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Starkey: The madness of free throws

| Sunday, March 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

In a moment, I'm going to tell you about one of the more maddening conundrums in all of sports.

First, let me tell you about Canyon Barry, a 6-foot-6 guard at the College of Charleston. He is believed to be the only college basketball player in America who shoots free throws underhanded (though he is redshirting his freshman season).

Barry converted in high school because he found it easier to deaden the ball over the front rim. He also discovered that fatigue had less of an influence on his motion.

In short, he started making more foul shots.

“My philosophy,” Barry said, “is if you're not shooting well from the line, why not do what one of the greatest basketball players and foul shooters in NBA history did?”

That player would be Barry's father, Rick, who retired with the NBA's all-time best free-throw percentage (90 percent) and still ranks third behind Steve Nash and Mark Price (both at 90.4 percent).

To my delight, I found Rick Barry — now 68 — as blunt as ever when we connected.

I wanted his opinion on why one of basketball's most effective scoring techniques has turned to dust. Why doesn't anyone shoot underhanded foul shots?

“Maybe it's ego,” he said.

And what of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's unstoppable sky hook, also virtually extinct?

“Basketball is a game where people copy so many things, yet nobody copied my free throws, and nobody's really copied Kareem's sky hook,” Barry said.

“It just doesn't make any sense.”

It really doesn't.

Think about it: We're about to watch March Madness and lose our minds as we witness one butchered foul shot after another, knowing there might be a better way.

Or we'll watch the NBA and shake our heads when a player as great as Dwight Howard becomes a late-game liability because he can't make an unguarded, 15-foot “free” shot.

In effect, the charity stripe becomes the parody stripe.

Which brings us to the conundrum: Not since the NCAA started tracking free throws in 1948 have Division I teams combined to make 70 percent in a season.

Not once!

More to the point, there has been virtually no improvement since the mid-1950s. Going back to 1965, the D-I foul-shooting percentage never has dipped below 67 percent and never risen above 69 percent.

How can that be?

This year's number is 68.86 percent, down from 69.10 last season and virtually unchanged from 1957.

Maybe I'm losing my mind, but I find this profoundly disturbing. As a 2009 New York Times headline put it, “For Free Throws, 50 Years of Practice is No Help.”

It's no different in the NBA (around 75 percent) or women's D-I (around 69 percent), where there has been little variance from decade to decade.

I have no proof that underhanded shots would work better, merely anecdotal evidence in the form of Rick Barry — who was right, by the way: This is about ego. Nobody wants to look uncool.

Here's the two-point rebuttal:

1. What could possibly look more uncool than firing back-to-back bricks in a packed arena with millions of people watching on television?

2. The person at a high-profile school who successfully adopts the underhanded method will become an immediate star. People dig retro. You'd have underhanded shooting contests at halftime, a Sports Illustrated cover, Rick Barry interviews, the whole bit.

I'm telling you, it would spark a revolution.

Pitt assistant coach Pat Sandle, whose team is shooting a Big East-worst 65.2 percent from the line, laughed when I asked about the prospect of teaching the underhanded technique. Not at the technique, mind you, but at the notion of selling it to college kids.

“What do they call it, granny-style, when you're little?” Sandle said.

“You get teased when you shoot that way. I truly believe it's a better feel, an easier shot, actually, but getting guys to do it and practice it is a whole other issue.”

He's right. So Canyon Barry will have to carry the torch. It's not easy. He put up with lots of snide remarks when he switched methods.

“A lot of people wouldn't be caught dead shooting a free throw underhanded,” he said.

“But my philosophy is this: They can't really make fun of you if you're making your shots.”

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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