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Shaq's free throw odyssey

 


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/ May 10, 2004

Shaq's free-throw odyssey has had many downs and even a few ups. He and the Lakers are desperate for another upswing, but it won't come without the right kind of professional help.

Poor Shaq. I recently had the occasion to contrast his 1993 free-throw stroke with the abomination on display in this year's playoffs. The sad effect calls to mind a once-beautiful man who has been rendered unrecognizable by the ravages of time and a hardscrabble life. But enough about me.

In the 2004 postseason, Shaq is shooting a putrid 28 percent from the charity stripe. If he is to lead the Los Angeles Lakers out of a 2-0 hole against the energetic San Antonio Spurs, he needs to live at the line and drain 60-70 percent. The Shaq of 1993 or 2002 could pull that off, and I explain below how he can recapture the form that helped him secure a second and third championship ring.

Several hours before the 2004 NBA All-Star Game, ESPN Classic aired the 1993 contest, featuring a rookie named Shaq. I couldn't believe my eyes. He had a normal-looking free-throw delivery! He sank 6 of 9 that game, and a passable 59 percent for the season. Normal grip, normal leg action, normal arc and rotation. I saw a couple things that required fine-tuning, but the foundation of a good free-throw stroke was right there on the screen. If he had stuck with it, he likely would have reached 70 percent in a year or two and stayed at or above that mark forever.

Somewhere along the line, Shaq got off track. I can't say exactly when, because it happened in the years before I decided to devote my life to the study of free-throw shooting. I do know, however, when he first bottomed out. Ironically, it was in the series where he led the Lakers to their first title since Showtime. The year was 2000, and Shaq and the crew dispatched the Indiana Pacers in six games - despite Shaq going 36 for 93. That's 39 percent, a per game average of 6 for 15.5. Good thing the Pacers' center was named Rik Smits and not Mel Daniels.

In June 2000, I dissected Shaq's flaws in an essay that appeared in the online edition of the Sporting News. I described the too-long arm motion as well as the locked knees at release point that prevented arms-legs synchronization and guaranteed a line-drive shot with scant margin for error. I explained how Shaq could retool his stroke and offered my services, but Shaq would turn elsewhere for the help he desperately needed.

The greatest Frankenstein-style experiment in NBA history began in November 2000, when Shaq enlisted the services of former LSU sharpshooter and Aussie Olympian Ed Palubinskas. Back in Shaq's college days, Ed had helped shape the smooth, conventional stroke described above. But in 2000, instead of working with Shaq to recapture and refine his LSU and NBA-rookie form, Ed taught him a strange, two-step, one-handed delivery with an even stranger grip, with the ball perched off-center on the very tips of his fingers.

Not surprisingly, growing pains ensued. But teacher and pupil stuck with it, and Shaq closed out the final 16 games of the 2000-01 season by draining 68 percent of 245 attempts. That scared off any playoff foes contemplating a hack-a-Shaq strategy, and the Lakers rode Shaq to a second straight title.

In 2001-02, Shaq had a so-so regular season at the stripe, but the Frankenstein delivery looked downright silky in the playoffs. His leg-action was at its smoothest, and his good work at the line in the Western Conference finals against Sacramento - 10 makes in a row in pivotal Game Six, 8-for-11 in a key stretch of Game Seven - coupled with bricklaying by Chris Webber and Vlade Divac throughout the series, put the Lakers over the top. Shaq kept up the good work in the Finals, as the Lakers routed the Nets for their third straight crown.

Next season, 2002-03, Shaq shot a career best 62 percent. But he backslid this past regular season with a career low 49 percent, and any effort he may have made on his own to straighten things out didn't work.

You'd think a guy who calls himself "the Big Aristotle" would at some point have had the good sense to call in Ed for an extended re-grooving stay. That's what you do with a non-conventional delivery: When it's off track and you don't know why, the one person most likely to get you back on track is the Dr. Frankenstein who created your weird but functional and pressure-proof stroke.

To persuade Shaq of the need, a Laker coach could provide before-and-after video on how his delivery has deteriorated since the groovy days of the 2002 playoffs: Shaq is less precise with the placement of his shooting-hand fingers on the ball; he's releasing the ball with two hands, not one; his right elbow is flaring out, partly as a consequence of his release point having drifted leftward, toward the center of his head rather than slightly to the right; looking from a profile angle, Shaq's release point appears to be more in front of his head than in 2002, and lower. He's like a golfer who's in a horrible position at the top of his swing, which requires him to make an adjustment on the downswing, which makes it exceedingly difficult to achieve solid contact on a consistent basis.

In addition, the smoothness and rhythm has vanished from Shaq's leg action. In 2002, he initiated the stroke with a downward bend of flexed knees. In 2004, he initiates the stroke with a herky-jerky, simultaneous movement of his legs and arms.

The result of all these unconscious changes is less arc, erratic distance control, a corkscrew rotation and scant margin for error.

There's no reason Shaq can't recapture the 2002 playoffs form that slayed the Kings, but he'll have to be smarter in the coming days than he's been in the previous weeks. A report during the Houston series noted that Shaq spent a day working on his free-throws with University of Houston coach Tom Penders, who many moons ago taught high-schooler Shaq how to come to a jump stop.

The choice of Penders makes no sense - unless he specializes in unconventional deliveries. Otherwise, he's just dispensing advice that would work well for a conventional shooter but won't do Shaq any good. It's tantamount to showing a slumping Lee Trevino (not that Lee's ever been in a slump) the fine points of Ernie Els' swing. It's good information, but useless for Trevino, whose looping, leg-driven swing operates by a unique set of rules.

Shaq needs immediate help from the man who understands the fine points of his unorthodox delivery because he created it. If Aussie Ed isn't available, I'd be happy to help. But only if Shaq promises to go back to bricklaying in the event the Lakers advance to another showdown with my star-crossed Kings.

Dennis Hans is a former adjunct professor and current shooting guru with hopes of making an instructional video called "Different Strokes for Different Folks: Finding the Free-Throw Rhythm and Form That's Right For You." His essays on basketball and other topics have appeared in a host of places, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald and InsideHoops.com. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.







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