I know the answer to great team free throw shooting; learned it from Frank McLaughlin (my freshmen coach at Fordham), head coach at Harvard when the ’83-’84 Harvard men’s basketball team set the all-time NCAA Division I Free Throw record (that still stands today): 82.2%.
Coaches employ many different methods to improve their teams’ free throw chances: every player has to come to the gym at 7am twice a week to shoot a hundred (which coaches then chart and post); make ten straight before you leave the gym at the end of every practice (got that one from Jim McDonald, former head coach at Kent State); shoot FTs when players are tired after tough drills (to mimic game conditions); pluck a player and make everyone run a suicide if the player misses; shooting games like S-W-I-S-H (+1 for a swish, -1 for a miss, 0 for a make that isn’t a perfect swish; +6 wins, players shot 2 at a time and switch). Harvard used none of these strategies.
How did they do it? Well, Harvard’s all-time leading scorer (1,880 points) and certified stud (30 pts versus Duke in the greatest loss ever at Briggs Cage), Joe Carrabino, tied for 2nd in the nation at 90.5% (with Chris Mullin, “Dream Teamer”, Basketball God who everyone in Boston saw play in his high school days in the old Boston Shootout long ago). Bob Ferry (who taught little brother, Danny, future NCAA Player of the Year at Duke everything he knew) was 4th at 90.3%. Arne Duncan (everybody’s favorite Obama Cabinet hoopster) and Duncan’s co-captain, never-say-die cohort, Keith Webster, each shot 86.7%. (Pat Smith, point guard, and for whom career stats seem elusive, got to the line rarely but never missed.) At season’s end, a writer from a national concern called Coach McLaughlin wanting to write a story on how they did it. He asked what secrets there were, what magic applied, or at least what special or innovative shooting drills they used. McLaughlin answered, “we didn’t do anything, nothing at all; they’re just great shooters.” The writer wasn’t buying it; maybe it has something to do with the innate intelligence of the players, you know . . . Harvard??? “Doubt it”, Frank said, “there have been plenty of Harvard teams that didn’t break free throw records or even shoot particularly well. Sorry, but the answer is these guys just happened to be great shooters.”
So, there it is. Frank McLaughlin, an innovative, smart, schooled-on-the-NYC playgrounds coach who had been a great player (and great shooter) at Fordham could not and would not take credit for a great thing his team had accomplished. But thinking back on that group over the years, and witnessing other teams, college and pro, go through their ups and downs at the line, during games and over the course of a season, I’ve often wondered what else came into play that year. This: I think it was all in the collective head of that team: the psyche, the ego, the competitive spirit, the unique motivation each player possessed, and the intuition McLaughlin applied.
Nobody wanted to be the guy who missed. Just as missing in games is contagious, making them was contagious for that team. It all started with the big guy, Carrabino. Joe Carrabino had an ego the size of the centuries old campus and nerves of – well, no nerves as we know them. How’s this for proof? He made 50something straight free throws in the last 4 minutes of games over his last 2 seasons. (Let us pause for a moment to consider that . . . carve a spot for Joe Carrabino at Mount Rushmore.) Ferry, low-key and fun-loving was a close second fiddle, if you can imagine being recruited by Dean Smith and UNC and then be the sweet second option at Harvard. Smooth, perfect shooting form/stroke, my take is he was quiet about it, but he had things to prove and one of them was: if Carrabino could make all his free throws, so could he. Duncan, of course, had lots to prove, like whether he belonged there in the first place. (That’s what happens when you play JV your freshman year.) Miss your free throws and your spot becomes suspect. Plus it would be just embarrassing, wouldn’t it? Webster, the youngster of the group, was like the kid brother trying to prove he could play with the older kids in the neighborhood. Competitive, tough and tireless as a dog on the hunt, son of a 600+ win college coach, Webster wasn’t going to miss many. And Pat Smith, tenacious defender, ball distributor, like Ferry a proud product of Dematha Catholic, the “fifth starter” had no choice but to uphold his end of the bargain. Okay, maybe he wasn’t going to score as much but if he made his free throws he would once again prove his worth. In the end, they made their free throws because the other guys were making their free throws. Sure they had the strokes, the good technique, but they also, individually, had the critical mindset: that at this one simple doable task, they would not fail. It was pride, ego, competition, individual and collective desire; it was contagious and important. And it was record breaking. And McLaughlin knew enough to let them be.
Note No. 1: how many coaches in the past 24 years have challenged their teams to break Harvard’s record, set that very specific goal? I think that simple step, that simple clearly defined motivation would get some team in the record book pretty fast, plus help win some extra games.
Note No. 2: I think the presence of Ray Allen and his career 90%+ free throw percentage proved motivational for Paul Pierce last year. Pierce went from 76% in ’05-’06 and 79% in ’06-’07 to 84% last year, the year that Ray Allen and his gaudy numbers showed up. Pierce changed his set-up: a more methodical, more one-foot-directly-in-front-of-the-other, Jeff Hornacek type set-up plus an exaggerated follow-through to get the results he had to have to be in the good company of Allen.