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.
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.
"I had never known anyone who could make 100 free throws in a row," he recalls. "I just felt it was something I wanted to do."
On his second Saturday, he sank 139 in a row. A friend said that was only 61 shy of the Guinness record at the time. Practicing an average of two hours a day, Newman began chasing Guinness records - his first came in 1975 for best percentage over 24 hours (97 percent for 13,000 shots) - and he hasn't stopped practicing since.
All that practice has added up to this technique: His weight is balanced equally between the balls of his feet and his heels. Newman straddles the midpoint of the free-throw line with feet slightly bowed outward - about 12 inches between heels and about 18 inches between big toes. This slightly triangular shape is more stable, he says.
His knees are slightly bent, but he doesn't use his legs to propel the ball. "You want to use as little effort as possible and keep the big muscles [thighs and calves] out of the way. They are too hard to control," he explains.
Holding the ball chest high, his hands like bookends on the ball and his thumbs about three inches apart, Newman pauses. He becomes very still, even motionless. Important: He exhales completely, dropping the shoulders and holding the breath for the remainder of the shot. "You want to remove as many variables as possible," he says, "including motion in the chest muscles."
Newman calls this moment, "the Zen pause," a moment when all the mechanics of the shot are unified into a single mental motion without thinking in the conventional, linear sense.
"Most important, you must keep all negativity out of thought," he says. Then, in quick succession he leans forward slightly, dropping the ball to the floor. He catches it on his fingertips, then propels it toward the basket with his right arm, concentrating on the follow-through.
If all that sounds complicated, here are two more micro-tips:
*When holding the ball, the index finger of the shooting hand should point toward the middle of the basket.
*Before the shot, the quarter-inch wide, black stem of the inflation valve should be pointing straight up, so the ball will bounce true.
Newman realizes that the skill he has developed is far different from being a well-rounded basketball player. NBA players spend most of their time running and jumping before attempting the same set of motions.
"I could never do what they do, but they could learn to do a little more of what I do," he says.
Fundamentally, that means overcoming three basic errors. By holding the ball over their heads, as many pros do, they must shoot the ball 12 to 18 inches farther, he says. The overhead shot also requires using the leg muscles, which may be tired. And most pros use the same form at the free-throw line they use in the rest of the game. Newman says they should adopt a special free-throw shot. "It's a free shot, with extra time to relax, think, and shoot," he says. "They should take advantage of this anyway they can."