Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Coach and the Granny Shot

Les Hipple was the most studious of mentors, attending basketball and football coaching clinics every year, bringing home notebooks filled with meticulous diagrams and captions on the latest thinking on team sports.

Although he followed developments closely, he often chose not to adopt them for this own teams, sticking with techniques, plays, and formations that had proven their worth over the years.

He insisted, for example, that his players shoot free throws the old-fashioned way, with two hands in an underhand motion. He taught his boys to dip the ball between their knees and bring it up with the arms relaxed, letting the ball slide off their fingers with almost no wrist action. A dead ball was more likely to get a favorable bounce than a spinning one.

Some people called it the "granny shot," and it began to go out of style in the late 1940s. By the late 1950s the Marion Indians were essentially alone in their adherence to the underhand free throw. All their opponents were using the one-handed overhand form.

(Perhaps the last notable user of the underhand form was NBA star Rick Barry, who for many years held the career record for accuracy: .900. Barry said he shot free throws that way because the motion was simpler, involving essentially the shoulders, while shooting overhand required coordinated movements of the shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers--movements that could be easily compromised by fatigue or tension.)

One day in the late 1950s, some Marion players, no doubt tired of being razzed by opponents, gathered the courage to challenge Hipple's orders, claiming they could do better from the free throw line shooting overhand.

"All right, let's see you do it," Hipple replied. To add reality to the test, recalled Mike Smith, a player that year, the coach made them run and do calisthenics for most of the practice.

Then, when the boys were nearly exhausted, he sent them to the free throw line, telling them to shoot overhand first, then to shoot his way. When the results came in, "they weren't even close," Smith said. The granny shot won easily.

A few years later, school authorities, tired of hearing complaints from parents, overruled the coach, ordering him to allow his teams to shoot overhand. Relenting, he said, "They won't make as many." He probably was right.

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