Unlike the event that signaled the start of the American Revolution, one particular shot fired in Cullowhee was not heard around the world, but it would start a revolution in the world of college basketball.
Western Carolina University was forever etched into college basketball’s record book on Nov. 29, 1980, when the Catamounts’ Ronnie Carr ME ’07 made a 23-foot shot for the first 3-point field goal in college basketball history. The scenario for the celebrated event was a combination of timing, cooperation, strategy and a talented player.
First, a short history lesson on the origins of the 3-point field goal. The first recorded use of the shot was in a 1945 exhibition game in New York City between Fordham and Columbia where baskets made from beyond 21 feet were awarded three points. The short-lived American Basketball League and American Basketball Association employed the 3-pointer in the 1960s and 1970s from distances up to 25 feet to create interest and excitement. The National Basketball League adopted the shot in 1979 from a 23-foot-nine-inch arc that narrowed to 22 feet at the corners.
Prior to the 1980-81 basketball season, the NCAA basketball rules committee approved the Southern Conference’s use of the 3-point field goal on an experimental basis from a uniform 22-foot arc to find out if the shot deserved a place in the college game. It would be used in all conference games, plus games in which non-conference opponents agreed to participate in the experiment.
WCU had opened that season with a win over Georgia Tech in Atlanta – the school’s only victory over an ACC opponent to date – and hosted Middle Tennessee of the Ohio Valley Conference the following evening in Reid Gymnasium. MTSU agreed to the experimental rule and to a request for a change in game time from 7:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. That move would enhance a WCU player’s chance for a place in college basketball history as fellow SoCon member Chattanooga was hosting Maryville at 7:30 p.m.
WCU had several players who could legitimately make a shot from beyond 22 feet but, ironically, it was a Catamount wearing the No. 22 who made the first one. In the opening five minutes of the game, Larry Caldwell and Greg Dennis ’82
MS ’84 missed from behind the arc. With 16:11 showing on the first half clock, the Catamount wearing No. 22 – Carr, a 6-foot-3 sophomore – took an inbounds pass from Caldwell on the right wing and three seconds later (7:06 p.m.) released a shot that barely moved the net on the east end of Reid Gym for his place in history.
“There was no plan for me to take or make the first 3-pointer on that inbounds play. I probably would have passed the ball to Trim (Kenny Trimier) if he had been open, but I was left wide open and took, what was for me, a routine jump shot. I never looked for or saw the line,” Carr said. “I’m just blessed to be a part of something that changed college basketball so much and the opportunities that moment created for me.”
The ball Carr launched for the initial 3-pointer, along with his jersey and a video of the shot, were placed in a display at the National Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. Sports Illustrated and virtually every major sports news service chronicled the event.
Steve Cottrell, WCU’s head basketball coach during Carr’s career, says he had “no idea” in 1980 that the 3-pointer would impact college basketball like it has. “Unlike many of my fellow coaches, I liked the 3-point shot, but it was not a part of our strategy then and I never dreamed it would be as much a part of the game that it is today,” Cottrell said.
The 3-pointer, from 19 feet, 9 inches, was fully adopted by the NCAA in 1986 and revised to 20 feet, 9 inches in 2007. The shot’s impact on the college game can be found in the numbers – in that first season, SoCon teams averaged shooting less than 100 threes compared to last season’s average of more than 700 trey attempts per team.
Carr led the conference in scoring as a junior (19 points per game), was a back-to-back all-conference player and was the league’s preseason player of the year heading into his senior season. In addition, he was projected as an early round NBA draft selection. However, his basketball playing career came to an end – and nearly his life – in an automobile accident during the summer of 1982 while he was working at Dean Smith’s basketball camp in Chapel Hill. He suffered multiple orthopedic and internal injuries that included a torn heart valve that had to be replaced with an artificial device. The Atlanta Hawks still drafted him, but the possibility of cardiovascular complications kept him from pursuing his lifelong dream.
Carr’s iconic shot occurred 34 years ago. An overused sports cliché is “records are made to be broken,” but Carr and Western Carolina University actually own one that can never be broken.