The Shot Doctor

by February 23, 2014

by Yaron Weitzman

There were barely any pleasantries exchanged. As soon as Elton Brand pulled up to the house, before he could register how confused he was by the older white guy walking off the very ordinary blacktop-turned-court and up the driveway to greet him, Brand was handed a ball and put to work.

He had made the trip to upstate New York because David Roach had told him to. Roach was an AAU teammate of Brand’s and the best shooter that the then-Peekskill (NY) High School basketball star knew. He had told Brand that his shot had been honed by spending hours upon hours on this very driveway under the tutelage of the Shot Doctor. That was all Brand needed to hear. 

Before he was leading Duke, and before he was the first overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft, and before he was an NBA All Star, Elton Brand was a student of the Shot Doctor’s. To this day, he still uses a shot that he learned from him: off the backboard, from just a few feet deep and straight on. It was a type of shot that Brand says no one else had ever taught him. It was also one that Brand learned on a court and from a man unlike any other. 

* * *

There are boys and girls, stars and ordinary players, kids of all shapes and sizes and colors. Most are in high school and some are younger and some are already in college. Many have gone on to play professional basketball and one has become an NBA star. Some pay 50 dollars for two hours; some don’t pay at all. They have all sought out the now 73-year-old John Goldman because he is the “Shot Doctor”—he has the T-shirts, business cards and old newspaper clippings conferring him as such—and because they want to learn how to shoot better. And so they make the trek up to Chappaqua, NY—a wealthy Westchester County suburb about 45 minutes north of Manhattan that is home to, among others, Hillary and Bill—and to Goldman’s quaint white colonial, as many times a week and for as many years as they want, in order to do just that. 

At the beginning, they’re often asked where they missed. The question is posed to them in a blistering New York accent, one honed during a childhood of playing ball for hours at a time on the courts found at 76th Street and Riverside Drive, and one that makes the 5-foot-7 Goldman seem much larger than he actually is. No matter how good the players are there are always misses at first. Goldman does things differently than everyone else and teaches shooting differently than everyone else and so there’s always an adjustment period. 

“The first time I showed up, he gave me a ball and asked me to dribble,” says Matt Townsend, a chiseled 6-foot-7 sophomore forward from Yale who’s been working with Goldman for nearly seven years now. “He then said, ‘Your dribble sucks,’ and put me to work. He jokes now that when I first came to him the only thing I had was a decent righty layup.”

To Goldman, footwork is the key—not the shape of a shooter’s elbow—and in order to improve footwork you must first learn how to dribble through the cones. There are 10 of them set up on the driveway, far enough apart so that the feet of Goldman’s biggest players can fit between them along with the ball being dribbled. But not by much.

Every jump shot must be preceded with a trip through this tight maze. Dribble—and the last one should always be a hard dribble—shoot, rebound, repeat. Over and over and over again. There are no exceptions. Everyone must dribble. Everyone must shoot. If you miss, you’re asked a simple question: Where?

One time a kid—a younger one, about 12-years-old—decided that the cones weren’t for him. He just wanted to shoot and after all, he hadn’t come to the “Shot Doctor” to learn how to dribble. “Do that again and I’ll kick your ball down the hill,” Goldman said to him. Everyone laughed. The kid, however, figured that the old man was joking. He skipped the cones again. A few seconds later he was chasing his ball down the grassy hill that border’s Goldman’s court.

“I’ve never worked with any coach who focused on the feet like he does,” says Sofia Roman, a freshman point guard from Dartmouth. “The first time I showed up here [at Goldman’s house] I was a little thrown off by the whole thing. But now I’m always thinking about my feet and footwork and my shooting—especially off the dribble—has gotten so much better.”

Roman started working with Goldman at the behest of her coach at Dartmouth, Belle Koclanes. Koclanes is a former pupil of Goldman’s and credits him with helping her earn a basketball scholarship to the University of Richmond nearly 15 years ago. This, despite the fact that she is just 5-feet tall. With “G’s”—they all call him “G”—help, Koclanes says, she was able to learn how to dribble around players and shoot over them. At Richmond, she says, she used to line up her own set of cones to practice with.

One day, according to Koclanes, the coach of Richmond’s men’s basketball team was walking through the gym and found himself completely enamored with what Koclanes was doing. He asked her about it, told her he had never seen anything like that before and that he the loved the idea. The coach’s name was John Beilein, the current head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.

* * *

School never came easy to Goldman—“I think I’m an undiagnosed dyslexic,” he says—but what always did were sports. They allowed him to be a person who excelled, and also to meet all sorts of different people.

As a kid at Camp Onibar—a Catskills-style summer destination in Lake Como, Pennsylvania—Goldman’s prowess on the court led to a friendship between he and an older counselor, Garry, who also had a passion for the game. 30 years later, when Goldman moved out to LA to work in the film-distribution department of Warner Communications—which was co-founded by his father-in-law, Morton Rosenthal—he would travel to Garry’s Burbank home every Saturday morning for a pick-up game. Sometimes Ron Howard would be there. Scott Baio and Mitch Kuptchack and Meadowlark Lemon, too. Being that this was Garry Marshall’s house, you never knew who would show up. “Elliot (Gould) and Barbara (Streisand) would also come sometimes,” says Marshall. “All our kids would play together.

Goldman and Gould had actually previously met, one morning at the Luncheonette in the Beverly Hills, and it didn’t take long for the two Jewish, basketball-loving New Yorkers to hit it off. “We spoke the same language,” says Gould, who at one point hired Goldman to be his manager. “John’s phone number is one of the few I know by heart.”

In 1978, Goldman and his family moved back to New York and settled in Chappaqua. There, he began to host pick-up basketball games for the local kids. Eventually, he realized that he possessed an understanding of basketball’s intricacies that others did not, and that he had a desire to try to pass this understanding along. 

“I was always good at math,” Goldman says. “Especially geometry. To me, that’s pretty much what shooting is—breaking down everything into different step.”

“He’s very knowledgeable about the art of shooting,” says Bob Cimmino, “but the thing about him is that I’ve never seen anyone get so many reps out of his players.”

Cimmino is the longtime coach of Mount Vernon High School, one of the top high school basketball programs in the country. Around 10 years ago he heard about the Shot Doctor and decided to bring him into the Mount Vernon gym. Goldman laid out his cones and the players dribbled through them and shot. Eventually, the Shot Doctor’s arduous routine became something they craved.

As time went on, they would start to ask Cimmino when “The Doc” was coming in next. Some of Mount Vernon’s younger kids wanted to know when they would get a chance to work with him. One player, Jabarie Hinds, a college guard who last year transferred from West Virginia to the University of Massachusetts, became addicted to the drills. Hinds still works out with Goldman and checks in with him over the phone. The very first thing he’s always asked is: “How’s your shot?”

“He wasn’t looking for money,” Cimmino says. “He wasn’t looking to jumpstart a college career or to take players anywhere with him. All he was looking for were young folks to teach.”

“He just loves to give people support,” says Goldman’s son Bruce. “Especially kids. He just always wants kids to be given the opportunity to realize their potential.”

And so he searches for them and brings them onto his court. Years ago, John Goldman found solace in the game of basketball and since then it has been at the center of his life, taken him to every corner of American society and given him with so much more: love, happiness, friends, memories. All he wants now is for others to have the same doors opened for them. And for the Shot Doctor that means recognizing a simple thing like where you missed.

A version of this article originally appeared in Tablet Magazine