God has a sick sense of humor. To Shaquille O'Neal, He gives
Zeus's body, Puck's pluck and Midas's gold. He gives him
Nureyev's feet, Schwarzenegger's arms and Lindbergh's heart. He
gives him the talent to make baskets, CDs, movies, millions,
fans, friends and history. Then when Shaq gets to the free throw
line, He turns him into Frankenstein.
Lord knows he tries. Last season, win, lose or off day, he'd go
to the Mira Costa High gym and shoot foul shots for hours at a
time. Yet this season, all but one player on the Mira Costa
girls' team had a better free throw percentage than the clanking
.448 Shaq had through Sunday.
"It looks to me like he doesn't have any rhythm," says
18-year-old Mira Costa Mustang Tara Whiteside, who's 16 inches
shorter, 190 pounds lighter and 27 percentage points better from
the line than O'Neal. "It's sorta one, two, hesitate, then kinda
throw it up there."
Shaq wants badly to do better. He makes 100 extra free throws
after every practice and returns to the Lakers' gym many nights
and makes another 300. Sometimes he shoots them with his eyes
closed. Sometimes he lies on his back and shoots them. Sometimes
he shoots them while his free-throw-shooting guru, Ed
Palubinskas, stands in the lane and screams at him to distract
him. "I swear, we're shooting about 84 percent in practice," says
Palubinskas, "and better than 50 percent with his eyes closed."
Yet in games, the most feared player in the NBA goes to the line
and turns into a six-year-old with bunchy underwear. "I don't
know what it is," says O'Neal. "I'm not scared. I don't feel bad
about myself. But if I'm mad, they never go in."
If he could just do this simple thing--the one shot during which
nobody is hanging off him like kids off a Six Flags ride--we'd
be looking at a different NBA. First off, the whole Shaq-Kobe
Bryant spat wouldn't exist. Bryant wouldn't be firing shots like
an Iraqi gunner, trying to lead the league in scoring, because
O'Neal would be so far ahead of him, it would be useless. If
Shaq had sunk only 75% of his free throws this season, he'd be
averaging 31.5 points, instead of 27.7, and leading the league.
And that doesn't take into account all the buckets he'd get if
he weren't sitting on the pine in crunch time.
On top of that, Hack-a-Shaq would be on display at The Torture
Museum as a relic and Bryant wouldn't have uttered that awful
quote--"If Shaq were a 70-percent free throw shooter, it would
make things so much easier.... I trust the team. I just trust
myself more"--that hurt Shaq and his teammates. "I know one
thing," O'Neal says. "I would've never said that. If any one
person in this league could've done it by himself, it would've
been me. But I learned in my second year, it can't be done
without your teammates. Not then and not now."
Too bad his teammates can't help him at the foul line. "It looks
to me like he hinges it," says Gary Buchanan, the Villanova
sophomore who this season made an NCAA-record 73 consecutive free
throws. "He shoots it, then yanks his hands back real quick."
There's a 65-year-old man in Jacksonville, Ted St. Martin, who,
if deep-fried, wouldn't even make a between-meals Shaq snack. St.
Martin once made 5,221 in a row. "It looks to me as if he doesn't
get any arc on it," says St. Martin. "He's shooting it at the
rim, not on the rim, softly"
O'Neal and Palubinskas, who was a 90.1% foul shooter during his
two seasons at LSU, work endlessly, but they might as well be
polishing silverware on the Hindenburg. When Shaq was 11, he fell
from a tree and broke both wrists. The right one won't bend as
far back as it should, which means he can't get good spin on his
shots. Plus, he says, his right shoulder is so gnarled from NBA
goons using it for karate practice that it sometimes locks and
sends the ball off at hideous angles.
"You know what?" the Big Aristotle philosophizes. "Maybe it's a
blessing. If I were an 80-percent free throw shooter, with my
game, I'd have no flaws! I'd be impossible to deal with! I'd be
lazier. Nobody would be able to say anything to me. Ever. So, at
least this keeps me humble."
Nobody buys any of that, which is why his mail slot keeps getting
stuffed with surefire cures from priests, healers, hypnotists,
psychologists, nobodies, somebodies, wackos and, worse,
Because, to me, it looks as if he's bending his knees too much.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
"If I were an 80-percent free throw shooter, with my game, I'd
have no flaws!" says O'Neal. "This keeps me humble."