The Free Throw: Basketball’s Conundrum

There is more than enough to the game of basketball to drive a coach over the edge of sanity. Not being a basketball coach, I’d have to guess what might be the quickest to do the trick.

But my best bet would be the ability – or more to the point, the inability – of their players to make free throws.

One of my favorite of many Skip Prosser stories, told, no less by Ron Wellman, Wake’s director of athletics, was of the time a well-intentioned fan suggested to Skip that his team would be well-served to spend time at practice on free throws.

“Practice free throws,’’ Skip replied, taking out a pen and a piece of paper. “Let me write that down.’’

Did anybody else ever notice that Skip would look the other way when one of his players shot a free throw? I don’t think he did it all the time, but I saw him do so more than once.

I never asked him about it, but I imagined what his thinking might be – that this is now out of his hands, that there’s nothing he can do to influence the outcome on the court.

Nothing, perhaps, but pray.

He may have also been thinking that in more cases than he cared to admit, his team would have a better chance with him at the line than the player standing there.

College basketball players are marvelously trained athletes. They spend countless hours building and maintaining their bodies, knowing that the game has evolved to the point that only those in peak condition can survive more than a minute or two of live action without their heart bursting out of their chest.

Yet let the officials blow a whistle to stop the action, put a ball in their hands and ask them to make an uncontested shot from 15-feet away and their chances of doing so may be no better than that of the coach who put him in the game.

That’s why it has to be so frustrating for coaches. But that’s also why it’s so frustrating – if not incomprehensible — for the fans sitting in the stands or watching on television. Many of them, those with decent hand-to-eye coordination and just the least bit of practice, could stand at the line and be as likely to make the free throw as the finely-sculptured 20-year-old athlete who has spent years training to play the game.

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, they all sit there and say `Hell I could do that.’ And truth be told, they might be right.

All basketball teams practice free throws. Back when I attended Wake’s practices, I’d see them do it. And I’d see plenty of the players come early, or stay late, and shoot free throws. They fully understand that a game might well come down to whether or not they can make that uncontested 15-footer.

Yet for all that physical ability and all that practice, you still see players like Terrence Thompson and Doral Moore of Wake, Luke Maye and Sterling Manly of North Carolina, Marvin Bagley III and Trevon Duval of Duke and Omer Yurtseven of N.C. State who, even on a good night, are lucky to make three out of every five attempts.

It’s one of those confounding aspects of the game of basketball that has to drive coaches crazy. But ultimately, they have only themselves to blame.

Of all the times I asked what was the secret to having a team that could make its free throws, the best answer was also the most succinct.

Recruit good shooters.

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