Cullowhee, N.C. – Forty years ago, to the day – November 29, 1980 – Western Carolina’s Ronnie Carr helped to revolutionize the game of college basketball as he received a pass, calmly drifted back on the left-wing, and sank a 23-foot jump shot that awarded him and the Catamounts three-points on one made bucket.
It was the birth of the 3-pointer in the college game.
The historic shot, though, did not take place among the hallowed halls of Cameron Indoor or Phog Allen Fieldhouse; the ball didn’t strip the nets in the Dean Dome or Assembly Hall. No, it was in the humble – yet packed – Reid Gymnasium in the mountains of Western North Carolina; it was in Cullowhee that the 3-point shot in college basketball was born and it was WCU’s Ronnie Carr who sank the first one.
SETTING-UP THE SHOT:
Steve White, former sports information director and WCU’s resident historian because, quite frankly, he’s just about seen it all through the years, recalls the 1980-81 season. How the Catamounts opened the year with a huge road win at Georgia Tech in Atlanta – the program’s first over an ACC opponent.
“We hustled back to Cullowhee for our home opener less than 20 hours after the Georgia Tech win, hosting Middle Tennessee State,” recalled White. “That game was one of two that evening in which the experimental 3-point shot rule would be used as both the Southern Conference and Ohio Valley Conference – MTSU’s league – would use for their conference games and non-conference home games.”
Now what you must understand is that White is a showman; he has great panache, a flair for helping stoke the publicity machine’s flames. From one of the creators of the “Battle for the Old Mountain Jug” rivalry game with Appalachian State, White – a WCU Hall of Famer – lobbied to move the tipoff time ahead by 30 minutes as Chattanooga, also a member of the SoCon, was playing that same night with the 3-point rule in effect.
Sensing the potential for the publicity value of being the site of the first-ever 3-pointer in NCAA basketball history, Catamount head coach Steve Cottrell agreed to game time alteration.
“With everyone involved in agreement to the time change, we mildly played in the 3-point angle in our pregame publicity,” White recalled.
According to White, the game attracted a near-capacity crowd in old Reid Gymnasium – which would later be called “historic Reid Gym” after the night’s festivities. The excitement surrounding Catamount basketball was swelling – after all, the team entered the year following a third-place finish the year before and were the preseason favorites to win the SoCon. Add in the fuel from the upset of the Yellow Jackets the day before, and Cullowhee was abuzz ahead of the meeting with the Blue Raiders.
“After a couple of misses from the 22-foot, 3-point arc in the opening three minutes, the iconic show was made with 16:09 to play in the first half – and at 7:06 pm,” White remembered vividly. “Ronnie Carr caught an inbounds pass from Kevin Young under the WCU basketball, squared from 23 feet away and canned the shot to etch his name in college basketball history.”
DO YOU REMEMBER…? NOV. 29, 1980
Much like White, Carr likewise remembers that fateful November day – and much of the pomp-and-circumstance that surrounded the first-ever 3-point shot in college basketball.
“I remember us not being as brief as we should have been, but we were aware of the significance,” Carr laughed when recalling how the game was stopped following the shot for photo ops. “My focus was not necessarily on the shot; my emphasis was on the game because Middle Tennessee at that time, they were supposed to be a very good team. And even though they weren’t in our conference, we wanted to win that game; I wanted to help my team win that game.”
White recalls, too, that much like Carr, WCU head coach Steve Cottrell wasn’t thrilled with the pause in the game for the capturing of posterity at mid-court while the game was tied early on. Of course, above it all, the icing on the proverbial historic cake that night was that WCU broke away from a halftime tie to win the game over Middle Tennessee, 77-70, capping the historic night.
“There were a lot of things involved in that shot; people who were responsible for making that shot happen,” Carr recalls. “People like Steve White and Coach (Steve) Cottrell and his staff; my teammates at Western Carolina. They all made it possible for that shot to be made. I’m appreciative of them; I’m appreciative of the fact that I was the one who took the shot. I’m just so appreciative that I had the opportunity to make the shot, but the shot was only a part of my game.”
The film – now video – of Carr’s shot and the actual game ball that swished the net on Nov. 29, 1980 is still on display at the National Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
“I think that it is safe to say that few – if any – in attendance that evening would have predicted that the 3-point field goal would have the impact that it has on the college basketball game,” said White.
“I had no indication at that time what (the shot) would do for the game of college basketball,” he said. “I had no idea that it would help revolutionize the game; I had no idea of the potential revenue that it could bring to the game, the significance of what it meant to the game of basketball.”
As a footnote to the story, as a team collectively, WCU led the SoCon in 3-pointers made during the four-year NCAA/SoCon experiment, making 182-of-450 (.404) treys during that timeframe.
MORE THAN JUST A 3-POINTER
Each year – 2020 notwithstanding – nostalgia hits around late November surrounding the anniversary of the historic 3-point shot. Interview requests flood in as everyone wants to chat with the man that hit that first 3-point basket.
Dr. Ronnie Carr, who was inducted into the WCU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1999, will always be known as the man who hit the first 3-pointer in intercollegiate basketball history, doing so in WCU’s Reid Gymnasium. But that one shot does not embody the player he was and the man that he is today.
Carr wasn’t a one-dimensional player. It’s been written that he prided himself on possessing a well-rounded game to not only help his team at WCU, but to hopefully catch the eye of professional scouts and to help fulfill the dream of playing beyond college.
Carr concluded his playing career in Cullowhee with 1,455 points over 81 career games. He continues to rank 16th in the school’s career record books for points scored while his 18.0 points per game average holds eighth in the school’s ledgers. He made 648 career field goals, 4th in school history.
A SoCon All-Freshman selection in 1979-80, Carr only attempted 39 3-pointers during his sophomore season in 1980-81, making 15 total, earning first-team All-Southern Conference honors. The following year, he made eight of 11 3-point attempts and still managed to lead the SoCon in scoring, again collecting first-team all-league plaudits.
Poised for his senior year in 1982-83, Carr was to headline a strong Catamount basketball squad as a critical cog in three-consecutive winning teams from 1980-82. However, after representing both WCU and the NCAA in a basketball clinic at North Carolina, Carr was involved in a severe automobile accident. His body was broken – broken collarbone, two broken arms, broken ribs and punctured lungs, two broken legs, fractures in both ankles and wrist, and necessitated lung and heart surgeries.
Carr fought – and continues to fight – to recover from the injuries he sustained. Grateful to be alive, Carr returned to WCU for his senior year and served as a student assistant coach for Cottrell. Many, including his coaches and White, believed that Carr would have been among the top picks in the NBA draft and would have been an asset to a professional team.
Despite his injuries, Carr was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in the 10th round of the 1983 NBA Draft, though he was never able to play professionally. Also in 1983, Carr received the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) Most Courageous Award which “annually recognizes a player, coach, official or administrator who demonstrated extraordinary courage reflecting honor on the sport of amateur basketball.”
On this, the 40th anniversary in 2020, we recap that fateful night – and the extraordinary individual who made history, Dr. Ronnie Carr.
From WRAL’s “Tar Heel Traveler” back in 2017: