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Failure Most Foul
Jack McCallum
March 20, 1989
Cleveland's Chris Dudley and Denver's Jerome Lane are the latest on a long list of NBA bricklayers from the foul line
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March 20, 1989

Failure Most Foul

Cleveland's Chris Dudley and Denver's Jerome Lane are the latest on a long list of NBA bricklayers from the foul line

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Seikaly, another rookie, is only doing what players from his alma mater are supposed to do from the foul line, which is miss. Free throw scientists now believe that the city of Syracuse, N.Y., was built on an ancient Iroquois burial ground that carries an eternal curse on foul shooters. Seikaly was at .513 (138 of 269). And Syracuse...well, the '88-89 Orangemen were filling it up at a .609 clip.

The classic foul foul shooter would seem to be a player like Kite, a glass-banger with a lifetime .458. He's a big, awkward reserve center who lacks offensive finesse. But don't rush to judgment. Yes, Dudley is out of that mold, but he's much more athletic than Kite, and Seikaly is even more athletic than Dudley. Two other centers, Joe Kleine of Boston (.907 this season) and Danny Schayes of Denver (.832), aren't exactly panthers, yet they are excellent foul shooters. And two others, Sikma and Philadelphia's Mike Gminski (.847) are among the softest-shooting free throwers in the league.

Conversely, Lane and Rodman are foul line masons even though they're versatile, midsized players. So is Cleveland reserve swingman Craig Ehlo, who has a decent shooting touch from the floor but an unacceptable .573 percentage from the line this year. Has he been watching Dudley too closely? Not really. Ehlo was a .621 foul shooter in his two years at Washington State. The Chicago Bulls' Scottie Pippen is often compared with Rodman for his versatility, a comparison that extends to the line; through Sunday, Pippen was shooting .657. Seattle's Nate McMillan, a heady point guard who knows the game, was a disappointing .626, a few points below his career .657 percentage.

If it's difficult to identify a classic type, it's nearly impossible to pin down a single classic cause of bad foul shooting.

"Mechanics, concentration, nervousness, other psychological factors," says Denver assistant coach Allan Bristow, who works with Lane. ''At some point they all interact, and it's hard to tell what the problem is." And then?

"And then you've got a mess," says Bristow.

The operative word here, obviously, is choke. Whatever a free throw shooter's original flaw may have been, sooner or later he starts missing because he's gagging. The free throw line is basketball's putting green, a spot that brings on the yips. "The foul line is the one place on a basketball court where you can choke." says Bob Cousy, an .803 career foul shooter. "Everything else is action and reaction. You don't have time to choke." Cousy still remembers the night of April 13, 1957, when he got the yips at Boston Garden during the second overtime of Game 7 of the championship series against the St. Louis Hawks. He threw up an air ball free throw that hit former teammate Tommy Heinsohn on the shoulder as he stepped into the lane to box out. (The Celtics won anyway, 125-123.) "If you don't get steel," says Cooz, "you've choked."

However fondly you may recall the era of Cousy and Heinsohn, the players back then weren't superior free throwers. The league-wide percentage was .675 in 1947-48, .747 in '57-58, .720 in '67-68, .752 in '77-78 and .766 last season. And just as yesterday's great players (Chamberlain and Bill Russell notwithstanding) were at the very least good foul shooters, so are today's. Bird has steadily improved over his 10 seasons in the league, which is remarkable considering that he was an .822 shooter in college.

Michael Jordan is almost 10 percentage points better as a pro than he was as a collegian (.845 to .748). Magic Johnson hasn't been below 80% in his last six seasons and is currently enjoying his best year from the line (.906).

"It is absolutely inexcusable not to shoot 80 percent from the foul line," says Mike Newlin, who in his 11-year career with the Houston Rockets, the New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks averaged .870, the NBA's fifth-best career free throw percentage. "Any player who does worse may as well come up to the coach, put his arm around him and say, 'Coach, I'm going to lose some games for you this season from the foul line. And, Coach, maybe it's going to get you fired.' Yet it's not stressed nearly enough."

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