When I played basketball for Chamberlain High in the early 1960s, the coach had an end-of-practice rule that we had to make 10 free throws in a row before hitting the shower.
Ten free throws in a row and done for the evening. Miss even one and start over. Elton Byre, a former Reliance Longhorn in his first year as head coach my senior year, told us free throws were just consistent routine and motion. They should be automatic points every time, he said.
All well and good for Coach. He was a Longhorn legend who went on to star at Dakota Wesleyan. With someone to retrieve and feed him the ball, he probably could have gone a couple of days without a miss. Some of us were less talented.
Ray Strand and Bill Miller got their 10-in-a-row out of the way and traipsed off to the locker room. Strand, just a sophomore when I was a senior, locked in and made his shots every night. Bill was almost as proficient. He’d miss once in a while, but not often. I never once made it through 10 straight shots.
Ray, a genuinely good guy, always gave me a sympathetic look as he headed for the locker room. He’d have taken my shots if Coach had allowed it. Bill and I were co-captains, so he’d offer a few words of encouragement (“C’mon farm boy, follow through.”) before he headed for the stairs with a big grin on his face. Finally, when I was the last one shooting, Coach would send me down.
Those practices came back to me Friday evening when I watched the Cubs open their season against St. Thomas More. In that game, most of the players made their free throws. In my time, game pressure prompted a fair number of players to miss fairly often. Of course, few of us put in nearly as much time working on our shots as the typical high school ball player does these days. We didn’t have summer leagues or open gyms. If you’d said “traveling team” to us, we’d have thought you meant the time we rode a bus to Deadwood for games with the Bears one night and Lead’s Golddiggers the next. Basketball was fun, but it was just what a kid did between football and track. We called winter the “basketball season,” and that’s when we fooled around with basketballs.
OK, not everyone in the country did it that way. Over in Kokomo, Indiana, a few years earlier, a skinny kid named Jimmy Rayl shot baskets the whole year round. After high school he played for the University of Indiana and then the Indiana Pacers. I recall a story in a sports magazine that told of the young Jimmy Rayl shoveling the snow from the driveway at his home and shooting baskets until his fingers no longer would grip the ball, I admired him, but that wasn’t me. Sometimes in the summer after field work, I’d shoot for 10 or 15 minutes at the hoop nailed to the REA pole in the farmyard.
Here is a Jimmy Rayl story about free throws I found online. “Rayl, with witnesses, once hit 532 consecutive free throws in a church gym in Kokomo.” Wow. I’d have been showering after the first 10.
A guy named Dale Vance still coached Chamberlain when I was a junior. He was an old-school guy — two handed chest passes, use the bank board, Mikan drill, Drake Shuffle, all that stuff. He tried to get me to shoot underhanded on my free throws. Even then, kids called that style “potty shots” or “granny tosses.” I wasn’t about to try that in a game with people actually watching. In my defense, neither was Wilt Chamberlain, even though his free throw success was probably worse than mine.
About the time I finished my high school career, a guy named Rick Barry started playing for the University of Miami. A prolific scorer, he always shot free-throws underhanded. One season in professional ball he made 95 percent of all his free throws.
If I’d known about that guy, I might have been more open to those granny shots.