In Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, he tells the story of Wilt Chamberlain and one of the most incredible basketball games ever played. His Philadelphia Warriors beat the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962 by the score of 169 to 147, and Chamberlain, incredibly, scored 100 points in that game.
As Gladwell points out, a good reason he got to 100 was because he knocked down 28 free throws, missing only 4. That’s an accuracy rate of 87.5%. And he did it shooting underhanded, as I explained in the previous post.
This is a technique that Rick Barry, considered one of the 50 Greatest Players in history, employed. Barry held until recently the record for career free throw percentage at over 90%, where the overall NBA free throw average over the decades is around 75%. For every 100 free throws, Barry accumulated 15 more points than the average NBA player. Imagine if Chamberlain hit free throws on the par of Barry. As Chamberlain’s coach once said, according to Gladwell, “if you shot 90% we might never lose.”
But the next year, Chamberlain gave up on the technique. Barry and Chamberlain knew each other as their careers overlapped. And Barry would kid Chamberlain for conceding a huge number of points by not using the underhanded throw. Why did he give it up?
Well we call this technique the “granny throw” because it looks like you’re shooting “like a girl”, or “like a sissy”. Before Barry was coached by his father to shoot underhanded, Barry himself was worried about shooting underhanded. And he also hated being called a sissy. But he got results. And that’s all that mattered to Barry. But Chamberlain, despite seeing the results himself, could not stick to the plan. And according to Gladwell, Chamberlain wrote in his autobiography the following:
I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong. I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. Even now, the best one in the NBA, Rick Barry, shoots underhanded. I just couldn’t do it.
In other words, as Gladwell explained, “Chamberlain had every incentive in the world to keep shooting free throws underhanded, and he didn’t. I think we understand cases where people don’t do what they ought to do because of ignorance. This is not that. This is doing something dumb even though you are fully aware that you are doing something dumb.”
The underhanded free throw – clearly an easy way for almost any coach to add more points per game – remains a technique banished to the dustbin of history because people were afraid of how they looked.
And yet, I believe there is a coach out there, perhaps of a division three college in the US, or a poorly performing team in the Spanish professional league, or of a national team of a small country, that’s thinking….”I will do anything to squeeze more points out of my boys.” Maybe it’s someone new to coaching basketball and indifferent to how the players or the fans feel as long as they get results.
My guess is there will come a time when we see an entire team shooting free throws granny style, hitting 82%, then 85%, then maybe even 90% of their foul shots. And when it becomes clear that their 1-point, 2-point victories are because they hit 18 of their 20 free throws underhanded, who knows how long it will take before another coach feels he or she has nothing to lose except a few laughs from the stands in the early going.
That coach may one day say, “I may be stupid, but I’m not dumb.”