stellar seasons at the University of Kentucky. A potential partnership with Oscar Robertson was foiled, however, by a laughably anachronistic policy by the team that picked him in the 1967 Draft. 

“I was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals, and they had tryouts,” Dampier recalled. Not even a two-time All-American was immune. “Even their No. 1 pick had to come in and try out, more or less, and they didn’t offer a contract without seeing the player. The Colonels in the ABA were offering contracts without any of that going on, so that’s why I signed with the Colonels.”

The fit, on paper, was perfect. “I don’t remember him ever taking a shot at Kentucky inside of what is now the collegiate 3-point line,” Issel joked. But the line required adjustment. After all, Dampier had never played a single game with one before arriving in the ABA. Nobody had. His rookie year coincided with the league’s inception. In that first season, he attempted only two 3-pointers per game. Only 26.8 percent of them went in. 

“When I got to the ABA I did have to make an adjustment to shoot a little further out, at least three or so feet out. I’d be outside the college 3-point line. Because Adolph Rupp’s offense was set up to where we had a guard-around offense, and most of our shots were from 20, 21 feet.” 

While Dampier may have been comfortable from the distance that would one day become the college 3-point line, he still needed to extend his range to make it at the next level. The professional 3-point line, at its shortest point, is 22 feet, 3 inches, and at the top of the key, is 23 feet, 9 inches. Generations before analytics entered the lexicon, Dampier survived his rookie season subsisting on the dreaded long-2-pointers that contemporary teams have all but driven into extinction. Ironically, he took them in a bid to avoid bad shots. “I’m never one to take bad shots,” Dampier said. “I always tried not to take bad shots, that might be why I was reluctant and only shot a few 3’s per game.”

But by his second season, the 1968-69 campaign, Dampier had adjusted, and even if he hadn’t, the lofty demands of his new coach forced his hand. “Our coach from our second year on [Gene Rhodes], we were a guard-oriented league, and especially the Colonels were at first, until we brought in guys like Dan [Issel] and Artis [Gilmore]. We more or less, Darel Carrier and I had a green light, and the coach wanted us to get 25 a game, each of us.”

Neither hit that lofty goal, though they came close in averaging a combined 47 points. Carrier, also a tad shy in attempting only 3.1 3-pointers per game as a rookie, upped his total to 4.5 a night. In the process, he led the ABA by hitting 37.9 percent of his attempts. 

If Carrier was Kentucky’s sniper, Dampier was its machine gun. He finished fourth in the ABA in 3-point percentage, but did so at volumes that wouldn’t be matched for decades to come. In the process, he set three major professional basketball records. Two of them stood for a combined 48 years. The third will last forever: 

Dampier made 199 3-pointers. Only two other players, Carrier (125) and Chico Vaughn (145) even reached 100. This record was broken in 1995, when John Starks made 217 3-pointers. Dampier attempted 552 3-pointers. Vaughn was hot on his tail at 523 attempts, but made only 27.7 percent of his attempts. Finishing in third place was Carrier, with 330 attempts. Michael Adams broke this record in 1991 with 564 attempts. The ABA, in total, made 1,515 3-pointers during the 1968-69 season. Dampier made 199 of them by himself. That means, for that entire season, Dampier made 13.1 percent of the 3-pointers in the entire league. As a point of comparison, when Curry set the NBA record by hitting 402 3-pointers during the 2015-16 season, he accounted for just under two percent of the NBA’s total. Only two teams besides his own, the Minnesota Pipers (281) and Los Angeles Stars (218) made more 3s than he did by himself. This record will never be broken. Even if you adjust for the extra teams in Curry’s league, he still doesn’t come close to Dampier. 

The degree to which Dampier was ahead of his time is virtually unprecedented. CBS Sports recently released its list of the 15 greatest shooters of all time. The list overwhelmingly skewed modern, with only one player (Larry Bird) having played the bulk of his career before the 1990s. But 11 of the players who made the cut, including former all-time 3-point king Reggie Miller, never attempted the 7.1 3s per game that Dampier did in the 1960s. A year later, Dampier nearly matched those numbers, falling just short with 198 made 3s on 548 attempts. In his own words, Dampier “never saw a 3-point shot I didn’t like.”

Had he continued on that trajectory, his place in history likely would have become unimpeachable, but eventually, the norms of the day caught up to him. Carrier was traded to Memphis in 1972, but replacing him as Dampier’s co-stars were two of the best big men of the era: Issel and Gilmore. This would have been a boon for a 2020 shooter. Post-scorers are trained from infancy to pass to shooters out doubles nowadays. But at that point? The goal was simply to pound the ball inside. After those two magical seasons, Dampier averaged only two 3-point attempts per game for the rest of his career. 

“The game plan changed when we finally started getting the big guys,” Dampier said. “Getting the ball inside, even though it wasn’t said ‘hey Louie, take less 3s,’ but there was an emphasis on getting the ball into the big guys to make our offense more effective.” 

It’s a trade-off Dampier was happy to make. The Colonels won 68 games during the 1971-72 season and a championship in 1975. “When we finally got Dan and Artis, even though my 3-pointers went down, I got more open ones because throw the ball into them and they got all of the attention, and they’d throw it back out and I’d be open for a 3,” Dampier said. The numbers back that up. He led the ABA by hitting 38.7 percent of his attempts during the 1973-74 season, and topped that at 39.6 percent during the championship campaign. 

But the knowledge available today would dictate that Dampier’s shooting could only help further Kentucky’s cause. The ancillary benefits of shooting, especially on clearing space for big men, were not yet known. Nor was the math behind the 3-pointer’s extra efficiency. Dampier had no forebears or analytics experts convincing him to shoot. He fired away because it was the best way he could find to put points on the board, inadvertently setting the template for the modern gunning point guard. 

That modernity is something Dampier shies away from. “I’m amazed at the range those guys have,” he says. “And it would be something that I would really have work on to be able to shoot from that far out.” Issel, respectfully, disagrees. The game may have changed, but that gorgeous jumper was timeless. “The second time that I coached the Nuggets, I talked Louie into coming to Denver and being one of my assistant coaches.” Issel explained. “I would tell people, ‘You know who the best shooter in the gym is?’ And they’d said ‘Nick Van Exel’ or ‘George McCloud,’ and I’d say, ‘No, it’s that 55-year-old that’s standing over there.’ He can shoot as well today as he did at 25.”

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