Ken Mahoney was a member of Kansas State’s first Final Four team in 1947. His older brother Elmo led the charge in the Kansas legislature during the late 40’s to get the funding to build Ahearn field house. Together they changed the game of basketball with their breakaway rim and backboard adjustments that are still being used in basketball gyms and arenas throughout the world.
I first met Ken during the spring of 1962 when he arranged for me to visit Kansas State basketball coach Tex Winter in Manhattan. Mahoney was a good friend of Norbert Dreiling- a very bright and astute Hays attorney who was chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party and later strategist to get Robert Docking elected to four unprecedented terms as Governor of Kansas between the years 1966-72.
Dreiling was also a close family friend- and Mahoney must have known Dreiling’s Volga German connection with a”HACE” city boy would be a useful recruiting strategy. Ted Owens, assistant to Dick Harp at Kansas started recruiting me during my junior year. I had already made a visit to Lawrence-then Dick Harp came to our home in Hays to meet my parents. I was definitely leaning toward the Jayhawks.
But-Mahoney’s trip set the stage for my eventual decision to become a Wildcat. Dreiling served as chauffer during our drive to Manhattan, while Mahoney, riding shot gun in the front seat talked up Kansas State as my dad and I listened. Later Tex came to Hays to seal the deal with a full scholarship offer, and I enrolled as a freshman to play basketball at K-State in the fall of 1962.
During the summer of 1963, Mahoney and Tex invited me to be a counselor at their summer basketball camp near Ward, Colorado. Mahoney said he’d provide the transportation and arrived at our home in Hays just before dark with a big pick up loaded with everything but the kitchen sink including heavy equipment, camping gear, sleeping bags, tools and a huge amount of supplies.
My parents looked startled as we waved goodbye and backed out of the driveway with a heavily overloaded truck. Mahoney’s daughter Rosemary, who was age 12, rode in the front seat and I drove the first shift, while Mahoney slept in the back of the truck.
We stopped for gas in Goodland, Ks. at around 11:30 p.m. When the attendant reached for the gas cap, Mahoney sat up in the back of the truck-bed covered with a blanket. The guy started shaking and turned as white as a sheet thinking Mahoney might have a gun under the blanket and was going to rob him.
Mahoney calmed the guy by saying, “Don’t worry, we’re just farmers heading west to Colorado.” We arrived at Camp Audubon to see a beautiful Colorado sunrise while standing at 10,000 feet above sea level. Mahoney’s first job was to get the diesel generator going with a hand crank. After many tries with a pop-pop-pop sound- it finally started. I slept until noon.
Mahoney and Tex had a great set up because this was not just an ordinary camping experience. During a period of about seven years beginning in the early 1960’s- hundreds of boys ages 12-16, came from all over the country and enjoyed all the thrills of the Rockies including hiking canoeing, cook outs, riflery, archery, and basketball every night. Tex was the drawing card, but Mahoney made it work.
Ken was born in Dorrance, Ks on August 24th, 1924. After graduating from Dorrance High School in 1942 he headed off to war and fought in the Normandy invasion and at Iwo Jima. He returned and enrolled at Kansas State during the fall of 1946 and tried out for the freshmen basketball team along with 200 other hopefuls. He and one other player were chosen. Mahoney was quoted as saying, “I still remember Coach Jack Gardner coming over and pinning a number on my underwear.”
Mahoney was elected Favorite Man on Campus by the coeds and played as a reserve on the 1947-48 final four team. He was also a crowd favorite in Nichols gym because of his razzle dazzle globetrotter style with no look behind the back passes and ball fakes. When K-State had a comfortable lead, the crowd would chant, “We want Mahoney, we want Mahoney.”
After leaving Kansas State, he married his high school sweetheart Dorothy Major, in 1949, and they began farming just west of Dorrance. Dorothy was a Colorado University graduate and spent a brief career as a geologist. She played a major role (no pun intended) - in Ken’s success and I always enjoyed hearing her say in her raspy voice KENNETH. I never knew if that meant Ken was in trouble.
Ken taught Junior High school at Dorrance and Wilson for about ten years and also coached. In 1967, he and the family spent time in Sierra Leone, West Africa for the Peace Corps.
It was during one of those summer Colorado camping sessions at Camp Audubon in the mid 1960’s, when Ken asked Tex Winter what he needed most as a teaching tool. Tex told him, “I need a device as a developmental tool-something like a pitch back they use in baseball.”
Ken went to work and he and his brother Elmo came up with a device made with rectangular pipes with 3’ x 3’ dimensions using inner tube material as rubber bands to fasten a stretched volley ball net in the middle. He called it a Toss Back. I was a graduate student and assistant basketball coach at Kansas State in 1968 when Ken asked if I’d do a research paper on how to use it. We spent lots of time in Ahearn gym together to make it work, and I used the paper as part of my graduate degree research requirement.
We devised various passing drills where a player would pass the ball into the net and it would bounce back. We even did a few demonstrations on T.V. sports shows, and soon it caught on and became a tool used by coaches all over the country. Years later, Michael Jordon even demonstrated it at a clinic for Mahoney while Jordon played at North Carolina.
But the Mahoney brothers’ real game changer was the breakaway rim. The NCAA outlawed dunking the basket ball in 1967, but brought it back in 1976. The N BA kept the dunk in the game- but soon problems arose. During the 1979-80 NBA basketball season, Daryl Dawkins, known as Chocolate Thunder shattered two backboards early in the season, one having occurred in Kansas City’s municipal auditorium in a game between the Kansas City Kings and Dawkins’ Philadelphia 76ers.
In 1980, Larry O’Brien, NBA commissioner had heard about Mahoney’s breakaway goal and invited Ken to New York City along with five other vendors with similar devices to test the rims to see which one would meet the test. Mahoney’s rim was collapsible but had to be pushed back up by hand. The NBA wanted a rim that would snap back in place without stopping play.
“Within two weeks, my uncle Elmo and dad used the spring idea to come up with the solution,” said Tom Mahoney, during our phone visit from his home in Dorrance, Ks where he still maintains a resemblance of the Mahoney business now called Pro Bound Sports.
The idea of using a piece of heavy duty coil spring from a sheer plow solved the problem and snapped the rim back in place. But, the Mahoney brothers didn’t know until several years later that another farm boy -Arthur Ehrat, about the same age as Mahoney, had filed a patent for the idea in 1975. Ehrat was recognized by the Smithsonian Institute in 1995 as the inventor of the idea of a snap back rim because his patent was the first one approved in 1982.
That didn’t matter because Erhart’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 after guys off the streets of New York were brought in to try and tear down the goals,” said Tom.
Ken was the visionary and salesman- while his brother Elmo was the engineer. Ken used his dynamic personality and did some improvising to convince the NBA officials that his product was superior to his competitors’ Slam Dunk rim.
“Dad brought out a step ladder and a hammer to make his point,” said Tom. “Dad told the NBA officials-look, do you want a rim that breaks away straight down in a teeter totter motion when the rim pops back in position without putting any pressure against the glass like our rim does? Or, do you want a rim that pulls away from the glass and returns and slams up against the glass?”
According to Mahoney’s son Tom, “Dad said, let me give you an example-then climbed up the ladder and took his hammer and started tapping on the glass backboard. While looking at the NBA folks down below he said- how many times do I have to do this pounding- or how hard do I have to do this before the glass breaks because the rim returns against the glass?”
Game over. The NBA people said that’s obvious, the glass will break if you hit it in that direction, and they awarded Mahoney the contract.
Mahoney and NBA officials headed to Philadelphia to see if Chocolate Thunder could give it a try. According to Mahoney, “Dawkins hammered on the rim like you wouldn’t believe.” Dawkins was unable to shatter the backboard during the test, and in 1981, Mahoney’s break away rims were installed throughout the NBA, and later in high schools and college basketball arenas throughout America and in other parts of the world.
But the Mahoney brothers weren’t done yet. In 1984, Dr. J (Julius Erving) hit his head on the bottom of the backboard- 9 feet from the floor in an NBA slam dunk competition. Mahoney was called on again by the NBA, and this time he reduced the size of the backboard by six inches, padded the bottom section and made it concave instead of rectangular to eliminate the sharp edges. The backboards were changed from 9 feet from the floor to 9 feet six inches. The change has reduced hand, head and finger injuries dramatically.
Bill Walton former UCLA and NBA star said, “Newcomers to the world of basketball would not recognize the game played prior to the changes Ken Mahoney has instituted.”
One big change by Mahoney is the reinforcement devices added to the glass backboards as a precaution that led to a possible discovery as why the glass backboards were breaking in the first place. “During the process of stabilizing the backboards throughout the NBA, we found deficiencies by the glass backboard manufacturers where the 4 holes to attach the rim to the backboard were not lined up or installed properly with the right components which in itself would eventually have caused a failure of the backboards even with the breakaway rim,” said Tom. None of the Mahoney breakaway rims attached to backboards were ever shattered in the NBA.
Mahoney has rubbed shoulders with all the big names in the game including sportscaster Dick Vitale. During a 2008 feature article with Amy Bickel of the Hutchinson News, Mahoney said, “Vitale bought so much stuff from me and we weren’t getting paid.” Mahoney and his wife Dorothy planned a trip to Florida and stopped by a venue where Vitale was signing autographs. “I wanted an autograph put on a blank check,” said Mahoney. Vitale assured Mahoney the check was in the mail, “and it was, Mahoney said.”
Toss Back was sold to Gared Sports Inc. out of St. Louis in 1988, and Mahoney stayed on as general manager keeping the manufacturing location in Dorrance. He continued to stay active and was recognized by the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association with an award in 2008, and then was inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.
He died peacefully at his farm home near Dorrance surrounded by family on January 31, 2010. I attended his service on February 4th at St Joseph’s Catholic church in Dorrance. Just as the service was drawing to a close I could hear that pop-pop-pop- sound I first heard at Camp Audubon in 1963 and felt Ken’s presence- and was filled with emotion. This time it was a John Deer tractor pulling a trailer with Mahoney’s coffin draped in an American flag waiting outside the church for friends and family to take him to his final resting place at the cemetery nearby.
The next time you are driving west on I-70 and pass the Dorrance exit- start looking for a beautiful brick home with adjacent buildings about 5 miles west to your left just off I-70- pause a moment and pay your respects to Ken Mahoney- the man who changed the game of basketball. And- don’t forget Elmo too. May they rest in peace.