SOME THINGS in sports make no sense. The foul pole is fair. Olympic divers dive, shower, then dive again. Michael Irvin continues to be on TV.
But nothing in sports is more ridiculous than bazillion-dollar athletes who can't make free throws.
So many players look like they are flinging live quail. Unguarded, 15 feet from the hoop, they've got as much touch as a sumo wrestler wearing catcher's mitts. Shaq is a career 52-percenter and dropping. Ben Wallace is so sorry, he takes paint off the rim. You know it's bad when teammates slap hands with the shooter after he misses. (Hey, Dude! Pretty close!) And all the while there's a perfect solution that every player rebuffs out of sheer vanity.
The former ABA and NBA All-Star forward is the second-best free throw shooter of all time (90.0%, behind only Mark Price's 90.4%). He was as automatic as a Bulova, as reliable as sunup. And he shot them all granny style. Underhanded. From between his legs.
"I would shoot negative percentage before I shot like that," Shaq once grumbled. The Diesel has turned down Barry's offers of help over and over. "He said it wasn't good for his image," Barry says.
Uh, Shaq? You take foul shots as though you were heaving a piano at a plate-glass window. What image are you going for? The Hulk?
But it's not only Shaq. Nobody wants Barry's help, not even his kids. Four of his sons have played professionally, but they all refuse to shoot like him. "Dad," his son Scooter once told him, "it's hard enough being your son without shooting like that."
Don't they know he improved Warriors teammate George Johnson by 40%?
Me, I'm a 63-percenter. I found this out by going to my neighborhood gym and shooting 500 free throws. O.K., that sucks, right? But then I did what NBA bricklayers won't do. I went to see Rick Barry.
Now 62, he still looks as if he could come off the bench for an NBA team. Or at least the Knicks. And he can still sink free throws like cops sink doughnuts.
"I make so many in a row, I get bored," he says. His wife, Lynn, says, "I've seen him not shoot for a year and then stand up and make 100 straight. He can make 20 straight with his eyes closed."
"Eyes closed?" I scoffed. "Prove it."
He made 11 in a row his first try.
After about three hours he had me making gobs of them underhanded—12 in a row once, five in a row with my eyes closed. The shot is so soft that a lot more balls loaf around on the rim and drop in. And you think, Why don't more people try it?
"Because it's ugly," says my pal Bill Pearson, who played for Wisconsin in the '70s.
I stuck to it. Through snickers and punk kids muttering "gay" and an old guy at the Y one day shaking his head and then saying to his buddy, "That's how guys shoot when they can't shoot anymore."
Oh, yeah? Within two weeks I'd grannied my free throw percentage up to 78. Yes, I looked like Aunt Bea at the county fair, but 78%!
You want ugly? Let's take the stroke of Ben the Brick. At 41.9%, Wallace is the NBA's alltime worst free throw shooter. You could make 41.9% drop-kicking them in an Oscar de la Renta gown. Maybe Ben had that headband over his eyes. "If Ben were serious," Barry says, "I know I could get him shooting better than 70 percent."
Wilt Chamberlain, who for years held the record for the most pathetic free-throw-shooting season ever (38.0%), is one of the few guys to go underhanded in an effort to improve. He got better but then gave it up. "I felt silly—like a sissy," he wrote in his 1973 autobiography. So he went back to his old line drives.
Had Wallace swallowed his macho, gone underhand last season in Detroit and shot only 20% percentage points better, he'd have made 60 more foul shots. Sixty more points might have made the difference in a lot of games, especially because Detroit could have kept him in at the end of a lot more close ones.
I reached out to the chronic clankers—Shaq, Wallace, Bruce Bowen (55.0% this season), Emeka Okafor (51.2) Brendan Haywood (42.6) and Tyson Chandler (whose 32.4% threatens the alltime mark)—and asked the simple question: "What would it take to get you to shoot free throws like Rick Barry?" Not one called me back. Or e-mailed. Or texted. Or had their p.r. guys call me back. Zero. None.
Do you know why? Because NBA players care more about looking cool on SportsCenter than winning games for their teams.
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In about three hours Rick Barry had me making gobs of free throws underhanded: 12 in a row once, five with my eyes closed. So you think, Why don't more people try it?
RIFFS of REILLY
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PETER READ MILLER