Underhanded free-throw shooting underrated

Monday, June 27, 2011

The man on the other end of the phone called back too late to help me prepare for Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s Hoops for Men’s Health free-throw shooting contest Sunday in Allen Fieldhouse, but in time to assure me I’m not the only one perpetually puzzled by a basketball mystery.

Why, if a basketball player is a poor free-throw shooter, doesn’t he or she try the method preferred by a man who did it better than anyone before him?

Why doesn’t the struggling shooter learn to shoot free throws under-handed, the way Hall of Famer Rick Barry shot them?

“Ego,” Barry said by phone from his home in Colorado Springs. “It’s unfortunate. It’s a great way to shoot them. I don’t understand. How do they not do everything they can to get better? How do you live with yourself when you shoot so poorly? It’s called a free throw. It’s the only constant in the game. Same target. Same size ball. You get to miss one out of every five and still shoot 80 percent.”

Athletes so aggressively seek an edge they risk getting banned by taking performance-enhancing drugs, but lousy shooters shun a perfectly legal means of improvement.

Athletes are nothing if not copy-cats of successful methods, except when it comes to free throws.

Barry, the only man to lead the NCAA, ABA and NBA in scoring, retired with a (since-broken) record .900 accuracy rate from the line. As a rookie, Barry’s teammate with the Golden State Warriors, center George Johnson, shot .412 from the stripe. Barry taught him his technique, and four seasons later, Johnson shot .806.

Why that didn’t start a trend boggles the mind.

A few decades later, Andris Biedrins is the Warriors’ center. He made 16 percent of his free throws last season, prompting coach Don Nelson to suggest he try Barry’s methods. He didn’t, of course. He’s twice the shooter (.323) this season, which is another way of saying he’s horrendous.

In sports, substance trumps style every time, except with free throws.

Wilt Chamberlain improved when he copied Barry, but went back to the conventional method, explaining in his 1973 autobiography, “I felt silly, like a sissy.”

Barry talked to Shaquille O’Neal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and had him convinced he could turn him into a good free-throw shooter, but Barry couldn’t talk Del Harris into hiring him as Shaq’s tutor.

“Imagine if Shaq shot 80 percent (as did George Johnson),” Barry said. “He would have been a go-to guy, instead of going to the bench at the end of games. He would have won a lot more championships.”

Under-handed free-throw shooters aren’t extinct. A promising, skinny, late-bloomer of a basketball player who had three half-brothers who played in the NBA (Jon, Brent and Drew) and another who played at Kansas University (Scooter) uses the method.

Canyon Barry, entering his senior year in high school, uses the method Rick Barry learned from his father.

“I didn’t want to, but he was so dang relentless I ended up doing it my junior or senior year of high school, and it changed everything,” Barry said. “It changed everything.”