It isn’t sexy, but it works.
That is what NBA Hall of Famer and University of Miami legend Rick Barry says while shooting his trademark underhanded free throws on an insurance company commercial that airs this month during March Madness. It is the same thing he tells basketball players who struggle at the free-throw line but refuse to adopt his unorthodox “Granny-style” motion because they believe it doesn’t look cool.
Former Heat star Shaquille O’Neal, one of the worst free-throw shooters in NBA history, said in his Hall of Fame speech that Barry once visited him at Louisiana State University and tried to persuade him to shoot free throws underhanded.
His reply? “Nah, Rick, I can’t do it. I’d rather shoot zero percent than shoot underhanded. Too cool for that.”
Barry, who shot 90 percent from the line during his NBA career, is baffled by that mentality.
“It’s just amazing to me to have an aversion to doing something just because it’s different,” Barry said by phone from Gainesville, where he spent the winter to watch his youngest son, Canyon, play — and shoot underhanded free throws — for the University of Florida. The Gators face Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night.
“When I was a kid, underhanded is how girls shot, so I did endure a lot of teasing, but it’s different now,” the elder Barry said. “Free throws are the only part of basketball where you can be completely selfish and help your team. Why wouldn’t you want to shoot at the highest percentage possible? Why would you rather people make fun of you for being a poor free-throw shooter? Why would you want to be such a liability at the end of the game that coaches take you out? I don’t understand it.”
Detroit Piston Andre Drummond has the lowest career free-throw percentage in the NBA (38 percent) and is one of only five players in league history who shot more than 150 free throws in a season and made 38 percent or less. The others are Wilt Chamberlain, Ben Wallace, Brendan Haywood and Chris Dudley.
When fans and media members suggested he adopt Granny-style shots a few years ago, Drummond tweeted: “Let me make this clear. ... I’m not shooting free throws underhand.”
One player who did decide to adopt Barry’s style is his son, Canyon, a fifth-year senior working on his master’s in nuclear engineering at UF after transferring from College of Charleston. The youngest of the five Barry sons is shooting 88 percent from the free-throw line and set a school record earlier this season with 42 consecutive free throws.
The rest of the Florida team is collectively shooting 69.7 percent from the line. No other high-profile college player shoots underhanded, and the only player doing it in the NBA is Houston Rockets rookie Chinanu Onuaku, who was so upset with his 46.7 percent free-throw shooting percentage at Louisville that he changed to underhanded and improved to 59 percent.
Rick Barry learned the unorthodox shooting style from his father, and he, in turn, passed down the family trick to his sons. Canyon is the only one who decided to use it all the time.
He resisted at first, but finally caved in just before his junior year of high school. He had to make a small adjustment to his father’s technique because the players’ shorts are baggier and longer now, so when he dropped his arms down to shoot, the ball would get stuck on his shorts.
The younger Barry is used to being heckled for his underhanded free throws, and sometimes, even he chuckles when fans poke fun at him.
“I think the funniest time was in high school,” Barry said. “I missed a free throw and they started shouting, ‘You’re a-dop-ted! You’re a-dop-ted!” That was actually a pretty funny one. I have to give them some credit for that. I think that’s part of the fun.”
After he made a pair of free throws underhanded earlier in his career, a referee called out to him and said: “Who do you think you are? Rick Barry’s son?” Canyon responded with “Actually, I am. He’s sitting right there.”
The free throw is a simple 15-foot uncontested shot that should be a piece of cake for college and professional players. The average NBA player shoots them at a 70 percent rate. Ray Allen, Steve Nash and Reggie Miller were among the best, shooting nearly 90 percent. They all shot the traditional overhand style.
The Miami Heat has the lowest free-throw shooting percentage (70.2) of all the 30 teams in the league. Coach Erik Spoelstra said it would be unrealistic to believe his players could all of a sudden switch to the underhanded form.
“I think you’d need Rick Barry on staff to be able to teach that,” Spoelstra said. “It’s different and the most important thing is a routine and repeatability. Is there a motion that can be simple and repeatable? That would build confidence, and ultimately, efficiency.”
Spoelstra was at University of Portland at the same time one of Rick Barry’s other sons, Brent, was at Oregon State. Brent Barry shot his free throws underhanded at that time.
“If your last name is Barry, I think that’s awesome shooting underhanded free throws, to keep that legacy going. But again, if you’re going to teach that to someone else, you’re starting from level one. If you’ve never shot that way, you’re going to need to learn and get thousands of reps starting at level one. I’m not opposed to it, but that would not be a small undertaking.”
University of Miami coach Jim Larrañaga agrees.
Larrañaga, who starred at Providence College a few years after Barry was at UM, was an 80 percent free-throw shooter in college. He has continued to practice free throws almost every day of his 40-year coaching career. His Hurricanes players are required to shoot 25 free throws at every practice, and there is a ladder game in which they compete against each other.
Larrañaga joins the contest and says “I have not made fewer than 22 out of 25 on any day. I’ve had days where I’ve made all 25. I’ve had days I made 24. And 23. But never less than 22.”
He says the secret is not whether you shoot underhand over overhand. He says the secret is a lot of repetition in practice.
“Rick Barry perfected the underhanded shot; so, he has a system and believes in it wholeheartedly because it’s the way he shot his free throws, and to this day he can probably make 90 of 100. I learned overhand, and I can still make 90 out of 100 at my age.”
Seventeen years ago, while a coach at George Mason University, Larrañaga hosted a fundraiser called “The Coach L Shoot-a-Thon.” He shot free throws for one hour and made 1,000 out of 1,100 attempts. Fans donated pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters and dollars for each free throw he made. They raised $42,000.
Larrañaga said it is very difficult to get players to completely overhaul their shooting style, which is why so few players have switched to underhanded shooting, even though it could possibly help their percentages.
“Most kids start shooting free throws at a very early age, and if you wanted them to shoot underhand, you’d have to teach them at that point because kids are very, very reluctant to do something brand new, especially something that doesn’t look cool,” Larranaga said.
“Here’s the thing: Canyon Barry probably has the best teacher who ever shot underhanded free throws. It’s not just taking a kid and showing him how to shoot underhand. There’s technique and practice involved. The guy was a great athlete, great shooter, and his sons have all played in the NBA, so I’d say they could should overhand, underhand, left-handed and they’d make 85-90 percent.”
Barry insists the underhanded shot, technically, is a higher-percentage shot because it is a softer shot, less likely to clank off the rim. Also, he says, it is a fluid motion, “not so many moving parts and variables.”
His son agrees.
“From a science background because I’m a math and science guy, there’s less moving hinge joints [with underhanded shots],” Canyon Barry said. “With overhand, you have your shoulder, your elbow and your wrist having to move in conjunction. With underhand, you’re only pivoting the shoulders, so it’s more of a repeatable motion. Also, I think it’s a softer shot, right over the front of the rim.”
Dr. Larry Silverberg and Dr. Chau Tran, a pair of engineering professors at North Carolina State, did an extensive study on the physics of the free throw using hundreds of thousands of computer simulations. They focused mainly on the trajectory of the ball, concluding that the higher the arc, the better chance the ball has of going in because the target is bigger if the ball is falling straight down into the hoop rather than at an angle.
Larrañaga contends a player can get as high an arc underhanded or overhanded.
“The angle the ball approaches the rim is determined by how high you shoot it, and you can shoot it all different heights whether you’re shooting overhand or underhand,” he said “It has to do with the arc, and underhanded doesn’t provide you any better arc unless you practice it correctly and develop the habit, just like an overhand shot.”
He pointed out that Steph Curry shoots with a higher arc than any player in the NBA.
Asked why more players don’t switch to underhanded free throws, Canyon Barry said: “I’m not sure if it’s ego, pride, if they think it looks like a girly shot or a sissy shot. It could be they don’t have the coaching or the technique. There’s obviously not that many people out there — just my dad and I and my brothers — who really know the technique and what it takes to be successful.”
O’Neal has his own theory as to why his free-throw shooting was so bad. He shared it in a 2005 Esquire interview.
“Me having a beautiful wife and great family and friends … all the money I’ve got … a Ferrari … the rings I got, the two mansions on the water, a master’s in criminal justice, I’m a cop, plus I look good. So me shooting 40 percent at the foul line is just God’s way of saying nobody’s perfect. If I shoot 90 percent from the line, it just wouldn’t be right.”
Miami Herald sportswriters Manny Navarro, George Richards and Jordan McPherson contributed to this report.
BEST/WORST FREE-THROW SHOOTING
NBA/ABA top free throw shooters of all time
1. Steve Nash .904
2. Mark Price .904
3. Stephen Curry .904*
4. Peja Stojakovic .895
5. Chauncey Billups .894
6. Ray Allen .894
7. Rick Barry .893
8. Calvin Murphy .892
9. Scott Skiles .889
10. Reggie Miller .888
NBA worst free throw shooters of all time
1. Andre Drummond .384*
2. Ben Wallace .414
3. DeAndre Jordan .430*
4. Chris Dudley .458
5. Andris Biedrins .500
6. Wilt Chamberlain .511
7. Bo Outlaw .521
8. Shaquille O'Neal .527
9. Greg Anderson .557
10. Bill Russell .561
(*) - Active player, going into Wednesday
Worst NBA free throw percentages 2016-17 season
1. Andre Drummond, C, Detroit .404
2. DeAndre Jordan, C, Clippers .490
3. Dwight Howard, C, Atlanta .525
4. Mason Plumlee, C, Denver/Portland .572
5. Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami .616
6. Brandon Ingram, F, Lakers .617
7. Steven Adams, C, Oklahoma City .625
8. Rudy Gobert, C, Utah .655
9. LeBron James, F, Cleveland .676
10. Elfrid Payton, PG, Orlando .686