By Rahsaan Thomas
If you saw a man shooting free throws differently than everybody else — like by holding the ball below his waist, crouching down slightly and launching it underhanded or shooting the ball one-handed—you might think they looked weird. However, being weirdly different is how one of the best NBA shooters of all time made over 90 percent of his free throws.
“From the physics standpoint, it’s a much better way to shoot,” NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry said in a 2016 interview on This American Life. “Less things that can go wrong, less things that you have to worry about repeating properly, in order for it to be successful.”
Barry, who played for the Golden State Warriors for six years in the 70s, explained that shooting underhanded is more natural, more relaxing, and the softer shot often falls in the basket, even when a little off, which gives you a little more margin for error.
The technique served Barry well over his NBA career.
“I think I shot 93.5 (percent) or something and 94.7 (percent), something like that,” Barry, one of the greatest free throw shooters of all time, said.
The technique also improved the percentage of one of the worst NBA free throw shooters, Wilt Chamberlain, according to the interview. Chamberlain shot 40 percent from behind the foul line.
However, when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 in a single game, he used Barry’s technique, which improved his scoring from behind the foul line to 87.5. Chamberlain made 28 free throws that night, “the most anyone has ever made in a regular season game NBA history,” said Malcolm Gladwell, the interviewer.
However, Chamberlain abandoned the technique and went back to horrible free throw shooting, according to Gladwell.
“I just joked with him and said, ‘your technique was terrible. Had you stuck with it …’ the numbers he would have put up would have been insane because the only way they defended him was to foul him.”
Chamberlain stopped the successful style because “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 underhand. I just couldn’t do it,” he wrote in his autobiography, according to the interview.
Barry said he also tried to get Shaquille O’Neal to change his free-throw shooting style, but Shaq said he would rather miss them all than shoot underhanded.
Barry didn’t care about people making fun of him, as long as he didn’t miss. For him, winning trumped appearances.
San Quentin’s Antonio Manning also shoots free throws differently from most – he uses one hand. He says he made 87 percent of his free throws while playing for Compton High School back in 1980.
“Coach Tang trained us to shoot with one hand behind my back at a tape mark on the wall,” said Manning. “It became a habit. No one teased me. They just said, ‘Man that dude has a one-handed shot, and it’s accurate.’ On the Kings, they called me Cobra.”
The current NBA culture of free throw behavior kills Barry.
“A guy shoots a free throw, misses,” said Barry. “Everybody goes up, slaps his hand. Where the hell did that come from? … Let’s go up, disturb his concentration when he’s supposed to be focusing on shooting his free throws.
“Plus … if he misses it, you should go up and smack him in the head for missing the free throw, not slap him on the hands and saying it’s OK. Because it’s not OK, you just cost us a point.”
While only a few people ever used Barry’s technique, his son, Canyon Barry, listens, according to a Sports Illustrated article by David Gardner.
Canyon, a 6-foot-6 senior guard, plays for the Gators, where he shoots a team-best free throw rate of 89.9 percent, yet he can’t convince his teammates to try the Barry approach, wrote Gardner.