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 are 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.