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The Art Of The Free Throw



Triumphant new theme music for our most triumphant Sunday sports guy, NPR's Mike Pesca. And this week, with hockey still locked out, basketball is our major indoor sport at the moment. And today, we'll address one of the simplest, yet challenging elements of the game, right?

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Yeah. This music makes me wonder what's coming up next on "Fantasy Island"?


PESCA: "Petticoat Junction"?

MARTIN: Oh, don't you wish you knew.

PESCA: Mr. Roarke. Well, even Mr. Roarke could not satisfy the dream of one Dwight Howard. He's a center for the Los Angeles Lakers. He was supposed to be the difference and make the Lakers one of those teams to beat. He has a flaw in his game. Dwight Howard, just an excellent center, great shot-blocker, very bad at free throws. And as the name implies, free throws are meant to be free, but a lot of guys have trouble throwing them. And tension's been focused on Howard because the Lakers have been losing and his free-throw shooting in the fourth quarter has been really bad. He's a pretty bad free-throw shooter for his career, but this year he's just been awful. And if you look statistically throughout his career, there are years where he actually was a 60 percent free-throw shooter in the fourth quarter and now it's hovering in the 40s, and that is kind of killing a team.

MARTIN: So, I don't get this. I mean, I actually just don't understand why someone can be a professional basketball player and not be good at this very central part of the entire game.


PESCA: Well, you know, it seems central because it's called basketball and they're free throws and the names imply that you can do it. Also, 12-year-olds do it, eight-year-olds do it...

MARTIN: I do it, for crying out loud.

PESCA: Right. Now, I'm going to say that you probably haven't had 20,000 people at the Staples Center riding on your free throws.

MARTIN: You don't know, Mike.

PESCA: I know, that's true. But, first of all, I think the name is a little - not unfair; that's what the name is - but it gives rise to the notion that these things should be gimmes. And they're not. They're a feat of athletic performance. And one aspect of what Dwight Howard does no one else can do. He slams the ball, he gets rejections, he is probably the best at that aspect of the game - being very close to the basket, being very tall and being athletic.

MARTIN: So, we can forgive him that he can't do a free throw. That's what you're saying.

PESCA: What I'm saying is there are guys who can make plenty of free throws but they can't dunk. No one says, oh, this short, this relatively short point guard is not a dunker. He's not a complete basketball player. Because there's no aspect of the game where the whole thing stops and everyone says, now, go ahead and dunk the ball. And it's also very unlike other sports. I guess it's analogous to putting in golf or to kicking a field goal. But field goal kickers, that's their only job. And if you're not a good putter, you never even get to be known as a good golfer. So, it's this odd thing. It goes back to essentially 1896. It wasn't one of the original rules of basketball but soon became one of the rules. Everyone stops and says, go ahead, sir. And when you fail on that stage, it makes it seems awful. There almost seems to be an ethical dimension. How could you not shoot your free throws? You must not be trying. You must not be serious.

MARTIN: Or you're not practicing enough, for crying out loud.

PESCA: Yeah. And that's not true. It's a portion of a basketball player's repertoire and there are a couple of guys who really don't have it. And the light shines on them just because everyone stops and looks at them and slams their hand to their head and says how could this guy be getting paid $15 million and not make a 15-foot shot?

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, the question still remains for me. I don't know if I'm convinced but, you know.


MARTIN: ,We'll live to argue this another day. You have curveball?

PESCA: I do. The New Orleans Hornets are not long for the Hornets. They're going to change their name to the Pelicans. The Charlotte Bobcats were once the Hornets. They might want the Hornets back. This got everyone thinking, oh my God, this could lead to the great renaming because there are so many NBA teams that are misnamed. The Utah Jazz doesn't make sense. I've been to Utah - not a lot of jazz, but they used to be the New Orleans Jazz. The L.A. Lakers doesn't make sense. I've been to L.A. - not a lot of lakes, but they used to be the Minneapolis Lakers. But you know what, once we go down this road, where does it stop, I say. The conference known as the Big 10 currently has 12 teams - will soon have 14 teams. The Dallas Cowboys play in the NFC East. And, you know, we just had the baseball winter meetings. You know a lot about the seasons, Rachel?

MARTIN: Some, some.

PESCA: What season is it now?

MARTIN: I think it's still fall, right?

PESCA: Yeah. There was no solstice. There was no equinox. So, there you go.

MARTIN: So, the lies - stop the lies is what you're saying.

PESCA: This is what sports about. It's not about accuracy, just like Dwight Howard's free-throw shooting. There it is, the ribbon.

MARTIN: Wrapping it up - NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks.

PESCA: You're welcome.


MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.