Practice Does Not Always Make Perfect

The recent woes of the Heels with free throw shooting brings back memories of a hobby I adopted when I retired years ago but one that has been inactive for some time now. I'm talking about free throw shooting.

I can't remember when I got so interested in free throw shooting. It must have been in high school where my ft shooting was no worse than anyone else's, but always below what I thought it should have been. Yes, I did shoot them underhanded then, but that was the norm in the early 40's and Rick Barry showed that it could be done with consistency.

Upon entering the service and having a lot of free time on my hands, I began to think a lot about free throw shooting and observing the shooting style and accuracy level of any and every one in sight. I saw players shoot with a flick of the wrist with no knee bend, from the top of their head, a 2 hand set shot with and without knee bends, but mostly I saw free throws powered primarily with one hand with the other serving as a holder for the ball. I started shooting free throws every chance I got. I remember one occasion when my squadron stopped in the Azore Islands on the way to England, I went to the gym, checked out a basketball and shot 100 free throws by myself. For years that session represented the best I had ever done, hitting 89 of the 100 shots taken. I still thought I could do better.

Slowly, I developed a style that suited my physique and temperament which consisted of placing both hands on the ball, one on each side, slightly bending the knees, limiting the arm movement and providing most of the power for the stroke with the wrists. Let me say now, that any form is all right if it works. It doesn't bother me that my critics say my form is not the best. All I say in response is let's go one on one with a hundred free throws.

I used to enjoy working with the kids in the neighborhood on their free throw shooting, but it was hopeless. I would not make any suggestions for change in their form until we had gone head to head in competition. I would always tell them I would try to change nothing about their shooting technique if they could beat me. I don't remember any of them ever beating me, but some of the contests were pretty close.

The purpose of requiring the competition was to establish my competency level. Think about it. Here were these budding studs taking advice from a white haired holdover from the Stone Ages who refused to play real ball with them. I stopped that about 20 years ago when I got my lip busted accidentally while playing one on one with a neighborhood kid. He didn't mean to do it, but I got the message. Maybe my participation in the game should be more passive.

For several years, I shot 100 recorded free throws every day. The neighbors even started to call me "free throw man" because the basket was in clear view of the other houses in the area. I shot in the heat of summer, the cold of winter and when the asphalt was wet. Reminded me of when I was on the grammar school team and we practiced outside. Boy, that was fun, particularly on a day where the court had not dried out and the ball had mud all over it. We played our games at the YMCA and playing indoors was almost like a new game to us. One time, we played another school who had a gymnasium with a low ceiling. Practically, every shot we took other than "lay ups" not "lay ins" would hit the ceiling while the opponents had learned to live with the low ceiling and proceeded to beat us with ease. At least it was dry and warm.

Back to my shooting. I would chart my shots and finally reached the conclusion that I was a consistent 90% non-game free throw shooter. There would be slight fluctuations from time to time but the percentage averaged out to 90. The best I ever did was 93 out of 100, so the Azores record was broken.

It was amazing how many older people would drop by and tell me that their high school coach would not let them leave practice until they hit 25 free throws in a row. I never saw one of these individuals hit 10 in a row and on my best day, I never hit 25 in a row, At UNC practices now, I am told the players cannot leave practice until they hit 9 out of 10. This sounds a little more realistic to me.

Now, did I ever really help any of the kids with whom I worked? I don't think so. They would give lip service to the importance of being able to shoot free throws, but when it came right down to it. THEY DIDN'T WANT TO SHOOT FREE THROWS. I did. I was proud of the fact that I could beat them but they didn't really care. They wanted to dunk, do cross over dribbles, shoot long 3's and all the other "exciting" things that one can do on the basketball court. To them, shooting free throws was a necessary evil they had to endure but any change had to be imposed on them by me. In the final analysis, they were not really interested in improving their free throw shooting even though they would go through the motions to make me happy.

Which leads me back to UNC and our free throw shooting woes. I don't doubt for one minute that Haywood, Curry and Lang would like to improve their free throw shooting but somewhere along the line it fell off their "love list" and efforts to improve are based on necessity not real desire. Do you think one really learns anything when the teacher makes them write 500 times, "I must not talk in study hall?. If the student really wanted to stop talking in study hall, the repetitions might have some meaning. I'm not even sure they have study halls anymore and I'm reasonably sure they don't require the repetitious writing.

My ultimate fantasy is to challenge Dick Vitale to a free throw shooting contest at halftime in the Dean Dome. Don't sell ole Dickie V short. I have scouted him and even though he has only one eye, he is a good free throw shooter and might adjust to the pressure of the situation better than I would. There is a good possibility I would freeze because my greatest exploits were witnessed only by Leroy, my Tar Heel Terror( miniature dachshund). A better question than who would win is who would the crowd be for? This may surprise you, but I think they would be for DV. Even though most Heel fans say they hate him, I feel there is an undercurrent of affection for him that would come out if they saw him possibly being humiliated in defeat. I know the youngsters would be for him because he is extremely popular with those too young to be turned off by his verbal antics.

Speaking of challenges, I felt Billy Packer let my generation down when he was challenged by the NCAA leading female free throw shooter several years ago. Her name was Walsh, and at the time, was a student here in Richmond at the University of Richmond. It all got started when Packer belittled Walsh's accomplishments (93+%) because he said it was easier for females since they used a smaller ball. Walsh challenged him to a competition and beat him 20-20 to 13-20. To add insult to injury, they used the larger ball used in men's competition. 13 out of 20? I don't think he will ever mention free throw shooting again. Incidentally, the last time I checked, the NCAA male record for a season with 100 or more shots taken was held by an unheralded player from Penn State who had a (94%) average. Carolina's record is somewhere around 84%.I believe Shammond broke Lebo's record but I'm not sure.

So where does this leave us with UNC's free throw shooting. I'm afraid it leaves us right were we are. Extremely vulnerable to a close game at the end. We can try to keep the ball in the hands of Forte, Owens and Capel but that is easier said than done. The other teams know of this weakness and they will try to exploit it to their advantage. Mentally, every time Haywood misses a free throw, I wonder how much it will cost him come contract time. Can you imagine how much more valuable he would be to a team if they could count on him to hit his free throws?

In my opinion, it just one of those things we are going to have to put up with. Of course, we could try prayer, but I can tell you from personal experience, prayer hasn't worked with Haywood until Sunday in Raleigh. I almost cried when those two free throws swished at the end. Were they important? They ONLY won the game.