A Slam Dunk Device

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

Without Ken Mahoney's innovation of the breakaway rim, Wayne Selden couldn't thrill crowds with his dunks. Image Courtesy Lawrence Journal-World/Nick Krug Photo.

Without Ken Mahoney’s innovation of the breakaway rim, Wayne Selden couldn’t thrill crowds with his dunks. Image Courtesy Lawrence Journal-World/Nick Krug Photo.

You don’t have to be a professional athlete to have an impact on the game you love.

Dorrance native Ken Mahoney knew that well. Casual basketball fans might not recognize his name, but he had a hand in inventing two devices that profoundly shaped the way the game is played today.

Ken and his brother, Elmo, together invented the “Toss-Back,” a net stretched over piping that allowed players to pass the ball into the net and have it tossed back to them so that they could work on passing and catching drills. Mahoney was inspired to create the device during his time playing at K-State under then-assistant Tex Winter.

Mahoney’s greater contribution, however, is one that he technically isn’t credited with inventing—the breakaway rim.

In the 1970s, dunking in the NBA and NCAA was a fairly rare practice because it was too easy to shatter backboards with the net rim. Several companies, including Mahoney’s, were invited to pitch rims to the NBA that would solve the problem. Mahoney pitched his now-familiar design, which uses a coil spring to let the rim pop back into position without applying pressure to the glass, and that was that.

Unbeknownst to Mahoney, however, Arthur Ehrat of Illinois had filed a patent for a similar device in 1975. According to Larry Weigel, though, “That didn’t matter because [Ehrat’s] model didn’t make the NBA’s final cut. ‘Ehrat didn’t have a workable rim, and we and another company made it to the finals…,’ said Tom [Mahoney, Ken Mahoney’s son].”

The Mahoneys’ design was the clear choice. But just to be sure, the NBA brought Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins in to test the new rim. Dawkins was known for shattering glass with his dunks. He couldn’t shatter this one.

Within a matter of years, Mahoney’s breakaway rims were in use in almost all basketball venues. Now it’s hard to imagine the game without them.

Talk about a slam dunk!