The Art of the Free Throw

In the book, The Tao of the Jump Shot, John Fitzsimmons Mahoney (Introduction by NBA legend Bill Walton) extols the principles of Eastern philosophy through the skill of shooting a jump shot.

Mahoney explores Taoism and explains that to become a master of something - even the jump shot - one must perfect not only the technical side of the skill but the spiritual side as well.

We, in our own way, delve into the mystique of the free throw.

You may recall that Rick Barry, although one of the greatest free throw shooters of all-time was an ego-less practitioner. Barry eschewed macho bravado and shot the ball underhand.

Also, Karl Malone, who has attempted more free throws than any other player mouthed a prayer before each free throw.

The Art of the Free Throw looks at today's players (the artists) and we see many have tapped into some deep emotions to succeed at the charity stripe.

Steve Francis' routine stems from trying to stay connected to his late mother while Jason Kidd has a free throw habit that centers around his wife. There are others with a less sublime ritual but all have a method to their madness.

Gilbert Arenas

The Free Throw:
Like many NBA players, Gilbert Arenas has developed his own style at the charity stripe. But unlike many of his peers, the All-Star guard had a practical reason for developing his routine. "I started it to get some rest from running up and down the court, and it's pretty much a habit now."

While that may seem innocent enough, there was another reason for his pre-shot routine. "Also, kids always want to see something then copy it," added the Wizards floor-leader, smiling. "Kids started to copy Richard Hamilton when he made it to the playoffs for the first time. So I said, I might as well make my own up."

The Ritual:
The ritual begins when Arenas receives the ball from the referee. He spins it around his waist three times, and a ball spin and two dribbles follow. From there, it's all concentration and eyes on the basket.

“Everything is mental, but if you just remember to stay with your same technique you will be fine. If you stay confident, make sure you are doing the same thing over and over, the free throws will fall."

Josh Childress

The Free Throw:
Josh Childress, aka "Chill" to Hawk teammates and a second-year swingman, goes through a very distinct process when shooting free throws. "First, I squeeze the ball to get rid of any moisture," said Childress. "I want the ball to be completely comfortable in my hands." After the squeeze Childress spins the ball, almost like a magician shuffling a deck of cards, in his left hand and takes a second or two to catch his breath. "Chances are if you are at the free throw line you have just made a play," says Chill. "So you will probably need a moment or two to calm down a little bit and refocus." Once he catches his breath, he takes two dribbles, bending on both, and lets it fly.

The Ritual:
Shooting free throws is more about feel than any other part of the game, says Childress. "I shoot at least 25 free throws a day," he says, "but the biggest thing is to be comfortable up there. It's the same routine every time, the same footwork. I've been shooting free throws the same way for a long time, so I don't think about my mechanics when I am at the stripe. I just try to get a good feel when I get up there, do my routine, and try to put the ball through the net."

Steve Francis

The Free Throw:
To most, shooting a free throw is a simple way of taking a free shot from the charity stripe in hopes of adding onto a point total. But when Steve Francis shoots a free throw, the Orlando Magic guard is not only looking for the easy basket, but also paying tribute to a special person in his life. Dating back more than 10 years, Steve began touching a tattoo on his right arm that is dedicated to his mother, Brenda Wilson, who passed away while he was still a teenager. "I've been shooting free throws the same way for a long time," Francis said. "You can go back 10 years ago and it was the same way back then." After getting the ball, Francis taps the tattoo on his right bicep, bends down, takes three dribbles, spins the ball while keeping his eyes on the rim the entire time.

The Ritual:
Steve's free throw ritual goes beyond his time as a standout collegiate player at Maryland and even pre-dates his rise in the junior college ranks. Steve started the routine of rubbing the tattoo of a cross with the words "In Memory" above it just shortly after he had it inked back in 1995. Even though Steve has changed many things about his style of play while under the guidance of some of the great teachers of the game, including Gary Williams at Maryland, Rudy Tomjanovich and Jeff Van Gundy during his time with the Houston Rockets and now Brian Hill with the Magic, the 6-3 point guard has stayed loyal in honoring his mother with each free throw. And Steve's free throw percentage has stayed just as consistent as his ritual - remaining between 77 and 82 percent throughout his NBA career. "The first thing I always do is rub my arm, pay tribute to my mom," Francis said. "It seemed to work well after I started doing it, so I haven't changed it at all over the years."

Devean George

The Free Throw:
Devean George, forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, has a very distinctive free throw shooting stance, all starting with his legs. One can easily identify him shooting free throws from across the gym with his legs widely spread wide. “I have used this form since I started playing basketball when I was young,” Devean spoke of at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo. Devean’s base is much wider than the commonly used free throw shooting stance of other players across the NBA. “Some people don’t like my wide base stance, but it keeps me square to the basket and allows me to use my whole body, not just the upper part.” Before shooting, Devean bounces the ball three times, bends his legs, widens his stance, makes sure his elbow hits his jersey on the way up, and focuses on knocking it down.

The Ritual:
A major key to good free throw shooting is consistency. Whether it’s licking your fingers (Steve Nash), or blowing kisses (Jason Kidd), every player has their little rituals at the free throw line that they do every single time. “At basketball camps coaches always stressed to me repetition, Devean said. “You won’t be a good free throw shooter if you change your form every time you go up to the line.” Devean has used the same form since his college days. “Deep breaths are very important in focusing in on the shot. A free throw is as much mental as it is physical, so you want to ingrain in your mind a ritual that you do each time so you are comfortable and focused. Mine seems to work for me well and I have been doing it for as long as I can remember.”

Ben Gordon

The Free Throw:
As soon as the whistle blows, Ben Gordon heads to the free throw line and prepares to put some easy points on the board. Among the NBA’s most accurate from the line as a rookie, Gordon’s free throw shooting routine is one of repetition, consistency and perhaps most importantly, hard work.

“The first thing I do when I get to the line is to take a couple of deep breaths and try and get some rest,” Gordon said. “That helps me concentrate on my free throws.”

Gordon then places the ball in his left hand and mimics his shot before taking the real one, the most distinctive element of his routine. He notes that a good follow-through is key to the success of his shot. Finally, he bounces the ball four times, bends his knees and releases the ball.

“The whole purpose of your routine is so that you can become the most consistent free throw shooter than you can be,” Gordon explained. “If you focus on the same exact thing that you do every day, it keeps bringing you back to that spot where you’ve got that comfort level. It allows you to concentrate and block everything else out.”

The Ritual:
While some players have been shooting free throws the same way dating back to their high school years, Gordon’s ritual is a relatively new one. Chicago’s 6-foot-3 second year guard out of the University of Connecticut says that he didn’t develop his current routine until prior to his sophomore year.

His efforts, under the watchful eye of Huskies coach Jim Calhoun, paid off as Gordon’s success at the line significantly improved throughout his collegiate career. As a freshman, Gordon connected on nearly 73 percent of his free throws, but as a sophomore that jumped to 81 percent. As a junior, the season in which Gordon helped lead his school to the NCAA Championship, he shot 83 percent from the charity stripe.

His success at the line has carried over to his professional career. As a rookie, Gordon made good on better than 86 percent from the line, 16th best in the NBA.

“I work on them a lot during the summertime,” Gordon said. “During the season, I’ll shoot anywhere from 50 to 100 on a daily basis to work on keeping my touch. The more you work, the more comfortable you are when you get to the line in a game. Basically, it’s all repetition.”

Troy Hudson

The Free Throw:
Timberwolves guard Troy Hudson values free throws, because as a scorer, “those are free points, no one is guarding you!” For his career Hudson is an 85% free throw shooter, including shooting 90% in the 2002-03 season.

The Ritual:
When at the line, Hudson likes to keep things simple, usually taking a few dribbles and a deep breath. While doing that he bends his knees to prepare himself for the proper follow through. "I spent a lot of time as a kid shooting free throws,” said Hudson. The best time for Hudson to practice free throws is in between drills. “I try to practice them while I’m tired,” which is more similar to game conditions. That push to practice free throws while tired has led to Hudson successful career at the free throw line.

Jason Kidd

The Free Throw:
To say Jason Kidd is a unique basketball player would be an understatement. Over the course of his 12-year NBA career, Kidd has amassed numbers only a few could match. He currently ranks 8th on the NBA’s all-time assists list and has tallied 68 career triple-doubles, more than 21 NBA teams have in their franchise history.

To watch Kidd on the court, the first thing fans would notice is his uncanny ability to control a game. The second would be his unique free throw routine.

Kidd has been blowing a kiss to his wife Joumana prior to shooting free throws for so long he can’t remember when he started it. When pressed, the seven-time All-Star thought it began in Phoenix but couldn’t be sure. “I started doing it and making some free throws so I continued to do it,” said Kidd. “I do it not just because of habit but to let my wife know I’m thinking about her.”

The Ritual:
Kidd began the 2004-05 season on the injured list recovering from offseason knee surgery. During his rehabilitation process, Kidd practiced shooting free throws without blowing a kiss to his wife. Once he returned to game action, he continued to leave it out of his routine until he noticed the charity stripe wasn’t being so charitable. “I wasn’t shooting free throw particular well (when he initial returned) so we made sure we went back to doing everything we did in the past.” Aside from letting his wife know she is on his mind, the kiss allows Kidd to focus on the task at hand because shooting free throws is as much mental as it is physical.

Corey Maggette

The Free Throw:
During in his rookie campaign in 1999, Corey Maggette connected on a respectable 75.1% of his free throw attempts as a high-flying swingman with the Orlando Magic. Not a bad mark by any means, but the ex-Duke Blue Devil had his sights set higher. "[After my rookie year], I put in a lot of hard work in the offseason, tuning up and changing stuff around," he says. "My shooting coach helped me out as well." And what was his main focus? "My technique," Maggette explains. "Having the right technique is always a big part of it. Your technique is really what makes you a good shooter."

The result has been a steady rise in Corey's free throw accuracy for each of his seven seasons and now he is a career 82% free throw shooter. Not concidentially, his scoring average has also seen a jump---from 8.4 ppg in '99 to 22.2 ppg last season---as he has made a living at the foul line.

The Ritual:
Now one of the NBA's best from the charity stripe, rhythm is the name of the game for Maggette. "The main thing that I do now is to just try to get into a rhythm," he says. "Before every game, I always make 20 in a row and when I come in before shootaround, I make it a habit to hit 10 in a row. Then, right as the game is about to start, I make two more in the final minute of warmups."

"Your form is always important," Corey adds. "So I've just continued to work on mine."

Joel Przybilla

The Free Throw:
For Joel Przybilla a trip to the free throw line is something less than a 50/50 proposition and those odds don’t sit particularly well with the Portland Trail Blazers center. This season, the six-year NBA veteran, under the tutelage of Blazers assistant coach Dean Demopolous, has rolled the dice scrapping his old free throw regiment in favor of a new one. What’s most noticeable about Przybilla’s new routine is how he positions himself at a 45-degree angle at the charity strip.

"I shoot off to the side, so we have been working on my stance, open it up a little bit so my shot is more on line with the hoop," said Przybilla.

Last year, Przybilla logged his best year at the line finishing with a .517 percentage, which is slightly above his career average of .468.

"I really feel comfortable with it and I’m working on it every day," added Przybilla. "In practice and in shoot-around’s it’s falling. I just have to carry it over to a game."

Currently, Przybilla is shooting .531%, an improvement and although not where he wants it to be, it’s admittedly a work-in-progress. Both he and Demopolous are confidant that a little hard work and perseverance are going to payoff in the end.

"It’s a mental thing for me" Przybilla said. "I’m working on it, trust me, it’s going to get better.

The Ritual:
While some players have all sort of superstitions, repetitions and funky rituals, Przybilla, other than his 45-degree stance, has a pretty straightforward approach.

"I just dribble the ball three times, take a deep breath and go up there and try and knock it down," said Przybilla.

Jerry Stackhouse

The Free Throw:
When you see Jerry Stackhouse step to the charity stripe for the first time, you are not exactly sure if he is preparing to shoot free throws or getting ready to take a Richard Simmons aerobics class. He bends his knees so deeply during his shot that his rump nearly touches his heels and he resembles a baseball catcher preparing for a fastball.

The Ritual:
As unorthodox as his shot looks, it has worked for him since high school. “During high school, I would be at the line and I could hear my mom yelling for me to bend my knees. After I started really bending my knees and shooting that way all the time my percentage went up, so I just kept doing it. I shot that way all through high school and college. My first year in the NBA I went away from it because I looked around and no one else was doing it so I stopped. But my percentage went down, so I went back to it.”

During his first 10 years in the NBA, he has made 4,032 free throws out of 4,946 free throws attempted. So, taking his mother’s advice to the extreme has earned Jerry a NBA career .815 free throw percentage.

Thanks Mom.

Damon Stoudamire

The Free Throw:

So how did Grizzlies point guard Damon Stoudamire become one of the NBA’s best free throw shooters? Easy. Repetition, and a little extra incentive. “(It took) A lot of work, and losing a lot of dollars when I was young to my high school coach. He used to bet me a dollar that he could outshoot me in free throws, so that’s how that all came about,” says Stoudamire. “When I got to the pros he tried to up the ante. He still paid me the same amount but he tried to up my ante, so that’s when I started to beat him.” Stoudamire leads the Grizzlies in free throw percentage, and shot a career-high 91.5% from the stripe last season, missing just 17 of his 199 attempts as he finished fourth in the NBA. His career percentage is over 83%.

The Ritual:
Like many players, he said free throw shooting is primarily a mental exercise, and Stoudamire explained his success. “Routine, routine, routine,” he says. “For me, the routine is right foot up to the line, catch the ball with the right hand, touch the butt and wipe the sweat off with the left hand, put the ball in the left hand, do the same thing with the right hand, three dribbles, spin the ball, catch it on the seam, not on the air hole, then follow through.” It’s a laundry list of movements he has to go through before taking each shot, but it’s a process Stoudamire perfected as he got older. “I went through a lot (of motions). In high school I was an inconsistent shooter,” he says. “Then, what happened was as I got to college and the pros I got more free throw attempts, so I had to take my time a little more and I was always shooting technicals and things of that nature so I got a better routine, better breathing pattern and everything’s been working out for me.”

Nick Van Exel

The Free Throw:
A free throw is just what it sounds like. Free. A player gets fouled and heads to the line for some free throws. Nothing but the player, the bucket, and 15 feet of real estate. So why does Nick Van Exel, back-up point guard for the San Antonio Spurs, shoot his free throws from a couple feet behind the line? When so many already struggle from 15 feet, why make the shot any more difficult? “I’m more of a three-point shooter than a mid-range jump shooter,” Van Exel admits. “When I played for Denver, I would always hit the back of the rim when I missed. It just felt more comfortable for me when I moved a few steps back from the line, so I just stayed back and have been shooting that way ever since.”

The Ritual:
Many players have a ritual. However, Van Exel doesn’t adjust his socks or or wipe his sweat a certain way. He just shoots his free throws from about 17 feet instead of 15 feet. “I just tried it one day in practice and it seemed to go well, so I told the coaches I was going to try it in a game,” Van Exel recalls. “It went pretty well that game and it just kinda continued from there. Coaches preach repetition when going to the free throw line. No matter where you stand when you get to the line, it’s important to have the same routine because free throws are as much mental as they are physical. “I just spin the ball, give it three bounces, line it up, and hope it goes in!”

Mo Williams

The Free Throw:
Like most NBA players, Mo Williams is very consistent when it comes to his free throw shot. Every time he’s at the line, he goes through the same motions to ready himself for his attempt. But if you look closely at Williams’ routine, you’ll notice a few things that stand out. First, Mo always steps into his stance at the same time he’s getting the ball from the referee. This helps him set his feet. Second, he moves the ball around his back from right to left. “This helps me get my rhythm,” he said. “Then once I get my feet together and get my rhythm, I spin it backwards, take three dribbles and catch it.” But he doesn’t just catch it. He makes sure that the fingers on his right hand – his shooting hand – are touching the word “SPALDING” on the basketball. “I always have to have my fingers on the SPALDING,” he noted. “Always.” Once he’s done all of this, he’s ready to shoot. And it’s working. Through Milwaukee’s first 19 games, Mo leads the team in free throw shooting with an 84.8 percentage.

The Ritual:
“It’s all about rhythm,” Williams further explained. “Just like on jump shots, you want to get into a good rhythm. I found that rhythm by passing the ball around my back and then taking three dribbles to gather myself. Players find themselves taking jump shots from all different angles. Sometimes they’re dribbling to the left, while other times they’re dribbling to the right. Sometimes you’re falling forwards and sometimes you’re falling backwards. But with free throws, you’re always shooting the same way. So it’s important to find a rhythm.” After connecting on 78.6 percent (44-56) of his shots his rookie season in Utah, Williams worked on his shot and made 85.0 percent (136-160) last year with the Bucks. “My goal before the start of the season was to lead the league in free throw shooting,” Williams said.