Ted St. Martin of Jacksonville is in the Guinness Book of World Records, and a ball he once used is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Yet he never made the NBA, never played college ball. Although he used to shoot around as a kid, he wasn't the star of his high school team in Naches, Wash. In fact, the 55-year-old St. Martin had given up the game altogether until a fateful day two decades ago.
"Here I was," St. Martin tells it, "35 years old, a dairy farmer in Riverdale, Calif., and I got to thinking what a shame it was that I'd become rusty at the sport I loved so much as a kid." So he nailed a hoop to the side of the dairy barn and started shooting. After a while he found he was able to hit a couple hundred free throws in a row. St. Martin didn't think much of that—after all, he had always been able to shoot free throws. At age 13 he had placed third in a regional shooting contest. No, he didn't think much about it. But others did. St. Martin, having regained all his old form at the barnyard basket, proceeded one evening to amaze family and friends by firing off 514 free throws in a row.
"Then I called The Fresno Bee to see if they knew what the alltime record was," St. Martin says. "They researched it, and came back with 144. And I said, 'Hold on there! I can beat that!' " But with everyone watching, he got off his stride and muffed his 87th shot. Reassembling the scoffers and doubters, he staged another attempt and this time shot an uncanny 200 in a row. Since then, the 5'7" St. Martin has set new records time and time again. On June 25, 1977, he upped the count to 2,036 without a miss.
"Heck," he says. "That day I had shot a few hundred before they even began counting."
Compare and contrast: The NBA record for consecutive free throws is 78, set by Houston's Calvin Murphy during the 1980-81 season.
While the 2,036 straight is St. Martin's Ruthian statistic, there are others: He has hit 84 buckets from 30 feet in eight minutes. He has made 258 from the free-throw distance of 15 feet in 10 minutes. In one 24-hour period he sank 14,466 free throws, scoring at a 90% clip for the day. (By the way, that's around 670 free throws per hour, or more than 11a minute.) His best hourly rate—850 per—was set in 1974 at a sporting goods exhibition in Chicago, where he made 95% of his shots for eight straight hours.
As you might imagine, Ted St. Martin is no longer a dairy farmer. He now makes his living at basketball free-throwing. Sponsored by Coors Light, St. Martin travels the country, putting on demonstrations and taking on challengers. He has performed during the Final Four weekend, at NBA games, at local benefits and at grand openings. He has competed in malls, at charity events, conventions and carnivals.
A typical gig took place last September at the Delchamps Food Fest in Mobile, Ala., where food industry representatives gather annually to pass out samples and trade tidbits about food. Thousands of people waited in long lines for hot dogs made of turkey, or bits of imitation beef made of chicken. St. Martin, meanwhile, was off in a corner, setting up his hoop operation with the assistance of his wife, Barbara. She met him 17 years ago at just such an exhibition in Orange, Calif. They married in 1975, and settled in Jacksonville. At the Delchamps show, Barbara spread out the prizes (an array of beer-logoed memorabilia) that would be awarded to any shooters who could beat her husband.
A crowd gathered. "I can take that old man," mumbled a high schooler in a varsity-basketball letter jacket. The challengers each paid a dollar, which would go to charity. They stepped up, and shot until they missed. Then St. Martin went to the line. As usual, he turned back the challengers, the cocky high schooler included.
Does St. Martin ever lose?