Adam Davidson: From Gimlet, I’m Adam Davidson and this is Surprisingly Awesome. I'd like to introduce my co-host, Adam McKay. He is a writer and director of some of the best Hollywood comedies of the last 10 years, I would say. Including Anchorman … the Anchormen? Anchorman 1 and 2, Talladega Nights. I will say my personal favorite is Step Brothers.
Adam McKay: And I am joined by Adam Davidson, Peabody Award-winning journalist specializing in finance, economics, does a monthly column in the New York Times, actually, and co-creator of Planet Money.
AD: The idea of this podcast is basically, we try and convince each other that something that seems like it would be really boring is actually incredibly awesome. Warning - I do say some bad words in this episode so if you’re listening with kids and you’d rather they not hear them, please listen later.
AM: So, I have a subject I think that you're gonna find, you know how people have subjects that are near and dear to their heart?
AM: I think this is gonna be boring and boring to your heart. Free throws. For anyone listening who doesn’t know that much about basketball, think of a penalty kick in soccer, and it’s the same thing only in basketball obviously a lot more points are scored. It’s one man, at a line, one to two shots, no one defending him, that’s a free throw.
AD: So, my interest meter is at zero. Free throw sounds about as boring as I can imagine something being. I mean, I've just never been good at sports, I've never played sports since high school, and I didn't do much of it in high school. Like, since I had a gym class.
AM: Why didn't you play sports? Any sports? I mean, 'cause like, I'm not great at sports, but I goof around, it's kinda fun. What was your wall for you not playing sports?
AD: Well, my wife says you can say anything about anyone as long as you say "God love 'em." So, I'm gonna start with, my dad, God love him, is a huge sports guy, and he played everything. He played basketball, baseball.
AD: But, tennis was, has been his big, big sport. I mean, he's played tennis probably nearly every day of my childhood, he would play tennis.
AD: And, I think I was seven, and they had, like, a summer camp, a free summer camp for kids. And so my dad got all excited and he got, I lived in this big building with lots of kids, and he got a bunch of friends and like, drove us over there. And my dad said, "well, I'll teach Adam. All the other kids go with the counselors, and I'll teach Adam." And, you know, I can't swear that it happened exactly like this. This is the emotional memory I have. Like, I remember holding a racquet that was way too big.
AD: And I feel like all the other kids had, like, kid-size racquets.
AM: Oh no. I don't like where this is headed.
AD: And my dad serving to me and, like, I just can't move the racquet. I can't get anywhere near the ball, and my dad just screaming at me, like, "You fucking idiot! What the fuck?". And my dad's a sweet guy. I feel bad even saying this, but. "Get the fucking ball!" And like, I remember feeling embarrassed that my friends are seeing this, I remember feeling horrified, I remember feeling like “oh I'm just not good at this.”
AM: The reaction you were getting was so extreme, right?
AD: It was so extreme! And I can remember just, like, “I'm out. I am out.”
AD: I have no interest in sports, at all.
AM: So it sounds to me like, given this horrible tennis lesson you had many, many years ago, that was then reinforced over and over again, we've gotta go straight at that trauma. There's only one way I'm gonna convince you of the beauty and simplicity, the drama, the pain, the history, the bizarreness of the free throw is, you are going to have to shoot a free throw.
[tape - Hoosiers]: “Forget about the crowds. Focus on the fundamentals. If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don't care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game. In my book, we're gonna be winners!"
AD: Look at these sneakers. How old would you guess those were? These are my white sports sneakers.
AM: He's wearing, uh, Adam is wearing jogging shoes, workout shoes. They look brand new, and they are how old?
AD: I would say about 10 years. There's literally no...
AM: That's impressive.
AD: Yeah. That is. Like, you could basically sell these as new.
AM: So, when is the last time you shot a basketball?
AD: I can't remember shooting one since, like, high school.
AM: So, conservatively 25 years, 30 years.
AD: Yeah. It's possible, I don't know, that I'm forgetting, but yes.
AM: Wow. Okay, so what we're gonna do is we're gonna start with just very basic, simple shots, just to kinda get loosened up. So we're gonna start right under the hoop and you're gonna just shoot, like, two-foot shots just to get used to it. Wow! You actually have decent form, by the way.
AM: Yeah, yeah. We'll just lazily start making our way back to the free throw line. Should one of us yell at you like your dad?
AD: See, you mentioned him when I had the worst shot.
AM: Yep! Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's clearly the trauma. There you go! That's sweet.
AD: I have to say, there is a psychological battle inside of me that's like, excited to hear I'm good, and then I feel like I'm 12 and, like, being judged.
AM: I say this to you with all due respect, but afterwards do you wanna get ice cream?
AD: With sprinkles?
AM: Nice, dude! Good. Don't rush! Alright so Adam, we have a little exercise for you here. So you've done quite well on the free throws. We're kinda blown away. Uh, you actually made a bunch. You looked really comfortable right away. If you kept doing this, you would start figuring it out even more, and I encourage you to. Now we want you to go back, and you don't have to do anything crazy, but just run at the hoop and dunk it.
AM: Exactly. So, the free throw that you did is the one thing that we all can do that the NBA does.
AM: We can't dunk, we can't hit three pointers with any consistency, we can hit one occasionally. You can't jump up in the air and, like, throw a shot into the stands off a guy who was trying to shoot.
AD: I can't go through two seven-foot guys and do a lay-up.
AM: Exactly. Like, we can't do that. But the free throw is the one thing all people can do. And we had talked about the fact that, like, when you're shooting free throws, you have that feeling of, like, "oh my God, my dad was so critical when I did it." That's how every NBA guy feels when they go to the line. They all have some crap in their head that they have to overcome. And the game is so fast and physical, all the rest of it, but suddenly it all stops at the free throw line and becomes this psychological moment of where the man has to, like, stare himself in the face. That's why free throws are secretly the strangest and most fascinating part of basketball. And we'll show you that next.
AM: So, lo and behold, you actually have a decent shot. We actually had flickers of enjoyment. So I'm gonna show you some of the great NBA players. These are some of the most dominant athletes to ever grace a basketball court, and I'm gonna show you their experiences with free throws.
AM: So, he just did a double clutch airball.
AD: Like, that's bad for me!
AM: That's DeAndre Jordan doing an air ball.
AD: Whoa! Like, I was at least hitting the net!
AM: Horrible misses from wealthy, skilled NBA stars.
AM: So, who's the one basketball player in the world that you know? I know you don't follow sports.
AD: LeBron James.
AM: So, LeBron James, I think without argument most people would agree, one of the top 12 players of all time, has a chance to maybe be the best player of all time. He's kinda chasing that title right now. So here is LeBron James at the free throw line.
AD: Wow! Not even close! Total air ball.
AM: A bunch of 'em. He's done it numerous times.
AD: Wow. I mean, I can honestly say I did better.
AM: Without a doubt! Yeah, you actually hit a couple that, like, you had perfect form on, that swished. So in that moment that you shot that free throw, you did something better than LeBron James did in another moment.
AM: It's crazy, right?
AD: It is crazy.
AD: I mean, I have to say, like, this feeling of like, that the things that I hate about sports are actually, like, the raw emotion, are actually something that can bring me to at least be a little interested. Like, I enjoyed watching that. I enjoyed watching those clips of players. And it wasn't just 'cause they were failing and it was, like, funny bloopers. It was, like, I felt, like, the emotional intensity of those moments. I felt empathy. Like, that was probably the most I've enjoyed sports that I can remember.
AM: [laughing] I feel like we're in the middle of the woods, blowing on an ember and we've just seen it start to catch. 'Cause what you just described, in very eloquent, very thoughtful terms, that's being a sports fan.
AM: But, uh, to really go to the top of the mountain, I think you have to meet the greatest free throw shooter of all time. And, uh, I would like to introduce you to him right now. He's not gonna walk in. He's on tape.
Ted St. Martin: I was about nine years old, and I was at the neighbor's house, and they had a basketball goal with a potato sack as the net. And I got under the basket and could just barely get it up to the rim, and when I made one, it was such a thrill that that got me interested in basketball. And eventually, my brother, my older brother, put up a rim and basketball goal in our yard.
AM: So, alright, so Ted St. Martin, he's the best. He's the most in a row ever, in the history of basketball. What is the official free throw record that you set? How many in a row?
AM: I can’t even comprehend that. And this took, we looked it up, it took over seven hours?
TM: Seven hours and 20 minutes, yes.
AM: How crazy is that?
AD: He continuously shot free throws for seven hours?
AM: For over seven hours.
AD: Without missing!
AM: He wasn't planning on doing it. He had already set the world record and was at some shooting clinic, 'cause he kind of does shows and he, like, you know, teaches a little bit. And the people at the clinic were like, "why don't you shoot until you miss?" And he's like, “alright,” and he started goofing around and he shot for over seven hours. But, there's a few other surprising things about him. How old were you when you broke this record?
TM: Well, let's see, I think I was 66, I believe.
AM: Have you ever played professional basketball?
TM: No, no.
AM: Did you ever play college basketball?
TM: No, never did. I played high school. That was the top level that I actually played. I played on the second team, or the B-squad as they called it, in Selah, Washington, which is in the Yakima Valley.
AM: How do you possibly make the jump from going from being a good high school, good city league player, to becoming the all-time greatest free throw shooter?
TM: Well, I credit the discipline and the ability to concentrate to dairy farming.
AM: This guy is a dairy farmer.
AD: That is crazy!
AM: I know. And then, he claims that one of the reasons he's such a great free throw shooter is because the discipline and focus of being a dairy farmer.
TM: I dairy farmed for many years, milking cows seven days a week, many hours a day in the cold weather up in Washington State. So I would get up at all hours of the night. If there was one that I thought was ready to have a calf, I'd go down to the dairy and make sure she was alright and if she needed help delivering the calf, I would do that. Other than that, I would get up at early hours and set the machinery up, ready to milk the cows, go out in the pasture and drive them into the corral. I actually did artificial insemination on many, many different dairies because I was good at it and, uh, did a lot of, even though I'm not a veterinarian, I did a lot of pregnancy checking and that type of thing. But, uh, I think the hours that I had to put in, early hours, getting up at any time of the night, really helped me as far as discipline to stand there and concentrate without being distracted by anything.
AD: That's amazing. Waking up at 3 in the morning to inseminate a cow or get a calf out of a calf or, wow.
AM: Alright. So Ted St. Martin, he's the best. He's made the most in a row, ever in the history of basketball.
AD: At this. If he played one on one with Michael Jordan, he would lose every time.
AM: He would lose every time. But at free throws, he is the best free throw shooter. So, that's why the free throw is so fascinating, because you have this dairy farmer making 5500 free throws in a row, and then you have LeBron James throwing an air ball. Like, how can that be?
AD: Coming up after the break: How a 90’s pop song makes 20,000 screaming people disappear.
AD: Welcome back to Surprisingly Awesome from Gimlet, I’m Adam Davidson
AM: And I’m Adam McKay. So, let me ask the primary question here. What percentage do you think, going either way, of free throwing is physical and what percentage is mental?
Ed Palubinskas: Uh, I say it's 90 mental, 10 physical.
AM: So, this is Ed Palubinskas, who is the guru of free throw shooting. You've climbed through the woods, you've climbed through the mountain, you've fought off ninjas, you've kicked in the door, you opened up the holy book to find out what the answer was, there was a mirror, you were able to deal with that, and then you go to the back room and this guy is sitting there.
AD: Ed Palubinskas.
EP: For example, Brandon Bass is one of my students and he's the Celtics. He came to me at 68 percent and he is now the all-time leader in Celtic history from the free throw line in NBA playoffs. He's at 93.1 percent. Brandon Bass, right now, we'll go out today and he'll shoot 96, 97 percent every day.
AM: So, Ed Palubinskas has worked with Shaquille O'Neal, he is the free throw doctor for the NBA, he's worked with everyone. No one has broken down the action of a free throw more than this man. He knows every millisecond, every bone in your hand, every muscle. And, you know, the big thing with him is, like, what you talked about, with your dad on the tennis court. That people have emotions associated with this silly action of shooting a free throw. And that's the first thing he's gotta get into, and that's the first thing he did with Shaquille O'Neal when he worked with him.
EP: Well, Shaq's problem was he was so abused throughout his youth, in other words, as a player, you know, like, you go to the games and people scream from the stand, "You suck! Shaq, you can't shoot!" And, you know, all these expletives and all that kinda stuff and so you shy away from that. That's like me hitting my dog every time I come home. Every time I come home, the dog's not gonna wanna be near me because it's gonna get beat up. And so he was abused mentally, okay? So he never wanted to approach that, you know, like water fills every crevice. If you flood a house, it's gonna fill every nook and cranny. Your thoughts are the same way.
AM: So picture Shaquille O'Neal. He's seven feet tall, he's in high school, every girl's into him, every guy thinks he's awesome. He's dunking, he's the number one high school player in the land, his teachers love him, his parents love him. Except when he goes to the free throw line. When he feels like the biggest dork in the world and he's throwing air balls and people are laughing at him, and even though he scored 58 points in the game, the next day in the hallway, kids are making cracks at him like, "Wassup man? Can't make the free throws?" And this dogged him his entire career. So he was so traumatized by this, Shaquille O'Neal, and all the negative feedback he got, that the way Ed Palubinksas had to deal with this was he taught him to shoot with his eyes closed.
AM: For real. Yeah, check this out.
EP: Shaq made 60 percent with his eyes closed, in front of Phil Jackson, because we completely took his eyes out of the game and we worked on the spatial relationship between him, hand, mechanics, basket, and muscle memory.
AM: So you just literally had him close his eyes?
EP: Oh yes.
AM: So when Shaq had his eyes open, he was too focused on the opinions of others, the results of his actions?
EP: Yes, initially. That's correct, initially. When players have their eyes open, they're thinking of the product, "I hope I make it". As a man thinketh, so is he.
AD: And what is, what kinda doctor is he? Do you know?
AM: He is, yeah, I don't think in any way a doctor. I don't think he has a phD. Yeah, he's just called the Free Throw Doctor.
AD: Oh, I see. Okay, gotcha. He's not a kinesthesiologist or a psychologist, okay. And so they, like, he'll work, I mean, he'll do the physical but then the main thing is figuring out your mental block?
AM: Both. He wants you to give up the mental to only focus on the physical. He wants you to only be thinking about the physical actions you have to be taking and to completely get away from past pain, results, none of that plays. Even thinking, like he doesn't even like positive visualization. He doesn't even want you thinking, "I'm gonna make this", 'cause that's not focused on the action. But, you know, the Shaquille O'Neal thing is really extreme. The poor guy, you know, was really tortured by it for a long time. Even the great shooters, though, Dirk Nowitzki, one of the great shooters of all time, missed a key free throw in a championship series that cost his team, essentially, a championship.
Dirk Nowitzki: Yeah, you know, that's a tough memory you're bringing up, I appreciate it. But, uh, in the '06 finals, um, that actually was the series we lost to Miami, in one of the games, I think it was game three, we were down two with a couple seconds to go.
Announcer: Alright, made the first free throw. Dallas, down by one. Second free throw to even it up, it's no good! Dwayne Wade with the rebound!
DN: And I made the first one and I think I was maybe a little bit too sure of it, and I clanked the second one and we ended up losing that game three, and then we ended up losing the entire series. So, that was one free throw that I will always remember for the rest of my life.
Announcer: Dirk Nowitzki lamenting the fact that he missed that free throw.
AM: I don't think there's anyone that follows the NBA that would disagree with the fact that Dirk Nowitzki is one of the, probably, six best shooters ever. I mean, he is a fantastic shooter. And he's a career 88, 89, 90 percent free throw shooter. He is amazing at free throws, and he missed the free throw that lost a pivotal championship game that ended up costing them the series. And even though they won a series too, he has a championship ring, you can tell from his voice, like...
AD: Oh no, you felt that, yeah.
AM: Um, so yeah, Dirk was really interesting and Dirk, you know, who's a guy who's really studied the science of shooting, we asked him about how he approaches free throws, mentally, what kinds of tricks he uses, and he had a really interesting, bizarre routine that he sometimes uses.
DN: You know, I got this coach of mine who I met when I was like 15, 16, and we always work on my shot, and his idea one time when I missed a couple pressure free throws a while back and he said, "I think you're a little too tense, you're trying to focus too much. Why don't you try singing a song at the line?" And I looked at him like he was out of his mind. So then I actually did try it sometimes and it worked, I mean, it's just, you know, so you don't completely freeze up at the line. You do wanna concentrate but you don't wanna completely be frozen, so sometimes, you know, in big pressure situations I sing a little song in my head or whatever comes in my mind that day. And that helps usually relax a little bit and hopefully make the free throws.
AM: Is there one song that you probably sing more than any other song?
DN: You know, I haven't done it in a few years now, since obviously I got my routine and I'm usually pretty good at the free throw line, so that was more when I was a younger player. That helped me to relax a little bit. Um, Counting Crows' “Mr. Jones.” I don't know why that song but I love that song, I still love that song. And that song just always came in my mind, so I was always saying [singing], "Mr. Jones and Me,” so, uh, I was singing that at the line and then I was knocking 'em down. [singing] "I was down in New Amsterdam, and this yellow hat girl, Mr. Jones strikes up a conversation with a black haired flamenco dancer …” The rest I kinda forgot a little bit, but that's kinda the gist of it.
AD: That is awesome. And it's such a human, like, yeah.
AM: So not only do these players have all these rituals like Dirk singing a song and Jason Kidd putting his hand out before he shoots, and these guys all have these tricks, but the fans have rituals they do too to try and distract the shooter. And this is one of the really common ones, uh, is, when you're at the free throw line, the whole crowd behind you will actually wave your head. So you will see people...
AD: [laughing] What?! Oh my God, that is so upsetting! That's just a giant a cutout on foam board of my head.
AM: Yeah, it is really upsetting. It's a Fathead of Adam Davidson.
AD: A Fathead's a thing?
AM: A Fathead is a real thing. That is an actual brand name. And you'll see these in all the arenas. They'll have the players heads and they wave 'em around. And they also have, like, these inflatable, like, French fries, they whack together too, and you'll see, like, when the guy's shooting, they'll be waving...
AD: [laughing] That is... Stop, stop! Oh my God. It is so disturbing and distracting, and it's making me feel like a seven-year-old little boy. Oh my God, like, it is so upsetting.
AM: And anyone who's watched NBA or college games, you see these all the time in the stands.
AD: I mean, that is so evilly brilliant! It would not, if you had asked me, what would be the most distracting thing you could do, I don't think I ever would've come up with a, like, huge foam board cutout of my head. But now that I see it, it is the most distracting thing. Literally the single most distracting thing.
AM: It's really distracting, yeah. And if it was one of me, it would really distract me too. Like, it's, no one wants to see their head depicted in such a manner.
AD: No. That is awful.
AM: Um, will you please terrify your wife with it? Please? Will you hang it right over your bed and act like...
AD: [laughing] Wow!
AM: So, seems like you got interested. I mean...
AD: Alright, let me summarize. Before I came in, sports felt like one undifferentiated mass of stuff that I just didn't care about.
AD: So, certain, like little thought bubbles come out, like, it's stupid jingoism about your home team, it's this arbitrary something where people yell about numbers. Who cares? And then, the specifics of free throws, that just felt like particularly, like, just arbitrary. Like, why would you, that just seems like the most boring part of a boring thing. And so, it just felt like this other thing, this thing that has nothing to do with me. I think I thought, like, my fear and bad memories and insecurities took me away from basketball. But I think, you said something on the court, which was, "That's what everybody has when they are on the free throw line." And it, just the way you said it, I was like, oh. Like, I'm way over here, lonely and alone and all those other people are great at sports. Like, the free throw is where we all meet. Like, the tools you need for dealing with the free throw are the tools you need for dealing with life.
AM: No doubt about it.
AD: So I feel like, here's what I feel like. A) Totally enjoyed this! Way more than I thought. Like really interesting.
AM: That's great!
AD: Two) if a basketball game was on and there was someone at the free throw line, I'm not sure that, like, I would watch the rest of the game, but I'll definitely stop and watch and be interested. I'd kinda wanna see that.
AM: I will take that. I will take that as a big victory.
AM: So, it's a day later after we did free throws, and you've just told me something that's blown my mind.
AD: Yeah. I genuinely thought you could not do basketball. Like, I really thought, like, oh shoot, am I gonna have to just force it? To say it changed my life, I think that's legitimate! It changed my life. I was talking to my wife and I was like, I have been walking around with a self-conception that's wrong. And I've been thinking about who I am in a wrong way.
AD: And I started feeling excited about, like, it's 'cause I have a kid now, so thinking, like, oh I can be, and that felt very exciting, like moving. Like, tears-in-my-eyes moving. Like, I can be a different kinda dad today than I could've been two days ago.
AM: If you end up, as a result of finding the joy of the simple activity of shooting a free throw, if you end up eight or nine times for Ash's, your son's, childhood, shooting hoops with him, that may be the most beautiful change I have ever brought on the planet earth. Like, there's nothing else I've done, like my wife and I really made a decision to start recycling bags when we went to the supermarket, like, you know, I taught my daughters how to ride a bike, but a father and son brought together under the joy of shooting?
AD: Like, that is the change. Like, right now I can picture myself doing that.
AM: [singing] "Summer breeze, makes me feel fine. Blowin' through the jasmine of my mind." C'mon Ash, you can do it!
AD: Can you catch it? [laughing]
Ash: I did it!
AD: You did it! You kicked it! Yeah, that was great, Ash!
AD: That’s it for this episode of Surprisingly Awesome. This episode was produced by Alex Kapelman, Alex Blumberg and Robyn Wholey. Our theme song is by the great Nicholas Britell. The Reverend John DeLore mixed the episode. He also wrote and performed music for this episode along with his bandmates, Jordan Scanella, Sam Merrick and Isamu McGregor. Surprisingly Awesome is a production of Gimlet Media.
AD: We’ll be back in two weeks with another episode. Go to gimletmedia.com/awesome to see a picture of my actual fat head next to the cut out Fathead that McKay made.
-- ad break --
AD: I’m Adam Davidson.
AM: I’ Adam McKay.
AD: And this has been Surprisingly Awesome.