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I remember smiling. Alford had made better than 91% of his free throws in 1983-84, best in the nation. "Suffer from freshman jitters, did you?"
"I never put together a good string," he said. "I'd hit 20 or 25 in a row and miss."
For that matter, so did I. I put together a good string of my own one afternoon 21 years ago. I was never, I admit, a good basketball player, but I was a very good shooter. I was particularly sharp from 15 feet. In any game of 21, against any competition, I expected to win. And did.
Twenty-one years ago I was a skinny backup senior center on a talent-rich Palm Beach ( Fla.) High School basketball team. Our coach, Joe Ceravolo, made us shoot 50 free throws a day, 25 at the start of practice and 25 at the end, when we were tired. I usually made 23 or 24 out of 25, and once or twice a week I would hit 25 straight. More than two misses, and I would insist that someone get a pole and check the height of the basket.
The gym at Palm Beach High had glass backboards on the main court, wood backboards on the sides. On the afternoon in question, I was shooting at the southeast basket. Charlie Wright, a junior guard, was my rebounder, and when I hit my first 25 shots, he threw me the ball and said, "Shoot till you miss."
Every basketball player goes through some little "business" at the foul line: an exaggerated deep breath, say, or a heaving of the shoulders to loosen the muscles. My routine was unhurried and as rhythmic as I could make it. With the ball in my hands, I looked down and positioned my right toe a half inch or so behind the foul line, my left foot slightly back for balance. I glanced at the basket and then down at the ball, which I bounced once or twice. Then the curious thing: I bounced the ball once more, caught it, and spun it so that it twirled between my hands, just brushing my fingertips, establishing touch. Before gravity grabbed it, I closed my hands on the spinning ball, groped for a seam with my shooting hand, bent my knees, lifted my eyes to the rim and shot. Swish.
Charlie kept count. "...29...30...31...." Most of my teammates had finished shooting and had gone to the showers, but a couple of guys were still on the main court, playing one-on-one. I was aware of the pounding of the basketball and the squeaking of shoes behind me. I was looking forward to a miss. I was tired and wanted to go home. "...35...36...37...."
Charlie began to test me. He made me chase a bounce pass off to my right. He lobbed one over my head that I had to jump for. He rolled the ball to me, making me bend. When a good shooter gets comfortable at the line, his feet dug in like a batter's at the plate, he ticks truer than a metronome. Grab, bounce, lift, release...swish. Grab, bounce, lift, release...swish. Charlie had caught the vacant look in my eye. Now I had to find my place at the line between shots, position the foot, get the feel of the ball again. Still, I kept hitting. "...44...45...46...."