The free throw is nearly as old as basketball itself. The shot dates almost as far back as when rules were first recorded at a gym in Springfield, Mass., by the game’s creator, Dr. James Naismith, in 1891. Added to the sport just a few years later, the shot was initially taken 20 feet away from the basket, before the distance was reduced to 15 in 1895. The rules governing perhaps basketball's most idiosyncratic shot have gone mostly unchanged since.
The shot seems simple. Standing just 15 feet away from a 10-foot-tall hoop, players try to toss a 9-inch-wide spherical ball weighing approximately 20 ounces through an 18-inch diameter rim. It hearkens back to the game’s original purpose — putting the ball in the basket.
“It's the only part of the game that’s a constant,” says NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry, who memorably used an underhand method to shoot 90 percent from the line during his 14-year professional career. “It’s always the same distance, it’s always the same ball, and it’s always the same size basket. It’s the only part of the game you can be selfish and still help your team.”
“It’s the only part of the game that’s a constant”
Coaches and players have been trying to discover the easiest and most effective ways to convert what is essentially an untimed, uncontested gimme ever since. The underhand technique was common until the mid-1950s, when the overhand shot we are accustomed to seeing today became the standard. Although the accepted method for shooting them has evolved, the rules overseeing the uninhibited 15-footer have not. In the context of a game, free throws are a mere formality on the way to points, even referred to colloquially as shots from the charity stripe — the basketball equivalent of a government handout.
“They call them free for a reason,” says Mark Price, the NBA’s all-time leader in free- throw percentage at 90.4 percent. “They’re, like, free,” he chuckles. “Free points.”
The assumption is that this framework should provide for a near perfect rate of success, as if hitters in baseball were allowed to occasionally hit off a tee, or if every putt in golf came from the same distance, on a flat surface, with unchanging conditions.
And yet, in basketball, countless players — from also-rans to all-time greats, and everyone in-between — are unwilling, or at least unable, to cash the check, which can quickly become costly. Los Angeles Lakers’ star center Dwight Howard notably shot just 3-of-14 (.214) in debuting with his new team, and has hovered around 50 percent for the season.
Wilt Chamberlain, still the only player to ever score 100 points in a professional game, for whom an argument can be made as the greatest center, if not player, of all time, was another notoriously bad free-throw shooter. He shot just a lick better than 51 percent for his career. If not his proclivity for exaggeration — Chamberlain infamously claimed in an autobiography to have slept with approximately 20,000 women — truly the weakness of “The Big Dipper” was his inadequacy from the free-throw line.
“Wilt, I loved him,” says Al Attles of his late teammate with the Philadelphia and then San Francisco Warriors, "but he would make excuses why he wasn’t a good free-throw shooter. ‘Well, I miss free throws so one of my strong forwards can get the ball and make the basket. Instead of getting one point out of it, we'd get two.’ We’d say, ‘Wilt, c’mon, don’t do that to us.’ With Wilt, like a lot of players, it becomes mental. And once it becomes mental, then you’ve got a problem because when you change how you shoot it on a continual basis, you're never going to have one way to shoot it, and I think that probably hurt him.”
Some of the game’s worst career free-throw shooters consist of some of its best players. Four-time Defensive Player of the Year with the Detroit Pistons, Ben Wallace (.414), three-time Finals MVP Shaquille O’Neal (.527), 11-time champion with the Boston Celtics, Bill Russell (.561), and seven-time rebound champ Dennis Rodman (.584) are a few of the leaders in free-throw ineptitude.
Aside from Howard, the running list of contemporary offenders includes the Clippers’ terrible twosome of DeAndre Jordan (.440) and Blake Griffin (.593) — the latter of which shot 52 percent last season — Charlotte’s dreadful duo of DeSagana Diop (.468) and Bismack Biyombo (.483), the Warriors’ putrid pair of Andris Biedrins (.506) and Andrew Bogut (.574), as well as Sacramento’s Chuck Hayes (.608), Boston's Rajon Rondo (.619), and Atlanta’s Josh Smith (.670), who shot under 59 percent one season.
“How can you live with yourself if you can't make four out of every five free throws you shoot?”
“Why in the world can anybody —” says Barry, an admitted perfectionist, pausing a moment to gather himself. He restarts. “How can you live with yourself if you can't make four out of every five free throws you shoot? I just don't understand how guys can do that — how they can possibly go to sleep at night without having nightmares about the fact that they can't shoot 80 percent from the free-throw line?”
And how is it that Barry arrives at 80 percent as the minimum standard?
“Ninety is exceptional,” he says. “Eighty gives you one miss out of every five you take. That’s a pretty good deal. You're a great free-throw shooter if you shoot 90. You’re not a good free-throw shooter if you can’t shoot 80.”
So instead, it’s only Barry who loses sleep over these pitiful shooting percentages.
And therein lies the dilemma. All except a scant few have taken up Barry — who learned the now unorthodox underhand form from his father, who played and coached semi-pro ball — on his repeated offers to serve as their free-throw instructor. It seems this is at least in part because of the amount of pride a player — someone already competing at the game’s highest level — would have to swallow to perform the “granny shot.” Not even Barry’s four adult, basketball-playing sons settled upon it during their respective careers.
“It's all about the ego,” says Barry, still with traces of a biting Jersey accent, elongating each word for emphasis upon second pass. “It’s … all … about … the … ego. They don’t think it’s macho enough for them, and that’s fine. If you’re shooting 80 percent or better, great. If you’re not shooting 80 percent or better, then you better think about making some kind of change.”
It is Barry’s endless efforts at infallibility that drives him not just to suggest, but insist, somebody — anybody — give the underhand a genuine chance. It’s the same reason the goal during his career was always to make 100 in a row in competition. He set the record at 60 in 1976, which lasted four seasons and has been matched or passed 19 times since, but he admits not hitting the century mark still eats at him today.
But what really irks Barry is that no one will take his advice.
“It’s really upsetting to me, because I love greatness,” he says. “I love to watch greatness in anything. And that’s the part that bothers me, coaches are supposed to be able to make people better. By making your player better, you make your team better. And that’s your goal as a coach, to have the best possible team.”
If only a player from the next generation would listen.
Barry’s mission to restore his signature shot has as much to do with the underhand as it does him
This persistent pursuit of perfection is both a blessing and a curse.
“It has its good qualities,” says Barry, “but it also makes you frustrated sometimes with things. But it probably was a bonus in that I would never be satisfied with what I did, and so that meant I kept working at it to get better, which is a good thing.”
Barry’s mission to restore his signature shot in the game has as much to do with the underhand as it does him encouraging others to use it for the sake of helping exorcise his own personal demons. Aside from the free throw though, Barry is remembered for a reputation of being difficult to get along with.
Billy Paultz, a friend and former teammate of Barry’s, told Sports Illustrated in 1983, “If you got to know Rick you’d have realized what a good guy he was. But around the league they thought of him as the most arrogant guy ever. Half the players disliked Rick. The other half hated him.” Even Barry once admitted, “I didn't have a lot of tact.” He notes that a part of trying to be the best means being unrelenting and not accepting mediocrity.
As a result, it is understandable why he’s long been exiled from the thing he loves most, and why the league doesn’t call that often. During his playing days, Barry famously sued the Warriors — then stationed in San Francisco — for release to play for the ABA’s Oakland Oaks. When he lost the legal battle during the prime of his career, Barry sat out the 1967-68 season before joining the Oaks. After several relocations and more lawsuits, Barry finished out his ABA contract with the New Jersey Nets. He finally returned to the Warriors in 1972, which by then took the name Golden State. Warriors’ owner Franklin Mieuli, along for the entire ride, was understandably fed up when his star opted to sign a deal and jump ship after the 1977-78 season to the Houston Rockets, where Barry finished his career. Those misunderstandings took years to subside and the 68-year-old has been searching for a way back into the sport since retiring following the 1980 season.
Barry spent several years as a broadcaster, but eventually flamed out after his contract was not renewed and no one else offered a new one. He explains over dinner at a luxurious San Francisco hotel that although he would have enjoyed going into coaching, that path never seemed to materialize.
“People were afraid of me,” says Barry, only half joking, through stabs of a diced chicken Caesar, sips of water with lemon, and New Age playing overhead. “I realized that door was closed to me, so I stopped pursuing that. You’ve got to be a realist. If you hit your head against the wall and the wall is not cracking, you stop hitting your head against the wall.”
What can’t be debated are Barry’s accomplishments on the court. He will forever remain the only player to lead the NBA, ABA and NCAA in scoring. The ABA merged with the NBA in 1976 and now ceases to exist. Among many other accolades between the two professional leagues, Barry was a 12-time All-Star, nine-time all-league first teamer, and scored more than 25,000 points during his career. He led the Golden State Warriors to the franchise's only championship, in the 1974-75 NBA season, garnering the Finals MVP award, and has since been named to the list of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players. He, of course, also retired with the highest free-throw percentage in history, which has since been topped by Price, and, among active players, Lakers’ point guard Steve Nash.
Despite his mostly unrivaled basketball success, teams and current players are not clamoring to hire him as their shooting coach. Perhaps it has something to do with these longstanding beliefs of his temperament. Barry respectfully disagrees.
“If anybody used that as a reason not to do it, then they’re stupid,” he responds. “That’s ridiculous. Just look at my record. That’s a ridiculous reason not to go ahead and do something that enables you to be better at what you're doing. That would be a stupid decision on somebody’s part. What affect does my personality and the fact that when I went out there I rubbed some people the wrong way because I went out there to kick people’s asses instead of going out to make friends, what would that do with the fact that I made 90-something percent of my free throws? I mean, that’s crazy.”
Left without a professional audience, Barry takes almost every opportunity he gets to plug the shot he recognizes is his legacy.
Getting the chance at a personal clinic on the underhand free throw from Rick Barry is a lot like taking lessons on the physics of hang time from Michael Jordan, the mechanics of boxing out from Dennis Rodman, or the angles and trajectory of the Skyhook from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s likely not recognized as such because of this enduring stigma of Barry as a hostile personality.
Whether on a NBA court, the blacktops of China during a recent goodwill trip, or in the entrance of a fancy hotel following a late dinner, Barry obliges requests to showcase the thing for which he is most universally remembered.
“It’s something unique, something different,” he says. “And it’s changed a little bit now. I would think that if somebody shot it today, they wouldn’t have to worry so much about this macho thing, because back when I was growing up, it was a sissy shot because the girls used to shoot it that way. Girls don't shoot it that way anymore, so I don’t know why everybody is hung up on that it’s not a macho thing to do, because really, it differentiates you.”
Wearing jeans, a gold Warriors shirt poking out from a light jacket, and a blue cap with a Golden State logo at its front, Barry descends three flights of stairs to reach the lobby. He walks with a hardly-noticeable hitch in an otherwise focused gait, which he explains stems from nagging left knee injuries during his career. Discounting this, the hypercompetitive Barry says he is completely healthy. He looks as if he could still suit up and control a pick-up game at a moment's notice if challenged to do so, presumably at a lesser tempo, but still with his trademark desire for excellence.
Barry spies a portable hoop normally intended for a driveway, which for the interim happens to be set up near the hotel’s check-in counter as part of a charitable promotion. He drops a white jacquard pullover draped around his shoulders, accepts a ball, and steps up to a piece of tape on the floor marking the distance of a free throw. Barry begins rattling off a favorite lecture he has given many times before, starting by saying that the shooter's palms should not go underneath the ball as many assume.
“Your hands have to be big enough to get over the top of the ball properly,” he says. “And your thumbs should be even, right here, like this. My arms are hanging down relaxed. And then just before I’m ready to shoot, I would just make a little cock of the wrist, which puts it into a total natural position, and it was kind of like my trigger to go.”
After positioning his feet comfortably apart, a shimmy of his shoulders and the situating of the ball, he takes a deep breath and — without so much as a warm-up — effortlessly dips his legs down to perform the technique he has done an untold number of times before: Perfection. The ball barely clips the net as it falls through the awaiting cylinder onto the carpeted floor.
“You see, when I bend,” he continues, explaining the leg progression as if a kinetic certainty, “there’s no motion. There’s no movement of my arms, there’s no movement of my hands — nothing happens. It’s just a bend to go here. As I come up, I start to take my arms and swing my arms toward the basket, and that’s where you get the feel, to how much effort do I have to put into that arm swing. That’s where you have to practice. And then it’s a matter of the feel of when I actually take my hands and, when I get to about chest level — parallel to the floor — I just roll my hands together, and finish. It’s that simple.”
Before setting up for a second shot, Barry decides to remove the substantial gold adornment from his 1975 championship season swiveling around his right ring finger. His counterpart notes that the hoop appears a little tall, which he brushes off. Barry resets and puts up the shot. The ball hits with a bang at the front of the rim and patters out.
“It might be a hair high,” he says. “Or, it could be a hair longer than it should be.”
When explaining the underhand, Barry exudes pure conviction, emphasizing the lighter rate at which the ball falls, especially if it grazes the rim and doesn't drop into the hoop unaffected. There is a benefit to the gentle contact that occurs, he says, producing increased results. He promotes this vital detail during his sell — the single attribute he never possessed as a player: a soft touch.
“I can assure you that when I did miss,” he mentioned earlier, “it wasn’t by much. I didn’t throw any bricks up there. When I missed, it was close to still going in.”
By now, various onlookers — many dragging suitcases behind them — have begun slowing their pace and rubbernecking as they pass the odd sight, especially for the foyer of a ritzy hotel. A couple stop to watch a few shots, and go on their way, not recognizing Barry, or at least not saying anything if they do. No matter. He doesn't seem to mind, and sinks another.
“At that height,” a female employee quips referring to Barry’s 6’7” stature after taking notice of the deft shooter, “there’d be no way you could miss that.”
“Oh, well, trust me,” he reassures her, “there’s a lot of people who can miss it from here.”
Over dinner, the still cocksure Barry had said he would bet anybody he could, with his eyes closed, hit 80 percent, at least. And sure enough, he closes his eyes and sends forth an attempt. When he releases the ball, his arms sit extended in the air at the brim of his cap. It swishes through as cleanly as the first shot, at least.
“Wow,” says a male concierge, followed by a laugh.
“See,” says Barry, “it’s easy. I mean, it’s like riding a bike. I’ve done it enough, I know how much effort I have to put into it.”
So convinced by its ease, Barry — like his father before him — has enlisted his youngest son, Canyon, a freshman at Division I College of Charleston in South Carolina, to embrace precision and use the underhand. During his high school career in Colorado Springs, Colo., where Rick lives with his wife Lynn, Canyon — a gangly 6’6” guard still growing into his body — improved from 60 to nearly 80 percent after making the switch as an upper-classman. It is through his son that Barry may find this piece of his legacy back in the league.
After making his final shot, Barry collects his belongings and shakes his pupil’s hand with a toothy smile while wishing happy holidays. He drifts off in the distance and, a momentary stop at the Internet station notwithstanding, disappears into the nine-story maze.
Entering 2012-13, through 66 NBA seasons, the league has averaged just better than 74 percent from the free-throw line. While not as good as its highest average ever, 77.1 percent, which has occurred twice, in 1973-74, and then again in 2008-09, it is a vast improvement over the 64-percent mark an 11-team league produced back in its inaugural season in 1946-47.
The common coaching cliché is that free throws win games, and sure enough, most NBA championship teams have been among the upper-half of the league’s best free-throw shooting teams. That said, just one has ever led the league in regular-season free-throw percentage and won the title, the 1953-54 Minneapolis Lakers at .731, only a thousandth ahead of the second-ranked team. In fact, counter intuitively, five teams have won the championship after posting the NBA’s worst regular-season free-throw mark (76ers: 1966-67, .680; Bullets: 1977-78, .711; Lakers: 1981-82, .717; Lakers: 2000-01, .683; and Lakers: 2001-02, .699). Showing the impact of his poor shooting percentage, Shaquille O’Neal was a member of two of those squads. His other two championships came with teams that finished with the league’s second-to-last regular-season free-throw percentage.
Still, these results fall well short of Rick Barry’s high standards. Like the underhanded free throw, he says those inflated expectations are also something he acquired from his dad.
“He was a perfectionist,” Barry says of his father Dick. “But it’s probably a better quality to have. I strive for perfection. I also realize I’ll never be perfect, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to try to be perfect. I mean, you’ve got to have pride in the things you do in life. That's one of the things my father instilled in me, was a great sense of pride.”
He adds, “Every sport is a game of mistakes. The team or the person who makes the fewest mistakes in their sport usually is the one who wins.”
At its core, is that really what it takes to be a competent free-throw shooter, and ultimately, successful at the game — striving for the immaculate? What if, as history has consistently shown, good enough is, well, good enough?
Acknowledging he is a person who believes players should be able to make every free throw, Mark Price is a bit more lenient on the proficiency threshold, saying 75 percent — three out of every four — is acceptable, even if he thinks that is still pretty bad. For those not even at that level, he doesn’t necessarily think it takes a pedant to improve, but at least someone who is committed to his craft, willing to put in the time to help the team get better, no matter the previous result.
“Just take Shaquille O’Neal,” says Price, a shooting coach with the Orlando Magic as recent as last season. “Once you win a championship, or a couple championships, then I guess the need to feel like you need to improve on something becomes less. Some guys, they want to improve every part of their game, and there’s other guys who are satisfied with where they’re at and don’t feel the need. When it comes down to it, it’s how good do you want to be, and do you want to improve in a certain area, and what kind of work are you going to put in to try and get there?”
“If he had learned my technique, it would have made a difference,” says Barry. “Imagine Shaq at 80 percent. C'mon, shit, he becomes a go-to guy, wins more championships, changes the dynamic of his career. Dwight Howard should try underhanded free throws. It would help him, it would work for him. He needs to make a change. He’s a bad free- throw shooter.”
Yet, does that mean there’s a spot in the present-day NBA for the underhand?
Both of these top-flight free throwers belabor the value of an identical routine at the line, regardless of method. They say it is the difference between being unreliable, and becoming automatic — being able to overcome the nerves that creep up when a game hangs in the balance to knock down the shots.
It takes that, and a whole lot of practice.
“I think it’s pretty universal, if anybody's good at anything, they’ve worked at it and they’ve put a lot of time into it,” says Price. “You kind of hear the phrase, ‘He’s a pure shooter,’ or ‘He’s a natural shooter’ or this and that, and I always kind of laugh. You don’t come out of the womb knocking down jump shots.”
Yet, does that mean there's a spot in the present-day NBA for the underhand?
“I think there’s always a place for something if it works,” says Price, who nearly perfected the modern free-throw form. “Ultimately, I think if it meant on your livelihood that you had to make free throws to do it, maybe [it] would be different. Where guys are making $20 million a year guaranteed whether he makes the free throw or not, I think it brings in a whole different thought process of trying to look cool or be cool, rather than doing whatever it takes to be successful.”
“See, that’s the problem,” says Al Attles, the long-retired 11-year pro and Barry’s coach with the Warriors. “If you worry about what people feel or think, you're going to have a problem. You have to do whatever is the best way to make the ball go in the basket.”
Barry says he always remembers the words of his dad whenever the topic of image enters the debate.
“‘Son,’” he says, shifting into a fatherly tone, “‘if you’re making them, they can’t make fun of you.’ And I remember in the first game that I was doing it on the road in high school, I remember a guy yelling from the stands, ‘Hey, Barry, you big sissy, shooting like that.’ And the guy next to him, I heard it loud enough, ‘What are you making fun of him for? He doesn’t miss.’
“I was the best free-throw shooter in the game for a long, long time,” he says, “and nobody ever copied the technique. It's hard to believe, especially in today’s world, in basketball, everybody copies everything that’s successful. But yet, when it comes to shooting free throws, nobody’s trying to copy it.”
Barry may be the shot’s biggest pitchman, but in fact, he was not even the last to make regular use of it. That distinction goes George Johnson, a teammate of Barry’s on the 1975 championship team. A 6’10” center, Johnson entered the league shooting 55 percent with the standard method, but after accepting Barry’s counsel and making the switch, as high as the mid-70s the last time he logged significant free-throw attempts. He ended his career a member of the Seattle SuperSonics in 1986. Apart from two tries by former Denver Nugget Chris Andersen, precipitated in 2002 by a wrist fracture, the technique is the proverbial dodo of the NBA, and sometimes things are even said to go the way of the underhand free throw.
The form remains a tough sell. Not even Barry’s four older sons, three of whom played in the NBA — the other, the eldest, named for his father but nicknamed Scooter, won a championship at Kansas — chose the shot. Rick says he never bothered them about it because they all made 80 percent from the line. In the pros, Jon shot .848, Brent, .823, and Drew, the youngest, .774.
“My son Scooter, who could shoot it really well when he was messing with it, said, ‘You know, Dad, it’s hard enough being your son without shooting underhanded free throws,’ says Barry. “I said, ‘Well, that might be true, but if you can shoot a higher percentage, you’re doing yourself and your team a disservice.’”
The root of his sons’ decision may actually be what was a strained relationship — since patched up — between Barry and his boys because of the divorce that separated Rick from his first wife, the boys’ mother, Pam.
“I don’t really want the publicity and the hype that would come with my doing it the other way,” Scooter told the Los Angeles Times in 1988.
Canyon, his youngest, has been groomed since he was little to shoot the underhand
“I’m trying to be my own person, to get out of the shadow of being Rick Barry’s son,” said Jon, then a college senior, in a scathing 1991 Sports Illustrated article about Rick’s absence in his children’s lives. The story suggests that the four brothers didn’t carry on the family tradition in symbolic rebellion of their father.
There remains, however, one last chance for Barry to pass on the aim of inerrability. Canyon, his youngest, has been groomed since he was little to shoot the underhand.
“It’s hard not to when you have the family member there who shot it,” says Canyon. “And if one of the greatest free-throw shooters of all time shot 90 percent from the line for career, why would you not try it when you have access to probably the best teacher of it ever? I’m not really sure why more people haven’t switched to it. I’m actually kind of surprised more people haven’t tried it.”
Just a redshirt freshman at Charleston for the 2012-13 season, Canyon’s chances of making the NBA are at this point anyone’s guess. So far in the Barry lineage though, it’s 4-for-5, which also translates to, you guessed it, 80 percent.
“There’s no doubt, they’re a special family,” says Bobby Cremins, who coached Jon and Drew at Georgia Tech, and recruited Canyon to Charleston. “They’ve got to be one of the best basketball families of all time. The genes are there. So I just think Canyon has something in him.”
Rick says it makes no difference to him whether the underhand returns to the game
Defiant as ever, Rick says it makes no difference to him whether the underhand returns to the game.
“I don’t care,” he says, “it doesn’t matter to me. It’s just people missing the boat, you know, it’s their loss. There’s a lot of players out there making a huge mistake by not taking a serious look at it. I just would think it would be great if somebody was smart enough to do it, but they’d have to come ask me how.
“I hope I see it with my son in college. That would be more rewarding to me than anything, seeing my son be good enough to become a pro player,” he continues, “and be shooting the underhand free throw.”
During Barry’s other sons’ careers, carrying their father’s connection to the game by helping to preserve his picture of perfection within it was on its face too much to bear. Canyon says he doesn't see it as taxing, and thinks of it in more practical terms.
“I don’t necessarily feel pressure to maintain the legacy,” he says. “I look at it more as I’m trying to pay respect to my dad and grandfather, and just try to be a better free-throw shooter, honestly. He always taught me to just give best effort in whatever you do, give 100 percent all the time, and I just think that’s a really good quality, and it’s definitely given me some of my work ethic. So I just respect him a lot for his ability to put his whole body and mind into everything he does.”
Rick Barry concedes that the route to flawlessness is onerous — one ultimately proving futile. Even if the shot synonymous with his accomplished career never makes it back to the NBA, in his unending struggle for the ideal, with its many bumps and snubs along the way, he still pushes toward his purpose, entrusting none other than his own bloodline to disseminate the message of basketball perfection once more.
“I really think he has grown to love the shot,” says Barry’s youngest son. “I definitely think it’s been a blessing in his life. It’s kind of put him on the map since not many people shoot it like that. I haven’t seen anyone, ever, shoot them in a game, so I could be one of the last people to shoot them.”
“But you never know,” Canyon adds, “that can always change.”