Basketball Free Throws-A Lost Art of The Game

In the mid 1960’s, I had the opportunity as a thirteen year old to attend a basketball camp in Cornwall New York. I have spoken and written about this before alot because of the people I came in contact with. The director of the camp was legendary college coach Clair Bee. At that time, Bobby Knight was coaching at West Point which was only a stones throw from my camp.  He would come down to our camp pretty often. The counselors were mostly all division 1 and high school All-American basketball players. Some went on to play in the NBA. There was one particular man I noticed the first few days of camp who was older than most in camp. He was a short, standing 5’4” and was always smiling when I saw him. All the camp staff knew him and he seemed to garner a lot of respect. It took about three or four days and finally he was introduced to the campers. His name was Harold Levitt who was referred to as Bunny  by everyone.  Bunny Levitt’s claim to fame was that he sunk 499 free throws in a row without missing. He did this in 1935 and the record stood for a long time. When he was introduced to the campers in the gymnasium, he was asked by Clair Bee to demonstrate his free throw prowess. Bunny went to the foul line, looking relaxed and proceeded to make foul shot after foul shot as the campers counted with every made shot. I recall that Bunny got somewhere in the 90’s until he missed. He shot every shot the same way underhand in a very relaxed manner. Of course there wasn’t the pressure an NBA player has in say an overtime game shooting free throws.  It was amazing how this short elderly man was in such control of his shots and was better at this skill than the whole camp staff who all were much better athletes. Why is it that some of the best basketball athletes have trouble at the foul line? 

Shooting free throws is becoming something of a lost art in the game of basketball. Many basketball games are won or lost on the foul line. The first thing I always look for in the box score of a close basketball game is how many free throws the losing team missed. It is amazing to me that young players now practice three point shots more than they practice free throws. One of the reasons this happens is that practicing three point shots is fun! Shooting foul shots in one stationary position takes work and concentration. And let’s face it, it can be boring.

Players should always take their foul shots the same way. Changing techniques does not seem to work when shooting free throws. Wilt Chamberlain, the great center led the NBA in numerous categories including scoring and assists but could not crack what it takes to be a good free throw shooter. Wilt was changing his routine endlessly. My earliest recollection was of Wilt shooting foul shots underhand. He then changed his foul shooting technique shooting one handed moving back about 12 inches behind the foul line. If I was Wilt’s coach, I would have tried to convince him to shoot underhand. With his arm reach, he was probably one third of the way to the basket when he let go of the basketball. I still believe underhand foul shooting is very underrated, especially for young players who are still growing because their hands have not reached their full size. One of the best foul shooters in the history of the NBA was Rick Barry and he shot underhand.

There are some things players can do that should become habit. Studies have been done that specific pre-shot routines help players in their concentration. Simply said, if a player bounces the ball three times before shooting, he should always bounce it three times. Having the same ritual will help with the shooter's focus. Coming from a baseball background, I was always taught that a relaxed hitter is a dangerous hitter. The same holds true with free throw shooting. The more relaxed a player is, the better rate of success he or she will have. Many players will take a deep breath just before shooting. The audience will see this as the player's shoulders rise on the inhale and then go down on the exhale. Players also need to visualize the ball going through the hoop in a swish-like manner.

There are endless drills that coaches use to increase individual and team free throw shooting. My good friend, Tom Nordland, creator of the excellent "Swish" video series, has an excellent practice method. In addition to shooting to make the foul shot, players should practice shooting to miss the shot. Tom preaches for players to practice both missing short and missing long. This technique will definitely help master control.

There have been endless theories for being successful at the foul line. Players should fine the most successful technique for them, tweak it from knowledgeable coaches, and then do a tremendous amount of repetition. Having the same ritual and being relaxed are the keys to success. Coaches also need to create game like conditions when the players shoot foul shots in practice such as giving them something to shoot for if they make their foul shots. Coaches also should have players practice shooting when they are winded. The all-time leaders in free throws makes anywhere from 88-90 percent of their foul shots. Unlike Wilt Chamberlain who made only about 51% of his free throws , the Steve Nash’s, Mark Price’s and Rick Barry’s had incredible success.

Besides seeing the success of Bunny Levitt in person, I also remember years ago seeing New York Knick Bill Bradley make eight out of ten foul shots blindfolded. This is true visualization. By the way, after Bunny Levitt missed his 500th free throw, he went on to hit another 371 in a row before the janitor kicked him out of the YMCA in Chicago at 3am in the morning.

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