As someone interested in the bio-mechanics of shooting and the mental strength it takes to stand up in the biggest moments and sink a pair standing alone at the line – Rick Barry has always fascinated me. A lot can be learnt from his free throw shooting during his NBA career and beyond.
Was Rick Barry good at Free Throws? Yes. Rick Barry was an exceptional free throw shooter. Finishing his combined ABA and NBA Career on 89.3% he is considered one of the best in history. He is noted for the unorthodox underhand style that he adopted during high school in the 1950’s.
Rick Barry Free Throws
Rick Barry is a perfectionist, a trait that drove his team mates and opponents to the point of hating him. Even as he led the 1975 Warriors to an NBA title. It is this perfectionist nature that allowed him to shut out the crowd and the opposing teams’ taunts, stand alone at the free throw line and knock down underhanded shot after underhanded shot.
The graph below shows how he didn’t just settle with his technique. He kept working on it, perfecting it, throughout his career. Most players would be happy with an 86% Free Throw Percentage. Rick Barry pushed his up to as high as 95% for a season before he retired in 1980.
It wasn’t that that he couldn’t shoot the orthodox way. In games, when he needed to get a shot off before the defender came, he was more than capable. He just believed that straight onto the rim at a set distance, with time and no defender to interfere shooting underhanded was more efficient.
This has been studied by everyone from fans of the game, coaches to actual physicists. The theory, that Barry himself buys into, is this. Shooting a traditional over head shot is more accurate than the underhanded “granny shot”. However, this is only when both techniques are mastered to the same level. It is much simpler to master the underhand technique. This is due to the body parts involved. The traditional technique has a higher margin of error and requires players to move their knees, elbows, wrists and other body parts in sync. The “granny shot” is one smooth motion and therefore much easier to master.
This therefore, isn’t “marginal gains”. Someone already shooting well above league average with the traditional technique isn’t going to see a huge jump in accuracy from a switch. They have clearly mastered the complex overhead technique and are reaping the rewards of its increased accuracy. A player that is struggling, shooting in the 40’s, 50’s or 60% range can absolutely see rewards and according to Barry – should give it a go.
For Rick Barry’s part in this, he has tried. Famously attempting to convince Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000’s to change techniques. “The Big Aristotle” rebutted him, saying “I’d rather shoot 0% than shoot underhanded”. After finishing his career with a 53% Free Throw rate and being responsible for Greg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs inventing the “Hack-a-Shaq” technique that still blights the game today I wonder if going back he would give it a go? Imagine the dominance Shaq could have wrought on the league if he was hitting just 75%? He would surely have more than 4 titles, could he have even scored 100 points in a game?
Rick Barry, Wilt Chamberlain and the 100 Point Game
Although Rick Barry and Wilt Chamberlains careers coincided time wise, Barry never had the opportunity to discuss free throws with Chamberlain until after he was retired. He suggested that Wilt should have come and seen him for advice. Barry, like with Shaq, believes the underhand technique could have revolutionised Wilts game. Unlike Shaq, Chamberlain had been more than willing to give it a try. He finished his career with a 51.1% record on almost 12 attempts per game. That’s a lot of points left on the table for an already dominant scorer. The graph below show’s Wilts career Free Throw Percentage by season.
The peak comes early in his career. The 1961-62 season saw Wilt the Stilt hit a career best, 61%, the majority of which he shot using the underhand technique. This seems low still, although a significant improvement on his career average. Barry believes that working on the technique of the underhand and perfecting it could have put Chamberlain even higher on the graph. Continuing it could have made him even more dominant.
It is no coincidence that during his underhand free throw season, 1961-62 Chamberlain made maybe his biggest contribution to basketballs legend. His 100pt game in March 1962 saw him put down a seemingly unbreakable record 100pts. Interestingly during this game he shot 32 Free Throws, all underhanded. More interestingly he made 28 of them. That’s a Barry-esq 87.5%. Accounting for over a quarter of his legendary 100 points it stands as evidence that the underhand technique could have allowed players like Wilt, Shaq and Dwight Howard to be even more dominant during their careers. If only they hadn’t been too cool to adopt it properly. If Chamberlain had shot a career average 51% on that night he would have finished the game with just 89 points. Still a record that would remain to this day. But far less impressive. Chamberlain would switch back to the traditional technique the next season and not seriously try the underhand technique again.
Rick Barry overcame ridicule of his Free Throws
One of Rick Barry’s son’s, Canyon Barry, carved out a pretty decent college career for himself. He didn’t reach the NBA heights of his father or brother’s. But he did use the underhand technique. Despite facing ridicule from opposing teams and fans. Shooting over 75% for his career, he stuck with it, even in the face of this criticism. His favourite taunt would come on the few times he did miss, “you’re adopted” would ring out. A reference to his technique, his family history and his momentary failure to live up to his father’s legacy. Not all taunts that Rick Barry received were quite so elegant. He recalled in one of his early games on the road in high school using the underhand technique he remebers “a guy yelling from the stands, ‘Hey, Barry, you big sissy, shooting like that.’ And the guy next to him, I heard it loud enough, ‘What are you making fun of him for? He doesn’t miss.’” It was in his accuracy that Barry was able to insulate himself from the criticism. A hurdle that many players, as noted above never get over to reap the rewards of extra free points a game for their team. Writer Malcolm Gladwell posited on his pod cast series, “Revisionist History” that Barry was able to get past the initial criticism and ridicule because he is wired differently. Barry had no time for what Gladwell calls “the social part of the game, players paying attention to each other’s feelings as opposed to their own performance,” using the example of when players slap hands with their teammates after missed free throws. Barry spent his career getting into fights, making enemies and entirely focusing on the result of the game, not what the game looked like. Whatever the reason, Barry ended up a champion, a Hall of Famer, a legend of the game and one of the greatest free throw shooters the NBA will ever see.