My childhood can only be described as traumatic. When my mother wasn't finding excuses to hand down a beating with her big wooden spoon (You tracked dirt in the house! Where's the big wooden spoon?), there were other people eager to scar me.
In eighth grade, I wanted nothing more than to play on the middle school basketball team. Problem was, I wasn't very good--and by that I mean I wasn't any good. My plan was to join a rec league, get some formal instruction and then travel the road to professional hoops prowess. Unfortunately, the coach on that team was less a teacher than a modern incarnation of the gestapo. (You shoot like a girl, you Nancy!...Now where's my big wooden spoon?)
That was the last time I was coached up. Until today. I'm on the American Airlines Center practice court with my buddy Zac and Dallas Mavericks free-throw coach Gary Boren. Boren is a nice guy and a fine coach (the Mavs have been first or second in free-throw percentage for the past four years) and has agreed to break down my shot, and Zac's, too. I feel for Boren, because it's not going to be easy--Zac and I have what can only be described as the world's worst form. In exchange, I'm supposed to promote Boren's new book in this space. (Which I would have done anyway, because the book's a smart idea. But I didn't tell him he could have gotten free pub, lest he renege on our deal.)
"There's some 40 different components to shooting free throws," Boren informs us. "Let's say you do a bunch of them wrong, but we can fix six or 10. Well, you're bound to get better."
He has us shoot a few to get a feel for how awful we are, and then he makes some suggestions: Tuck your elbow, hold the ball looser and over your shooting shoulder, move your guide hand, finish on your toes. I'm pumped. I'm convinced he's going to immediately transform my shot...I step to the line again, brimming with newly acquired knowledge, and...air ball.
And he thought fixing Shawn Bradley was difficult.
Some six months ago, Boren had an idea for a book, which is hardly surprising, considering his background--he is a self-made man, the type who not only thinks of novel concepts but brings them to fruition. It's how he got into this biz in the first place. Until the late '80s, Boren had never coached basketball. Hell, he'd never played it either, except for games here and there at the Premiere Club. He was sitting around one day, watching the pros brick shot after shot from the line, when he started wondering if he could do it better. He bought a mess of books and read up. Then he practiced. He shot until he made 500 free throws a day. He did that for 13 months, missing only five days over that span. By the end, he was not only a proficient free-throw shooter, he was also a leading authority on the physics of it all--the diameter of the rim, the ball trajectory needed to maximize net space and so on.
At first, he gave away his wisdom to various coaches so that he could build a reputation and stockpile reference letters. Then he looked at the NBA's team free-throw percentages. At the bottom that year were the Golden State Warriors, then coached by Don Nelson. Long story short, Nelson flew him to Milwaukee, where the Warriors were starting a road trip, and listened for three hours while Boren broke down the art of the free throw. Nelson hired him on the spot, and Boren has been with him ever since, helping the Warriors, Knicks and now the Mavs improve their free-throw shooting.
A few months ago, he had another idea. There are a lot of books out there on basketball, but few of them are informative, and even fewer are practical or enjoyable. Why not put one together, he wondered, that could be all of the above? Why not solicit information from coaches around the country, asking them to detail games like H-O-R-S-E and 21 and so on? So that's what he did--or, more accurately, what he's doing.
With some help from his partners--former D magazine publisher and Hoop-it-Up creator Terry Murphy, and Brookhaven Community College head coach Jeff Allen--Boren has gotten responses from big names, guys like Tubby Smith, Lute Olson and Rick Majerus. He connects with the coaches, Murphy compiles the information and adds some anecdotal stories (like the time he fired a guy and decided his settlement package over a $10,000 game of H-O-R-S-E) and Allen diagrams the games in easy-to-understand X's and O's. They have 50 games that are ready to go, and another 50 in the development stage, all for the low-low price of mentioning the coach who submitted the game in the book and then sending him a copy. Now that's good business.
They expect it to be ready soon. When it is, you'll be able to find it at www.basketballshootinginstruction.com, or, if you have a game you'd like to submit, you can e-mail Boren at email@example.com.
"We don't have a publisher yet, but we're working on it," Murphy says. He is the gregarious sort, loud and quick with a joke. He plays comedian to Boren's straight man, yukking it up with his partner over a beer while calling everyone within earshot a "pussy." It's good stuff. Really. "We think it's going to work, because everyone knows P-I-G, but no one knows SOS or S-T-A-R Burst. It'll be something that kids can use or parents can give to their children. Guys our age can do it; it won't matter who you are. We're going to have the age group for each game, the number of players, how much exercise you'll get from it, a CD that will show you each game that will come with the book and a little story behind the game, too. Like, there's one story where we mention Drazen Petrovic. The thing about that is, even if someone disputes it, it's hard for Drazen to debate the story."
He grins mischievously and laughs. Petrovic, of course, is very dead.
We've been at it for about an hour now. Under Boren's tutelage, Zac is improving, while I seem to be regressing. Boren tells us stories of players he's helped, and I ask him if he thinks he could fix Shaq. He says yes.
"What if there were a player," I say, not naming any names, "who was so bad, he did all 40 of the things you mentioned incorrectly. Could you fix him?"
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"That's impossible," he says. "No one is that bad."
As I clang another free throw off the front rim, I'm not so sure. But Boren is undeterred, and he's awfully supportive. He sends Zac and me home armed with videos, books and plenty of encouragement.
"You keep at it now, and practice," Boren says with a smile, "and I promise you'll get better."
I believe him. And he didn't even have to use the wooden spoon.