Like most sports, when basketball is played at a high level - the current National Basketball Association playoffs being a prime example - there are many complexities. There are picks, rolls, screens, post-ups, illegal defenses, double teams, intricate inbound plays, and weak-side strategies.
But there's also one of the most simple elements in sport: free throws.
Let's review. A free throw, awarded when a player is fouled by an opposing player, is shot unguarded from a line just 15 feet from the basket. The shooter has a leisurely 10 seconds for the attempt. The other team can offer no defense. While other shots come in a variety of shapes and sizes, the free throw always is the same. And it's the easiest to practice because it's always the same.
Practice free throws and you'll be good at them. Guaranteed.
How easy is it? The legendary Houston Rockets little man, Calvin Murphy (5 ft., 9 in.), in one season hit 206 of 215 attempts, a 95.8 percent success record. Along the way, he hit 78 in a row.
An advertiser on the Internet, Tom Amberry, claims to have made 2,750 free throws in a row in 1993. That's what he says. His secrets? "Focus and concentration."
Back to real life, this season's best foul shooter in the NBA, Detroit's Jerry Stackhouse, hit 81.5 percent of his attempts. Basically anyone worth his tattoos can shoot at least 70 percent (among the top 50 players, the worst shoots 79.3 percent). A few dullards are in the 60 percent range.
And then there is the Lakers Shaquille O'Neal, deservedly named the NBA's Most Valuable Player this year. But in the regular season, he managed to hit a laughable 52.4 percent of his free throws. In the playoffs, O'Neal has deteriorated further. He hit 48.1 percent in the first game of the Portland series, then followed up earlier this week with a 29.4 percent debacle - 5 of 17.
It's not just that he misses. It's how far he misses. Every free throw is an adventure in the wilderness. A free throw is a matter of finesse, and O'Neal fashions bricks. They clank. They appear to have a mind of their own.
This is a guy who led the league this year in scoring and field goal percentage, was second in rebounds, third in blocked shots. Because of Shaq, all the chatter has been the Lakers were on their way to becoming the next dynasty. The playoffs were planned not as contests but as a coronation. The Lakers would sweep away the pretenders, and the mighty past achievements of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls soon would be foggy memories.
Shaq's misadventures 15 feet from the hoop may ruin these predictions.
Surely a star of O'Neal's magnitude and talent ($120 million, seven-year contract and millions more from CDs, acting, and endorsements) can learn to shoot a ball inflated with between 7-1/2 and 8-1/2 pounds of pressure when nary a person is near him. Or maybe not.
Wilt Chamberlain, a mammoth star of yesteryear, never learned to shoot free throws. In 14 seasons, he hit 51.1 percent. He became shellshocked standing at the line. It was pathetic to see a player of his scope reduced to quivering jello at 15 feet.
In the first Portland game last week, Trail Blazer coach Mike Dunleavy watched his team fall substantially behind. He then ordered his players to intentionally foul O'Neal every trip down the floor, a technique dubbed Hack-a-Shaq. Twenty-seven times O'Neal fired up free throws, 14 times they went astray. The Lakers still won, but had the Blazers responded slightly better offensively, it would have worked.
Afterward, O'Neal said, "You can't mess with my mind."
But you can. That's why the next game he hit his infamous 29.4 percent. There was no Hack-a-Shaq, but the possibility lurked in O'Neal's mind. Tonight the Lakers and Blazers play again.
Is the Shaq "miss attack" from the line heading for 20 percent?
On the one hand, it is funny to see a fine athlete with extraordinary skills be unable to master the most simple skill. On the other hand, it creates a feeling of unease. A viewer wants to bury his head in a towel to avoid watching something so awful. Hey, maybe Shaq could bury his head in a towel while he shoots. Couldn't hurt.
Or maybe he could dedicate himself to improvement. After all, an athlete with O'Neal's towering abilities has no excuse - unless he doesn't want to practice. And that's no excuse.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society