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Liberate These Throws

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Richard Cocks | Flickr

You can mark off 100 meters and then time yourself against the world’s greats, or you could set a bar at record height and try to pole vault over it. But with basketball it always has been and always will be impossible to recreate “world record” conditions, a smothering full-court press or surgical offensive set. Unlike the static high bar or unchanging distance to the finish line, experiencing the difficulties and challenges of a professional basketball game will always remain locked and inaccessible to us who are not literally in uniform and on the floor while the clock is running. We can only use the collective sum of all the basketball we’ve watched in the past—from our old high school team on to games in the NBA Finals—as a proxy to crudely estimate what should and shouldn’t be difficult for a player involved in an elite level of competition.

Except for the free throw.

The free throw is, really, quite a bizarre moment. The end-to-end pendulum swing of the game is stopped, yes, but what’s even more weird about the free throw is that it’s the one juncture in a team sport where the opponent is briefly forbidden from competing. (Even soccer’s flow-stopping penalty kick at least involves actors from both teams.) The opposing team remains within the boundaries of the court but of course they’re just standing there—their presence on the court is not even really required, it’s just a convenient arrangement so that everybody can quickly get back to competing at the moment the rules allow them to compete again.

So, without an opponent in play, this means that you can recreate an NBA-caliber free throw, and very nearly every gym and playground in the world has painted some lines down to help recreate it for you. As long as you are shooting a basketball fifteen feet away from a rim that’s ten feet off the ground, you are in position to accomplish the exact same task that an NBA player must accomplish in an NBA game. The only difference—and it’s not an insignificant one, but it’s still just one difference—between your free throw and their free throw is the psychic energy in the air surrounding the court.

True mastery of the free throw, mastery above and beyond what we see from even the sharpshooting NBA greats, is not just a theoretical achievement that the dedicated hobbyist can attain: the hobbyist has proven himself elite, and more than once. While the record for consecutive made free throws without a miss is currently held by retired dairy farmer Ted St. Martin, at 5,221, the first eye-popping record was set by retired podiatrist Tom Amberry, whose own personal best of 2,750 ended not with a miss but with the gym that Amberry had rented having to close for the night. These two men do not excel at free throws as much as they have unlocked the free throw. There is no crevice of the shot that is inaccessible or surprising to these two shooters; every detail has been met and known intimately through untold hours of solitary shooting.

Footage of St. Martin shooting free throws is disorienting: his form is carefree to the point of being careless, artlessly pushing the pull from his chest towards the rim like a young kid who can’t yet handle the ball’s weight, his mind apparently lost in some sort of daydream, as if hardly aware of the endless string of swishes flying forth from his hands. It’s like watching someone with perfect pitch or a photographic memory flaunt their skill, something summoned from the unknowable genetic realms of savant-hood.

But Amberry is a teacher, his skill crafted from accessible and replicable tools. He written and released a slim opus detailing his own personal 7-step shooting process—the book is called, of course, Free ThrowFree Throw does examine, and in detail, the shooting mechanics that Ambery has built and polished over the years for his own shots, but many more pages are dedicated to the charity stripe’s “mental side”—a subject Amberry calls “voodoo to most athletes.” The book’s most helpful passages for aspiring shooters have more or less the same timbre of a bodhisattva’s koan:

The job, then, is to use your mind, to empty your mind for the brief period of time just before and while you are shooting a free throw. 

Or:

Picture yourself standing on the line holding the ball. As you shoot, see your arm reaching out until it’s 15 feet long. Now drop the ball softly in the basket. 

Even the chapter titles ease your mind with their soft and pillowy inspiration:

A Free Throw Is a Gift

Footage of Amberry is regrettably scarce, but the first three minutes of the following clip do briefly show him in action:

Unlike St. Martin’s happy-go-lucky flippancy, it at least makes sense that Amberry has achieved so much success via the free throw: by exposing his precisely ordered mind to the sunny rays of self-confidence, combined with so many newfound practice hours in retirement, the made baskets were sure to arrive in short order. For the three weeks before his record-setting shoot, Amberry writes about how he threw himself into a modified media fast, avoiding the news and every other source of negative energy in favor of comedy and soothing music so that his mind could “dwell on humorous, harmonious, and pleasant thoughts.” Unlike any of the other all-time great basketball performances, Amberry’s would last for twelve straight hours, a continuous, ecstatic transcendental meditation.

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Even in a league with hundreds of impressive physiques, Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, and Dwight Howard look like dominant basketball players, their bedrock shoulders borrowed, it seems, from Michelangelo’s massive toned sculptures. In a league with hundreds of unfathomable work ethics, to a man having left the comforts of home to pursue the basketball dream to earth’s end, these three men have taken up permanent residence on the leader boards of the game’s most grueling “hustle” stats. This season Drummond, Jordan and Howard rank, respectively:

-First, eighth, and twelfth in offensive rebound percentage.

-First, second, and fifth in total rebound percentage.

-Ninth, seventh, and fifteenth in block percentage.

-Second, first, and third in field goal percentage.

NBA basketball is an unforgiving competition. Even the game’s smallest players, their game predicated on smooth physical finesse and artful jump shooting, can’t make it through a season without their bones chipped or ligaments worn as if by sandpaper. These three behemoths know nothing of finesse. Their assignment, then and now and forever, is to reside down on the blocks, that veritable torture chamber of ceaseless slamming, pulling, grabbing, shoving, colliding, bodies ricocheting off each other dozens of times a night, hundreds of times a month. And these three players have distinguished themselves as the alpha dogs of this brutal domain. Their personal and bodily sacrifice in the pursuit of securing possession for their team has traveled well beyond sane boundaries.

With the caveat of this practically superhuman work ethic in mind: Drummond, Jordan, and Howard rank worst, second-worst, and fourth-worst amongst all of this year’s players in free throw percentage. Drummond and Jordan are currently posting two of the ten worst seasons of free throw accuracy since World War II, and Howard’s two seasons before this one have secured him two places of his own in the bottom twenty.

This trio’s impotence at free throw shooting has been thoroughly well-established, giant holes of exposed flesh in the middle of otherwise impenetrable suits of armor. In road games, their mere stepping towards the line triggers a torrent of whistles and cat-calls, the weakness sensed as easy as a shark smells blood. In home games, there is only the awkward silence of thousands sympathetically holding their breath, like a parent hoping against hope that their klutzy child doesn’t bungle their lines in the school play.

Drummond’s free throw shooting is a portrait of stiff anxiety. His knee-bend, clearly patch-worked into his form by well-intentioned coaches, is pitifully divorced from the rest of the shooting motion. He bends his knees like all the good shooters do, yes, but then straightens back up into a column of rigid marble when it’s time to actually release the ball. Listed as a right-hander, to look at his free throws alone Drummond’s dominant hand is almost indistinguishable, both arms held awkwardly out and centered in front of his body. Upon his two-handed shove release, it’s fair to guess that Drummond has no concept of the shot’s success, if it felt short or long or maybe off-line—there is only a terrible second-long wait as it wobbles rim-ward, and then the result is known by all. (His league-worst success rate of 42.3% is actually the result of a [relatively] torrid pace of improvement, as he shot 37.1% in his rookie year, preceded by a ruinous 29.5% in his one season at the University of Connecticut.)

Jordan has also clearly been taught a knee bend, a deep knee bend, one that creates as many new problems as it does solutions. With his knees jutting way far in front of the free throw line and his butt sticking out well behind him, Jordan has been coached to contort himself into a giant, imbalanced “Z.” While coming out of the bend and preparing to shoot, Jordan is forced to focus most of his energies on re-gaining his balance, usually releasing the ball while leaning forward but also releasing the ball while leaning away, towards the half-court line, with regularity. It means that Jordan is essentially shooting a new shot each time, not knowing until he comes out of the bend what angle he will be aiming from.

Howard has at least grown to incorporate the Amberry-approved strategy of watching the ball take three quick bounces—there is no mechanical significance here, it is only a totem used to empty the mind—and only then raising his eyes towards the rim. It’s a much more effective strategy than the long, yearning, thought-provoking (in the worst way) looks at the rim that Drummond and Jordan currently direct towards the basket once they have received the ball. Howard’s actual shot is all T-Rex arms, including the bizarre tic of putting his off-hand in front of the basketball, which has the effect of twisting the ball’s path a few degrees off of its ideal path, perpendicular to the baseline.

The adage, cliché and unavoidable, immediately springs to mind: “If they were giving me those millions of dollars, I sure as hell would find a way to do better than that!” Additional hours in the gym, diagnosed from our armchairs as if a taunt, have always been undertaken and were never a complete solution: elbow grease is hardly all it takes to unknot a psychological conundrum this woolly.

I would think the shape of human nature would render it impossible to not feel a deep emotional wound over one’s own shortcomings after being gleefully and personally taunted by arenas full of people. Because even if these men can somehow manage to bind up and isolate the jeers within their mental space while standing at the line, there is the unavoidable layer of anxiety that overcomes the forever-grinning faces of these prince-jesters of the social medias.  There is care, even terror, here, most of it probably broiling over into a counter-productive quagmire that floods the same neural regions where Amberry’s self-propelling positivity resides.

This terror is productive in at least one way: none of these men have reached rock bottom. None of them are close. Rock bottom looks like an oafish aloofness that signals the total cratering of all of one’s game:

It makes sense that these members of the endangered species the True Five would struggle so mightily with the free throw: their game is wholly predicated on ceaseless motion. From their earliest youth leagues these men towered over all their competitors and their surest, most crowd-appealing way to dominate a basketball game was and is to put that body in motion, careening off other bodies in pursuit of a board, slicing across the key in search of a passing lane, skying up to cathartically send the alley-oop home. The free throw line, this total stop to the beats of competition, this utter removal of the opponent, is so far removed from the rest of their modus operandi that the free throw is almost a totally different game. Their craving for motion nearly bursts out of Drummond and Jordan and Howard each time they step to the line through that series of minute, subconscious, aimless movements and twitches and tics, those harbingers of the next mechanical disaster (and the brick that follows from it).

Take a guard, however, a player whose primary offensive skill, the jump shot, must be honed and honed and honed in privacy. The transition to the free throw line, then, is a relatively minor one. The feet must remain on the ground this time, but the guard is still working in the comforting and familiar terrain of one man and a basket.

After examining the struggles of Drummond and Jordan and Howard this handheld video of Kyle Korver practicing, five years old now, is so pleasing to the eyes it’s like looking at a zen garden after staring at tailpipes for hours on a clogged freeway. There is an attractive fluidity to Korver’s shooting mechanics, yes, but more importantly there is a feeling of pristine stillness that accompanies each release. The rhythm is unmistakable: Korver loosely moves about as the ballboy corrals the ball, taking a seconds-long mental break; once he receives the ball he uses the three dribbles to gently re-focus his own mind on the task at hand; as the ball is brought into ready position over his head, Korver finally fixes his sights on the basket, his body in perfect vertical alignment underneath the ball; at the culmination of the routine the shot is released calmly in a liquid, wasteless motion.

If we learn nothing else from the bizarre skills of Amberry let us learn that a shot like his or Korver’s is a life’s work, a test and product of the shooter’s mental abilities much more so than his physical versatility. There is no muscle that the already-bulked Drummond or Jordan or Howard need to tone in order to finally find success. There is no magic tally of hours spent in the gym that will finally transform their free throw shot from weakness to strength. The jump from 55% to 80% and beyond is not a mechanical one as much as it is spiritual. It comes from drinking in those “humorous, harmonious, and pleasant thoughts.” It comes from momentarily emptying the mind that, unsupervised, will always threaten to capsize in that raging ocean of thoughts. And that moment of stillness has to be created at a moment’s notice, in the middle of an NBA game, in the middle of an NBA arena.

That’s not to say that Korver has a deeper and more profound spirit than Drummond or Jordan or Howard or Shaquille O’Neal or Wilt Chamberlain or any of the other all-time bads. Who knows. What it does mean is that Korver has a transcendent ability to self-soothe, an ability to gentle and disarm that interior background noise that yaps and doubts and spins in directionless thought circles and threatens to burden us with ulcers and insomnia. The journey from broken mechanics to the endlessly repeatable successes of Kyle Korver or Tom Amberry is a journey of a thousand steps—at some point you have to take that first step right and that first step might not feel like much might not even improve any percentages and might not even be possible for these massive seven-footers to even get close to attaining even for as long as their illustrious and lucrative careers last—and the first step is to bring the mind to a

pause.

Miles Wray