My thrill of victory and agony of defeat

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As published in the Providence Journal, January 18, 2015.

In January 1973, a month shy of my 13th birthday, I won the Providence Recreation Department’s free throw shooting contest. At Zuccolo Rec Center on Federal Hill, I made 13 of my 15 attempts.

I was thrilled — and astonished.

From youth basketball through high school, I was a pass-first, shoot-second point guard. When I did get to the foul line, my accuracy hovered at 50 percent. The 87 percent I shot at Zuccolo to win the contest was an aberration.

Had a high-tech gizmo called 94Fifty Smart Basketball been around back then, my free throw shooting might have been less like Wilt Chamberlain’s notoriously ugly attempts.

Introduced in 2013, the 94Fifty promises skill improvement via digital diagnostics. As you practice dribbling and shooting, sensors inside the ball send data to your smartphone, where an app translates the information into immediate feedback: “Bend those legs.” “Point your elbow.” “Flick your wrist.”

(For teenage players, I would add, “Get a summer job.” The 94Fifty retails for $179.)

The makers of the 94Fifty say it’s “like having the best coaches in the world with you every day of the year.” That may be true, but the smart basketball is a far cry, literally, from the coaches who barked from the sidelines when I played. For that, you’d need Old School 94Fifty, which I imagine might sound like this:

After I dribble the ball off my foot: “Ringling Brothers is coming to town — why don’t you join?”

After I travel — run without dribbling — on a layup attempt: “Take a bus next time!”

After I throw an errant behind-the-back pass on a two-on-one fast break: “Quit hotdogging, mustard king!”

After I go 3-for-10 from the foul line during practice: “Are you a mason, son? You’re throwing bricks up there!”

Political correctness wasn’t a priority for my old-school coaches; winning was. That’s why I loved playing for them — I wanted to win too.

My coaches would have welcomed the 94Fifty’s smart technology for the improved shooting and dribbling technique that it promotes. But they didn’t always equate smarts, or even thinking, with success on the court. They knew better.

Basketball rewards quickness and improvisation. Split-second actions and reactions, rooted in practice scrimmages and pickup games, deliver advantage. Deliberation usually spells doom.

I recall one coach’s plea during a frantic timeout in a close game: “Don’t start thinking on me now!” We got his point: trust your instincts and just go play. There’s a reason the word “unconscious” describes a shooter who can’t miss.

In “The City Game,” Pete Axthelm characterizes basketball as jazz to baseball’s chamber music and football’s symphony: “Basketball flows past like a river, like a song.”

Until a foul is committed — then the river freezes, the song stops.

During free throws, basketball shares baseball’s focus on the individual. Success or failure is a solitary act, and a player’s thoughts can become the greatest foe. A hush comes over the gym as I bounce, bounce, bounce the ball and look to the rim …

Of all the coaching chestnuts I heard growing up, one is imprinted in my memory like the Voit logo on a ball: “Free throws win games.” To which I make the following amendment: “Or not.”

I know firsthand.

As a senior at La Salle Academy, I was awarded two free throws with 10 seconds or so remaining in an epic overtime game against archrival Bishop Hendricken. The score was tied as I stepped to the line and tried to quiet my mind. La Salle’s tiny old gym was electric.

My first shot felt awful, yet the ball dropped through the net. The basketball gods were with me — but only for that moment. My second attempt clanged off the rim and bounced out of bounds.

With our team up by one, the game came down to a frenzied scramble at the other end of the court. The ball sailed into the hands of Hendricken’s point guard — a pass-first player like me. But there was no time to pass — or think, for that matter.

His shot from the top of the key was all reaction and — as the scoreboard horn blared and red lights flashed — all net. The Hendricken fans exploded. What a buzzer beater!

If only I had hit my second free throw — we would have played another overtime, at least.

I can hear the 94Fifty Smart Basketball correcting my form on the missed foul shot: “Increase the arc.”

Old School 94Fifty would have been less clinical, more empathetic: “Tough time to throw up a brick, kid.”

 

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