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Go Ahead and Jump

After more than 30 years of tossing bricks, a hoops fanatic finally learns how to shoot a basketball.

Author Jason Gay Illustration Barry Blitt

WITH MARCH MADNESS fast approaching, I must make a painful, soul-bearing confession. It’s long overdue, more overdue even than Mark McGwire’s steroids mea culpa, so I may as well just get it out there:

I cannot shoot a basketball.

Let me amend that. Technically, I can shoot a basketball. I have “played” the sport—or at least something resembling it—since I was young. I even ably warmed the bench for the high school junior varsity. To this day, I occasionally play pickup games with other flabby office drones. Running up and down the court, there are moments when I actually delude myself that I know what I’m doing.

And then I shoot the ball, and it horrifies people. Remember that episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine danced at a party, and everyone recoiled in fear? That’s what my basketball shot is like. It disturbs humanity. When I grab the ball and heave it toward the hoop, players on both sides look it me aghast with a mixture of fright and pity.

I know I’m not alone in this affliction. One of the most popular grievances with the current college and pro game is the deterioration of shooting. Fans complain that players don’t have the touch that they once did, that the game exists too much above the rim, that shooting fundamentals aren’t prioritized like suffocating defenses. This is not merely the groaning of nostalgic cranks. For every pure jump-shot artist, like Boston’s Ray Allen or Golden State’s Stephen Curry, there is a legion of brick tossers barely competent from more than 12 feet out. It’s one of the things that invariably makes me nuts during the NCAA tournament. Yes, it’s a thrilling sports event. But there are always long stretches of blundering offensive play when I wonder if the battered rim should file for workmen’s comp.

Of course, I’m one to talk. My own basketball shot is ugly and artless, devoid of grace or technique. Summon an image of a classic jump-shooter—Larry Bird, say, or Reggie Miller. Then imagine the total, ham-handed opposite. I grip the ball with 10 fingers tightly, cock it violently behind my head like a backhoe, and then hurl it like I’m throwing a burning log out of a car window.

The ugliness would be tolerated if my shot were accurate. But it is not. It’s not even close. My spinless knuckleball usually clangs off the rim violently. Even the backboard laughs. Not long ago, I was staying at a hotel with a spiffy basement court, and I thought it would be fun to try free throws. I went three for 25, which means I should be fired from playing pickup ball—or signed by the New Jersey Nets.

My terrorshot is a source of great shame for me. It makes me embarrassed to play a sport that I love. Sometimes I try to play without shooting, and for a while it goes well—I stick to rebounds and passing, and my teammates think I’m a generous guy. But I can never totally escape my hideous shot. Every so often I find myself with an open look at the basket, and I have no choice but to launch it, praying only that it stays in the gym and that I do not maim anyone for life.

So I’ve decided to get my shot fixed. It’s a weird, difficult thing to try to relearn in your late 30s. Most people are taught how to shoot a basketball when they’re very young, around the time they learn how to ride a bike, how to swim and how to play No-Limit Texas Hold ’Em (or was that just me?).

But you’re never too old to learn, I say. At my age people think nothing of taking a golf lesson from a swing coach or getting one of those private sessions with a Pilates instructor. If I can learn French wine and how to julienne vegetables like a proper bourgeois sophisticate, why can’t I reteach myself how to shoot a basketball?

So I get in touch with Jim Murray, a hoops maestro at New York’s Chelsea Piers gym, and we meet on a cold Monday afternoon. Jim, who played Division III hoops and whose father is still a basketball coach, begins by telling me we aren’t going to need a ball for a while.

We’re going to work on form without a ball. This is like arriving at a steak house and being told you will have 20 minutes of knife-and-fork practice.

But Jim is a lot bigger than me, so I go along. The main thing people ignore about shooting, Jim says, is their legs.

I must bend my legs, and use them as a launchpad, he says. Jim then takes my right arm (I’m a righty) and bends the elbow into a sharp L. He puts an imaginary ball on my fingertips and bends my wrist.

“Knees, elbows, wrists,” Jim says. “Repeat that: Knees, elbows, wrists.”

I do this three-bend drill for about three minutes on an empty court, looking like a reject from community ballet. The kids playing next door are thoroughly confused as to what I’m doing. Then Jim allows me to hold a real basketball. He shows me how to use my left hand as a guide—not an accomplice, the way I used to do with my knuckleball shot. He has me lie down on a bench with the ball and practice spinning it off my fingertips in the air, getting that pretty backspin. Finally he brings me to the court and lets me start practicing on a real hoop. From two feet away.

“Larry Bird used to come out and shoot two- to three hundred of these before every game,” he says.

I surely look silly, but it’s working. The ball leaves my fingers with an elegant rotation, and more often than not it goes in. Jim asks me to step back another two feet and shoot some more. More swishes. I notice I’m getting those “shooter’s rolls,” too—those misfires where the spin is gentle enough that the ball rolls off the lip of the rim and into the hoop. It’s the beginnings of a touch.

Jim admits he doesn’t usually get clients like me. Mostly he teaches school-age kids. Adults don’t usually have the hours for daytime lessons, and when they get out of work, it’s easier to find a league or a pickup game. Over time, bad habits worsten. It’s rare that the freaks like me seek help.

But now I’m really starting to stroke it. I’m back at the foul line, and by Jim’s count I’m hitting somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of my shots—not quite Ray Allen, but a lot better than Shaquille O’Neal, whose lifetime free-throw percentage hovers around 50. Less than one hour of practice, and I’m already better at free throws than a guy who’s made more than $250 million playing ball.

“You’ll be teaching the lessons next year,” Jim says. Yes, I’m sure he says that to everybody.

On my way out of the gym, I’m hot and sweaty, so I buy a sports drink. As I gulp it down, I think about the art of shooting and how it’s never too late to master it, how even some pros could use a tutorial like this. I am renewed with enthusiasm for the NBA season, March Madness and basketball in general. Then I toss the empty bottle toward a trash can and miss by a mile.

Contributing writer JASON GAY switched to playing squash in high school, and he wasn’t any good at that, either.

BIG SHOTS

Basketball has evolved dramatically since the game was invented in 1891, thanks, in large part, to three legends and their signature shots.

“GRANNY SHOT” HOMER STONEBRAKER 1919

“SKY HOOK” KAREEM ABDUL- JABBAR 1969

“SPACE JAM” MICHAEL JORDAN 1984

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