It was my senior year of high school. Our school was small, or perhaps dinky is a better word for it, but even so we managed to put together a formidable basketball team that year, and we were undefeated going into the Christian school state tournament. Even though we were a school of less than a hundred people (junior high through high school) we had a miracle year, even beating several public schools, in a state renowned for their obsession with hoops.

It was the championship game of the state tourney, and it was everything you dream of as a kid: with seconds left on the clock, we were down by one point. Dan Miller, my bff and our point guard, received the inbound pass, put his head down, and dribbled the length of the court. I was open on the wing, but Dan had tunnel vision — he didn’t look up, he just charged in for the layup.

Dan missed badly but was fouled, and so he stood at the line, in position to take two shots. He held the ball and the state championship in his hands.

I was a Hoosier in my teen years. I came to basketball too late to be a big deal, but I spent countless hours shooting in the back yard and on the playground courts, and I managed to make myself into a respectable player. Making free throws under pressure, though, man, that ain’t easy. Nothing is quite so dramatic, though.

Dan stood at the line, dribbled, and let the first one fly. He missed. This meant that the best we could do is tie and go into overtime. If he missed again, though, we were done, and our undefeated season would end with our first and only loss. It’s hard to imagine a more bitter defeat.

There’s a lot that goes into being good at free throws. You want to focus on all of the mechanics of your shot, and you want those mechanics to be consistent, from shot to shot. You work past the nerves by making the process a habit, a simply matter of muscle memory.

Reggie Miller, my high school hero, in one of his finest moments

As such, it all comes down to practice. In the end, what makes or breaks you is how many hours you put in, taking shot after shot in the backyard. I’d take a hundred free throws at a time, on a daily basis, and my free throw % was nothing impressive. In my senior year it was 60%, which actually really sucks.

Mark Price is one of the few players in NBA history with a career free throw percentage over 90%. “I took 250 to 300 shots a day and improved my free throw shooting at each level,” he says, “I didn’t just show up, I took it upon myself to get better and it took a lot of effort.”

That’s from an article I read a few days ago, Hacking the free throw: the science behind the most practiced shot in sports. Here’s the conclusion:

The lesson? The foundation of a successful free throw shooter isn’t built on gimmicks – blindfolded shooting, extra large basketballs, meditation or the like – just lots of practice. It isn’t glitzy, but it works.

It is like so much in life. Anything that really matters requires time: investing massive amounts of time and energy into something will slowly but surely reap the results. It’s kind of cliché but no less true.

I was at center court along with all the rest of the players, as Dan stood alone at the free throw line, and standing along, Dan missed that first shot. My heard dropped, and in melodramatic fashion, I sank down to the floor.

Dan was visibly angered by that first shot. So when the referee gave him the ball back, he quickly went through his routine: took his dribbles and let the ball go.

Too quick, I thought. Why is he going so fast?

I braced myself for defeat as the ball lofted up and then descended toward the rim. Everything rode on a single shot, but this time his aim was true. We were still alive.

We went into overtime. In overtime, I had one of my greatest moments of my lackluster basketball career, when I stole a (very) sloppy pass from our opponents’ star player, dribbled the length of the court, and then went in for the layup. I missed but was fouled by that same star player.

Whether or not he actually fouled me is debatable. Okay, in truth, he didn’t foul me at all — I just missed an easy layup, in the hype of the moment — but it appeared to the referee that I was fouled, and this was significant: it meant that their star player was fouled out.

For once, I managed to hit both of my free throws, and without their star shooter, we went on to claim the crown…and the kingdom…and the glory. World without end. Amen.

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