He May Not Be An NBA Star, But This Guy Knows His Free Throws
Watching the Chicago Bulls and Seattle SuperSonics battle it out in the National Basketball Association playoffs, crowds swoon at the swish of three-point shots from 22 feet. They exult in the artful jam for two points from an arm's length.Skip to next paragraph
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But many a game, season, and championship has been blown for want of a routine one-pointer from 15 feet: the free throw. Sports analysts say it could happen again as the two teams square off this week and next for the championship. Game 1, however, was actually a foul-shooting clinic, as the victorious Bulls made 26 of 31 free throws, while the Sonics were even better, making 31 of 36. (Seattle's downfall in losing 107-90 was a poor .397 shooting percentage from the field.)
Fred Newman says missing too many free throws should be a crime punishable by hard time. He should know: In February, the assistant coach achieved his fifth entry into "The Guinness Book of World Records" with the most free throws made in one hour (2,034). The Santa Monica, Calif., native has also held records for consecutive free throws while blindfolded (88), most free throws in 10 minutes using two balls (336), percentage made in 24 hours (98 percent), and most made in 24 hours (20,371).
"Most of the giants in the NBA who have bad free-throw percentages have no arc on the ball," says the Yoda of free-throwers, at 5 ft., 11 in., a shrimp by NBA standards. "I tell you unequivocally that is what's wrong with Shaquille O'Neal," he says of the 7 ft., 1 in. center for the Orlando Magic. "His free-throw shot is flat as a pancake."
The stars of the Bulls and SuperSonics might want to pay attention to master tips from Newman. Here in Pasadena, Calif., at a gym owned by the California Polytechnic Institute where Newman coaches, he can be found each week refining the technique that has made him a top threat at free-throw competitions for 20 years.
One key is understanding what he calls the "calculus of physics," and how to maximize the size of the basket opening by the arc of the ball.
"At 10 feet [from the foul line], the basket looks like a straight line. From 11 feet, it looks like an ellipse ... and from 12 feet, it's a bigger ellipse," says Newman, dressed in khaki pants, a white sweat shirt, and sneakers. "You want to throw the ball high enough to maximize the target's size, and low enough that it doesn't travel any farther than it needs to."
The optimum height for the ball puts the top of the arc just under the backboard's top edge at about 13 feet. "If you drop your hand like this when you are following through, you're half way there," says Newman, letting the ball sail and then dropping the four fingers of his shooting hand straight toward the ground. "The hardest part of this practice is finding the distance to the basket."
Well, there had to be something to practice. For Newman, that something has been decades in the making. A three-time all-league player in college, Newman started heading toward the YMCA on Saturday mornings 15 years later in San Jose, Calif., in 1974. His reason? Because it was there.