Fourteen years ago, on his 28th birthday, Shaquille O’Neal scored 61 points against the Los Angeles Clippers.
It was the highest scoring game of his career and the most points scored in a single NBA game since Karl Malone scored 61 points 10 years earlier. O’Neal scored many of those points the way he scored most of his points, by using his mammoth frame to toss aside defenders and clear a path to the basket like an ice-breaker parting frozen sea.
After the game, a win for the Lakers, the then-Clippers head coach, Jim Todd, said, "We tried to do everything to slow him down, but we just had a tough going against him. We started to double-team him, but he had good position down low. So then we started to foul him, but he kept on making his free throws."
That part, the free-throw making, was unusual.
O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain are the only two players in NBA history to miss more than 5,000 free throws. Entire defensive strategies were built around fouling O’Neal before he caught the ball. Whenever he received the ball near the rim he would score—it was inevitable—but put him on the free-throw line and you gave yourself about a 50-50 chance of stopping him.
"When you’re at the free-throw line, you know for several seconds that you’re going to be shooting a free throw. It’s the one time in the game when everyone is watching you and watching what you’re doing. It becomes a state of paralysis by analysis."
O’Neal was a physical oddity: on one possession nimble enough to push the ball up court on a fast break, zipping around defenders, and powerful enough to tear a basket from its moorings on the next. But for all his accomplishments in the flow of the game, O’Neal’s poor free-throw shooting became a defining trait and a long-running joke.
He would launch torpedoes from his hands that would careen high off the rim, or shoot the ball so softly it would miss everything, falling short of the basket or hooking to the left or right as if he were throwing a curveball.
The misses were made all the more puzzling because of how good he was at everything else. How can an athlete, so dominant in most every aspect of the game, fail to complete one of the simplest tasks on a basketball court, making an uncontested 15-foot shot?
IF YOU LOOK AT a list of the worst free-throw shooters in NBA history, almost all of them have one thing in common: they’re tall and play near the basket. After O’Neal and Chamberlain, there’s Dwight Howard, Chris Dudley, Kwame Brown, and Emeka Okafor, all of whom are close to seven-feet tall. Then there’s Ben Wallace and Dennis Rodman, both more than a couple of inches short of the seven-foot mark, but both players who made a living on the low post, grabbing rebounds against all the other names mentioned here.
Dale Brown, O’Neal’s head coach from his college days at Louisiana State University, blamed O'Neal's inaccuracy on his massive hands, which stretched 11 inches from his wrist to the tip of his middle finger.
In an interview on ESPN’s now-defunct Up Close, Brown said that O’Neal’s hands prevented him from being able to shoot the ball with proper rotation or arc and likened it to an average-sized human trying to shoot a grapefruit. But other big men, with equally large hands, managed to avoid such troubles.
Yao Ming, whose hands measured in at 10 inches, shot 83 percent from the foul line over his career. Ben Wallace, who averaged 41 percent for his 16-year career, the worst percentage of all time, was relatively small for a big man (6’9”), and his hands were barely large enough to palm a basketball.
Dr. Kevin Burke, professor of sport psychology at Queens University of Charlotte and the co-author, along with Brown, of Sport Psychology Library: Basketball, says that typically when players struggle to shoot free throws it’s because the game suddenly shifts from reactionary to cogitative.
“When you’re at the free-throw line, you know for several seconds that you’re going to be shooting a free throw,” he says. “It’s the one time in the game when everyone is watching you and watching what you’re doing. It becomes a state of paralysis by analysis.”
To counter this, players are coached to develop a mantra moment, a cue word that they repeat, such as “rim” or “basket,” to still their mind and sharpen their focus. “It keeps them from thinking, ‘I hope I make this one’ or ‘I hope I don't get yanked out of the game if I miss,’" Burke says. People who've lost their confidence tend to overanalyze everything they're doing and the obstacle becomes quieting the mind.”
When a shooter steps to the free throw line, despite the relative simplicity of the task, their skills, refined over tens of thousands of hours of repetition, can disappear in the pressure cooker of the moment.
Many players, like Dwight Howard, who last year shot 54 percent from the foul line, are tremendous practice shooters, but when a full stadium is bearing down on them, everything changes.
"In practice, I don't think about what I do when I'm at the free-throw line and I make them," Howard explained to CBS Sports. "In the game, I'm thinking so much that when I start missing, I start thinking about missing again—or if I miss, what people are going to say."
Howard’s struggles with criticism have been well documented, but O’Neal rarely appeared concerned with his detractors; he was more likely to jab back than to regress under the weight of their words. O’Neal’s image was built on his larger-than-life persona and his ensuing affability. His inability to shoot free throws became part of that.
He missed with such gusto, such ferocity, that the rim would rattle and shake like a door stop being flung by a cat. It became endearing. O’Neal made a spectacle of missing.
“Shaq seemed to have the right attitude,” Burke says, “but when you have no confidence when you go to the free-throw line it’s a downward spiral. You’re not expected to be a good free-throw shooter, so you don’t expect it of yourself. With Shaq in particular, it got to the point that no one expected him to shoot well. He had no reason to have confidence.”
But he wasn't afraid of the attention.
O’Neal was so skilled in other aspects of the game that the free throws seemed unimportant. It didn’t really matter that he missed them because it was likely the next trip down the court he would lumber toward the basket for an easy dunk.
His oft-told adage of “making them when they count,” is telling about his attitude toward free throws in general. For O’Neal, they didn’t matter until the game had reached a critical moment, until it demanded that they be made.
THE NBA'S BIG MEN don’t make a living shooting free throws; they are on the court to corral loose rebounds and block shots and protect the basket and anchor defenses. In many ways, free throws are the opposite of everything they represent—they aren't powerful or impressive or exciting. Free throws are essential, but they’re also easy to ignore.
Golfing great Fuzzy Zoeller was known for chatting with spectators while walking up to his approach shot and to sing and whistle on the course. He would take his head out of the game, momentarily, before slipping back into a state of acute awareness. Without a concentration break, his mind would wander, squeezed and tired.
For O’Neal and others, maybe their concentration break came at the foul line. Maybe it was easier to neglect the free throws, and overshadow the misses with the other duties of a being a big man.
Athletes are often celebrated for their strength, both physical and mental. The NBA’s big men, just due to their size, become monoliths, embodiments of raw, physical power. Their misses make them human. Their ability to overcome them is part of what makes them great.