Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Tag Archives: Shaq

An Ignominious Induction: Dwight Howard from the line

About every 15-to-20 years, the free throw gods look down on NBA giants and anoint one of their biggest, bulkiest personalities as a goat; an inept, pretzel-minded, musclebound brute of a free throw shooter. Of course, our NBA giants are more than just poor free throw shooters. They’re humans with dunktastic ferocity, superior sizes, unstoppable phyiscalities, and yet afflicted by some cruel combination of stage fright and giant-hand-small-ball syndrome. But (oh the big ol’ but!), they are at times truly incapable as free throw shooters as we saw from Dwight Howard on the night of October 24th, 2017 when the Charlotte Hornets center shot 0-9 from the free throw line, thus becoming the fourth player since the 1963-64 season* to attempt at least nine free throws and miss all of them.

50 years ago, Wilt Chamberlain delivered one of the more bizarre stat lines in league history, one that highlighted both his transcendent dominance with his neutralizing weaknesses, when he scored 26 points on 11-11 shooting with an inexplicable 0-9 from the line. For good measure, the Big Dipper added 24 rebounds and five assists. Chamberlain, a career 51% free-throw shooter who dropped down to 44% in 1967, had 36 career games where he missed all of his free-throw attempts. Of those 36, he had 15 games with three or more attempts so it wasn’t an aberration the same way it would be if say Rick Barry underhand shot his way to 0-9. But Wilt claimed to not be responsible on this February night. As Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote: “He (Chamberlain) complained early and often about the use of ‘stickum’ by the Hawks, but he wasn’t about to expound on his complaints afterwards.” This isn’t completely accurate as Chamberlain did expound:

“I said I wasn’t going to say anything about it because when I do everybody says ‘Wilt is a crybaby who is looking for an excuse for his lousy foul shooting.’ If you want to know how much stickum there was on the ball out there today, why don’t you ask some of the other guys?”

Teammate Chet Walker, who must’ve been in earshot, responded, “So much it was ridiculous. The ball was really loaded. They ought to outlaw that stuff.” For whatever it’s worth, Walker, a career 80% free-throw shooter, shot 4-5 that night.

“Stickum” Chamberlain

13 years later in 1980, a 6’7”, 225-pound brute of a rebounder named Truck Robinson led his 19-4 Phoenix Suns against the Bulls of Chicago. Robinson was a former rebounding champion with a career 66% free throw average. On this night he was described by Richard Dozer of the Chicago Tribune as someone “who does a lot of things well but can’t shoot free throws. Against the Bulls, he descended into the pits of ineptitude previously inhabited alone by “Stickum” Chamberlain. It was a close game against the Bulls and even a sub-standard night of free throw shooting, like 30 or 40%, from Truck could’ve alleviated the stress. As Norm Frauenheim of the Arizona Republic wrote, “Phoenix had a chance to stretch its now-precarious lead to six points nine seconds later. (Ricky) Sobers had fouled Robinson. It didn’t matter. Robinson’s long night of futility from the free-throw line continued. He missed his eighth and ninth attempts – the ninth never even touched the rim.”

At this point, my pop-culture, meme-saturated mind immediately hears Homer Simpson’s “D’Oh!” followed by the massive splat of a facepalm. Let’s give the last word on Truck’s forgettable night to Dozer from the Tribune who tells us what happened after Robinson’s final air ball, “Now Coach John MacLeod got smart and took out the Suns’ free-throw patsy.” A night so bad we’re resorting to name calling? Oh, the shame.

“Free-throw patsy,” Truck Robinson

December of 2000, “Stickum” Chamberlain’s cultural offspring, Shaquille “Chamberneezy” O’Neal, in the ultimate show of anything you can do, I can do better, one-upped Wilt and Truck with the worst of the worst, the stinkiest of the stink, a rotten egg of putridity the likes of which the NBA hasn’t seen before or since: 0-11 from the line. In what would borderline as trolling in today’s vernacular, Tim Brown of The Los Angeles Times led off his recap painting an image of utter helplessness, “His right arm draped over his new free-throw coach, Shaquille O’Neal walked stiffly from Staples Center on Friday night. It didn’t work again. He missed all 11 free throws—an NBA record.” It seems some of us, no matter how hard we try or how badly we seek to rectify the errors in our ways, are incapable of salvation, doomed to recurring cycles of relative failure.

And finally, after wandering the halls of bricks, air balls, stickums, and free-throw shooting coaches, we arrive at the Chamberlain-O’Neal torch bearer: Dwight Howard. Seeing Wilt and Shaq on this list, there’s a sense of inevitability to Dwight joining them. For his career, he’s been a better free-throw shooter than his forbears, but there’s the same combination of absurd hulking size coupled with fragile, blot-out-the-sun ego. Dwight had to join this list, but somewhere along the line, we lost our collective desire to examine, through humor or (over)-analysis, the suck. In Rick Bonnell’s recap from the Charlotte Observer, there’s nothing more than reference to the 0-9 shooting. SB Nation’s At The Hive team blog referred to Dwight’s night as “dismal,” but nothing more.

I wanted quotes, acknowledgement, acceptance, something. Maybe this is more my problem than the media’s, but traveling back in time and consuming the colorful quotes, excuses, and descriptions puts the relative inattention to Howard’s crapfest in strange, apathetic context. It’s not just possible, but rather likely that somewhere on these internets or across the airwaves of local Charlotte radio these abysmal attempts at shooting free throws were rightly excoriated and that I’ve just overlooked them. If that is the case, I hope you found those criticisms and enjoyed them. If not, we can only hope that our struggling athletes re-learn the arts of excuse making and our scribes explore negative anomaly with the zeal of positive.

**Bonus: While Basketball-Reference’s database goes back to the 1963-64 season for game logs that include free throw attempts, my research referenced a game on November 4th, 1960 when Chamberlain shot 0-10 from the stripe. In true Chamberlain fashion, he countered the poor night of shooting with 44 points, 39 rebounds, and 22 blocks – this according to Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News. Chamberlain was comfortable owning his struggles as he said, “That kills me. Missing all those foul shots like that, I know I’m not a good foul line.” Then there’s some references to “the underhand sweep” which is apparently a free throw form Chamberlain toyed around with along with some of the most colorful sports writing. Kiser refers to Detroit’s center Walter Dukes as someone “who sometimes resembles a wrestling octopus in action,” frequently writes his name as “Waltah,” quotes Dukes as claiming, “I could score as many points as Wilt if I took as many shots,” and gets Wilt on the record saying, “Do I play harder against Walter than the average guy? Well, maybe I do … That boy just gets me mad with that rough stuff of his. He throws elbows at you when there’s no need to throw them. He’s just naturally mean.”

Gigged on Em

I was planning on writing a post about the angry radicalism of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but Bug and Hamilton convinced me to put it on hold and give Shaquille O’Neal his due so here I sit trying not to regurgitate all the post-Shaq sentiments I’ve soaked in.

In so many ways, this has been a season of change in the NBA. Beyond the obviousness of Pat Riley’s coup d’état in the summer of 2010 or the league’s youngest MVP ever, the playoffs have been a showcase for that cold hearted bitch named Time. Tim Duncan’s Spurs were womped by Memphis. Kobe, Phil and the Lakers were pistol whipped, bound, gagged and robbed of their three-peat opportunity by Dallas. The original Big Three of the 2000s, KG, Pierce and Ray Ray at least showed some heart in their demise at the hands of the new Big Three from South Beach. The proverbial torch wasn’t passed, at least not willingly. It was snatched from desperate, weaker hands.

So it seems fitting that Shaquille O’Neal—who at 23 knocked MJ out of the playoffs, was sacrificed at the altar of big men by Hakeem, threw punches at Barkley, had a verb created in his name in acknowledgement of his backboard breaking prowess and so much more (got to think his auto-bio will be Presidentially heavy)—retired this season when the league’s undergoing tectonic changes.

Along with Jason Kidd, Shaq is the last of the early 90s leftovers. The difference is Kidd never defined or represented any period of time in the NBA; he was just subtly dope with his triple doubles and Simon Phoenix dye job. Shaq came into the league with a posse, he rapped with the Fu-Schnickens, and breathed charismatic existence into Neon Boudeaux. Even if it was partially because of his size (in the 2000s, “How much does Shaq really weigh?” was one of the biggest mysteries/rumors in the NBA—7’1”, 400lbs? no shit?), non-basketball fans recognized Shaq. He took the Jordan marketing blueprint and put a younger, more entrepreneurial mid-90s spin on it. And even if his shoes looked like plastic snow boots and his raps were corny on a good day, it still had promotional value and made the big man money—who the hell knows which motivated him more.

All these entertaining pit stops over the past 20 years and that doesn’t even touch on what he was doing between November and June. Where Hollywood Shaq ends and NBA Shaq begins is a blurry area definable in the early 90s when Shaq was filming Blue Chips. In his opening scene he’s playing in some kind of abandoned warehouse gym (that happens to have a backboard and breakaway rim) in the bayous of Louisiana. He’s more myth than man and that’s the point when everything is always beautiful, because man can rarely live up to the myth that precedes him (Obama?). But then we arrive in gym with Nick Nolte, serenaded by the deep blues and we see Shaq for the first time being the power center to tilt the NBA away from the finesse of Ewing and Olajuwon, the muscle to counter the speed and athleticism of the Admiral. For once the man exceeded the myth. Shaq was Neon was Shaq—in personality and basketball ability, onscreen and off.

When he joined the Magic in 1992, he didn’t fuck around with fear for a second. He dunked his way into the pulse of the sports world. If someone with Shaq’s size and ability would’ve shown up in the 24/7 Twitter/Facebook world we inhabit now, he would’ve eclipsed the Blake Griffin buzz the way Blake enveloped John Wall mania. Shaq dominated the center position in an era when the league was deep with quality at the position—Dream, Ewing, Admiral, Mutombo, Mourning. Any of those players would give Dwight Howard fits. In his second season, Shaq went ahead and put up 29 points and 13 rebounds a night. Before Shaq, Moses Malone was the last player who pulled off +29 and 13—that was back in 1982. No player has done it since; except Shaq for a second time in 2000.

For all the inexhaustible superlatives and monikers that have defined the man for the past 20 years, it feels divinely appropriate that he had a bright, shining, easily identifiable weakness in free throw shooting: The Hack-a-Shaq method. Can you believe this shit has its own Wikipedia page? Think about your biggest weakness at your job. Maybe it’s something you’re acutely aware of and while you have to confront it at times because someone’s paying you a salary; you’d prefer to avoid it. Maybe it’s running TPS reports or cleaning the handicap stall or handling customer complaints. Whatever it is, you’re not that good it. You’re actually below average. Now imagine that a competitor found out about your weakness and at the most critical time of year—annual review, boss observing you in action, in the middle of providing service to customers—your competitor attacks that weakness. Come playoff time or close games; that was Shaq’s reality. In retrospect, a man with that much of an advantage had to have an equally great weakness. For all the greatness, we’ll always remember his free throw line odyssies.

Now it’s all done. The most physically dominant player I’ve ever seen is retiring. In a league of giants, Shaq dwarfed them all. The men he battled with and against are gone or walking into the sunset—Iverson, Duncan, Sheed, Kobe, KG, Webber. For that, it’s appropriate that Shaq’s retirement symbolically closes the door on a generation he owned and helped define. Today, the league is a lesser place without him.

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