Game’s easiest shot can also be its most vexing

Clevin Hannah takes a breath and walks up to the line,

straddling his feet squarely over the midpoint. The Wichita State

senior spins the ball once, dribbles three times, spins it again,

then gets a good grip before letting fly. Swish! Nearly every

time.

If only it were that easy for everyone.

Cool and confident under pressure, Hannah is one of a handful of

players around the nation who has mastered the art of the free

throw, a shot that’s at once the easiest and most vexing in

basketball.

“I hate to see guys miss free throws,” said Hannah, third in

the nation at 92.5 percent through Monday. “As my coach always

said, they’re free and you’ve to make ’em to help your team

win.”

Shooting a free throw seems so easy. The shooter stands at the

line, no hand in his face, no one chasing from behind, just him and

the basket. Heck, a guy named Fred Newman once hit 88 in row

blindfolded.

It’s far more complicated under the bright lights.

There’s fatigue, particularly in the closing minutes, that makes

muscles weak and concentration poor. Some players have a hard time

finding a rhythm, the stagnancy of standing at the line tougher

than shooting in the flow of the game. It’s not easy shooting when

opposing fans are waving and jumping up and down, either, not to

mention the pressure of having all eyes on you, particularly with

the game on the line.

“Shooting’s difficult. It’s more difficult than people

realize,” said Bob Fisher, a shooting coach from Centralia, Kan.

“Everybody makes the comment, ‘These guys should be able to make

that shot. They’re just standing there and should be able to make

that shot.’ Well, it’s not that easy.”

Just ask Texas.

The 15th-ranked Longhorns have been befuddled at the free-throw

line all season, particularly over the past month, when they’ve

lost five of eight in a precipitous drop from the top of the

polls.

Texas shot 10 of 27 from the line in a nine-point loss to

Oklahoma, missed 12 in an overtime loss to Baylor and went 9 for 22

in a 71-62 loss to Kansas State. On the season, the Longhorns are

shooting 61 percent, 323rd in the nation.

“They all know their problems and they all work on it in

practice,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “The problem (is) when

it gets to the game and it’s time to do what you’re supposed to do,

they don’t trust whatever they’ve done up to that point. That, from

my point of view, is what I think has to happen. They’ve got to

trust what they’re doing.”

Mostly, it comes down to mechanics, being able to repeat the

same motion every time.

Fisher has mastered that part of it.

The former high school coach and soil conservation technician

has turned his analytical mind to the study of shooting free

throws, filling his home with books, graphs, physiology manuals,

medical studies, gadgets he created. He’s approached free-throw

shooting from every possible angle, so to speak, filling binders

with information on everything from stance and arc to physics and

anatomy.

Last month, Fisher earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World

Records by making 50 free throws in a minute. He did it by

calculating the 48 factors that affect a shot, from the strongest

position of his wrist based on the bucket-carrying angle of his

elbow (about 7 degrees ulnar deviation) to the digit ratio of his

index and ring fingers to determine which of the four release

points – and corresponding hand position – fits best.

Yeah, he’s serious about free-throw shooting.

“It’s all mechanics,” said Fisher, who runs Fisher Sharp

Shooters from his home on the Kansas plains. “The reason people

struggle with free-throw shooting is because they’re trying to

steer the ball into the basket. That wrist snap in the last .15 of

a second, they’re deviating, trying to steer it. That is not a

repeatable motion.”

OK, it’s about repeating the same motion every time. Problem is,

we’re human beings, not robots. Precisely repeating the same motion

is impossible, even for the best shooters. There are just too many

variables. One way to minimize deviations is to take the same

approach to every free throw. Golfers have routines when they putt

or hit a shot, and a similar tactic works for free-throw shooters,

giving them a way to block out everything else going on around

them.

Appalachian State’s Donald Sims likes to plant his right foot

five boards from the nail in the middle of the line, spin the ball,

dribble three times, then spread his fingers across the ball’s

seams to get a comfortable grip before shooting. Sims is doing

something right; he leads the nation at 95.5 percent.

“It goes back to the consistency aspect – you want to do the

same thing every time you shoot one,” Sims said. “Doing the same

routine every time helps me shoot the same way every time.”

Of course, nothing works better than confidence.

Miss a few shots and suddenly the hoop seems a little smaller,

the ball a little tougher to grip. Memphis experienced the downward

spiral of failing confidence in the 2008 national championship,

missing one free throw after another to give Kansas a chance to win

the title in overtime.

Good free-throw shooters go to the line knowing they’re going to

make it, shrug it off and move on to the next in the rare occasions

they do miss. That’s how it works for Portland State’s Dominic

Waters, second in the nation at 92.6 percent.

“It’s having the confidence and knowing you’re going to do it

is the main thing for me,” Waters said. “It’s not about the crowd

or anything. I don’t really notice them at all. It’s just

concentrating on the hoop and having the confidence of knowing it’s

going in. It’s like a layup for me.”