Steve Alford, Indiana University's star guard, wasn't joking. I had asked him what phase of his game might improve in this, his sophomore season, and he said, "My free-throw shooting."
I remember smiling. Alford had made better than 91% of his free throws in 1983-84, best in the nation. "Suffer from freshman jitters, did you?"
"I never put together a good string," he said. "I'd hit 20 or 25 in a row and miss."
I liked that. It was Jack Nicklaus in the clubhouse with a 65, saying, "I had nothing out there today." There was no false modesty in Alford's statement: He knew what a good string was.
For that matter, so did I. I put together a good string of my own one afternoon 21 years ago. I was never, I admit, a good basketball player, but I was a very good shooter. I was particularly sharp from 15 feet. In any game of 21, against any competition, I expected to win. And did.
Twenty-one years ago I was a skinny backup senior center on a talent-rich Palm Beach (Fla.) High School basketball team. Our coach, Joe Ceravolo, made us shoot 50 free throws a day, 25 at the start of practice and 25 at the end, when we were tired. I usually made 23 or 24 out of 25, and once or twice a week I would hit 25 straight. More than two misses, and I would insist that someone get a pole and check the height of the basket.
The gym at Palm Beach High had glass backboards on the main court, wood backboards on the sides. On the afternoon in question, I was shooting at the southeast basket. Charlie Wright, a junior guard, was my rebounder, and when I hit my first 25 shots, he threw me the ball and said, "Shoot till you miss."
Every basketball player goes through some little "business" at the foul line: an exaggerated deep breath, say, or a heaving of the shoulders to loosen the muscles. My routine was unhurried and as rhythmic as I could make it. With the ball in my hands, I looked down and positioned my right toe a half inch or so behind the foul line, my left foot slightly back for balance. I glanced at the basket and then down at the ball, which I bounced once or twice. Then the curious thing: I bounced the ball once more, caught it, and spun it so that it twirled between my hands, just brushing my fingertips, establishing touch. Before gravity grabbed it, I closed my hands on the spinning ball, groped for a seam with my shooting hand, bent my knees, lifted my eyes to the rim and shot. Swish.
Charlie kept count. "...29...30...31...." Most of my teammates had finished shooting and had gone to the showers, but a couple of guys were still on the main court, playing one-on-one. I was aware of the pounding of the basketball and the squeaking of shoes behind me. I was looking forward to a miss. I was tired and wanted to go home. "...35...36...37...."
Charlie began to test me. He made me chase a bounce pass off to my right. He lobbed one over my head that I had to jump for. He rolled the ball to me, making me bend. When a good shooter gets comfortable at the line, his feet dug in like a batter's at the plate, he ticks truer than a metronome. Grab, bounce, lift, release...swish. Grab, bounce, lift, release...swish. Charlie had caught the vacant look in my eye. Now I had to find my place at the line between shots, position the foot, get the feel of the ball again. Still, I kept hitting. "...44...45...46...."
As I neared 50, I began to feel a slight tension in my forearms and wrists. I had sunk 40 straight several times, but my all-time best was a streak of 54 as a sophomore. "Look out!" I threw a shot up with too much arch, it was drifting to the right. "Huh!" The ball somehow fell through the net, barely nicking the rim. "...51," Charlie said. I threw up another shot, and this time I didn't follow through fully. "Get there!" I yelled, applying body English. The ball hit the front of the rim, caromed softly against the backboard, bounced several times on the backplate and went in. "...52!" Charlie grinned at me. He knew I was losing it.
The next shot was perfect. Grab, bounce, lift, release...swish. "...53!" And the next, tying my record, "...54!" And finally, the shot for the new record: Swish. "...55!"
With No. 55 safely down, the tension left my arms. I quickly regained my rhythm. "...59...60...61...." I now felt that I could not miss. When I spun the ball before shooting, the basket seemed close enough to touch. I saw myself stretching out and dropping the ball gently over the front of the rim. "...72...73...74...." Charlie was no longer testing me. He threw perfect bounce passes so I wouldn't have to move my feet. Grab, bounce, lift, release...swish. "...78...79...."
Then the lights in the gym went out.
Coach Ceravolo's outline appeared in a door at the far end. "That's it," he called. "Take a shower."
I don't remember the impassioned negotiations that must have followed. I don't even remember leaving the foul circle. But, the lights came back on. "Shoot faster," Charlie said. "He's speaking at some dinner, and he has to leave."
I didn't shoot faster. I tried to regain my rhythm. "...80...81...82...." Coach Ceravolo came out and watched for a moment. It was fitting that he be there, for he was the architect of my streak. In my sophomore year he had made me change my shot—ruined it, I thought—by altering the way I held the ball and by forcing me to practice my follow-through on two-foot bank shots 100 or so times a day. He had the good grace not to remind me of my sulkiness then.
"...86...87...." Coach left again, saying I had only a few more minutes. Our 6'9" center, Pete Mitchell, ambled by, grinning. "What did you do wrong?" he asked. He thought I was being punished.
"...90...91...." As I neared 100, my concentration began to fail. On one shot I became aware of sweat trickling down my ribs as I released. On another, my eyes suddenly jerked up and followed the ball as it left my hands. (Or did I always do that? I couldn't remember.) Not missing was becoming a strain.
Grab, bounce, lift, release...swish. Grab, bounce, lift, release...swish.
"...100!" Charlie looked excited enough to uncork a bottle of champagne, but I called for the ball. "Hurry," I urged, "before I faint." He thought I was kidding; I was not. The ball seemed to be swelling. I sensed that my arch was increasing with each shot, that I was brushing the rafters and was bound to miss. But somehow the ball kept cutting the net."...105...106...107...."
Coach Ceravolo reappeared, carrying a sport coat on a hanger. "Still going?"
"...108," Charlie said hoarsely, catching the ball with one hand as it dropped from the net.
"You'll have to stop at 125," Coach said. "I'm sorry, but I have to close the gym."
I didn't argue this time. I wanted it to be over. "...113...114..." With an enforced end in sight, I might as well have been reshooting the first 25, the pressure-free two bits that had started my streak a half hour earlier. Grab, bounce, lift, release...swish. "...124." Grab, bounce, lift, release...swish.
My sleep that night was a perforated strip of feverish dreams and wide-eyed delirium. My feet twitched. Basket, rim and net floated before me: Grab, bounce, lift, release...swish. Grab, bounce, lift, release...wish.
The next night we played Lake Worth High School at its gym, and during warmups my hands felt cold and stiff. My jump shots hit the backboard like sacks of flour, my hook shot couldn't be coaxed over the rim. I went to the foul line to shoot a few free throws, and my teammates stopped shooting to watch. I made my first two and missed the third.
The string was ended at 127. Basketballs rained on the rim as my teammates resumed shooting.
I found celebrity to be perishable. I received no ribbons or plaques for my feat. For a while, nobody would rebound for me in practice for fear of missing dinner, but that, too, soon passed. (I don't think I had another streak longer than 40 or 50 that year.) I do remember a game in Vero Beach in which Coach Ceravolo honored me by having me shoot a technical foul, usually the task of our high-scoring point guard, Terry Kimmel.
I was calm as I edged my toe up to the foul line, glanced up at the basket, felt the rhythm—grab, bounce, lift, release...and watched a perfect shot with perfect spin thrown perfectly straight hit the back of the rim and ricochet all the way back to me at the foul line.
Funny thing about that season: I never did put together a good string.