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Newlin insists that if Dudley, Lane and a lot of others really worked at it, they could improve their foul shooting substantially. There is, he says, "absolutely no way they would be so bad."
Cleveland assistant coach Brian Winters, a career .842 foul shooter in his NBA days, disagrees. Winters, 36, who was prematurely gray even before he started working with Dudley, says, "I can tell you that Chris's problem doesn't come from lack of effort." Winters should know—he's one of the coaches who throw the balls back to Dudley as he takes his daily free throws and talks foul-shooting mechanics with him after practice.
Whereas Lane seems upbeat about his prospects for improvement—"I'm going to keep on shooting the same way, and the second half of the season will be a lot better," he says—Dudley is depressed by the subject. He would not discuss his shortcomings, and no wonder. Dudley's bricks have brought him a lot of unwanted attention. Take the recent free throw exhibition by New York Knick broadcaster John Andariese, shown on the Madison Square Garden Network. During a broadcast of a Cavs-Knicks game on Feb. 2, Andariese said that he could shoot free throws with his eyes closed as well as Dudley does with his eyes open, and he was goaded into giving it a try. A few days later, the blindfolded Andariese made 2 of 9, which wasn't bad considering that Dudley had 1-for-14 and 3-for-24 streaks this year, and Rodman suffered through an 0-for-15 spell last season.
In an interview that appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Dec. 18, Dudley said, "I can make them in practice, but when I get into a game I start thinking about making the perfect shot. I have too many things on my mind and can't relax." Hmm, that would indicate that Dudley feels the problem is mental. But what about the needless knee bend and the hitches, serious breaches of free throw mechanics?
"Well, that could be in the head, too," says Atlanta Hawk guard Glenn (Doc) Rivers, who had a calamitous 1987 postseason (26 of 52, .500) but is now among the NBA's leaders (.882). "I looked at films of when I was shooting bad, and I was definitely jerking the ball, but it was still a mental problem. I was going up to the line thinking, Oh, no, here it goes again. My lord, just don't shoot an air ball. Just don't shoot a brick. So, I was shooting it just to get off the line. Obviously, that's no way to do it."
Rivers, who was a .615 foul shooter in college, proves that a player can get better. An even greater inspiration for Dud-Lane might be Utah's Karl Malone, who shot .549 from the line in his first two seasons but was at a healthy .762 for '88-89 through last weekend. A good thing, too, because Malone had shot more free throws (688) than anybody else in the league. "I made a few minor changes with my feet, but basically my free throw problems were mental," says Malone. "Concentration, concentration, concentration. That's what I had to work on." And he's working on it. On several occasions this season, Malone zipped the ball back to the referee because he wasn't finished setting his feet at the line. (A player has 10 seconds to shoot once he has received the ball from the official, but Malone shouldn't worry—if Dallas's Adrian Dantley and Milwaukee's Ricky Pierce aren't called for taking too much time, then no one will be.)
To be sure, some fail to make any progress. Remember Garfield Smith? Probably not. As a Boston rookie in 1970-71, Smith made only 22 of 56 free throws (.393) and followed that up with a 6-of-31 performance (.194) the next season, his last in the NBA. Smith is fondly remembered for the "air ball hat trick" he had in a game against the Phoenix Suns. He failed to draw iron on each of his free throws in a 3-for-2 bonus situation that no longer applies in the NBA. "And they were all different," says Golden State coach Don Nelson, who was a Celtic player at that entertaining, and historical, moment. "One way short, one way right, one way left." Fortunately for Boston. Smith did not pass on the free throw curse through his jersey number, number 33, which now belongs to Bird.
Kim Hughes, a 6'11" center out of Wisconsin, was the NBA's best-known foul line clanger in the 1970s. In five seasons—with the Nets, the Nuggets and the Cavaliers—Hughes made only 62 of 186 free throws, a .333 percentage that is 23 points below Wade Boggs's career batting average. Unlike the Dudley hitch, Hughes's southpaw stroke never looked too bad, but the ball rarely went in. At 36, Hughes is still playing hoops, in Italy—he has been scoring about 19 points a game—and in his nine European seasons he has averaged .692 from the line. He blames his poor NBA free throw shooting on bad eyesight. He didn't like to wear glasses, and when he scratched the cornea of his left eye, early in his NBA days, he took to wearing only one contact lens, which threw off his depth perception.
"And, eventually, it became a mental thing," Hughes says, as almost all bad foul shooters eventually do. "We were shooting one-and-ones then, and I almost always missed the first shot. Then, too, I wasn't a regular player. And when you're in that situation you want to do everything perfectly. You know you won't get a chance to shoot six or seven more free throws that game, like I know I will get playing over here. So you start pressing."
Chamberlain, of course, was a special case. He played almost every minute, went to the basket without hesitation, tried 11,862 free throws, more than anyone else who ever played (Moses Malone, with 9,223 at week's end, has a long-shot chance at catching him), and seemed immune to the pressure that would bother mere mortals. Yet he still stands, all 85 3/6 inches of him, as the quintessence of bad foul shooting. Had he averaged even 70% from the line, he would have made 2,246 more free throws and raised his career scoring average better than two points, from 30.1 to 32.2. In 1967-68, he made only 354 of 932 free throws for a .380 percentage—all things considered, the worst foul-shooting season ever—yet was still third in scoring, with a 24.3 average.