The pretzel is another hand-reaction drill. I place my left hand behind my left leg and my right hand in front of and between my legs. I lean over for this one. I hold the ball with my right hand, and the object is to change hands with the ball, moving my hands in a figure-eight fashion around my legs. I go back and forth, back and forth with the ball as fast as I can. The trick is to keep the ball stationary, keep it in place right there in front of my body and between my legs. I can do this almost faster than the eye can see, I think. I'll do this drill in arenas where we haven't played before. The fans wonder what the hell I'm doing bending over and throwing the ball between my legs. They'll find out in the game.
The walking pretzel and dribbling pretzel are pretty much self-explanatory. Also, I do the skipping pretzel on occasion. On the first of these I just take the ball and move it between my legs in figure-eight fashion while I'm walking and then running. Then I dribble it through my legs while skipping and running. This, of course, is what I wind up doing when the game begins. The hardest thing for me to practice is running down the court full speed while dribbling between my legs.
The seesaw drill is just another variation of the pretzel. Instead of moving the ball sideways and around my legs, I move it up and down. I bend over of my hands behind me this time. The object is to throw ball up slightly, quickly moving my hands around to my front where I can catch the ball. I throw it up again, and catch it from the back. Throw it again, catch it from the front. Back, front. Back, front. Actually, I don't really catch it. I just touch it and flick it.
I don't have a name for the drill where I throw the ball up from in front and catch it behind my back. I jam my fingers on this one a lot, anyway. The ball goes so high. I start with throws of five and six feet and go up to 25 and 30 feet. Recently I've begun to see how many times I can slap my knees before getting my hands in back to catch the ball. I throw the ball against the ceiling as hard as I can for quickness. The object here is to whip my hands behind me only after the ball has disappeared behind my head. If I just lay my hands back there while the ball is on the way up, I'm cheating. I have to wait until I can't see it anymore before getting ready to catch it. This may not sound hard, but when you're slapping your knees 25 times in a matter of a few seconds, then throwing your hands behind you to catch the impact of the ball, your arms feel at least like 25-pound lead weights.
Punching the bag is an exercise drill I learned from watching professional boxers work out. I use it for strengthening my fingertips and my hand quickness. I get down on my knees and start dribbling from about 12 inches off the floor, first with one hand, then the other. The object is to dribble as low as I can without letting the ball stop. I go to about one-eighth of an inch off the ground, punching it rat-tat-tat-tat, like a machine gun. Really killing it. The ball is going so fast I can't even hear it hit the floor.
My last drill is the body drill, which is simply moving the ball as quickly as I can around my neck, then down around my body, around my legs, knees and ankles. Then I go in and out, figure eight, dribbling sometimes, flipping sometimes. Finally, I should be all loosened up. Of all of these drills, though, I've always felt that if a man can spin the ball, he can do almost anything. The main purpose here is to give me more confidence in handling the basketball. Most of the guys on the LSU team do spins before every practice, and my dad still has an exercise where he lets each of us go up and down the court doing anything we want with the ball. I guess you might call it the liberation drill.
Whatever ability I have in passing comes from extensive work on these drills. There are three basic elements in passing—fingertip control, backspin and follow-through—and before I could learn any of the show-time passes, I had to develop the four fundamental passes everyone uses—the chest pass, bounce pass, overhead and baseball pass. You know, that common stuff. The show passes only came after I had mastered the common stuff.
I don't remember when I first tried to figure out how to make a behind-the-back pass work. I know I didn't cheat in learning how. I didn't turn to the side and throw the ball behind my back. Anybody 4 years old can pick up something and throw it behind his back like that. I tried to throw the ball past my defender, facing him the whole time, so that it would be a lot easier to pass like that in tight situations. I'd practice 25 a day, then practice 25 more as I took one step back. Now, I throw these as an afterthought.
Most of the show—and the passing I mention here—comes on the fast break. That is what I really love, blasting down the middle on a three-on-one or a three-on-two. Sometimes when we start out and I see the play developing, I just want to shout out, "Hey, here we go. Hey, everybody, watch this." In some instances it is better to throw a behind-the-back on the bounce rather than an ordinary behind-the-back. In a game against Tulane two years ago—I threw a behind-the-back pass on the bounce and the ball hit my left foot and bounced to my teammate on the right instead of the one on the left. The ball hit him square in the hands and he didn't know what to do, so he put it in the basket. Nobody knew what happened, not even the referee, which is fortunate, since it is illegal to kick a basketball in a game. People asked me after the game how I did that. I said, "What?" Sort of innocently. It was just a mistake, but the legends grow.
The between-the-legs bounce pass is directly from the pretzel drill. The object is to take the ball with either hand and throw it to my opposite side, only between my legs. I'm going full speed and I throw it so fast that, once I've let go, my hand hits off my leg and flies out straight, so it looks like I'm handing off to the defense. Many times the fans don't realize I've put it through my legs. The pass goes so fast and their vision might be blocked by the referee, or they might have a bad angle. At Mississippi State last year I pulled one of these, and I know the crowd didn't know it. Silence. I'd done the same thing a few nights earlier at Mississippi and the people went crazy.