When I attended Roosevelt High School in Chicago (1951-55), Sam Edelcup was the basketball coach. I wasn’t on his team (not nearly) but he was my gym teacher a couple of semesters, and I wrote sports for the school newspaper, the Rough Rider Review, so we became more than nodding acquaintances.
He was a very nice man and a good coach—the 1952 Public League championship his team won was the school’s first and, as far as I know, last such title. But any athletic ability he’d possessed as a youth was hard to discern in what I judged to be his middle 50s. At 5-feet-3 or -4 inches tall he was a good foot shorter than some of his players, and his stocky build did not attest to agility.
Nonetheless, Mr. Edelcup had a standing challenge to his team’s members to try to beat him in a best-of-10 free-throw-shooting contest, and legend had it they rarely did. His method was to stand on the free-throw line with feet wide apart, grip the ball with a hand on each side, bend his knees slightly and from between his legs flip it basketward underhanded in a soft arc. Not only did the shot almost invariably go in, it usually did so cleanly, without troubling backboard or rim.
Back in peach-basket days, I’m told, many players shot their charity tosses that way, but even by the 1950s two-handed shots of any kind had all but vanished from the sport, and not even many Roosevelt varsity players followed their coach’s lead. That’s despite the fact that his was a simple, natural motion that’s easily to emulate and usually effective. Rick Barry, a basketball Hall of Famer, learned it from his dad and used it throughout college and a 14-year pro career that he concluded, in 1980, as the best free-throw shooter in league history. His near-90% mark from the line still ranks fourth on the NBA’s all-time list, less than 1% behind that of the leader, Steve Nash.
Barry was a flinty individualist who didn’t much care about appearances or what others thought. That’s crucial to this discussion. Athletes usually are the most suggestible of people, eager to try any fad or gimmick that might improve their fortunes. Yogurt diets, meditation, old sweat socks and all manner of equipment oddments come under this heading. If a baseball player shaved one side of his head and let the other side grow, and raised his batting average by 20 points, pretty soon you’d see half a league full of half-bald players. But ask them to try something that might make them look a bit awkward or uncool—or worse, feminine—and they’ll balk, even if what they’re doing patently doesn’t work.
Harking back to the underhand method is pertinent because the NBA now has a problem with the consequences of bad free-throw shooting. The phenomenon dates from the days when late in games trailing teams intentionally fouled Wilt Chamberlain, who was awful at the line (51% careerwise) in an attempt to gain cheap possessions, but it’s popularly called “Hack a Shaq” because the practice was revived during the more-recent tenure of the almost-equally-inept Shaquille O’Neal (and because “Hack a Wilt” doesn’t rhyme).
Today the most-popular targets are the Detroit Pistons’ Andre Drummond and the L.A. Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan, whose FT success rate (Drummond’s 38%, Jordan’s 42%) make fellow big men Shaq and Wilt look like Annie Oakleys. Fouling them and other poor shooters down the homestretch of games, as opponents are wont to do, can turn the last two minutes of playing time into a half-hour slog instead of the usual 20 minutes or so. Worse, some teams have taken to employing the tactic earlier, irking fans by slowing things further.
The practice has reached the point where Adam Silver, the NBA’s commish, is saying he’ll be looking into rules changes to prevent it. Any change, though, would require two-thirds approval by team owners, and such consensus can be hard to reach.
A better way out, I think, would be to make the perps in question better free-throw shooters, possibly by going underhanded. A few weeks ago I was spinning my TV dial in search of after-dinner entertainment when I chanced on a University of Louisville basketball game involving one Chinanu Onuako. There he was, on the line in front of everyone, flipping ‘em up the way Sam Edelcup (and Rick Barry) did.
A computer search revealed Onuako, who stands 6-feet-10 and weighs about 245 pounds, to be a good player on a good college team. A sophomore from Lanham, Maryland, he is employed primarily as a rebounder and shot blocker, but often scores in double figures as well and is rated as a good NBA prospect.
He’s also a smart young man—an ACC All-Academic teamer as a freshman-- who has reasoned that better FT shooting would make him more valuable to his team and more attractive to the pros. That was what prompted his style change this season even though it has required a thick skin. “My teammates laughed at me when I started,” he told a writer from the ESPN website. Indeed, the writer couldn’t restrain himself from adding some rhetorical jabs, calling the practice “funny looking” and “granny style.” Such is the lot of the nonconformist.
It would be nice to say that underhanded free-throw shooting has made Onuako into an ace. It hasn’t, but he’s upped his percentage to about 57% from 47% last year, and he’s just getting the hang of it. So let’s hear it for the boy. I hope he thrives and prospers.