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Malcolm Gladwell Q&A: The granny shot, Wilt Chamberlain and more

Malcolm Gladwell, who has a new podcast called "Revisionist History," discusses the underhanded free throw and a number of other NBA topics. 

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In the first three episodes of “Revisionist History,” a new podcast series, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell tackles, in order, a 19th century painting, the Vietnam War, and underhanded free throw shooting. That range of topics is as Gladwellian as it gets. But, as always, there’s an underlying point to each of these far-flung mental journeys.

In the free throw shooting episode, released this week, Gladwell explores Wilt Chamberlain’s flirtation with the underhanded style. The method, also called “granny style” shooting, was favored by Rick Barry, a career 89.3% free throw shooter, and it helped Chamberlain shoot a career-best 61% from the line in 1961–62, the same season he sank 28 of 32 free throws in his record-setting 100-point game. Much to Gladwell’s dismay, however, Chamberlain reverted to traditional foul shooting, his percentages predictably plunged again, and he later admitted that he felt “like a sissy” when he shot underhanded.

Gladwell’s underlying point is clearly stated: Why would a Hall of Famer reject a proven, simple solution to his most obvious flaw when another Hall of Famer used the exact solution to historically great effect? And, in turn, why have modern players largely followed in Chamberlain’s footsteps rather than Barry’s?

The Chamberlain/Barry dichotomy leads naturally into an exploration of high threshold versus low threshold personalities. In the simplest sense, a high threshold personality (like Chamberlain) is more likely to allow a crowd to dictate his behavior, while a low threshold personality (like Barry) pursues the preferred course with less regard to social cost. By the end of the episode, Gladwell finds himself “admiring” the polarizing Barry’s willingness to shun hecklers and groupthink as he perfected the method of foul shooting that ultimately maximized his ability and value.

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Of course, the modern NBA is loaded with enough poor free throw shooters that the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy of intentional fouling is one of the league’s longest on-running debates. Commissioner Adam Silver even told reporters during the Finals earlier this month that the league was “not far away” from reforming its approach to the issue. Still, no NBA player has yet been willing to attempt shooting underhanded, although Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said center Andre Drummond was “open” to the idea after shooting a career-worst 35.5% from the line on the season and getting hacked off the court repeatedly during the postseason.

Should Drummond break through the stigma and groupthink to take the plunge on a better approach? How might the Pistons and his fans help his effort? And should the NBA reassess its entire approach to fouls? posed those and other NBA-related questions to Gladwell in a telephone interview on Tuesday. The following has been edited for length and clarity. Disclosure:’s “Open Floor” NBA podcast, like Gladwell’s podcast, is affiliated with the Panoply Network.

Ben Golliver: You noted that granny style shooting is generally viewed as a “shameful” approach that, in the Chamberlain example, runs counter to a macho sensibility. Do you think the height of the players who are often poor foul shooters is a contributing factor? 

Malcolm Gladwell: I’m sure that’s part of the complicated psychology, except that you’re standing out even more when you’re missing free throws in crucial situations. When DeAndre Jordan gets yanked at the end of a playoff game, he’s the focus of everyone in the entire arena. It’s not like the strategy they currently follow doesn’t have them standing out. They’re standing out now for the worst possible reason: They’re incapable of doing fundamental and relatively straightforward basketball acts.

Shaquille O’Neal, one of the greatest players in the history of the game, is now memorialized for his failure: Hack-a-Shaq. You can’t stand out more than when you have a term named for you! If height is a part of their psychology, it only deepens the irrationality, it doesn’t explain it.

Rare photos of Shaquille O'Neal throughout the years