What's With Shaq?
The NBA has a long and rich tradition of players who can make free throws in practice but not in games. In basketball these players are known as head cases. Exhibit A is center Shaquille O'Neal of the Lakers. At a recent practice, O'Neal made 77 of 105 tries (.733). In games through last Saturday he was a career .535 free throw shooter.
It's not that O'Neal doesn't try; he makes at least 50 free throws a day and often shoots 100. His problem is that in games his brain can't make his body do what he wants it to.
O'Neal's woes, Calvin Murphy says, begin with his form. "Shaquille needs to start all over again, because if the Lakers are looking for a championship, he's got to be able to make that foul shot down the stretch," Murphy says. "That should be his Number 1 priority."
In practice and when he makes free throws in games, O'Neal raises his right elbow high while flexing his knees properly and creates the correct arc on his shot. On his bad shots, his knees stiffen, his elbow barely reaches his chest, and he pushes the ball on a line drive, so that it clangs off the front of the rim.
O'Neal says the wrist flip necessary for a good free throw is hard for him, because his wrist is tightened by a tendon that's too short—the result of a childhood break in his shooting hand that did not heal properly. C'mon, Shaq: If that's true, how do you sink all those free throws in practice, and how did you make 14 of 20 foul shots in a game against the Nets last Thursday?
Wherever Shaq plays, he receives letters from scores of fans giving him advice on how to improve his free throw shooting. One letter writer recommended that he blink as he releases the ball. Others have urged him to try hypnosis, psychotherapy and acupuncture. Shooting underhanded is a frequent suggestion.
Sometimes in games O'Neal seems to try much harder on his second free throw than on his first, and he seems to have more success with it. But if he has the physical skills necessary to make free throws, you'd think he would make more of them in games. When O'Neal was with the Magic, the team tried to get him to see a psychologist. It never happened. "He's talked to people who have [psychology] in their background," says Leonard Armato, O'Neal's agent. "Free throw shooting is very important to him. It's a matter of confidence and rhythm. At some point a little light will go on, and he'll improve a lot."
And Before Shaq There Was Wilt
Another famous center, Wilt Chamberlain, struggled famously from the foul line. He took more free throws than anyone in NBA history, 11,862. But he was a .511 career free throw shooter, and the Big Dipper dipped big in the playoffs, down to .465. If he had made free throws at the rate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did, .721, he would have had 2,491 more points. That would have added a season's worth of scoring to his career.