- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Through his first five seasons, Chamberlain was actually better from the foul line than his nemesis, Russell (.568 to .557), but Russell, a lifetime .561 foul shooter, was more consistent and shot less than 50% from the foul line only once in his 13-year career—his rookie season of 1956-57. Wilt was below 50% six times.
It's futile to try to figure it out. Wilt never did, his coaches never did, the thousands of fans who gave him advice never did. Chamberlain wrestled with the reasons for his failures most foul in his 1973 autobiography, Wilt, and concluded that the problem was largely psychological: "I shouldn't have let it bother me so much, but I wanted to excel at everything, and the harder I tried—the more different ways I tried to shoot—the worse I got."
The most notorious way Chamberlain tried, of course, was underhand, the preferred method of shooting fouls (and, in the earliest years of the game, field goals, too) until the 1950s. Wilt first tried that style in 1960 when he was with the Philadelphia Warriors and used it sporadically throughout his career. To shoot underhand is a favorite suggestion of fans who offer tips. It makes sense from a theoretical standpoint—a softer touch can be applied to the ball, and the shot has an excellent chance of "kind of dying and slopping over the front rim," as legendary college and pro coach Pete Newell puts it—but not necessarily from a practical standpoint.
Who could say that Dudley would be any less of a bricklayer with an underhand motion? And who could say he would be any more comfortable with it? Wilt feels he had more success with that style than any other but, as he says in his book, "I felt silly—like a sissy—shooting underhanded." And that was at a time when the game's best foul shooter ever, Hall of Famer Rick Barry, a career .900 man, was still using that style.
"Anyway, I couldn't teach it even if Jerome wanted to try," says Bristow, "and neither could anybody else."
Except Barry, of course, who converted Golden State teammate George T. Johnson to the underhand toss in the early '70s and turned him into a respectable career .694 foul shooter. "Well, you would think so, wouldn't you?" says Barry, when asked if he has been approached to coach foul shooting by any NBA team, "but it hasn't happened." Perhaps Barry's abrasive personality has something to do with it. But Ted St. Martin, a 53-year-old Jacksonville, Fla., man who holds the world record of 2,036 straight free throw conversions—he did it in a Jacksonville shopping mall on June 25, 1977—has worked only briefly with the Phoenix Suns and nobody else. "I could get anybody up to 75 percent," says St. Martin, "but nobody ever asks."
Houston hired Calvin Murphy as its community relations director and as a special shooting coach (not just for free throws) only three weeks ago, but until recently Newlin had never heard from an NBA team. He wouldn't name the team. "I simply can't comprehend it," says Newlin, who claims he never left practice until he had made 100 consecutive free throws. "I've never once had a player come to me and say, 'Please show me.' Coaches are infatuated with their offense, yet they continue to lose games at the one place where they could win them—the foul line. I'd love to work with somebody but...." He shakes his head. "It just doesn't make sense."
And neither, ultimately, do the foul-shooting problems of Dudley, Lane and others like them. They shouldn't be that bad, but they are. They should get better, but maybe they won't.
"Sometimes, there's really only one thing to do with a bad foul shooter," says Nelson, who employs this strategy with Smith, "and that's to make sure he rarely gets to the foul line."