Free-Throw Line Offers No Charity to Men’s Teams

The men’s basketball coaches and players at San Diego State, the University of San Diego and U.S. International might be pained to read the numbers in the Guinness Book of World Records:

--On June 25, 1977, Ted St. Martin of Jacksonville, Fla., made 2,036 free throws in a row.

--Fred Newman of San Jose made 88 consecutive free throws blindfolded and 338 of 356 (94.9%) in 10 minutes.

--In 24 hours, Jeff Liles made 15,138 of 17,862 (84.7%).


Last year, UC San Diego’s Rob Rittgers set NCAA Division III records for most and consecutive free throws in a game when he made 30 of 30, including 24 successive technical foul shots, against Menlo College.

And 2-year-old Hank Martin of Cincinnati once made--with a smaller ball and basket--2 of 6 shots on “Late Night with David Letterman.”

Worth one point, a free throw is like a 2-foot putt in golf, a fourth-and-inches situation in football or a second serve in tennis. It is expected to be made, a routine action that draws the most attention when missed. This target is 15 feet away and 10 feet high, and nobody is allowed directly in front or within 5 feet of the shooter.

The free throw. Even its name implies ease.

But for San Diego’s three NCAA Division I men’s teams, the free throw has been costly in 1988-89. The percentages are .629 at SDSU, .605 at USIU and .600 at USD. Each can attribute at least two losses to bad days at the so-called “charity stripe.”

And while the local Division I men’s teams have wallowed around 60% at the line, the women’s teams at each school are near 70% or better: SDSU is shooting 74.5%, USD 72.2% and USIU 69.5%.

Behind the statistics have been some dubious occurrences for the men and terrific distinctions for the women.

With a sprained thumb, Dana Jackson, a 38% free-throw shooter for SDSU, shot two air balls in a row at Utah. USIU has had two shots--one by Steve Smith (72%), the other by Willie Davis (56%)--hit nothing but air. Another USIU player, Tim Moore (30%), missed so wildly that the ball caromed back to him off the rubber bottom of the backboard. Mike Sterner, USIU’s 6-foot 11-inch center, is shooting just 27% from the line.

USD has been the most troubled, losing five games by five points or less. In each, poor free-throw shooting, especially down the stretch, was costly. The top free-throw shooter on the team, Wayman Strickland, is making 76%. Sophomore center Dondi Bell has improved somewhat this season, from 50% to 57%, with a new 1-handed style.

USD women Candida Echeverria and Paula Mascari are making 87% and 81%, respectively, of their free throws.

For SDSU’s women, the lowest percentage of the starters is freshman Crystal Lee at .739. Center Chana Perry has made 77% (78 of 101), Stefanie Massie 80% and Brooke Meadows 84%. Julie Evans has missed only 1 in 25 attempts (96%). For the men, Tony Ross (87.5%) is the only player above 80%. Only seven others are above 70%. One is Sam Johnson, who has improved from 49% last year to 78% this season.

USIU has only three women’s players (one injured, two reserves) below 67%. The men’s team has eight.

“It’s supposed to be a free shot,” said Aztec center Mitch McMullen, a 50% free-throw shooter. “There’s no excuse. Shame on us if we don’t make it.”

So why the trend at each school? Could it be that women are better free throw shooters in general? Did Nostradamus predict the wrong shake-up?

Jim Brandenburg, SDSU’s men’s coach, said, “I think women, in general, have better pairs of hands than men. To catch, to pass, to do a lot of different dexterous-type things.

“I’m not sure that I could statistically prove it. But from my observation of 30 years of coaching, women can probably outshoot the men within certain ranges.”

Kathy Marpe, USD’s women’s coach, said, “Women have a more sensitive feel for the ball. And they tend to have more patience.”

On Jan. 25, 1986, Marpe’s USD team set an NCAA record for free-throw shooting percentage in a game by making 24 of 24.

“I think women may have a better mental attitude than men,” says USIU men’s Coach Gary Zarecky. “Everything I’ve read is that women handle stress better than men.”

It’s all true, says Mike Brum, an SDSU graduate student who works with the men’s and women’s players as a sports psychologist consultant.

“It’s been proven, women have a tendency to have greater control over fine muscle movement than men do,” Brum said. “And they have a built-in system of handling stress because their bodies are prepared to bear children. They are better able to handle fine motor movements in stressful situations.”

Brum adds that free throw shooting is different from the rest of the game because you use different motor movements at the line. “I teach relaxation, focusing and key words in a process called backward shaping,” he said.

Brum said backward shaping is a method of going through and learning the fundamental movements in reverse order to eliminate errors and bad habits.

It all sounds very psychological, but SDSU women’s Coach Earnest Riggins says, simply, “Free-throw shooting is mental discipline and concentration.”

Poor free-throw shooting, said Brandenburg, “Is kind of like being an alcoholic. You’ll never beat it until you can say, ‘Yes, I’m an alcoholic.’ ”

What happens, Brandenburg said, “is it really becomes a psychological thing with a lot of players. Players that have high anxiety levels, players that are hyper and really want to please, those guys will get up there on that foul line and their heart comes right up in their throat. You can work on free throws and work on free throws, but sometimes you have good free-throw shooting teams and sometimes you don’t.”

Brandenburg said players also tend to see free throws as an unglamorous aspect of the game.

“In today’s basketball, you will find very few players that see themselves as steady free-throw shooters,” he said. “I don’t think they picture themselves as great free-throw shooters. Those guys are in the minority. Nobody reacts to two silky smooth free throws. All the guys are jumping and dunking. So that’s what young players react to. That’s what gets the crowd going.”

Zarecky said that when he was teaching a clinic in Yugoslavia, the European players did not want to hear about shooting because they felt they were already better shooters than Americans. They wanted to learn about fast breaks and fancy passes, because that’s what Americans were noted for.

Said USD Coach Hank Egan, “The men’s game has become a lot more athletic. And maybe we’re recruiting that way. Free-throw shooting is a skill function. Athleticism has nothing to do with free-throw shooting. Jumping and speed don’t matter. It’s a lot like hitting a golf ball. It’s a lot of muscle familiarity.

“Larry Bird (one of the NBA’s best free-throw shooters) is not an athlete. He is the consummate skill player. He has overcome the lack of running and jumping ability with a tremendous amount of skill.”

For all the analysis, some of the local men’s players just might be suffering from an affliction for which there is no cure.

Lincoln High School Coach Ron Loneski was a teammate of Wilt Chamberlain’s at the University of Kansas.

“I played with the worst shooter in the world,” he said, “and nobody had an answer for him.”


Free throw percentages at each of the area’s Division I schools:

School Men Women SDSU 62.9% 74.5% USIU 60.5% 69.5% USD 60.0% 72.2%