INDIANAPOLIS, IND. — It looks so easy. An NBA playoff game between the Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks stops completely.
Chris Mullin of the Pacers, one of the world's best basketball players, moves to the free-throw line for an unopposed free shot.
Free enterprise. No red tape. No small print. Thousands of practice shots have paved the way for the shot that counts.
Coaches and players know that tight games are won at the free-throw line, especially during the National Basketball Association playoffs, when 21 percent of the points scored are free throws.
Mullin spreads his feet, and bounces the ball twice. His eyes fasten on the basket, the center of which is only 13 feet, 9 inches away. He crouches slightly, the ball rising from thigh level in an upward motion of his body that sends his left arm up, releasing the ball just above head level. It arcs perfectly. Swish.
Ladies and gentlemen, what lies between a miss or a make in free-throw shooting is a kind of basketball twilight zone. In it, grown men can suddenly become Silly Putty. Or, with the sureness of a steel compass like Mullin, they can calmly sink the shot, true north, again and again.
At the free-throw line, it's intimidation or mastery.
Every NBA player has a "here's how I deal with it" story, which reveals what makes him tick. Free-throw shooting ends up being a chicken-and-egg puzzle: Which comes first, technique or cool composure?
Mullin, noted for his pure, easy shooting style, seldom misses. In the regular season he was the NBA's best free-throw shooter, successful a heady 93.9 of the time. Superstar Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers fumbles along with 52.7 percent, unable so far in his young career to consistently bury the free-enterprise shots.
Megastar Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls manages a respectable 78.4 percent.
In a playoff game, the Atlanta Hawks lost to the Charlotte Hornets, 97-87, and made only nine of 21 free throws, while the Hornets made 11 of 17. He who makes free throws wins the game.
Think empty gym
Some players are near-automatic in practice. "A lot of guys will shrug," says Mullin after playing before16,000 screaming fans in Market Square Arena "and say they can make the shots in an empty gym. But for me it's an empty gym all the time. I think if you have repeated the shots enough, that's where you are, in an empty gym, and you've made it already."
Mullin calls his approach a combination of "muscle memory," so much repetition of a direct, economical shooting style that it becomes automatic, and mental composure, which brings an unruffled surety. Which of the two comes first, if at all, Mullin doesn't know. Nor does he care.
No mentor or coach was influential in his developing years as he shot thousands of free throws en route to becoming a consensus All American at St. John's University. On practice days he always shoots at least 25 free throws, and in the summer he'll shoot about a 100 a day when he practices.
"When I reach the line," he says, "I just know I'm going to dribble the ball twice, and when I shoot, I know it's going in. I get there and relax. I've put more in than I have missed, so in my head, I know they're going in."
Not so easy for dozens of NBA players. At the line, their lack of mental confidence, and jerky, flailing-arm motions can break a coach's heart, not to mention losing the game.
In the first game of last year's NBA Finals, with only nine seconds to play and the score tied, Utah's broad-shouldered Karl Malone, who talks to himself before he shoots, missed two free throws. At the buzzer, Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls made a jump shot to win the game. The outcome contributed to a successful title defense.
Shooting coach Tom Nordland, who was a high school star in Minnesota and a former player at Stanford University, is convinced that intimidation at the free-throw line springs almost always from faulty technique. His Web site is: (www.swish22.com)
'Upforce' controls flight
"Shaq O'Neal has such poor technique," he says, "that he needs tremendous concentration just to get the ball in the basket. I say that in free-throw shooting the mental aspect is important, but it's more important to have a flawless technique."
With his technique, Nordland helped Utah Jazz forward Adam Keefe improve his free-throw shooting from 68.9 percent to 80.9 percent. "Adam was flipping the ball with his wrist and hand and not using his body," says Nordland.
"Tom's approach simplified things for me," says Keefe. "As opposed to worrying about where I was facing and how my knees were bending and what my wrist was doing, it became more of shooting the ball with the force coming up from my legs and simplifying what I do with hands and arms." Keefe also felt this new confidence carried over to his shots anywhere on the court.
"The upward thrust comes from the legs," says Nordland, who calls it "Upforce," and insists it is the best way to control the flight of the ball and stabilize the shot.
With practice, Nordland says anybody can learn the technique and has produced an instructional video to show how it can become a comfortable motion. Keefe is having his best season.
"I think some of the guys who have a tough time is because they are trying to remember 14 different things," says Keefe. "They are overloaded, are people who just do it incorrectly, and that hurts them in the long run."
The free throw is the only act in all of sports where the game comes to a complete stop. A player tests his skills against the equipment, and is not part of the action of a team. He's all alone at the free-throw line.
"I think if you are a good shooter, "says Mullin, "it should be just another shot."
Or in the words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, "There is no security on this earth. There is only opportunity."