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Failure Most Foul

March 20, 1989
March 20, 1989

Table of Contents
March 20, 1989

From The Editor-In-Chief
The ACC
The Big Eight
Dallas Cowboys
Boxing
Yzerman
Rookie Pitchers
Foul Shooting
Tim Krumrie
College Basketball
Robbie Davis
Wrestling
Point After

Failure Most Foul

Cleveland's Chris Dudley and Denver's Jerome Lane are the latest on a long list of NBA bricklayers from the foul line

There's a mildbuzz of anticipation as Christopher Guilford Dudley—a graduate of Yale, thegrandson of a former U.S. ambassador to Denmark and, most notably, a bad, bad,foul shooter—moves to the free throw line for two shots. The date is Jan. 29,1989, the place is the Baltimore Arena, where the Washington Bullets areplaying a "home" game, and Dudley, a backup center for the visitingCleveland Cavaliers, is about to make foul-shooting history.

This is an article from the March 20, 1989 issue Original Layout

Dudley isadequate in all other phases of the game, but from the line he's absolutelyawful. So no one is surprised when Dudley's first shot is a dud, which may soonbecome standard NBA lingo for a bad free throw. Dudley misses his second try,too. Ah, but Bullet guard Darrell Walker goes into the lane before the shothits the rim, and Dudley gets another try.

Dudley puts uphis third attempt. It misses, but ref Earl Strom calls a second Washington laneviolation, on center Dave Feitl. So Dudley shoots a fourth time. It misses, butFeitl is called for yet another lane violation, again by Strom, a veteranofficial who to that point thought he had seen it all. Dudley fires up thrownumber 5. It misses. There's no lane violation. Washington rebounds the ball.And Dudley has become the first NBA player to miss five free throws on a singlenightmarish excursion to the line.

Walker and Feitl,like so many other players before them, were confused by Dudley's style. Hedips his arms and bends his knees, like most players, but does not release theball on his way up. Instead, he returns to the start-up position, sometimesdips his arms again—he has a hitch in his hitch, as Leon (Daddy Wags) Wagnerused to say about his baseball swing—and then releases the ball. The effect isthe same as when one of the Harlem Globetrotters launches a free throw and theball zips back to him on an elastic band, except that Dudley isn't trying to befunny, and the opponents are the Washington Bullets, not the WashingtonGenerals.

In an exhibitiongame against the Miami Heat at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Oct.16, Dudley was so exasperating, he was whistled for a "fake freethrow." Referee Darrell Garretson thought Dudley was trying to draw a laneviolation with his strange shooting motion. When there's no lane violation on aDudley free throw, there's at the very least a scene in which several playersstruggle to keep from falling into the lane too early, a tableau that suggestsa bunch of kids trying to keep their balance on a log floating in a creek.

It goes by twonames: free throw, which it almost is when the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird (.880for his career), the Milwaukee Bucks' Jack Sikma (.846), the Detroit Pistons'John Long (.847) or any of a couple of dozen other players shoot it; and foulshot, which it certainly is when Dudley, the Denver Nuggets' Jerome Lane, thePistons' Dennis Rodman, the Heat's Rony Seikaly, the Golden State Warriors'Larry (Mr. Mean) Smith or the Los Angeles Clippers' Greg Kite shoot it. Mostfoul. Definitely.

At week's endDudley, who's in his second NBA season, and Lane, a rookie, were scufflingaround in the nether regions of bad foul shooting, down there where few havelaid brick before, not even the patron saint of the breed, Wilton NormanChamberlain, whose career mark was .511. Dudley, a .563 foul shooter last year,was at .357 (35 of 98), while Lane was at .353 (30 of 85).

Smith, a career.553 shooter, was right with them, but had attempted only 44 free throws thisseason, so we'll withhold judgment. Dudley and Lane are outclanging anotherfoul foul shooter of recent vintage, the San Antonio Spurs' Ozell Jones (.398in 1984-85), but they'll have to go some to beat Utah Jazz's Steve Hayes (.306in '85-86).

Consider: NBAcoaches will kill for a 90% free throw shooter, would be overjoyed if everyoneshot 80%, silently hope for 75%, accept 70% from certain players and evenendure 60% from one or two others. But 50%, 40%, 30%? Rarely.

Rodman was themost celebrated bad foul shooter last season, having air-balled a couple in keyspots during the playoffs and having said, "I'm shooting fouls so bad,frankly I'm amazed when I make any." But even Rodman, who worked with ashooting coach in the off-season and was hitting .596 at week's end, must seemalmost Birdlike to Dudley and Lane.

Seikaly, anotherrookie, is only doing what players from his alma mater are supposed to do fromthe foul line, which is miss. Free throw scientists now believe that the cityof Syracuse, N.Y., was built on an ancient Iroquois burial ground that carriesan eternal curse on foul shooters. Seikaly was at .513 (138 of 269). AndSyracuse...well, the '88-89 Orangemen were filling it up at a .609 clip.

The classic foulfoul shooter would seem to be a player like Kite, a glass-banger with alifetime .458. He's a big, awkward reserve center who lacks offensive finesse.But don't rush to judgment. Yes, Dudley is out of that mold, but he's much moreathletic than Kite, and Seikaly is even more athletic than Dudley. Two othercenters, Joe Kleine of Boston (.907 this season) and Danny Schayes of Denver(.832), aren't exactly panthers, yet they are excellent foul shooters. And twoothers, Sikma and Philadelphia's Mike Gminski (.847) are among thesoftest-shooting free throwers in the league.

Conversely, Laneand Rodman are foul line masons even though they're versatile, midsizedplayers. So is Cleveland reserve swingman Craig Ehlo, who has a decent shootingtouch from the floor but an unacceptable .573 percentage from the line thisyear. Has he been watching Dudley too closely? Not really. Ehlo was a .621 foulshooter in his two years at Washington State. The Chicago Bulls' Scottie Pippenis often compared with Rodman for his versatility, a comparison that extends tothe line; through Sunday, Pippen was shooting .657. Seattle's Nate McMillan, aheady point guard who knows the game, was a disappointing .626, a few pointsbelow his career .657 percentage.

If it's difficultto identify a classic type, it's nearly impossible to pin down a single classiccause of bad foul shooting.

"Mechanics,concentration, nervousness, other psychological factors," says Denverassistant coach Allan Bristow, who works with Lane. ''At some point they allinteract, and it's hard to tell what the problem is." And then?

"And thenyou've got a mess," says Bristow.

The operativeword here, obviously, is choke. Whatever a free throw shooter's original flawmay have been, sooner or later he starts missing because he's gagging. The freethrow line is basketball's putting green, a spot that brings on the yips."The foul line is the one place on a basketball court where you canchoke." says Bob Cousy, an .803 career foul shooter. "Everything elseis action and reaction. You don't have time to choke." Cousy stillremembers the night of April 13, 1957, when he got the yips at Boston Gardenduring the second overtime of Game 7 of the championship series against the St.Louis Hawks. He threw up an air ball free throw that hit former teammate TommyHeinsohn on the shoulder as he stepped into the lane to box out. (The Celticswon anyway, 125-123.) "If you don't get steel," says Cooz, "you'vechoked."

However fondlyyou may recall the era of Cousy and Heinsohn, the players back then weren'tsuperior free throwers. The league-wide percentage was .675 in 1947-48, .747 in'57-58, .720 in '67-68, .752 in '77-78 and .766 last season. And just asyesterday's great players (Chamberlain and Bill Russell notwithstanding) wereat the very least good foul shooters, so are today's. Bird has steadilyimproved over his 10 seasons in the league, which is remarkable consideringthat he was an .822 shooter in college.

Michael Jordan isalmost 10 percentage points better as a pro than he was as a collegian (.845 to.748). Magic Johnson hasn't been below 80% in his last six seasons and iscurrently enjoying his best year from the line (.906).

"It isabsolutely inexcusable not to shoot 80 percent from the foul line," saysMike Newlin, who in his 11-year career with the Houston Rockets, the New JerseyNets and the New York Knicks averaged .870, the NBA's fifth-best career freethrow percentage. "Any player who does worse may as well come up to thecoach, put his arm around him and say, 'Coach, I'm going to lose some games foryou this season from the foul line. And, Coach, maybe it's going to get youfired.' Yet it's not stressed nearly enough."

Newlin insiststhat if Dudley, Lane and a lot of others really worked at it, they couldimprove their foul shooting substantially. There is, he says, "absolutelyno way they would be so bad."

Clevelandassistant coach Brian Winters, a career .842 foul shooter in his NBA days,disagrees. Winters, 36, who was prematurely gray even before he started workingwith Dudley, says, "I can tell you that Chris's problem doesn't come fromlack of effort." Winters should know—he's one of the coaches who throw theballs back to Dudley as he takes his daily free throws and talks foul-shootingmechanics with him after practice.

Whereas Laneseems upbeat about his prospects for improvement—"I'm going to keep onshooting the same way, and the second half of the season will be a lotbetter," he says—Dudley is depressed by the subject. He would not discusshis shortcomings, and no wonder. Dudley's bricks have brought him a lot ofunwanted attention. Take the recent free throw exhibition by New York Knickbroadcaster John Andariese, shown on the Madison Square Garden Network. Duringa broadcast of a Cavs-Knicks game on Feb. 2, Andariese said that he could shootfree throws with his eyes closed as well as Dudley does with his eyes open, andhe was goaded into giving it a try. A few days later, the blindfolded Andariesemade 2 of 9, which wasn't bad considering that Dudley had 1-for-14 and 3-for-24streaks this year, and Rodman suffered through an 0-for-15 spell lastseason.

In an interviewthat appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Dec. 18, Dudley said, "I canmake them in practice, but when I get into a game I start thinking about makingthe perfect shot. I have too many things on my mind and can't relax." Hmm,that would indicate that Dudley feels the problem is mental. But what about theneedless knee bend and the hitches, serious breaches of free throwmechanics?

"Well, thatcould be in the head, too," says Atlanta Hawk guard Glenn (Doc) Rivers, whohad a calamitous 1987 postseason (26 of 52, .500) but is now among the NBA'sleaders (.882). "I looked at films of when I was shooting bad, and I wasdefinitely jerking the ball, but it was still a mental problem. I was going upto the line thinking, Oh, no, here it goes again. My lord, just don't shoot anair ball. Just don't shoot a brick. So, I was shooting it just to get off theline. Obviously, that's no way to do it."

Rivers, who was a.615 foul shooter in college, proves that a player can get better. An evengreater inspiration for Dud-Lane might be Utah's Karl Malone, who shot .549from the line in his first two seasons but was at a healthy .762 for '88-89through last weekend. A good thing, too, because Malone had shot more freethrows (688) than anybody else in the league. "I made a few minor changeswith my feet, but basically my free throw problems were mental," saysMalone. "Concentration, concentration, concentration. That's what I had towork on." And he's working on it. On several occasions this season, Malonezipped the ball back to the referee because he wasn't finished setting his feetat the line. (A player has 10 seconds to shoot once he has received the ballfrom the official, but Malone shouldn't worry—if Dallas's Adrian Dantley andMilwaukee's Ricky Pierce aren't called for taking too much time, then no onewill be.)

To be sure, somefail to make any progress. Remember Garfield Smith? Probably not. As a Bostonrookie in 1970-71, Smith made only 22 of 56 free throws (.393) and followedthat up with a 6-of-31 performance (.194) the next season, his last in the NBA.Smith is fondly remembered for the "air ball hat trick" he had in agame against the Phoenix Suns. He failed to draw iron on each of his freethrows in a 3-for-2 bonus situation that no longer applies in the NBA. "Andthey were all different," says Golden State coach Don Nelson, who was aCeltic player at that entertaining, and historical, moment. "One way short,one way right, one way left." Fortunately for Boston. Smith did not pass onthe free throw curse through his jersey number, number 33, which now belongs toBird.

Kim Hughes, a6'11" center out of Wisconsin, was the NBA's best-known foul line clangerin the 1970s. In five seasons—with the Nets, the Nuggets and theCavaliers—Hughes made only 62 of 186 free throws, a .333 percentage that is 23points below Wade Boggs's career batting average. Unlike the Dudley hitch,Hughes's southpaw stroke never looked too bad, but the ball rarely went in. At36, Hughes is still playing hoops, in Italy—he has been scoring about 19 pointsa game—and in his nine European seasons he has averaged .692 from the line. Heblames his poor NBA free throw shooting on bad eyesight. He didn't like to wearglasses, and when he scratched the cornea of his left eye, early in his NBAdays, he took to wearing only one contact lens, which threw off his depthperception.

"And,eventually, it became a mental thing," Hughes says, as almost all bad foulshooters eventually do. "We were shooting one-and-ones then, and I almostalways missed the first shot. Then, too, I wasn't a regular player. And whenyou're in that situation you want to do everything perfectly. You know youwon't get a chance to shoot six or seven more free throws that game, like Iknow I will get playing over here. So you start pressing."

Chamberlain, ofcourse, was a special case. He played almost every minute, went to the basketwithout hesitation, tried 11,862 free throws, more than anyone else who everplayed (Moses Malone, with 9,223 at week's end, has a long-shot chance atcatching him), and seemed immune to the pressure that would bother meremortals. Yet he still stands, all 85 3/6 inches of him, as the quintessence ofbad foul shooting. Had he averaged even 70% from the line, he would have made2,246 more free throws and raised his career scoring average better than twopoints, from 30.1 to 32.2. In 1967-68, he made only 354 of 932 free throws fora .380 percentage—all things considered, the worst foul-shooting seasonever—yet was still third in scoring, with a 24.3 average.

Through his firstfive seasons, Chamberlain was actually better from the foul line than hisnemesis, Russell (.568 to .557), but Russell, a lifetime .561 foul shooter, wasmore consistent and shot less than 50% from the foul line only once in his13-year career—his rookie season of 1956-57. Wilt was below 50% six times.

It's futile totry to figure it out. Wilt never did, his coaches never did, the thousands offans who gave him advice never did. Chamberlain wrestled with the reasons forhis failures most foul in his 1973 autobiography, Wilt, and concluded that theproblem was largely psychological: "I shouldn't have let it bother me somuch, but I wanted to excel at everything, and the harder I tried—the moredifferent ways I tried to shoot—the worse I got."

The mostnotorious way Chamberlain tried, of course, was underhand, the preferred methodof shooting fouls (and, in the earliest years of the game, field goals, too)until the 1950s. Wilt first tried that style in 1960 when he was with thePhiladelphia Warriors and used it sporadically throughout his career. To shootunderhand is a favorite suggestion of fans who offer tips. It makes sense froma theoretical standpoint—a softer touch can be applied to the ball, and theshot has an excellent chance of "kind of dying and slopping over the frontrim," as legendary college and pro coach Pete Newell puts it—but notnecessarily from a practical standpoint.

Who could saythat Dudley would be any less of a bricklayer with an underhand motion? And whocould say he would be any more comfortable with it? Wilt feels he had moresuccess with that style than any other but, as he says in his book, "I feltsilly—like a sissy—shooting underhanded." And that was at a time when thegame's best foul shooter ever, Hall of Famer Rick Barry, a career .900 man, wasstill using that style.

"Anyway, Icouldn't teach it even if Jerome wanted to try," says Bristow, "andneither could anybody else."

Except Barry, ofcourse, who converted Golden State teammate George T. Johnson to the underhandtoss in the early '70s and turned him into a respectable career .694 foulshooter. "Well, you would think so, wouldn't you?" says Barry, whenasked if he has been approached to coach foul shooting by any NBA team,"but it hasn't happened." Perhaps Barry's abrasive personality hassomething to do with it. But Ted St. Martin, a 53-year-old Jacksonville, Fla.,man who holds the world record of 2,036 straight free throw conversions—he didit in a Jacksonville shopping mall on June 25, 1977—has worked only brieflywith the Phoenix Suns and nobody else. "I could get anybody up to 75percent," says St. Martin, "but nobody ever asks."

Houston hiredCalvin Murphy as its community relations director and as a special shootingcoach (not just for free throws) only three weeks ago, but until recentlyNewlin had never heard from an NBA team. He wouldn't name the team. "Isimply can't comprehend it," says Newlin, who claims he never left practiceuntil he had made 100 consecutive free throws. "I've never once had aplayer come to me and say, 'Please show me.' Coaches are infatuated with theiroffense, yet they continue to lose games at the one place where they could winthem—the foul line. I'd love to work with somebody but...." He shakes hishead. "It just doesn't make sense."

And neither,ultimately, do the foul-shooting problems of Dudley, Lane and others like them.They shouldn't be that bad, but they are. They should get better, but maybethey won't.

"Sometimes,there's really only one thing to do with a bad foul shooter," says Nelson,who employs this strategy with Smith, "and that's to make sure he rarelygets to the foul line."

ILLUSTRATIONARNOLD ROTHDudley's shooting so befuddled the Bullets that they kept violating the lane. He kept missing—five times in one foul stint.ILLUSTRATIONARNOLD ROTHThe roots of foul-ups are more often psychological than physiological, as free throwing is really just a big confidence game.ILLUSTRATIONARNOLD ROTHFree throws? Not on your life. For shooters like Rivers, an appearance at the foul line is not a liberating experience.ILLUSTRATIONARNOLD ROTHThough today's NBA players might think it weird, there isn't anything underhanded in this style, as Barry's record shows.