There is something disarming, even inviting, about shooting a free throw in basketball. You take your shot, standing still, a mere 15 feet away from the hoop. No one’s guarding you, and you can take your time. Free throws lend themselves to rhythm and repetition, meaning you can practice and perfect your shooting stroke. They’re accessible to everyone, even a 5’-11’’ dude with no jumping ability and a bad knee (that’s me). Indeed, free throws are one of the only athletic feats I can accomplish about as well as the men and women who do it for a living. Given a million chances, I could never hit a home run in a major league ballpark, could never dunk the basketball, could never tackle a full-grown NFL running back, could never stripe a 330-yard drive down the middle of the fairway. I can, however, make free throws. In fact, on a good day, I can make them at about an 85% clip, and I once even made 93 out of a hundred. Which is why it’s a somewhat maddening facet of basketball that the difference between a win and a loss often comes down to one poor guy at the free throw line.
On Friday night, my Iowa Hawkeyes lost to Iowa State, 85-82, after Iowa’s sterling point guard, Mike Gesell, normally a reliable free throw shooter, missed three of them in the last minute to blow an Iowa lead. Gesell wasn’t alone: Devyn Marble, Iowa’s top scorer, missed a key free throw as well—the front end of a one-and-one, no less, making the miss doubly costly. The misses gave Iowa State the chance to seize a lead, which they did, eventually making several free throws of their own to seal the win and hand Iowa its second loss of the season.
The game’s final minute was agonizing (I’m lucky enough to be able to listen to the local radio broadcast), not only because it saw Iowa give away a game against an in-state rival, but also because, when you got right down to it, the only explanation was that Gesell and Marble let the pressure of the situation get to them. In a word, they choked. These were free throws, after all, shots these guys probably make 90-95% of in practice. On the surface, there’s no excuse for it: players shoot hundreds of free throws every day in practice, and a good free throw shooter—like Gesell or Marble—makes at least 80%. (The best make better than 85%.) So to miss three straight, all things being equal, is almost unheard of.
But all things were not equal on Friday night. For one thing, the Iowa State crowd was raucous and lively. For another, the stakes were high, and the game had been a marvelous example of college basketball at its best. Both teams are good, perhaps exceptionally good, and a win, the players knew, really meant something—for their rankings (both are currently in the top 25), for potential tournament seeding, and for state bragging rights. For two hours fans were treated to a fast-paced, back-and-forth affair (Iowa actually led most of the way). It was, in short, exactly what fans of the two programs had hoped for.
That is, if you are an Iowa fan, until those dreadful final seconds, when it all came down to a handful of missed free throws.
At the risk of sounding trite, a great deal in life hinges on details that seem innocuous, the stuff we expect to accomplish with little fanfare. The other day I was writing a paper on an issue my boss asked me to analyze. It wasn’t a terribly important project, but I researched the heck out of it, and I wrote, if I may say so, a good little paper. It was concise; it was logically sound; I was happy with it. Then I turned it in, and after awhile I got a call from my boss, who asked me to come to her office and discuss the project. I grabbed my notes, went in there, and promptly lost all ability to speak with any semblance of intelligence. I couldn’t remember any of the key cases, or what they meant; I mispronounced the party’s name; all in all, I was utterly incapable of discussing what I’d spent hours preparing for. It was embarrassing, and not particularly reflective of the work I’d done. But still, what my boss was likely to remember was that I’d stumbled my way through our conversation and had failed to do my job, which was to help her prepare for the case.
If you didn’t notice, I’m trying to make a slightly tortured analogy here. Making free throws—just like summarizing the work I’d already done—is what’s expected from any player worth his salt. When you convert the opportunity, you were always supposed to do so. Conversely, when you fail when the pressure’s on, it’s an intense, embarrassing mistake. And when that mistake costs you something important—and, worst of all, when it occurs in the open, in front of thousands of fans who are quick to lay blame—the pain is compounded and the embarrassment intensified.
Then there’s the other side of the coin. As terrible as it is to lose at the free throw line, it’s oddly satisfying to win a game by calmly sinking free throw after free throw as the seconds tick down. This was the case on Saturday for the other team I root for—my alma mater, the Arizona Wildcats. After coming from behind in the second half, Arizona sealed the win over Michigan when the Wildcats’ star guard, Nick Johnson, made six free throws in the last 25 seconds. Nick, as they say, was cool, calm, and collected. After each increasingly desperate Michigan foul, he drained the energy from the Ann Arbor faithful, free throw after cold-blooded free throw. The winning margin was 72-70, meaning each free throw was essential to the outcome. Michigan even missed a free throw down the stretch, adding to the drama. Now, thanks to Johnson, Arizona stays undefeated.
And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Because while making free throws in a quiet gym, with no one watching, is, indeed, rather easy, that’s not the situation Mike Gesell and Nick Johnson were in. Tens of thousands of fans were hanging on their every move, two wild crowds were screaming for them to miss, and underlying everything was the knowledge that, should they miss, they would be blamed for their teams’ fate. Because, after all, they were supposed to make their free throws. Everyone is. Which, it turns out, is much easier said than done.