Caltech’s Fred Newman had a line on free-throw shooting

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Fred Newman, Caltech graduate, once tested his free-throw shooting ability against Rick Barry, at the time the most accurate free-throw shooter in NBA history.

Not surprisingly, Newman lost.

In fairness, though, he was the only one shooting blindfolded.

Earlier, Newman set a Guinness world record for consecutive free throws made with eyes covered, a feat noted by Barry after the Basketball Hall of Famer outshot Newman during an episode of the 1980s reality television show “That’s Incredible!”

“What Fred has accomplished, making 88 in a row blindfolded, really is … incredible,” Barry told the audience.

Equally remarkable is the 73-year-old Newman’s persistent pursuit of the perfect foul-shooting stroke.

For no apparent reason other than to chase obscure records and perhaps test his own limits, the onetime computer programmer has dedicated nearly half his life to free throws.

Whereas fellow sharpshooter and similarly aged Ted St. Martin turned his foul-line marksmanship into a career replete with sponsorships, appearances and instructional book and video, Newman devoted countless hours to no tangible reward other than a few scattered TV appearances.

A divorced father of two, the former Caltech basketball player and assistant coach says free throws did not befoul his marriage.

But when asked what his ex-wife thought of his singular obsession, Newman says with a slight shrug and nervous chuckle, “Maybe she thought it was going to end, but it never did.”

Without blindfold, Newman has made 1,481 consecutive free throws, far short of St. Martin’s Guinness record of 5,221.

Newman, however, set a record for most free throws made in a 24-hour period, soldiering on to sink 20,371 even after the skin on his fingertips separated and bled.

“It didn’t affect my shot any,” he says of the blood, “but the ball got sticky and I had to wipe it off every hour or so.”

Among his other free-throw records: highest percentage made in a 24-hour period (98.2%) and, though he says the mark was not recognized by Guinness, most made in an hour (2,034).

“It was something I could do, and it turns out I got pretty good at it,” Newman says of his ability to consistently make unobstructed shots from a spot on the floor 15 feet from the basket. “When you have success, you get reinforced and you keep going.”

Though he played no varsity sports at Santa Monica High in the early 1950s, Newman was an all-conference football, basketball, baseball and soccer player at Caltech.

But as a free-throw shooter, he says, he was “nothing fantastic. I made more than 66%, but not as high as 75%.”

Years later, while playing in city basketball leagues in the early 1970s, he got to wondering whether anyone had ever made 100 free throws in a row “because I’d never heard of anyone doing it.”

He decided he’d shoot 200 free throws every Saturday, one week making 88 in a row and the next 139.

“That was the start,” he says.

Living at the time in San Jose, he says he took out an ad in the Wall Street Journal “announcing this great feat.”

Soon, however, Newman discovered that the Guinness record was 200 in a row. It was held by St. Martin, who happened to be making an appearance in the Bay Area that week.

The two met, and Newman took aim at St. Martin’s records.

“He shattered my 24-hour record pretty darn good,” St. Martin, 75, says from his home in Jacksonville, Fla., where he still gives backyard free-throw lessons for $100 an hour. “He was an inspiration, in one respect. I knew I had to keep up with him because he was a very good shooter.”

But while St. Martin crisscrossed the country making appearances, Newman usually holed up in a gym.

“I would have liked to have had a job like that,” Newman says during an interview at Caltech, where he has worked for the last 18 years as a building supervisor. “But nothing ever came of it. I made some feeble efforts, but I never bothered to follow up.”

He has been offered as much as $200 an hour to give private lessons, Newman says, “but I don’t want to schedule the time and the hassle. It’s not worth it to me.”

The keys to success at the foul line, he says, are balance, breathing, follow-through and practice — lots of practice.

He says even the NBA’s worst free-throw shooters — yes, even Shaquille O’Neal — would improve dramatically if they were willing to devote five to six hours a day to practicing.

Newman did so routinely.

Does he have any regrets?

“That’s a tough question,” he says, his days of pursuing records all but ended because of his decreasing stamina and other physical limitations. “I’ve been happy with the way things have turned out, but there were opportunities I missed.

“When I was in control data — this was before the Internet — a guy I worked with wanted me to write software with him for what they called microcomputers at the time. This was before Apple and the others, and he wanted me to program with him.”

Newman, however, says he realized other endeavors would eat into his free time, keeping him from the gym.

Instead of pursuing riches, Newman says, “I decided to shoot.”