It is an ordinary night in the middle of the NBA season. There
are nine games, several of which will conclude thrillingly. In
Indianapolis, the Pacers are hosting the Wizards, and the clock
is evaporating. The game is tied at 82. The house is on its
feet. With 36.5 seconds left, Indiana's Reggie Miller nails a
three-pointer. Washington comes back with a bucket. The final
few seconds are a blur of clawing players and screaming coaches.
Finally, the Pacers win 85-84. A television crew sets up quickly
on the floor, and Miller explains his heroic shot, which will be
replayed on highlight shows the rest of the night. Indiana coach
Larry Bird takes off his tie and retreats to his office. He
knows a thing or two about games decided at the buzzer. He knows
exactly where this one was won, when it was won: at the free
throw line, late in the second quarter, when no one was paying
Bird, with his genius for simplicity, has a four-word suggestion
for any playoff-bound team seeking to improve: Make more free
throws. "Free throws are the key to all games," Bird says. Get
to the line often; make a high percentage; win fabulous prizes.
In the playoffs that credo is even more true.
Four foul shots turned around that garden-variety
Indiana-Washington game on Jan. 27. Late in the second quarter
the Pacers' pace was laggardly, and the Wizards led by three. In
the final minute of the half, Miller--celebrated for his
three-pointers, less well-known as one of the best foul shooters
ever--tossed in two sweet ones from the line, the balls dropping
like snowflakes on a still night. (The free throw is always
unremarkable, until it is examined.) On Indiana's next
possession Rik Smits, the Pacers center, went to the line for a
one-on-one. He converted both. Everyone knows that Smits stands
7'4", a very impressive height. But what also makes him critical
to Indiana's success is that he makes over three quarters of his
free throws. Instead of trailing at the half--at home, against a
.500 team, after three days' rest--Indiana, then a .700 club,
was ahead. Those foul shots, Bird said later, made all the
Through Saturday the Pacers ranked 15th in the NBA in number of
free throws attempted (1,931), seventh in percentage made (.761)
and 13th in total points made from the line (1,470). They also
had the league's seventh-best record. Bird, who was a career
.886 free throw shooter in the NBA, has created a team in his
own image. Given his success as a player and as a rookie coach,
it's odd that so few other teams see the wisdom in his way.
Or maybe it's not so odd. For there's nothing in basketball that
generates as many conflicting theories and shooting styles and
mental approaches as foul shooting does. Practicing makes you
either better or worse, depending on which player you ask.
Making a high percentage of free throws is either critical or
irrelevant to a team's success, depending on which coach you
ask. (One who might have a definitive answer is Bernie
Bickerstaff, coach of the Wizards, who through Saturday were
26th in the NBA from the line, with a .694 percentage. Had
Washington merely achieved this season's league
average--.737--in its losses, five of them probably would have
turned into victories. Instead of being 37-37 and scrambling to
make the playoffs, the Wizards would have been 42-32 and all but
in.) The ability to make free throws is the province of either
the mind or the body--nobody's sure which. Free throw shooting
today is either better or worse than it has ever been.
It's bizarre that there's no agreement on all this, because the
free throw is about the only immutable thing in basketball: The
shooter is 15 feet from the backboard, he has 10 seconds to
shoot, there's no opposing hand in his face. You might think
that by now foul shooting would have evolved into a science,
that every player good enough to reach the NBA would make eight
of 10 from the line. Not a chance. In Florida there is a former
dairy farmer, Ted St. Martin, who once made 2,036 straight free
throws. He believes he can turn around any NBA player. The
players will tell you otherwise. "I can make them in an empty
gym," says Dale Davis, a Pacers forward who, despite Bird's best
efforts, through Saturday was making free throws at a .436 pace,
.307 below the league average. "The problem is the games."
NUMBERS, PART I
In 1996-97 the 29 NBA teams collectively shot .738 from the free
throw line. The best-shooting team was the Warriors, at .778.
The worst-shooting team was the Lakers, at .692. The Lakers had
a 56-26 record. The Warriors were 30-52. Go figure.
A NOTE REGARDING THE NAME
You may call it a foul shot. The shot, after all, is the result
of a foul. However, in the parlance of the NBA it's a free
throw, with the emphasis on free, i.e., free points. At least
that's what it's supposed to be.
CALIPARI: PRACTICE DOES NOT MAKE PERFECT
There's a school of thought among NBA coaches that too much
discussion of free throws and too much practice increases
pressure and worsens free throw shooting. John Calipari, coach
of the Nets and a .730 free throw shooter in college, typifies
this view. "You can't practice everything, there's not enough
time," he says. "If we play great defensively, the free throws
take care of themselves. The only thing I pay attention to with
free throws is what a guy does in the final four minutes of a
game. If you can improve players' self-esteem and confidence,
get them to relax, teach visualization and routine, they will
shoot as well, or better, with the pressure on."
NUMBERS, PART II
In 1972-73, 35.2% of all NBA players shot 80% or better from the
foul line (minimum 100 attempts). Twenty-five years later only
30% are doing so well.
WEIRD BUT EFFECTIVE
Magic Johnson, who was an .848 career free throw shooter,
watched the ball--not the rim, as so many players do--while his
foul shots were in the air.... Hal Greer (.801) shot his free
throws as if they were 15-foot jumpers.... Bob Pettit (.761)
took a deep breath before launching a shot.... Dave Gambee
(.822) bent low with one leg stretched forward, like a ballerina
curtseying (right), then released his unorthodox underhanded
shot with wicked reverse English.
NUMBERS, PART III
In the 1972-73 season, 78.7% of all NBA players shot 70% or
better from the foul line. Twenty-five years later, only 70% are
doing as well.
TRULY FOUL FOUL SHOOTERS
1. Chris Dudley, center, Knicks: .461 career through Saturday.
Has so much trouble releasing the ball that he was once called
for a "fake free throw," as if he were trying to prompt a lane
2. Shaquille O'Neal, center, Lakers: .535 career and falling.
Was seen this season getting free throw instruction from...his
3. Dennis Rodman, forward, Bulls: .585 career, .532 in playoffs.
"I don't like being out there," he once said. "Too much
4. Lorenzo Williams, center, Wizards: .377 in six seasons. Has
the potential to be the worst free throw shooter in NBA history.
5. Dale Davis (top), forward, Pacers: .499 career. That sorry
number, however, does not reflect Davis's dismal performance
from the line over the last three seasons, in each of which he
has been well below .500.
NUMBERS, PART IV
In 1996-97, 19.3% of all points scored in the regular season
were on free throws. In the playoffs, the percentage went up to
MARK PRICE'S TIPS FOR EXCELLENT FREE THROW SHOOTING
1. Find the nail. (There's a nail that marks the exact center of
the foul line, as in the picture above.)
2. Center yourself so your head is directly above the nail.
3. Look at the rim. Determine if it is tilting to the left or
the right. Adjust accordingly. (Price moves as much as an inch
in the direction of the tilted side of the rim.)
4. Spread your legs until your body is in its most stable
position, usually with your feet about shoulder-width apart. If
you're righthanded, put your left toe several inches behind the
line. Do the reverse if you're lefthanded.
5. Bounce the ball several times to get the feel of it.
6. Spin the ball in your hands. Grab it with the seams parallel
to the floor. Don't place any part of either hand on the needle
hole. No part of your palm should touch the ball.
7. Concentrate on a specific spot on the rim. (For most players
it's the back center of the rim; for Price, the front center.)
8. Bend your knees and raise the ball to your head in one fluid
motion. As you do this, start standing on your toes.
9. Draw the upper part of your shooting arm back so that you
create an L with the lower part of the arm. The elbow of your
shooting arm should be tucked in and directly below the hand.
Cock your wrist at about a 60-degree angle.
10. In one fluid motion remove your guide hand from the ball and
flick the wrist toward the rim. The last fingers to remain in
contact with the ball should be your index and middle fingers.
11. Follow through so that your fingers point toward the rim.
12. When shooting two, step away from the foul line after your
first shot, so that a teammate will not shake or slap your hand.
The encouragement is distracting.
13. Take 500 free throws a day in practice in the off-season and
100 a day in season. Keep track of how you're doing.
NUMBERS, PART V
The playoff record for most free throws made in a single game
without a miss is 18, by Karl Malone--yes, Karl Malone--against
the Lakers on May 10, 1997.
The record for most free throws attempted in one game without
success is 10, by Wilt Chamberlain, against the Pistons on Nov.
ON FREE THROW SHOOTING, BY CHRIS MULLIN
You've got to create an empty gym for yourself. You're on the
line, the fans are screaming, the game's tied--you've got to
make yourself think you're alone, no pressure. Free throws are
your only chance in basketball to be selfish. It's your time, so
enjoy it. I want to be on the line. You've got to have good
mechanics, and you've got to practice. Summer is the time to
really practice free throws. If you practice, you feel like you
should make them in games. You're not standing on the line
praying them in. You're shooting them in. You feel that you
deserve to make them.
THE SUREST SHOTS
Here are the players, present and past, who were most often fine
from the line.
PLAYER CURRENT TEAM CAREER FT%*
1. Mark Price Magic .905
2. Reggie Miller Pacers .877
3. Ricky Pierce Bucks .876
4. Jeff Hornacek Jazz .872
5. Hersey Hawkins Sonics .868
(tie) Micheal Williams Timberwolves .868
7. Terrell Brandon Bucks .865
(tie) Chris Mullin Pacers .865
9. Mitch Richmond Kings .845
10. Joe Dumars Pistons .844
PLAYER SEASONS CAREER FT%
1. Mark Price 1986-87 through Saturday .905
2. Rick Barry 1965-66 through 1979-80 .900
3. Calvin Murphy 1973-74 through 1982-83 .892
4. Scott Skiles 1986-87 through 1995-96 .889
5. Larry Bird 1979-80 through 1991-92 .886
6. Bill Sharman 1950-51 through 1960-61 .883
7. Reggie Miller 1987-88 through Saturday .877
8. Ricky Pierce 1982-83 through Saturday .876
9. Jeff Hornacek 1986-87 through Saturday .872
(tie ) Kiki Vandeweghe 1980-81 through 1992-93 .872
*Stats through Saturday; minimum 1,200 free throw attempts
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU
BIG MEN, SOFT HANDS
(Minimum 500 free throws)
7'4" Rik Smits (above), center, Pacers, .774
7'3" Arvydas Sabonis, center, Trail Blazers, .778
7'0" Joe Kleine, center, Bulls, .795
6'11" Christian Laettner, forward, Hawks, .821
Dan Schayes, center, Magic, .805
6'10" Bill Wennington, center, Bulls, .784
Danny Ferry, forward, Cavaliers, .833
Detlef Schrempf, forward, Sonics, .800
Joe Smith, forward, 76ers, .790
Terry Mills, forward, Heat, .783
Derrick McKey, forward, Pacers, .780
Derrick Coleman, forward, 76ers, .767
The Mavs Have Home Court Advantage
How hard is it for visiting teams to make free throws in the
various NBA arenas? The foulest venues seem to be Reunion Arena
("They don't have a lot of bounce to their rims there," says
Heat forward Terry Mills. "Either it's straight in or it's
out"), Market Square Arena ("It's a tough crowd," says Heat
guard Tim Hardaway) and SkyDome ("The rims are never even," says
Trail Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire). Madison Square Garden, on
the other hand, gets raves from most players. "When you get a
chance to play in the Garden," says Clippers guard Darrick
Martin, "you just always want to do well, so your focus is at
its peak." Here are all 29 primary venues, ranked from hardest
to easiest for visiting shooters.
ARENA (Home team) FT PCT.* FG PCT.
1. Reunion Arena (Mavericks) .698 .455
2. Market Square Arena (Pacers) .702 .423
3. SkyDome (Raptors) .703 .474
4. Charlotte Coliseum (Hornets) .716 .454
5. L.A. Memorial Sports Arena (Clippers).719 .471
(tie) Great Western Forum (Lakers) .719 .431
7. United Center (Bulls) .721 .419
(tie) Rose Garden (Trail Blazers) .721 .422
9. Key Arena (SuperSonics) .725 .439
10. Compaq Center (Rockets) .726 .461
11. America West Arena (Suns) .727 .447
(tie) CoreStates Center (76ers) .727 .433
13. ARCO Arena (Kings) .731 .430
14. The New Arena in Oakland (Warriors) .732 .436
15. Alamodome (Spurs) .735 .400
16. Georgia Dome (Hawks) .737 .434
17. Orlando Arena (Magic) .738 .447
18. Bradley Center (Bucks) .740 .450
tie) The Palace of Auburn Hills (Pistons).740 .442
20. Target Center (Timberwolves) .745 .434
21. FleetCenter (Celtics) .746 .468
22. McNichols Sports Arena (Nuggets) .748 .474
23. Continental Airlines Arena (Nets) .751 .468
24. Miami Arena (Heat) .753 .422
25. MCI Center (Wizards) .756 .456
26. Gund Arena (Cavaliers) .758 .437
27. Madison Square Garden (Knicks) .760 .433
28. General Motors Place (Grizzlies) .761 .464
29. Delta Center (Jazz) .775 .425
*All stats through Saturday
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU