Born in 1912 and raised in the small community of South Fork — about a 5-mile journey outside Pound — and the second oldest of seven boys and nine children, Roberts developed an early affinity for the game.
Little did anyone know at the time, but Roberts would go on to revolutionize basketball in a way that most players now consider second nature: practical use of the two-handed jump shot.
Historian and author Stephen Fox contends that Roberts was the first college player to utilize the jump shot for such a scoring advantage because opponents had never seen a weapon like that before.
A HARSH UPBRINGING
Part of the “Greatest Generation,” Roberts began his walk to school every day before dawn in the fall, leaving his lantern on the same barn every time.
Few today can imagine sweeping out snow from every room in the house after a big winter storm passed through and having to use newspapers as wallpaper.
There would be time for basketball after the work was done around the house and schoolwork was finished, at least according to the family matriarch.
BORN OUT OF NECESSITY
The Roberts boys were all physically able to hold their own and after the school bell rang enjoyed unwinding with sports.
The boys played on makeshift outdoor courts, which is where Glenn experimented with his new “jump shooting” method.
“Our high school did not have an indoor basketball court when I was playing. Because of our eagerness for basketball, we practiced in all kinds of weather,” Roberts said in an interview before his passing in 1980. “At times it was too muddy to dribble the ball and move effectively, especially since we practiced most of the time in our pair of all-purpose shoes.
“Because of this combination of conditions, it was necessary to devise something besides an ordinary effort to even get the ball to the basket unless you got lucky. By starting to jump as high in the air as I could after recovering the ball and releasing the ball after jumping out of reach of the others, I started to get the ball to the basket consistently and before long I even succeeded in making some baskets without depending entirely on luck.”
Roberts had solved a problem that had plagued many players before him, thereby motioning in the future of basketball.
PERFECTING HIS CRAFT
Roberts was the unquestionable star player for the Christopher Gist Warriors.
Christopher Gist was a tiny four-room schoolhouse that primarily drew from the sparsely populated Pound River Basin.
His first two years in high school, the Warriors did not field a team.
However, Roberts made up for lost time and led his team to back-to-back Virginia state championships in 1930 and 1931. The latter year, his team went 35-0 and defeated Shenandoah 28-16 in the title game.
That helped spark a dynasty: The Warriors accumulated six state titles before the school shut its doors in 1953.
Team captain his final two seasons, Roberts made the all-state team while helping his team build a combined record of 63-2.
Roberts went on to further his education at Emory & Henry, nearly two hours away from home by the route nowadays.
BUILDING A LEGACY
After years of waiting for an indoor gymnasium to help perfect his jump shot, Roberts flourished with the Wasps.
In his four years of varsity ball, the 6-foot-4, 180-pound forward/center scored 2,013 points — 1,531 against college teams and 482 against professional and semi-pro teams over 104 games. He was the first collegiate player to score over 2,000 points.
The team’s overall record during that time was 90-14. Roberts’ scoring average of 19.4 points per game was astronomical for those days when teams seldom reached 30 or 35 points.
His scoring remains a record for play prior to 1937 and the revision of the center-jump rule.
The center-jump rule called for the ball to be brought back to the center line after every made basket and two players jumped for possession with the clock still running.
His total and per-game averages were featured in the 1936 edition of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”
Roberts earned many honors, including being a four-time Virginia college player of the year, three-time Virginia conference player of the year. He also led the nation in scoring twice.
He was a first-team Helms All-American in 1935, and in 1933 and 1934, E&H was declared the Virginia state champion. All of the Virginia awards encompassed every college basketball team in the state, regardless of size.
Roberts became the first inductee of the Emory & Henry College Sports Hall of Fame in 1972. He was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.
“It was in college that I became proficient in developing multiple moves such as the forward and backward pivot and dribble to maneuver into a better shooting position,” Roberts said. “It was also in college that my timing developed to the point where I could jump and absorb the shock from the defensive effort and then hang free in the air momentarily before releasing the ball.
“As a result I could make a basket almost every time I got the ball within the present highpoint distance from the basket.”
PLAYING AGAINST THE BIG BOYS
In the early days of basketball, colleges large and small played each other and E&H took on all comers. The Wasps regularly took on Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Richmond, William & Mary, East Tennessee State and others.
One game in the 1934-35 season, against much bigger Richmond, stood out.
The Spiders finished the season ranked No. 2 and unbeaten, still the only such team in the history of Virginia college basketball. The Wasps took Richmond to overtime in the final game of the season before Richmond emerged with a 38-31 victory.
In a January 1935 game, Tennessee coach W.H. Britton implemented what is known today as the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy. His team fouled Roberts every time down the floor and forced him to shoot free throws. Future All-America center Harry Anderson and UT’s second-string center fouled out of the game because they could not stop Roberts.
Tennessee won 32-29. The Vols last played the Wasps in 1941.
LEAVING AN IMPACT
Not even Dr. James Naismith would have believed that a man from Southwest Virginia could change the game of basketball so drastically.
After Roberts’ graduation in 1935, the Rules Committee instituted the “three-second rule,” which greatly diminished the role of big men.
Roberts routinely camped out in the lane and backed down his defender to get as close to the basket as he could before shooting.
Some newspaper articles from the early ’40s attributed the rule change to Roberts’ style of play.
ROBERTS AND HANK LUISETTI
In 1938, media outlets throughout the South proclaimed that future Naismith Hall of Famer Hank Luisetti had broken Roberts’ scoring record by amassing 1,596 points in his four seasons playing for Stanford.
However, in Luisetti’s freshman year, he scored 305 points in 15 games against college freshman and high school teams. His total was later revised to 1,291 points in 80 games against college competition.
There are some striking similarities between Roberts and Luisetti’s collegiate careers.
Both introduced a revolutionary new shot to the game — Roberts with the two-handed jumper and Luisetti with the one-handed running shot.
E&H and Stanford had identical 68-12 records against collegiate foes during each star’s playing career.
And both players netted a 50-point game in their college days. Roberts scored 50 against “House of David” in 1933 and its 7-foot center, and Luisetti became the first major college player to hit that mark in a 1938 game against Duquesne.
Luisetti’s rise to national prominence came about after Ned Irish, a New York World Telegram sportswriter and founder of the New York Knicks, invited the Stanford squad to New York City to play Long Island University inside Madison Square Garden in December 1938.
Luisetti had a great night with 15 points and led the Indians the win, ending LIU’s record 43-game winning streak.
Basketball historians consider Luisetti and Roberts early pioneers of the game.
Initially, Roberts turned down numerous offers to play professionally, saying there wasn’t enough money in the sport in the middle of the Great Depression. He instead returned to Wise County where he became a teacher and girls basketball coach at Norton High School.
His team won the district title both years he coached, 1936 and 1937.
The opportunity to play professionally came knocking again, and this time as an offer of a steady job. Roberts went to work for the Akron Firestone Non-Skids of the National Basketball League.
Also playing in the NBL at the time were 15 All-Americans, among them Purdue star John Wooden.
Roberts played one season for Firestone in 1938-39, helping the team go 24-3, win the NBL Eastern Division crown and the NBL championship.
The Non-Skids won the finals series 3-2 over the Oshkosh All-Stars, and Roberts later called it “the greatest thrill.”
The Basketball Association of America absorbed the NBL in 1949, the leagues merging to form the NBA.
CAN’T GET AWAY FROM IT
After one memorable season with the Non-Skids, Roberts went to work for Firestone.
His one stint playing basketball again in the ’40s was an effort to sell war bonds. A barnstorming trip in 1945 saw Roberts and five of his brothers dominate Northeast Ohio industrial leagues and travel into Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and West Virginia to play all comers.
In a March 10 game against a Navy V-12 quintet representing Milligan College, the Roberts brothers defeated the sailors 36-33 before a packed house in Norton. That game alone raised $50,000 in war bonds.
The brothers went on to establish an empire of tire-recapping businesses in and around Pound. Roberts eventually left Firestone and returned to Virginia where his sons, Glenn Jr. and Larry, had done well for themselves with their own Firestone dealership.
The game never left Roberts, though. He was the men’s coach at Clinch Valley College — now Virginia-Wise — from 1964-66. He turned a team that had won only two games into a squad that produced 14-6 records in back-to-back seasons.
HALL OF FAME ACCOLADES?
Roberts is not in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but he does have his own tab on the website under “Hardwood History.”
Soft-spoken, shy and humble, Roberts made a contribution to the game of basketball that reverberates to this day.
Some of the most iconic shots in all of basketball history are jump shots.
From Michael Jordan’s last shot for the Chicago Bulls to win the 1998 NBA Finals to Christian Laettner’s turnaround, last-second jumper to beat Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA Final Four, all of those players can thank one man born on a hillside farm in Wise County for popularizing the jump shot.