A cruel twist of fate ended Ronnie Carr's career prematurely, but it couldn't prevent him from earning a place in basketball history.
The Western Carolina guard already had achieved that much with one flick of the wrist.
Carr made the first 3-point shot in modern college basketball history on Nov. 29, 1980, when he connected from the left corner in a 77-70 victory over Middle Tennessee State.
Although most of the nation didn't adopt the 3-point shot until the 1986-87 season, the Southern Conference began using it in the 1980-81 season. That league's 3-point line was 22 feet away – a much tougher shot than the current NCAA distance of 19 feet, 9 inches – but it remained well within Carr's range.
"I was accustomed to shooting that distance," Carr said. "It was just a matter of them putting that line on the floor."
Carr might not have made it into the record books without some creative scheduling by Western Carolina.
Former Western Carolina sports information director Steve White helped persuade school officials to tip off that night's game a half-hour earlier than normal to give Western Carolina players a head-start in the race to make the first 3-point shot.
"We knew we had a great 3-point shooter, so we decided to start the game (earlier) just to get a jump on everybody else," White said. "We weren't assuming that Ronnie Carr would make the first one, but we felt that would give them a little one-upmanship."
After Carr hit his shot with 16:09 remaining in the first half, White wrote down the time and started calling other schools to make sure nobody had made a 3-pointer earlier in the evening. He informed Carr at halftime that he had made college basketball's first 3-point shot.
"I'm not sure we realized it was history in the making when he took that shot," former Western Carolina coach Steve Cottrell said. "We'd have shot it after the (opening) jump ball if we'd known that."
Western Carolina sent the game ball to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. White also brought Carr to midcourt at halftime to pose for a picture while holding the ball.
"Coach wasn't really happy with that because it was a tie ballgame," White said. "He was more interested in winning the game. But he got over it."
Carr's big shot earned him least a footnote in basketball lore, but he believes he could have done much more.
The following chart indicates the first year each of the major conferences adopted a 3-point line. The chart also shows which players led their conferences in 3-point baskets during that inaugural season. The number of 3-pointers each leader made is in parentheses:
Terry Gannon (53*)
Billy Donovan (97)
Tim McCallister (87)
Steve Carfino (18*)
Reggie Miller (69)
Anthony Wilson (95)
Mark Buchanan (55)
*-The ACC and Big Ten used the 3-point line only in conference games while experimenting with the rule during the 1982-83 season.
Although he enjoys being recognized as college basketball's first 3-point shooter, Carr points out that he wasn't a one-dimensional player. Carr shot 46 percent from 3-point range in his two seasons under the rule, but he took a total of only 50 attempts from beyond the arc. Carr prided himself on a well-rounded game that allowed him to earn first-team all-conference honors twice. Carr led the conference with 19 points per game as a junior.
"I wanted to really diversify my game to the point where I could be more effective in preparing for the NBA as well as helping my team at that time," Carr said.
Carr's NBA dreams ended the summer before his senior year.
He was participating in a University of North Carolina basketball camp that week and had just returned from a cookout when he took a wrong turn and got lost. As he attempted to redirect himself, Carr said he was hit by a police car that was chasing another vehicle.
"A flash of light came into my car," Carr said. "The next thing I knew, I was in the hospital."
The wreck left Carr with a broken collarbone, two broken arms, broken ribs, punctured lungs, two broken legs, a fractured ankle and a fractured wrist. The impact of the wreck also forced him to undergo open-heart surgery to replace a damaged mitral valve.
Carr said he stayed in the hospital for 6½ weeks and lost at least 40 pounds after the wreck. It effectively ended his basketball career. The Atlanta Hawks selected Carr in the 10th round of the 1983 NBA Draft, but he never played again.
"I was certainly grateful and thankful to be alive," Carr said. "But I also had some regrets about not being able to play professionally. I certainly feel I could have been a great professional player."
He isn't alone in that assessment.
Cottrell also believed Carr's marksmanship could have earned him a spot on an NBA roster. White, who worked as Western Carolina's sports information director for nearly three decades, said he's never seen a player with such a fluid jump shot.
"He would have been a first- or second-round type of draft choice because of the unbelievable ability he had to shoot that jump shot," Cottrell said. "He was special. He's a special man today."
THE GENESIS OF THE 3-POINT SHOT
Western Carolina's Ronnie Carr was the first player to make a 3-pointer after conferences started experimenting with the long-range shot in the 1980s.
But according to NCAA records, the first 3-point shot in college basketball history actually came 35 years earlier.
Columbia beat Fordham 73-58 in a game on Feb. 7, 1945, that featured a 3-point line 21 feet away from the basket. Columbia made 11 long-range shots, and Fordham made nine.
Although there are no records to indicate who made the first 3-point shot that day, Columbia's John Profant made four 3-pointers and Columbia's Norman Skinner sank three shots from beyond the arc.
That game marked the only time college basketball would use a 3-point line until the Southern Conference experimented with it during the entire 1980 season. And it wasn't the only rule change Columbia and Fordham employed specifically for that one game.
Anyone attempting a free throw had the option of shooting from the regular 15-foot distance for one point or from 21 feet away for two points. The foul lane also was widened from 6 feet to 12 feet in a move the NCAA made permanent 11 years later.
"The most interesting thing about it was they polled the crowd about the different things they implemented," Ivy League associate director Brett Hoover said. "They were overwhelmingly in favor of the 3-pointer and in favor of all of (the changes)."
— Steve Megargee
Carr, now 46, works as an administrator in Western Carolina's admissions and financial aid office. Even though his basketball career ended more than a quarter-century ago, Carr still is interviewed several times per year about his famous shot.
And he continues to have plenty of opinions about how the 3-point line has impacted the game he loves.
He approves of the NCAA's recommendation to push the 3-point line back a foot, which would make it 20 feet, 9 inches away from the basket. Carr believes the current distance of 19-9 makes the shot too easy.
"To make it really special, it needs to be at a point where you really have to have some focus and preparation to make the shot," Carr said.
Carr also disputes the notion of basketball purists that the 3-point shot has ruined the sport. Carr instead praises the 3-point rule for adding excitement to the game and creating a niche for pure shooters who otherwise wouldn't have possessed the athleticism to play at a high level.
"Now you have guys who get paid massive amounts of money and their primary role on a team is just to shoot 3-pointers or that long-range jumper," Carr said. "I certainly believe it's helped the game. It's done more to provide opportunities for people to go to college and play professionally."