I love playing sports. My left arm is sore because, almost a week ago a few of us guys decided we couldn’t get used to this whole “adult” thing and had to shell out $800 for the privilege of reliving the college intramural days – when the same game cost the team a cool $20.
This fall, it’s flag football that caused Hollie to raise an eyebrow and ask, “HOW much?” It was tennis in high school, but it was always basketball first. I grew up on it, playing my dad in the driveway until the sun went down and the front porch lights weren’t strong enough to illuminate the shadow of the moving ball; on the “C” and “B” traveling teams I where struggled, the smallest post player you’d ever seen – because I couldn’t dribble well enough to play the point, and was too slow to be a rangy wing; and at Friday ball – every Friday at 2:00pm the Markin Rec Center, where I always tried to back my defender down before spinning right and putting up the fade-away. A good fade-away was the only option for a too-short middle school post.
Play basketball twenty years – you’ll never take the same shot. You’ll be an inch this way or an inch that way, the defender with a hand in your face will force you to put a little more arc on your shot, or the slope of your driveway will make the hoop actually something like ten feet six inches, rather than a flat ten. There is of course, one exception. The free throw. On a regulation basketball court, that’s fifteen feet away from the hoop, which always sits ten feet off the ground. Every time. And while other shots change as a result of the presence of a defender, the time left on the clock, or just the differences between practice and game speed – the free throw remains the same. Ninth grade basketball tryouts, the empty gym at Markin at 11:00pm on a Saturday night, or game seven of the NBA finals. It doesn’t change the shot. I find something magical about this. I can’t think of another situation in another sport that’s close. A penalty kick in soccer encounters a goalie, even an extra point in football introduces the variable of the holder or the the winds in an outdoor stadium. But the free throw is amazingly constant. Fifteen feet forward, ten feet up. Same hoop size, same ball. The situation may change, but it doesn’t change the shot.
I was taught good shooting technique was B.E.E.F. Balance, Elbows, Eyes, Follow-through. Start with a solid base, elbow tucked in and at ninety degrees. Eyes on the front of the rim and flick the ball up, your arm and hand reaching up and out, as though reaching into a cookie jar on a tall countertop. But good form doesn’t guarantee success, and some of those labeled with “bad” form have been the best from the charity stripe. Rick Barry, an elite player from the 70’s and 80’s, abandoned his prototypical jump shot for an underhanded, two armed toss whenever he stood at the free throw line. Barry is one of few professional players to ever shoot better than 90% from the line. 80% is considered very good. The free throw is almost 100% mental, 100% muscle memory.
On every regulation basketball court there is a small nail in the middle of the free throw line, usually painted over – you have to look for it. I would put my big toe of my right foot behind it, and my pointer finger on the air valve to perfectly center the ball. Toss the ball out in front of me with backspin. Catch it, two more bounces. One more spin in my left hand, realign pointer finger and valve, and lock my eyes onto the front of the rim. A slight bend of the knees, and then up. Pushing up from the legs, through the arm and out with a flick of the wrist, the ball is on its way. Any miniscule variation, at any part of the sequence can mean the difference between hearing the soft swish of the net and the clank of the ball against the back of the rim.
There’s a huge difference between practice and the last two minutes of a game. Fatigue, unfamiliar opponents, raucous fans. But when the whistle blows and you find yourself at the free throw line, the shot is the same. You’ll never meet a remotely serious basketball player who doesn’t have pre-free throw routine. The point is to realign with what is constant. Jason Kidd, one of the greatest point guards of all time would put the ball in his left hand, wipe his shorts with his right, then blow a kiss at the rim. Then one bounce, then shoot. Michael Jordan spun the ball once between his hands, five bounces, then one more spin between the hands before he shot.
In college, the free throw line was my solstice, my constant. Amidst stress of homework or deadlines, a break to walk across campus to the gym was my relief. On days when I felt on top of the world, free throws humbled me. I could spend two hours at the gym shooting nothing but free throws, never leaving the paint unless a shot went horribly off. The was the constant of the free-throw line that seduced me.
We have a clear path to God, through his son Jesus Christ. This we know never changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He is constant. And although life can move and pull us in every direction, there comes decision points where we can choose to do to do the thing that will deepen our relationship with Christ, or do the other. We may be tired, there may be twenty thousand people screaming in your ear, but the shot does not change. You know best your pre-shot routine. You know your form. And you know our God is constant. Life will always happen, but it doesn’t change the shot.