- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 1999

Among Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal’s many aesthetic atrocities “Kazaam,” “Shaq-Fu: Da Return” and the “ShaqAttaq” inflatable bootsneaker come to mind the most egregious may be his woeful foul shooting.
Despite leading the NBA in free throw attempts this season, O’Neal is connecting on just 41.9 percent of his foul shots, far below the league average of 74 percent.
And he’s not alone. From Vancouver Grizzlies center Bryant Reeves (52.4 percent), to Utah Jazz center Greg Ostertag (55 percent), to legendarily inaccurate New York Knicks center/forward Chris Dudley (46.1 percent), the NBA is littered with players who make every trip to the foul line look like basketball’s answer to Russian Roulette: an exercise in random agony.
So why can’t some NBA players whose livelihoods hinge on finding the hoop knock down a shot so simple, so basic, it’s meant to be a reward?
“I’ve been a shooter all my life, and if I can hit a 3-pointer, I should be able to hit a free throw,” said Washington Wizards forward Tracy Murray (86.4 percent). “After all, there’s no hand in my face. You have to look at it for what it is. Free.”
How hard is it to shoot a free throw? Three American University basketball players senior guard Jarion Childs, senior guard Dave Olsen and sophomore forward Patrick Doctor were challenged to match or beat O’Neal’s sorry mark.
Wearing blindfolds.
“I can’t see a thing,” Olsen said, connecting on two of 10 shots.
“Darn, I’m good,” Doctor said, shooting 3-for-10.
“This is too hard,” said Childs, who made just one of 10 shots a wild carom off the top of the shot clock shooting blindfolded and underhanded.
The American players were also asked to shoot 10 free throws with their “off” hand. For right-handed Doctor and Childs, that meant shooting with their left hand; for left-handed Olsen, that meant shooting with his right.
Childs hit three of 10.
“Let me see how many I can make in a row,” Olsen begged, missing his first eight shots before sinking his final two.
“I’ve never shot left-handed in my life,” said Doctor, who made five of 10 shots. “And I’m still better than Shaq.”
That isn’t saying much. Among players averaging at least 1.5 free throw attempts a game, O’Neal’s free throw percentage is the lowest in the NBA.
Worse still, his misses add up: Were O’Neal to shoot 81.2 percent from the line, the same figure as the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks, he would average 4.2 more points a game, increasing his scoring average from 28.1 to 32.3 points a game.
That would make O’Neal the NBA’s leading scorer; moreover, it would boost the Lakers from the 19th-highest scoring team (96.4 ppg) in the league to the eleventh-highest (100.6 ppg).
“It’s embarrassing,” said Hall of Famer Rick Barry, the league’s No. 2 all-time free throw shooter (90 percent), who shot underhanded from the line. “These guys are supposed to be professionals.”
So what is it? How can Seattle Supersonics forward Vin Baker, a four-time NBA All-Star, open last season by missing 18 straight foul shots? How can O’Neal and his ilk make free throws seem … anything but?
According to Hall of Fame coach Red Auerbach, the answer has more to do with psychology than basketball.
“After a while, it becomes a mental block for these guys,” he said. “They get up there on the foul line, and they just hope to hit the rim, so maybe the ball will slop in.”
Step to the line. Take a deep breath. Bounce the ball a few times. Line up the shot. Release.
On any given foul shot, a player has ample time to think about shooting mechanics, raucous crowds, stock portfolios, the blonde in the third row. About anything and everything but the basket.
And thinking can be a problem, Murray said.
“Just because there’s 17,000 people up in the stands doesn’t mean you do anything different or think anything different,” he said. “It’s just you and that basket, never mind what’s around you.”
Said Olsen: “It’s distracting if you look at the crowds, the balloons and whatever. But if you just look at the rim, it’s not going anywhere.”
For many players, pressure situations only make matters worse just consider the common late-game practice of “icing” free throw shooters, in which a team calls timeout before an opposing player has an opportunity to take his foul shots.
“It’s definitely a mental thing,” American coach Art Perry said. “Back in 1976, when I went to the Final Four with Rutgers [as an assistant coach], we played Princeton in the East regional. One of their players went to the line at the end of the game for a one-and-one. He had made something like 28 foul shots in a row. But the pressure got to him, and he missed.”
Foul line failure can devastate a player’s confidence. In a 1996 playoff series against the Chicago Bulls, then-Orlando Magic guard Nick Anderson clanked a pair of late-game free throws as the Bulls rallied from an 18-point deficit to win 93-88.
The Magic went on to lose the series, and Anderson’s game went into a tailspin. He shot just 40.4 percent from the line in 1996-97, averaging 12.0 points a game his lowest mark since his rookie season.
“You have to believe you’re going to hit the shot when you go up there,” Murray said. “If you believe you’re going to miss it, then you will.”
When a player shoots poorly from the foul line for an extended period of time, Perry said, it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. As confidence and shooting percentages wane, the last miss reinforces the next.
In his seven-plus seasons, O’Neal has yet to top his rookie mark of 59.2 percent.
“Shaq’s never been good at it,” Perry said. “He’s never achieved the kind of success it takes to have confidence. And mentally, that’s a huge hurdle.”
Professional shooting coach Buzz Braman doesn’t think so.
“It’s 99.9 percent technique,” Braman said. “The mental part, that’s like the chicken-and-the-egg problem. People say a player doesn’t have any confidence, therefore he doesn’t shoot well. But it doesn’t work that way.
“If you’re shooting 30 percent, sure, you don’t have confidence. But the real reason you’re shooting 30 percent is really bad, awful mechanics.”
Braman should know. In nine years on the job, he has put on hundreds of shooting clinics, worked with dozens of college and professional players (including the Wizards) and even set up his own Web site, www.shotdr.com.
What’s more, he can flat-out shoot: He once hit 738 consecutive free throws.
“My first gig was with Brian Williams at Maryland,” Braman said. “I’ll never forget it. Williams was a freshman, and after 15 games, he was shooting like 42 percent from the foul line. I stayed with Maryland for the rest of season, and he shot 86 percent for the second half of season.
“He was a head case because he couldn’t make them. But the reason he couldn’t make them was that the flaws in his stroke were unbelievable.”
Because a player’s shooting mechanics or “stroke” governs a shot’s flight path, poor form can lead to missed shots. Braman said common flaws include turning the off-hand toward the basket, failing to follow though fully with the shooting motion and bringing the ball over and behind one’s head.
“Shaq does that,” Braman said. “When the forearm lays down behind the head, that ball is coming like a sling. And it’s real hard to gain touch that way. It’s like a medieval catapult.”
Size may also play a role. Of the 10 worst shooters in the league, nine are at least 6-foot-10. Hall-of-Fame center Wilt Chamberlain, the league’s all-time leader in free throw attempts and a robust 7-foot-1, shot just 54 percent for his career.
According to Auerbach, that’s no coincidence.
“I think their hands are too big,” he said. “Look at Wilt. It’s like you or I shooting a softball. You’d be lucky to hit 50 percent because you don’t have the feel of the ball.”
Braman disagrees.
“You have a lot of big people that have never developed touch nor technique from an early age,” he said. “A lot of these guys, playing in middle school and high school, were so physically superior that they didn’t work on their shooting because they could dunk.
“Take [Sacramento Kings forward] Chris Webber. He told me once that he dunked in an eighth grade game like 23 times. How many 15-footers did he have to take?
“It’s a myth that big people can’t shoot because of their hands. [Indiana Pacers center] Rick Smits is 7-foot-4 and shoots 82 percent. He has huge hands, but his technique is like 99 percent perfect.
“It’s like saying weight lifting is to blame. I mean, [Golden State Warriors guard] Tim Legler lifts. The key is you’re supposed to shoot after you lift.”
Whatever the cause, feeble foul shooting is a curable disease. Even the sorriest shooters can improve, Murray said, so long as they’re willing to pay the price.
“Everybody hits a stretch during the season when you miss shots,” he said. “But it’s up to you to be mentally strong, work on it and get through it. It takes extra shots. That’s the only way to get it done. See the ball go through the net a few times.”
Added Braman: “If you start shooting badly from an early age, your muscles memorize this ridiculous stroke. And to correct that takes a ton of work like 300 to 500 shots a day.”
As a rookie in 1985-86, Jazz forward Karl Malone shot just 48.1 percent from the foul line. Last season, he shot a career-best 78.8 percent. Over his career, the once-struggling foul shooter has made the third-most free throws in league history, 7,631.
According to Braman, Wizards forward Juwan Howard underwent a similar transformation.
“When I first came to the Wizards, Juwan was a 65 percent free throw shooter,” Braman said. “And his technique is unorthodox. But he worked his butt off you couldn’t throw him out of the gym. And he pushed his free throw shooting to 75 percent, while getting his 15-footer much more consistent.”
Foul line consistency has always been a hobgoblin for Webber, who has never shot better than 59.4 percent in a single season. After shooting 45.4 percent from the line last season, he asked Braman to visit him during Sacramento’s preseason training camp.
“The first time I saw him shoot a ball, I said, Oh my God,’ ” Braman said. “But we shot some video, put it on a huge TV and broke it down frame by frame. Even he was surprised. Then we went to work.”
Braman instructed Webber to put the ball out in front of his body before shooting, instead of shooting from a behind-the-head position.
“I couldn’t put the ball out in front of him perfectly, because that would have been too great a jump for him,” Braman said. “But fortunately, Chris has great natural touch. The bottom line is he’s shooting like 65 percent. And that was only in five days of work.”
But will it stick? According to Braman, lasting improvement takes serious commitment a commitment he rarely encounters.
Likewise, Auerbach said that for some players, foul shooting will always be a struggle.
“Nobody’s bothering them. They have time to think, and that kind of screws them up,” he said. “They want to make sure they get their fingertips on the seam, that they get the proper knee bend, that their forearm is straight, that they get backspin and follow-through.
“All those things are going through their mind. Then they get up there and miss anyway. So the next time, they say, Oh, [forget] all this, I’m just going to shoot it.”
Auerbach laughed.
“Then they make one of two and [mess] it up all over again.”

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