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The Two-handed Bowl and other Revolutionary Sports Techniques

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We'll always remember the first time we saw sports' greatest stars pull off their signature tricks, like Michael Jordan dunking or Wayne Gretzky making a seemingly impossible shot. However, titans like these might not be the most important figures in their respective histories. Other innovators may have come up with techniques that irrevocably changed the way their games are played while receiving little fanfare. This weekend, professional bowling saw a bit revolution of its own when Jason Belmonte became the first two-handed bowler ever to win a Professional Bowlers Association championship. To honor this achievement, let's take a look at Belmonte's offbeat technique and those of a few other innovators who changed their sports:

1. Jason Belmonte, Bowling Radical

Unless you're epically walk-up-to-the-line-and-two-handed-roll-between-your-legs bad at bowling, your approach to the game probably resembles the techniques the pros use. You hook your thumb and ring and middle fingers in the ball, kick your back leg behind you, and send the ball on its way. The ball may end up in the gutter, but it looks like bowling. One pro, though, deviates from this formula. Jason Belmonte, a 25-year-old Australian, has a form that's all his own. For starters, he eschews using his thumb and only puts two fingers in the ball. That's not the odd part, though. The truly unique aspect of his technique is that Belmonte uses both arms to roll the ball. He makes his approach with the ball tucked back off of his right hip then slings it two-handed towards the pins. The technique is as effective as it is bizarre to watch. According a recent story in The Boston Globe, Belmonte's two-handed roll makes the ball spin at 630 rpm, whereas most pros can only get up to 400 rpm. The extra spins result in the ball hitting the pins more forcefully. The added oomph translates into higher scores. Belmonte averages a 230, and he's got 34 perfect games to his credit. If you want to see the trick in action, check out Belmonte rolling a 300:

2. Erich Windisch, Hands Down Our Favorite Ski Jumper

sp skiing1.jpgIn 1949, German ski jumper Erich Windisch was probably feeling pretty glum. He had a big tournament coming up, but he was suffering from a dislocated shoulder. The injury meant that he couldn't throw his arms out in front of him Superman-style during his jumps without agonizing pain or potentially making the shoulder worse. Stripped of his ability to achieve the conventional pose, Windisch would likely be drubbed at the tournament. Nevertheless, Windisch entered the tournament, albeit with a tweak in his form. Instead of holding his arms in front of his body for balance, he tucked them down at his sides. It looked funny, but it worked. Windisch's modified position turned out to be much more aerodynamic than the standard jumping pose, and he jumped further than the rest of the field. After this triumph, the "Windisch technique" became the dominant jumping technique until 1985.

3. Dick Fosbury, Unrepentant Flopper

sp fosbury1.jpgBefore Dick Fosbury came along, the high jump wasn't so efficient. Jumpers usually employed a straddle technique where they took to the air, then put their feet over the bar. In 1968, though, Fosbury started to generate some national buzz while jumping for the Oregon State track team. His unusual technique, dubbed "the Fosbury flop," involved a running approach before spinning and going over the bar back first. The invention was part inspiration, part necessity; using the conventional technique, Fosbury couldn't even clear a six-foot bar. While the flop looked odd to observers who were used to the straddle technique, it was undeniably effective. In 1968 Fosbury cleared 7'2 ¼" to win the NCAA championship before soaring 7'1" to win the U.S. Olympic Trials. At the Mexico City Olympics later that summer, Fosbury cleared 2.24 meters to take the gold, and the world got its first look at the new technique. Now nearly every high jumper uses the Fosbury flop. Interestingly, Fosbury may not have been the first to employ the flop that bears his name. According to the International Olympic Committee, a Montana high jumper named Bruce Quande was clearing bars using a flop in photographs that date back to 1963. It was Fosbury, though, who won the Olympic gold and popularized the technique throughout the world.

4. Parry O'Brien, Nice Shot

sp shot .jpgMost of us would probably be happy just to throw a 16-pound ball without pulling a muscle. Former football player Parry O'Brien was a bit more ambitious, though. After quitting the USC football team following a vicious kick to the gut, O'Brien took up the shotput. The dominant technique of the time, which involved rearing back on one leg then lunging forward as you threw the ball, seemed inefficient to O'Brien. Using a little bit of his knowledge of physics, he started dabbling with a new strategy in which he started his throw facing the back of the circle, then spun forward as he launched the shot. The spin gave the toss some extra momentum, and the results were incredible. He set an Olympic record at the 1952 Helsinki Games with a 57' 1 ¼" toss en route to winning a gold, then defended his medal in 1956 and added a silver in 1960. At one point, the spinning throw put O'Brien on a 116-competition winning streak and helped him break the world record 16 times. Now, the "O'Brien glide" is one of the two dominant shotput throwing techniques.

5. Pete Gogolak, Placekicking Revolutionary

sp GogolakLamonica.jpgWatching old football tapes can be a little disorienting. The game is fundamentally similar, but the details aren't quite the same. Take placekicking. Before Pete Gogolak came along, kickers stood directly behind the holder, ran straight up to the ball, and booted it with their toes. Gogolak, a Hungarian immigrant, came up with a new technique while in high school in Ogdensburg, New York. He stood off to one side of the ball when he lined up, then took an angled approach and struck the ball with his instep. At first, he had trouble elevating the ball, but once he mastered the technique, Gogolak's "soccer style" kick was unbeatable. After a successful college career at Cornell, he took the strange kick to the AFL's Buffalo Bills, and he later became the first notable player to jump ship from the AFL to the rival NFL when he signed with the New York Giants. Gogolak still holds the Giants' career scoring record with 646 points, and today it's nearly impossible to find a kicker who doesn't use the soccer style.

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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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