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Aspiring Basketball Stars Head to Suburban Westchester, Where the ‘Shot Doctor’ Is In

John Goldman relies on geometry and practice to help players from NBA star Elton Brand to actor Elliott Gould

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Basketball coach John Goldman is pictured at his home in Chappaqua, N.Y., with Bryan Roden, an 11-year-old he is coaching, on Oct. 24, 2013. (Claudio Papapietro)
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When the basketball player Elton Brand pulled up to the house in Chappaqua, N.Y., he was put to work. There were barely any pleasantries exchanged with the older white man who came out to greet him; there was just the business at hand.

Brand made the trip to suburban Westchester County because David Roach told him to. Roach was an old AAU teammate of Brand’s and the best shooter that the former Peekskill High star knew. Roach had told Brand that his shot had been honed by spending hours upon hours on this very driveway, under the watchful eye of a man known as the Shot Doctor. That was all Brand needed to hear.

Before he was an All-American at Duke, 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. To this day, Brand—now a forward with the Atlanta Hawks—still uses a shot that he learned in Chappaqua: a bank shot, from just a few feet deep and straight on.

The Shot Doctor is John Goldman, a 5-foot-7 73 year old with no professional basketball training or background, who used his understanding of geometry to teach himself the game and, in turn, to teach it to others. For more than 30 years, he’s welcomed a steady stream of promising players like the young Brand to his house for diagnosis and treatment. 

His signature question is: “Where’d you miss?” Countless kids have heard Goldman ask it countless times. They all make the same trip to Chappaqua, about 45 minutes north of Manhattan, winding through the town’s tranquil streets to Goldman’s quaint white colonial and down the sloped driveway to the unspectacular blacktop court that, nearly every day from summer’s beginning to fall’s end, echoes with the distinct sound of basketballs bouncing on pavement.

There are boys and girls, future champions and ordinary players—kids of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Most are in high school, but some are younger and some are already in college. Many have gone on to play professional basketball and one—Brand—has become an NBA star. Some pay $50 for two hours of Goldman’s time; some don’t pay at all. They have all sought him out because they want to learn how to shoot better. And so they travel here, as many times a week and for as many years as they want, in order to do just that.

***

John Goldman and Elton Brand
Goldman with Elton Brand. (Claudio Papapietro)

School never came easy to Goldman—“I couldn’t read well,” he says—but sports always did. Basketball, which he played for hours at a time on the courts at 76th Street and Riverside Drive growing up on the Upper West Side, allowed him to be a person who excelled and to follow in the footsteps of his father, Jonah, who played shortstop for the Cleveland Indians between 1928 and 1931.

When Goldman was a kid at Camp Onibar, in the Poconos, his prowess on the court led to a friendship with a counselor who also had a passion for the game: Garry Marshall. In the 1970s, Goldman moved with his wife Jane and their children Bruce and Carolyn to Los Angeles, where Marshall had established himself as a writer and producer. Goldman was working in the film-distribution department of Warner Communications—co-founded by his father-in-law, Morton Rosenthal—and would spend Saturday mornings playing ball at Marshall’s house in Burbank. The other players included Ron Howard and Scott Baio, the stars of Marshall’s hit television show Happy Days. Basketball royalty—Mitch Kupchak of the Lakers and Meadowlark Lemon of the Harlem Globetrotters—joined in the pickup games. Sometimes other celebrities would show up as well. “Elliott and Barbra would come sometimes, too,” said Marshall—meaning Elliott Gould and Barbra Streisand, who brought their kids along to play.

Gould and Goldman actually met off Marshall’s court, over breakfast at the luncheonette in the Beverly Hills Hotel. The actor hired his friend as a talent manager for a time—”John’s number is one of the few I know by heart,” Gould said—but basketball became a defining feature of their friendship. “We spoke the same language,” Gould said. “We loved people and basketball.” Gould likes to tell the story about the time the much shorter Goldman faked him out on the court. “I literally flew right over him and landed on my ass,” Gould said. “I thought it was hilarious.”

In 1978, Goldman moved back to New York and settled in Chappaqua, where he would host pick-up basketball games for all the neighborhood kids. Eventually, he realized that he possessed an understanding of basketball’s intricacies that others did not. “I was always good at math,” Goldman said. “Especially geometry. To me, that’s pretty much what shooting is—breaking down everything into different steps.”

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 even Goldman’s biggest players can fit between them along with the ball being dribbled. 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.

“He’s very knowledgeable about the art of shooting,” said Bob Cimmino, the longtime coach of Mount Vernon High School, one of the top high-school basketball programs in the country. “But the thing about him is that I’ve never seen anyone get so many reps out of his players.”

Cimmino first heard about Goldman a decade ago and decided to bring him into the Mount Vernon gym. Goldman laid out his cones, and the players dribbled through them and shot. 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. “He wasn’t looking for money,” Cimmino said. “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.”

One of Cimmino’s players, Jabarie Hinds—a college guard who this year transferred from West Virginia to the University of Massachusetts—became addicted to the drills. Hinds still works out with Goldman and still calls him. The very first thing he’s always asked is: “How’s your shot?”

***

No matter how good the players are when they arrive, there are always misses at first, and then Goldman shoots them that question: Where’d you miss? The question is posed to them in a blistering New York accent that makes him seem taller than he is.

“The first time I showed up, he gave me a ball and asked me to dribble,” said Matt Townsend, a chiseled 6-foot-7 sophomore forward from Yale who’s been working with Goldman for six 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.”

On a sweltering day last July, Goldman had four patients dribbling and shooting in his driveway. One, Sofia Roman—a sophomore guard at Dartmouth—had a jump shot clank off the rim. Goldman reflexively threw her the question she’d heard hundreds of times in the month she’d been working with him and that she’d begun asking herself every time the ball left her fingertips but didn’t follow the trajectory she’d expected.

“To the left,” Roman replied as sweat dripped down from her forehead and onto her hands. Goldman waddled—he does this more than he walks—over to fix the placement of her right foot. The needle on the temperature clock above the garage toward the back end of the court toed 100 degrees, but Roman had no desire to take a break. She was in Chappaqua at the behest of Belle Koclanes, her coach at Dartmouth.

Koclanes is a former pupil of Goldman and credits him with helping her earn a basketball scholarship to the University of Richmond nearly 15 years ago, despite the fact that she is just 5 feet tall. Under Goldman’s tutelage, Koclanes learned how to dribble around bigger players and shoot over them. At Richmond, she used to line up her own set of cones to practice with. One time, she says, the coach of the 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 it before and that he the loved the idea. The coach’s name was John Beilein. He is now the head basketball coach at Michigan; last year, his Wolverines made it to the National Championship game.

These days, Goldman has business cards and T-shirts advertising his nickname. “He just always wants kids to be given the opportunity to realize their potential,” said Goldman’s son Bruce. Basketball offered Goldman confidence, unexpected friendships, and happiness; all he wants now is to open the same doors for the next generation of players. To the Shot Doctor, it just takes recognizing a simple thing like where you missed.

***

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Aspiring Basketball Stars Head to Suburban Westchester, Where the ‘Shot Doctor’ Is In

John Goldman relies on geometry and practice to help players from NBA star Elton Brand to actor Elliott Gould

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