22/04/2024 2:29 AM

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Adorn your Feelings

Why Rick Barry’s unique free throws are still an art form for Warriors

6 min read

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SAN FRANCISCO – Standing in a hallway deep inside Chase Center recently, Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams impulsively winced and slapped his hands together – a reaction you might also see if a Warrior defender allows an easy layup off a backdoor cut. Less than 10 feet away from Adams, Warriors announcer Jim Barnett was simultaneously letting out an audible, exasperated sigh.

It needn’t be a game night for these two NBA veterans to recognize a missed opportunity when it comes to the game they love.

On this day, they had just finished an hour-long taping of the team’s in-house film production in which they shared stories and stats of Warriors legends depicted on the Adobe Art Walk, a series of paintings and photographs adorning the walls of the 2½-year-old building. But after spinning tales about the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond, Paul Arizin and Rick Barry, both Adams and Barnett spotted one particular painting they wished they had noticed five minutes earlier, before their microphones were peeled off as the last act of the film crew’s departure.

The overlooked artwork featured Barry, one of the NBA’s greatest yet most enigmatic players of all time, preparing to shoot one of his patented (and panned) underhanded free throws. A portrait of a double-edged lightning rod, if you will.

Adams and Barnett, though, merely wished they could have focused on the impact of Barry’s unorthodox style – and overwhelming success — at the line while the cameras were still there and rolling.

“We should have covered (Barry’s) free throws,” Adams moaned. “I should have turned around and seen that. I had a great story to tell about my dad.”

Without hesitation, the 74-year-old Adams shared with Barnett and a couple others still gathered inside Chase about growing up loving basketball in tiny Laton, California, about 25 miles southeast of Fresno, in between highways 99 and 41. When Adams started playing as a kid, he’d religiously shoot baskets each night in his family’s yard. His evening sessions always ended with him shooting at least 100 free throws. Soon, his father, who had never played basketball in his life, wanted to hang out with his son and put up his own shots.

“So I taught him to shoot free throws underhand,” Adams said. “And he got to the point, my dad, a little Swiss man who never played, could make 80 out of 100 on any given night. It was amazing. When I think of him doing that … ”

Barnett, the longtime Warriors analyst who remains friends with the sometimes prickly Barry decades after their days as Golden State teammates, regretted not being able to tell his own underhanded free throw story in front of the cameras.

“I should have thought of Rick’s free throws, too, because George Johnson, who couldn’t shoot free throws, worked with Rick and began shooting underhanded,” Barnett said of the former Warriors backup center on their first championship team.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 15: Former Golden State Warriors player and popular broadcaster Jim Barnett and Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams tape an interview discussing a painting of Wilt Chamberlain in the team’s art collection at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Johnson’s transformation was astonishing. He went from making 41.2 percent of his free throws as a rookie while using a conventional style to shooting 81 percent from the line at the end of his career while using the “granny shot.” Despite Johnson’s success, it’s now been 36 years since he retired and there’s little surprise he remains the last regular rotation player to shoot all of his free throws underhanded.

After all, image is still everything in the league.

“Guys would rather shoot 60 percent than 80 percent while shooting underhand because they think it looks stupid,” said the 77-year-old Barnett.

Or, worse yet, says Adams, “If they (shot underhand), they’d be called out on social media or something.”

Adams is now in his 27th year as an assistant coach in the NBA and his eighth alongside head coach Steve Kerr with the Warriors. He’s long been lauded as one of the best, if not the very best, assistant coach in the league. So when he says the underhanded free throw could make a drastic difference for NBA players, it’s at least worth pondering.

“I guarantee you with our team, you could have a free-throw shooting contest and you could make up a rule where every one of you has to shoot underhand,” Adams said. “You could chart their percentage and I’m gonna guarantee you, after never doing it that way, if you do enough reps everyone is going to be making a high percentage. I guarantee you.

“It’s hard to screw it up because the ball goes up there so softly, it hits on the rim and it will roll in in a way that your conventional shot won’t always do.”

When someone told Adams maybe he should suggest an underhanded approach to any player who struggles at the line, he laughed it off. While Adams can appreciate some old-school tactics, he still has a clear understanding of what makes today’s players tick.

“I’m dumb … but I’m not that dumb,” he said.

Yet there’s no debating the success associated with the granny-style free throw. From Barry converting a then-career record 90 percent when he retired, to Chamberlain sinking a single-game record 28 free throws on the night of his astounding 100-point game in 1962, the only season Wilt shot his free throws underhanded.

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