Most innovations in sport are rarely an invention, so much as they are a development or a refinement of an existing method or accepted procedure. The introduction of the one-handed jump shot to the game of basketball by Joe Fulks is a prominent example of a successful sporting refinement that altered the game forever.
Joe Fulks was raised in the state of Kentucky, which has long possessed a deep passion and enthusiasm for the sport of basketball. Kentucky high school basketball in the late 1930s and early 1940s had its own following and media coverage, as it does today. Joe Fulks was recognized as an All-State player in 1940, his senior year at high school. In that era, talented players tended to remain within their own state to attend university, and it was believed that Fulks, known as "Jumping Joe" for his ability to quickly elevate his 6 ft 5 in (193 cm) frame to secure rebounds, would attend the University of Kentucky to play for its legendary coach, Adolph Rupp. Fulks instead enrolled at the smaller and less prestigious Murray State University, where he played to considerable acclaim from 1941–1943. In 1943, Fulks entered the United States Marine Corps where he served for the duration of World War II.
Professional basketball was not a well-established sport at the beginning of the post war period. College basketball, with its well-established rivalries and alumni support, remained the pre-eminent form of American basketball on a national scale. A number of professional leagues had attempted to establish a presence in the eastern United States, the most notable of which was the Basketball Association of America (BAA). On his return from military service, Fulks was a much sought-after professional basketball commodity. He ultimately signed with the Philadelphia Warriors of the BAA in 1946.
The style of play in the BAA in the years that followed bears little resemblance to the up-tempo, highly athletic version of basketball played both in the modern National Basketball Association or at an international level. Professional basketball did not utilize a 24 second shot clock until 1954, which meant that the game pace could often be slowed as a tactical device by an opponent. Shots taken at the basket were either a layup or a two-handed set shot, with the player's feet on the floor at the time the ball was delivered. Conventional basketball wisdom in that period emphasized team play and passing; scores rarely reached 70 points for one team.
It is in that competitive context that the achievements of Joe Fulks can be fully appreciated. Fulks began to experiment with an unconventional shooting technique, where he controlled the ball with one hand, using the other hand as a guide or support for the ball as he prepared to shoot it towards the basket. Fulks executed the one-handed shot through a seamless delivery that began with a jump made from a stable position, with both feet at approximately shoulder width apart. As the body moved upwards, Fulks extended his entire body, with the ball delivered to the basket at the top of the player's jump. It is unclear whether Fulks invented the now-standard jump shot, but there is no question that he popularized it.
The advantages of the jump shot were soon obvious to Fulks's BAA rivals. Fulks could bring his body closer to the basket at the time of the delivery of the shot, improving the chances of the shot being successful. The jumping motion permitted Fulks to rise above his defenders to better avoid a potential blocked shot. The continuous motion that Fulks developed as a part of his shooting mechanics provided Fulks with a rhythm that assisted him in the coordination of the entire shooting movement.
Armed with his jump shot, Fulks became the leading scorer in the BAA in both 1948 and 1949. When the BAA was absorbed into the NBA, Fulks continued his scoring prowess, averaging over 20 points per game in his professional career; his single game-scoring record was 63 points in 1949. Fulks was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1978. He was the victim of homicide in 1976.