JAY WOLF/THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT DID
By Jerry Harpt
“Success is often nearest when you feel most like quitting.”
Jay Wolf likes to make these kinds of remarks. Fact is, they roll off his tongue. Here’s another one. “There are more success stories about average people who have achieved through hard work than there are about those who are ultra-talented.”
So who is this Jay Wolf, this walking beacon of inspiration, this average energizer bunny who worked so hard, for more than twenty years, to develop a certain talent? Well, he’s a retired middle school physical education teacher and coach (Marinette, Wisconsin), with a heart of platinum and a spiritual conviction to match. He is also known nationally as one of the foremost authorities on basketball shooting technique. And here are the straps and pieces of his story.
Jay, like many young boys who aspired to play in the NBA, struggled with his shot. He had that passion to improve, just no insight or instruction. He worked at his shooting for hours and, like others, he became discouraged. But his inner child wouldn’t let him off the hook. He kept right on shooting and is still working on perfecting that shot.
In 1973, Jay started teaching physical education classes in Marinette, Wisconsin. During the course of each year, he taught a segment on basketball mechanics. No matter how hard Jay tried to get kids to improve their shot, change seldom happened. He watched kid’s enthusiasm for shooting hoops dwindle. This was a source of frustration for Jay, always the teacher. “There is just something in me that, when I see kids with poor shooting mechanics, I want to help. I can’t keep saying, 'nice job', to kids when they’re missing the mark.”
After 12 years of teaching basketball units, Jay had a revelation, something he isn’t afraid to attribute to God. He noticed the same shooting flaw in all his students. Instead of just using their non-shooting hand to help control the ball through the shot, they were applying force with it, causing it to go off target. Jay felt he was on to something and searched for ways to rectify the inaccuracy.
Jay first considered restricting the movement of the non-shooting hand by applying tape to it. Although it worked, he soon realized it wasn’t practical. He couldn’t tape each kid before every class. So how could he do it? Ideas started flooding his mind and one day, a big one struck!
As soon as Jay got home he took his ideas and two football belts to the sewing machine in his basement laundry room. There he started to create a shooting device that would eliminate the off-hand problem. He worked until supper, ate with his family, and rushed back down to his basement project. Ideas kept flooding his mind as he cut and sewed and re-cut and sewed the belts. By 4:30 AM the following morning, fifteen hours after he started, he had created his prototype, a strap that could take the non-shooting arm out of the shot but still be used to help control the ball - he hoped.
Excited but also fearful, Jay took his invention to school and tried it out. It helped. Encouraged, he asked one of his students to do the same. After five, five-minute sessions the student was showing marked improvement. Jay was elated and went back to his basement and made 25 more of his shooting straps, still not knowing if they had any future.
The next step was to find out if the public would buy his new device. He asked permission from Bruce Parkovich, Marinette’s varsity basketball coach at the time, if players could try them out in Bruce’s summer camp. Bruce liked the device and agreed. During the camp, a Sheboygan coach was impressed with Jay’s invention and bought 15. Jay was pumped. “Somebody actually bought something I made!”
There was no stopping Jay now, well, maybe just one hurdle. He sat down with his wife, Joyce, and told her he needed to get a patent on his invention and it would cost $3,000.00. Joyce wasn’t enthused about Jay’s ‘wild’ idea. Still, she supported his wish.
In the meantime, Jay spent many more hours in his sewing room perfecting his invention. He replaced the nylon straps with polypropylene and the Velcro grips with plastic fasteners. In time, the ‘Star Shooter - now called the SHOOTING STRAP’- was born.
Jay, a family man of giant proportions, made sure his wife and kids continued to be part of his mission. He did this by teaching them how to sew straps. “When orders started coming in we went to work. My kids are competitive and made a game out of how fast they could sew each strap.”
Jay continued making and selling straps but was only treading water because all the profits went back into improving, packaging, and marketing. Joyce was patient, the kids were willing, and Jay became the relentless Little Engine that Could, stumbling at times but always moving forward. By now he was following his own mantra that, “many products have already been discovered, just unsuccessfully marketed.” He was determined to make this work!
Since Jay and his product were ‘unknowns’ in the world of basketball, he decided to target high profile people in the game, hoping that they would endorse his ‘SHOOTING STRAP’. He first contacted Dick Bennett who was coaching UWGB at the time and would later take the Wisconsin Badgers to the Final Four. Dick liked what he saw and agreed to endorse Jay’s product. “Great!” Jay said. “This is the break I needed.” But this is where Jay learned, “that the secrets to success are the decisions we make when we fail or are rejected.”
Armed with his first endorsement, Jay contacted a mail-order company about including his invention in their catalog. A few weeks later he received a short rejection letter that said, “we don’t think your product has any value.” Jay still has the letter. Another Texas mail-order company did include Jay’s ‘star shooter’ but promptly folded. Jay was discouraged but wouldn’t quit. He kept beating the bushes. Something would happen. As the saying goes, “you always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Somewhere, his shots would start falling. He believed in his product because, IT WORKED!
Jay continued targeting high-profile people by driving to towns where important coaching clinics and basketball camps were being held. Eventually he made contact with Morgan Wootten, at that time the number one high school basketball coach in the nation. Morgan invited Jay to Maryland to work in his camp and Jay took him up on the offer. He carried along 100 straps in a bag and asked any coach who was willing to hear his pitch to simply try it. He became known as ‘the strap-man’, sometimes the ‘annoying strap-man’. During the camp, Jay sold all his straps, the last 50 to a coach from England who ordered 100 more. Jay was euphoric, rushed to a phone, and called his wife, Joyce!
Jay’s real break came when he noticed Wootten’s son was very inconsistent during a shooting drill. Jay told Morgan that he could help his son. Morgan’s boy put on a the SHOOTING STRAP and, after four shots, started making every one. Wootten was blown away and freely gave Jay his endorsement. Momentum started to build. Soon the legendary Al McGuire, who took Marquette to an NCAA championship, endorsed the SHOOTING STRAP and Jay was on his way. It was now 1994, five years after he first sat down at his basement sewing machine, and each day promised more opportunity.
Jay found out that John Wooden, arguably our nation’s finest college basketball coach, would be speaking at a basketball camp in South Dakota. Jay drove to the destination and sat in the parking lot outside the building where Wooden would speak. When Wooden got out of his car, so did Jay, falling in step with his lifetime hero. Wooden, impressed with Jay’s enthusiasm and product, invited him to his home in California.
Jay ended up spending 2 and 1/2 hours visiting with Wooden that day, talking about shooting, religion, life and players. They shared phrases like “nothing good comes easy” or “working hard is not an option, it is a way of life,” or “God gives us the raw materials - it is up to us to refine them”. Jay left Wooden’s house with a handshake, a hug, and valuable advice from a legend. The Little Engine was nearing the top of the hill.
Jay got another break when he tried to hook up with Michael Jordon at his basketball camp in Chicago. Upon arriving at camp, he soon saw that talking with Jordon would be impossible because of the huge crowd that amassed around the star whenever he showed up. So Jay made arrangements with Ed Janka, the camp director, to show his ‘Shooting Strap’ during camp. While there, Jay watched a 6’8” college player and camp counselor struggling with his shot. Jay offered to put his device on the young man and, after three shots, he was making ‘nothin’ but net’. Excited, the young man ran out of the gym and dragged in 50 other college players who were also counselors. Jay gave them all a SHOOTING STRAP and became the talk of the camp.
Janka then invited Jay to vend his product at a Las Vegas clinic that drew 4,000 coaches. Jay took Janka up on his offer and headed west with 200 straps. By now, Jay had hired a local artist to redesign his packaging for greater appeal. It worked! It fact, it was so successful that before Jay could finish setting up his Las Vegas booth, he sold most of the straps to curious coaches only keeping only enough to demonstrate. "They liked it so much that we took over one-hundred more orders."
Back home and not long afterwards, Jay got a phone message at school from his son, Dale, who was managing his ‘Star Shooter’ booth at the Minnesota Coaches Clinic. “Dad, a coach from the Minnesota Timberwolves wants you to call him.” Jay could barely teach the rest of the day. Upon returning the call, Jay was told how impressed the coaches were with his products. He was invited to Minnesota to meet with the front office. In short order, he was hired to teach shooting in the Timberwolves’s summer camps. While teaching at one of the summer camps, Jay met Flip Saunders, head coach of the Timberwolves. Saunders liked Jay’s teaching methods and ‘Star Shooter’ products and invited him to his home. Flip gave Jay his full endorsement and recommended him to other professional coaches.
At this point Jay still wasn’t retired from teaching but that didn’t matter. He would sometimes hop in his car after school on Friday and drive the 5 ½ hours from Marinette, Wisconsin to Minneapolis, Minnesota to teach a clinic. When the clinic was over he would drive back home, arriving at 3 AM Monday morning and then get up for school the next morning.
Jay’s boys are now out of college and have successful jobs. Ryan, Jay's youngest who teaches/coaches in Houston, Texas, now also teaches shooting and conducts camps nationwide. Joyce, Jay's wife, now works in their business which is now worldwide in scope, thanks to the internet. “Seeing each of our boys learning to communicate and grow in their ‘people skills’ as they meet coaches at our ‘Star Shooter’ booth is awesome. If the business keeps our family closer together, it’s awesome, even if it doesn’t grow into a huge company.”
Jay’s ‘SHOOTING STRAP’ along with two videos and a workout book, are now selling thousands annually, a far cry from the first handful he took to Bruce Parkovich’s basketball camp. Ironically, the Texas Company that once rejected Jay’s product, now carries the SHOOTING STRAP and it's one of their best selling basketball shooting aids.
Jay teaches his successful method of shooting in all his basketball camps. But his teaching also includes valuable life lessons as well. “If you really believe in something, you owe it to yourself to endure the heartaches and hardships to make it happen.” Jay wasn’t afraid to be uncomfortable in his pursuit of success. In the cards he sends to those who contact him he states, “Success is often nearest when you feel most like quitting!”
Jay was blessed with an idea. He then pioneered a trail that led to his ‘SHOOTING STRAP' training aid. And because he never gave up on an idea that he totally believed in, his unique product is now recognized as one of the most effective basketball shooting aids in the world.