There’s hardly a more exciting play in basketball.
A player is pounding the ball up and down with eyes darting left and right, deciding a point of attack. The player feints with one hand, and leans that way, so the defender follows. The ball flicks the other way, and the hapless defender slips, or in an even more embarrassing outcome, falls. The crowd oohs and aahs.
Few basketball skills require more consistent creativity than ball-handling. The opportunities for flashy dunks and showy passes come and go. But innovative ball-handling is a constant need, particularly in the NBA, where athletic defenders are primed to close off every point of attack.
This year’s NBA postseason has featured some of the best dribblers in basketball history, including Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry. Curry creates space for deep 3-pointers while defenders swarm him. Harden baits defenders into fouling him all over the court. Irving is a wizard at misdirections and spin moves to get to the rim. Paul operates the ball like it is on a string. All four can get by defenders with ease.
The New York Times asked three generational dribblers to discuss ball-handling: God Shammgod, Tim Hardaway and Oscar Robertson.
Shammgod, an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks, had a brief NBA career, but his dribbling became a thing of lore on New York City’s outdoor courts. His signature move – the Shammgod crossover, in which he pushes the ball forward with one hand and then pulls it across with the other – influenced a generation of players.
Hardaway, who played in the NBA from 1989 to 2003, was one of the league’s best point guards. His notable move was a double crossover called the UTEP Two Step, nodding to the college he played for, the University of Texas at El Paso.
Robertson, a Hall of Famer and the first player to average a triple-double for an entire NBA season, was an early purveyor of the crossover dribble in the 1960s.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What makes for a great ballhandler?
SHAMMGOD Most of all imagination. Just learning how to manipulate the ball and manipulate angles. To be an elite dribbler, I would say you have to know how to use your body, use your footwork. Because dribbling is all footwork.
HARDAWAY Not turning the ball over. Being under control. Knowing when to take your man and how to set your man up.
ROBERTSON Experience and time. I started playing when I was young. I was a guard. I started hammering the ball, dribbling and making a lot of mistakes. And then, literally, you get involved and you learn different players, and what they’re trying to do to you. And you have the confidence in going inside at just anyone.
Shooting is a skill that has evolved over time. Centers are now launching 3-pointers. How has the approach to ball-handling changed?
SHAMMGOD It’s changed a lot by hiring different coaches to help. I like to say there’s a difference between teaching somebody moves and teaching somebody how to dribble. Most people, when they come and they work with somebody, they want to learn moves. They want to learn the Tim Hardaway UTEP Two Step. They want to learn the Shammgod crossover or [Allen] Iverson crossover. But to me, that’s really not dribbling. That’s learning how to do moves.
HARDAWAY You know, back when we were playing, there weren’t that many cameras. There wasn’t social media. So now they catch every little tidbit from each angle so it can be five different angles where you see a guy shaking his man and getting to the hole or crossing somebody over and getting to the hole. Five different angles where you see the guy slip or fall.
ROBERTSON Guys who can handle and dribble the ball are the most successful athletes. If you can’t dribble the ball around anybody, you’re not going to do very well in basketball.
How did you develop your crossover?
SHAMMGOD Growing up, I used to just look at every dribble move I could imagine. And then I would go practice it in slow motion. I would have two-pound ankle weights on my wrist.
I would dribble in slow motion. I would watch film in slow motion so I could watch the point guard’s footwork or how they do a move. And then the biggest thing for me is when I used to take the weights off my wrist, it’s just like when you punch with wrist weights off. You take them off your hands, they’re flying everywhere.
HARDAWAY I’m from Chicago. My parents’ basement wasn’t finished, and so I used to go down there when it was cold outside. I just used to go downstairs and just dribble and just work on my game. Dribbling, pretending the man was in front of me. In and out moves between my legs, crossovers behind my back – I used to just spend hours downstairs at a time. Just dribble, dribble, dribble.
ROBERTSON Just watching guys that I played with in Indianapolis, a place called the dust bowl, which was outside. It was on concrete, but they called it the dust bowl. And there were some really great basketball players. It’s almost unbelievable. I’m sure they have these players in all parts of the country who played great outdoors but didn’t do very well when they went inside.
Who are your favorite ballhandlers?
SHAMMGOD Of course, the ones that easily come to mind: Kyrie. Steph. James Harden, Chris Paul.
HARDAWAY I grew up watching a great person named Isiah Thomas, great ballhandler. It moved on to myself. And then, it moved to Rod Strickland. Oh, man, Rod Strickland had crazy handles that nobody even recognizes anymore. And then, you know, you had guys that were coming up after us. Shammgod. And he’s out of New York. Derrick Rose had some nice handles out of Chicago. Then you look at these guys. Chris Paul, you know, at 37, still doing what he’s doing with the ball is amazing. Of course, Kyrie. Steph Curry, [Ja] Morant. James Harden.
ROBERTSON I think Curry is very adept at handling the basketball. And also Ja Morant.
They understand what the defense is trying to do to them. When you’re going out there, you’ve got to control your speed. To a certain extent, you can’t go 100 miles an hour because you don’t want to run into anybody. So these guys go in, they’re watching the defense.
What’s your most memorable crossover in a game?
SHAMMGOD The game against Rutgers University. It was against Geoff Billet at Madison Square Garden at the  Big East tournament. It was on the right side of the court. That was when I first did the move. I threw it out to go to the basket and he tried to run to steal the ball. And the only thing I could do is pull it back on my left hand.
HARDAWAY It’s a crazy story. I’m driving, and my son said: “Dad, I know you don’t like talking in the car while you drive to the game. But I want to ask you. Everyone is talking about the crossover. What is a crossover? ”
I said, “Boy, you’ve never seen me do the crossover?” He said, “No!” I said: “OK, I see it, but you can’t go nowhere. You’ve got to stay in your seat. ” Because he liked to roam and walk around. Go back to the play room, play PlayStation and all this and all that. I say: “You’ve got to stay in your seat for the whole game. At halftime, you go use the bathroom. Other than that, you’ve got to stay in your seat the whole game because I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but I guarantee you it’s going to happen. ”
And sure enough, like the second play of the game against the New York Knicks, Game 7 [of the 1997 Eastern Conference semifinals]. I came down and I said, “I’m going to point to you.” And I did a crossover, laid it up and I pointed to him. I could see him jumping up and down, point blank, being like: “Yeah, OK, I see it. I understand. ” So that was one of those memorable moments when you would talk to your son and then show him in action what was the crossover and how you do it.
ROBERTSON I didn’t think about it, to be honest.
To what extent is ball-handling an art?
SHAMMGOD I think it’s art to the fullest extent. It’s crazy, because right now, even if you say my name to a dictionary, it won’t bring me up. It will bring up a move and it will bring up the way the move is done.
HARDAWAY Man, it’s like rhythm. It’s like dancing. Isiah used to do it. Nate Archibald used to do it. I used to do it. Dribbling a ball is like dancing and keeping up with the beat of a song. And if you watch Kyrie, that’s how he dribbles. If you watch Rod Strickland, that’s how he dribbles.
You watch Kemba Walker and if you watch Steph Curry, it’s like dribbling to a beat of a song. When you see those basketball commercials and they’re bouncing a ball, it is like going to the beat of the song. That’s how it is. And it’s just gracefully just moving with the basketball and really having that confidence that nobody can guard you. Nobody can stick you, and you get around them and you look at them in their eyeballs, and you will see that fear in their eyes, “Damn, I’m in trouble.” That’s the art of dribbling right there.
ROBERTSON I just think you either have it or you don’t.
Source photographs: Focus on Sport/Getty Images; Joe Murphy/NBAE, via Getty Images; Dale Tait/NBAE, via Getty Images; Jeff Chiu/Associated Press; Cary Edmondson/USA Today Sports, via Reuters; Daniel Dunn/USA Today Sports, via Reuters; Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports, via Reuters