When Tom Amberry swished in his 2,750th consecutive free throw, there were all of 10 people watching history being made.
For 12 hours in a small rec center gym in Orange County, the retired Long Beach podiatrist had rhythmically lobbed in shot after shot, stopping only when a janitor said it was time to turn off the lights and lock up.
Nobody had ever done such a thing, at least not in the estimation of Guinness World Records, which keeps tabs on such feats.
“I could have made more — a lot more,” Amberry said. “But they were closing the gym, so they kicked me out.”
Amberry’s prowess at the free-throw line made him both a momentary celebrity and a commodity.
He appeared on David Letterman’s TV show — again flipping in one perfect shot after another — and was sought out by coaches hoping he could help otherwise solid basketball players fix the one glaring blemish in their game: The free throw.
Amberry died in Long Beach on March 18 at the age of 94. He had continued to shoot free throws as a hobby and a form of relaxation until late in life.
For anyone who has picked up a basketball, the shot from the free-throw line looks deceptively simple. Yet the free throw has been the bane of some of basketball’s legendary players, a shot that has broken the hearts of fans and entire cities when it rattles out of the rim or clangs off the iron at a crucial moment.
But to Amberry, all it took was pure, locked-in concentration and muscle memory. And a lot of practice.
Born Nov. 13, 1922, in Grand Forks, N.D., Amberry grew tall but was too lanky for football. Basketball suited him better and he rode it to the University of North Dakota, where he played center and relied on a left hook. He later transferred to Long Beach City College and was named Junior College Player of the Year.
He was offered a contract to join the newly established Minneapolis Lakers (the team soon moved to Los Angeles), but he opted to attend podiatry school instead. He opened his own practice in Long Beach in 1951.
When he retired in 1991, Amberry looked for a hobby, and found one in basketball. Every day except for Sunday he would head over to the Rossmoor Athletic Club in Seal Beach and shoot a minimum of 500 free throws, generally making them all. A lefty, he would shoot until his arm was limp and then switch to his right hand, the results rarely changing.
According to his own notes, he made 500 consecutive free throws on 473 separate occasions.
He kept notes, plowed through medical journals and consulted sports psychologists on the hidden barriers to being a perfect shooter, finally developing what would be his gospel for free throwing — feet parallel at the line, shoulders square, he would bounce the ball exactly three times and fire, mindful of keeping his shooting elbow tucked close to his body. The routine would take exactly six seconds, no more, no less.
“A free throw takes six seconds, and you can’t think of anything else during those six seconds,” he explained to Sports Illustrated in 1994.
After making 2,750 consecutive shots that day in 1993, Amberry — then 71 — became the basketball star he’d dreamed of since he was a teen. He was on television, wrote a book on the art of free-throw shooting and was sought out by coaches and players looking for some magical elixir that would cure their shortcomings at the line.
Jerry Tarkanian, the former basketball coach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was among the first to track down Amberry. His team had lost to North Carolina in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament in 1977, and he’d brooded on the loss for years.
“We were one of five from the free-throw line,” he moaned.
The history of free-throw shooting is a tortured one. Basketball immortal Wilt Chamberlain was reduced to lobbying the ball underhand in an effort to make free throws. Laker legend Shaquille O’Neal’s free throwing was so woeful that players would intentionally foul him, knowing there was a reasonable chance he would miss his shots. For Amberry, there was no shortage in demand for his advice.
“You can’t tell me NBA players aren’t good shooters,” Amberry told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “But I’m better from the line. Why? Because I’ve learned to focus and concentrate better than anyone else.”
Eventually, Amberry co-wrote a book on free-throw shooting, titled — naturally — “Free Throw: 7 Steps to Success at the Free Throw Line.” The Lakers reportedly gave a copy to O’Neal.
Amberry is survived by sons Bill, Tom and Robert, 12 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, Elon, and a son, Tim.