Tuesday, March 17, 2009


The NCAA college basketball playoffs are upon us again, with office pools around the country gearing up for one of the biggest gambling events of the year. Despite the obvious great shooting and ball handling talents of the athletes, many crucial games will hinge upon the ability of teams to sink their free throws late in the game. Many a tournament has been lost by the inability of a player to hit a crucial free throw. When a team takes a small lead late in a game, the opposing team will often foul the weakest free throw shooters in an effort to get the ball back. Thus, coaches will often remove a poor free throw shooter late in the game, although he may be otherwise the best player on the team.

Sometimes that will backfire on the coach. For example, in the 1975 Louisville- UCLA semifinal game, Louisville took a 74-73 lead in the final minute of overtime and had possession of the ball. Their coach, Denny Crum brought his best free throw shooter into the game, senior guard Terry Howard, who had been a starter the previous two seasons. Howard had not missed a free throw the entire season, making 28 for 28. He held the school record for free throw percentage. When he entered the game, UCLA coach Johnny Wooden screamed to his players, "Don't foul him!" Well, with 20 seconds to go, they fouled him, and he strode confidently to the free throw line to shoot the one-and-bonus. If he makes the first one, he shoots the bonus. If he makes them both, Louisville wins the game and maybe the national championship.

You can guess the result. Howard missed the front end of the one-and-one, UCLA got the rebound and scored a basket to win by a point, and they eventually won the NCAA championship.

Howard, now a successsful Louisville businessman said recently that sympathetic fans sometimes send him get-well cards and gift money. Angry fans still send hate mail. Howard said "You'd think, after a while, people would just forget about a missed free throw, but really and seriously, it still comes up in my life every single day." In his online bio for his company, it says that he was the Number 1 free throw shooter in a season--96.5%. At least he didn't dwell on his one missed free throw that season. After all, 28 out of 29 ain't bad.

In another example, in 1981, Chicago's DePaul University, coached by Ray Meyer, was the Number 1 college basketball team going into the NCAA tournament with stars like Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings. In the opening round, they faced St. Joseph's, a team with zero chance to win, or so the experts said. Coming down to the closing seconds, the game was surprisingly close, with DePaul holding a slim one-point lead. Standing at the free throw line for a one-and-bonus was Skip Dillard, their best free throw shooter, nicknamed "Money". He held the school record with 45 free throws in a row. Not this time. Dillard threw up a brick, St. Joseph's got the rebound and drove the length of the court to score, on an unguarded layup by someone named John Smith with 3 seconds left, winning 49-48 in a major upset.

Several years later, Dillard's life went downhill, and he was sent to prison for armed robbery. Interviewed there, he said that the missed free throw had turned his life into a living hell.

On the positive side, the Michigan Wolverines recall fondly the performance by point guard Rumeal Robinson in the 1989 championship game against Seton Hall. With 3 seconds left in overtime and Michigan trailing 79-78, Robinson, the weakest free throw shooter on the team at around 60% was fouled attempting a shot. He went to the line for 2 free throws. Michigan fans groaned, but Robinson, a gamer, who was homeless at age 12, said "no problem." He drilled them both, giving Michigan a one point win and the national championship.

According to a study by the Coaches' Association, free throws account for 25% of the points scored in Division I men's basketball games. Also, winning teams score on average 67% of their points in the final minute at the free throw line. In recent years, Division I players free throw percentages have actually gotten worse. Professional players have problems also. Coaches and consultants have torn their hair out trying to teach NBA star Shaquille O'Neal to make his free throws. The great Wilt Chamberlain was an awful free throw shooter, although lightning struck once--he made 28 of 32 FT's in the 1962 game in Hershey, PA. when he scored 100 points.

Octogenarian free throw shooting consultant Tom Amberry says in disgust at today's players, "Nobody listens, because nobody is interested in free throw shooting. Players like dunks and three-point shots, and they just don't get it. Free throws might be boring, but they're the most important shots you'll ever take."

Amberry, a retired surgeon, decided to prove in his old age that anybody could become a great free throw shooter. He went to the gym every day and shot free throws for hours. In 1993, he earned mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, by making 2,750 consecutive shots in one day. He was 71 and suffering from shingles at the time, Of course, his body was bruised all over from the fouls he took that day.

The bottom line here is that when it's crunch time, and the player is in the spotlight, he'd better make those 15 foot shots when nobody is guarding him. There is nowhere to hide. If he doesn't it's a long time until next season.




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