A rim for the ages: Bellingham's Dittrich, Randall engrained in basketball's fabric

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 12, 2014 

Western Washington University's Anye Turner slam dunks the ball as WWU loss to Seattle Pacific University 76-60 Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, at Carver Gymnasium.

DANNY MILLER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Nearly four decades ago, Lake Samish separated two men - Toby Dittrich and Chuck Randall - both beginning a journey that would revolutionize the game of basketball.

Dittrich was young - still in his college years while Randall was nearing the end of his career as the basketball coach at Western Washington University. The two had crossed paths, albeit in the classroom when Dittrich was a student of Randall's. He was a rather lackadaisical student at that, Dittrich said laughing in a phone interview, acknowledging the C he received in Randall's physical education course being more his doing than anything else.

And yet despite their gap in age, both had similarly keen minds toward creation. Inventors at heart, so to speak, with basketball being the spark.

What spawned was a marriage between invention and basketball, eventually leading to the formation of the breakaway rim, a rim that allowed players to dunk without bending the rim or shattering the backboard. Images of Darryl Dawkins destroying two separate backboards in the 1979-80 NBA season resonated throughout the basketball community, wondering if a new option was needed - an option that wouldn't remove the excitement of the dunk, but offer a safer alternative.

What came of it was the NBA and other official basketball outlets switching to the shock-absorbent rim, bringing the idea of six men - Dittrich, Randall, Art Ehrat, Paul and Kenneth Estlund, and Fredrick Tyner - to the grandest of stages.

On Tuesday, April 15, the first official prototype of the shock-absorbent rim, which has been credited to Ehrat, will be welcomed into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., acknowledging with it the others, like Randall and Dittrich, who contributed to its invention.

And at the most basic of levels, both Dittrich, 67, and Randall, 87, acknowledged their impact on the game.

"We changed basketball," said Dittrich, albeit by taking two distinctly different paths.

RANDALL FUELED BY NECESSITY

Randall had a problem. A big, tall, strong, athletic problem named Doug Creasey.

Creasey, a recruit Randall had brought up from Oregon between 1962 and '63, had an affinity for dunking. Time and again, his powerful body would bend the rims to the point where Randall was running out of both patience and money to replace them. The university didn't allot a great deal of funds for the program, and he could only go through so many before the well dried up.

"I kept taking (the rims) over to the tech department because the next time it would bend easier," Randall, said in a phone interview.

Out of necessity, he began to explore other options.

"The first rim I got I put a hinge and two bolts on it," Randall remembered. "When you shear the bolts, you stop to put in two new bolts. Then I thought, 'Well, if we put a spring in front of it, I'm sure that spring would push it right back up.' Fixed that snap thing."

The contraption floated in Randall's mind for years like a seed waiting to grow until he was confronted with a sobering reality highlighting the need for a new hoop.

In a game against Eastern Washington University in the 1974-75 season, the Vikings claimed a 61-60 win after a failed last-second shot rimmed out. According to an article by the Seattle Post Intelligencer in 2008 on Randall, the coach of EWU at the time, Jerry Krause, pointed out that the rim was bent slightly on the right side where the ball bounced out.

"That bothered me," said Randall in the article by the Post Intelligencer. "Three days later, I had my heart attack. The doctors said it was the most severe heart attack they'd seen for a guy who lived."

His fortune in relation to the shock-absorbent rim wasn't much better despite his many attempts to market it. In all, Dittrich said Randall's patent on the rim was denied following the acceptance of several other's similar to it. That isn't to diminish the role he played in making the breakaway rim, Dittrich added.

"He actually probably did more to promote the rim than I did because he spent so much money traveling around the country," Dittrich said, "getting publicity and paper ads and all other things, which I didn't do. I ended up with the patent, but he did an awful lot."

DITTRICH'S DUNKING DREAM

Dittrich called himself a "basketball junkie."

While in college, he was good, but not a rare talent, continually finding himself in the clutches of a gym playing for hours on end.

Something always troubled him, though: He simply couldn't dunk on a regular basis. Try as he did, he couldn't elevate high enough above the rim to do what is so commonly seen now, often times forgotten as a rare feat for a human being.

"I couldn't really palm the ball above the rim and slam it in like they do now - like everyone can do now," Dittrich said with a laugh. "When I look back on it, it makes me look inferior."

As it was, he thought if he could make his own rim that was 9-feet tall, he could then work his way up to 10 feet, which is the standard regulation height for a basketball hoop.

The pieces and parts Dittrich used to construct the first prototype were anything but usual.

By piecing together a hatch door from a ship, rack and pinion crank mechanism, a boom made from plumbing pipes and shock absorbers and springs from a Volkswagen suspension, he had his first adjustable, shock-absorbent basketball hoop.

"I started playing 21 with that structure, and then you'd get one point for a free throw, two points for a shot and three points for a dunk," Dittrich said. "That game was so seriously aggressive and so fun that I thought maybe I should get a patent on this. This could be worth some money."

Dittrich pursued attaining a patent for the Dittrich Dunking Device by immersing himself in "How to be a successful inventor" books at the Bellingham Library, eventually leading to him writing up his own proposal and submitting it for approval. Due to the strong language in the proposal, his patent was accepted and he held the rights to his invention.

What came of it, thanks in part to the six individuals that all worked on parallel courses in pursuit of the breakaway rim, was an invention that altered the path of basketball.

Dittrich and Randall, two men with deep roots in the Bellingham community, while unaware of their simultaneous pursuits, are ingrained in the fabric of modern basketball. All those made famous by their slams, whether it be Vince Carter, Michael Jordan, the Sonics' own Shawn Kemp, or even Spud Webb and Dominique Wilkins, all were benefactors to the invention of the shock-absorbent rim.

In that light, Dittrich thought it paramount that although Ehrat's first prototype hoop was the one selected for the honor, that all six men deserved their names along with it.

"This is a joint endeavor of (six) people," Dittrich said. "It's the only fair thing to do. It's just like, I think his name is John Cooper, the guy who invented the jump shot, they remember his name. It's in the hall of fame. ... If anyone ever cared, it did change the game of basketball, without a doubt, so it would be nice to have the names of the people who helped it."

Reach Alex Bigelow at alex.bigelow@bellinghamherald.com or call 360-715-2238. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for other Whatcom County sports updates.

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