Vancouver man's hoop invention headed to Hall of Fame

Breakaway rim helped basketball become dominated by dunks

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers writer

Published:

 
photoToby Dittrich, Inventor

Vancouver's William A. Dittrich tells stories that seem out of a basketball version of the movie "Forrest Gump."

He saw the Seattle Supersonics win their only championship at the Kingdome in 1979.

He was invited for a tryout with the Denver Nuggets after playing on a traveling AAU basketball team with members of the University of Colorado football team (so they could stay in shape in the winter).

He played for a British Collegiate Championship as a Fullbright Scholar for the University of Bristol, one night after a drunken adventure at the Liverpool bar where The Beatles began.

On his way back to the hotel, Dittrich, who goes by Toby, got lost.

"I got to bed at like 3 in the morning or something and I woke up in the morning and had to play the game," he said. "I was young, but the British refs fouled us two Americans out in the first quarter. We fouled out in the first quarter! They didn't want the Yankees to win! We did lose, but it was a fond memory."

Alas, this is only Toby's second-best story.

The best one was the one that changed the game of basketball forever.

This story is about the truth for Toby and the fruits of the labor of five men that brought the slam dunk to the masses.

On Tuesday, the National Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., will take ownership of the prototype for the breakaway rim with the intent to give it a spot in the Hall.

With his love of basketball and expertise of Volkswagen automobiles, the man who has been a physics professor at Portland Community College for the past 27 years created something to help him and other aspiring dunkers get to the rim.

It was called the Dittrich Dunking Device, and introduced in 1976. Dittrich took it to schools for assemblies on energy, as well as Seattle parks for dunk contests.

The breakaway rim allowed dunks — now the most iconic play in basketball — without the threat of the backboard shattering, done most famously by NBA legend Darryl Dawkins in 1979.

Dittrich was one of two men to receive the financial benefits of the invention along with Arthur Ehrat of Illinois — due to the strong wording of their patents. But Dittrich has made it one of his missions to make sure that he and Ehrat aren't the only ones who were recognized or that other inventors don't rewrite history.

Two books were written about the invention by the other three inventors — Paul and Kenneth Estlund of Denver and Chuck Randall, who coached at Western Washington.

In neither book is Dittrich mentioned and Ehrat was mentioned barely. Wikipedia maintains Ehrat as the sole inventor, although it was Dittrich's goal to get the rim in the Hall.

"That's what I approached the Hall of Fame with and the NBA," Dittrich said. "I'm not trying to be an egoist. Obviously I would like my name in the Hall of Fame. But, I want to be honest and say that the facts are the facts."

Driven by the facts, Dittrich will fly to Springfield this week to meet with Ehrat to see the rim go under the ownership of the Hall of Fame, which intends to have a display for it after an expansion.

"When they have this expansion we will have a display of the development of the rim," he said. "It did the exact thing as the jump shot. It changed the game."

Dittrich is still inventing and has been on sabbatical this year. He has patents pending on an educational software geared toward learning subjects orally, in hopes that students will develop better oral skills.

Dittrich is also a flight instructor.

"I'm going to do the same to education as I did to basketball because I've got this system," he said.

And to think, it all started with the love of the game.