It's hopeless. A lost cause. Yet for some reason they persist, like retirees buying one more worthless lottery ticket. No matter how many times J.J. Redick steps to the free throw line, no matter how many slurs his tormentors use against him--the "F--- you, J.J." chants at Maryland, the "Traitor!" cries at Virginia, the upraised limp wrists at N.C. State--they are doomed, with near certainty, to fail. Ninety-four-point-one percent, people. But they never learn. For this is what happens when the most reviled (and perhaps envied) player in the land is also the greatest free throw shooter in the history of college basketball.
"J.J., you suck!" booms a heckler at N.C. State's RBC Center.
"Hey, J.J., you're a f----t!"
Redick grips the ball and begins his routine. Spin, dribble, spin, dribble, spin. A silent reminder of Philippians 4:13. ("I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.") Then the mantra, like a golfer's swing thought: buckets.
Bend. Flick. Swish.
Oh, the merciless Duke junior guard will find other ways to drive opposing fans crazy this season. Maybe he'll bob his head while running downcourt after draining a preposterous 26-foot three-pointer. Or he'll exaggerate his follow-through a few seconds longer than normal, holding it up there like a periscope at the Masters. But nothing demonstrates Redick's inner toughness--especially in an erratic era for foul shooting (page 74)--more than those 10 seconds at the free throw line, when he faces down the heaps of abuse and embraces his role, in the words of Duke assistant Chris Collins, as "the gladiator in the pit."
Last Thursday, Duke entered an enemy arena for the first time this season and scored an 86-74 win over the Wolfpack. J.J. Redick couldn't wait. "We play in front of the best home fans in the country, but I almost like playing on the road even better," he says. "There's nothing more fun than silencing 20,000 people, especially 20,000 people who've berated you all night."
Indeed, few weapons come with more effective silencers. Through Sunday, Redick was averaging an ACC-leading 21.0 points a game and shooting a stellar 41.2% from beyond the arc for the No. 4 Blue Devils, who had flown to an unexpected 13-0 start despite losing two early NBA entries ( Luol Deng and signee Shaun Livingston). While burly post man Shelden Williams and guard Daniel Ewing have shouldered much of the offensive load, no Blue Devil has done more than Redick, whose daggers inflict staggering psychological damage on Duke's foes.
"There's no ceiling on his range. I swear, he can shoot a legitimate jump shot from damn near half-court," says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose No. 19 Spartans got lit up by Redick for 29 points (including five treys) in an 81-74 Duke victory on Nov. 30. "But what I love about J.J. almost more than his shooting is how hard he prepares to shoot. He sprints off screens. We actually took some film of it to try [to teach] it to our guys."