Easy buckets: It’s called a free throw because it’s free points

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Alexa Sandler | The DePaulia

When James Naismith invented the game of basketball in 1891, there were just 13 simple rules. Among them, there was nothing that resembled the free throw of today. Rule no. 7 stated that “If either side makes consecutive fouls, it shall count a goal for the opponents.” Other than that, it took a few years for the framework of the free throw seen today to be established.

At first, every basket was one point for the scoring team. By that metric, allowing one point for a foul was too severe of a penalty. The rules were adjusted so that all baskets were worth two points and the fouls were worth one point.

The first edition of the free throw was introduced in the form of a 20-foot shot that would end up being worth the same as a field goal. In 1896, the free throw was moved to 15 feet and was worth one point to a normal field goal’s two points. From there, no scoring was changed until the introduction of the three-point line in different levels of basketball through the mid-1900s.

Teams were originally allowed to choose which player to send to the line, which was changed, as the point essentially became automatic. From 1924 on, the player that got fouled had to shoot the corresponding free throws. Since then, it’s been a 95-year unchanged relationship between fans, players and the free-throw line.

Throughout those rules, the free throw has spent its time in the spotlight in all levels of basketball. From Nick Anderson’s four missed free throws at the end of game one of the 1995 NBA Finals to Andre Drummond going 13-for-36 in one game, the free throw has defined its own little corner in basketball history.

Free throws can end up ruining careers, creating success stories and making a real difference in the outcomes of games.

It’s kind of like a field goal in football dilemma. How can games be decided by a play that isn’t a part of the normal flow of the game? Many criticized the rule for this very reason. Naismith, in his book titled “Basketball: Its Origin and Development,” stated: “I have often overheard some spectators express the opinion that a game was won by free throws. I have always taken the attitude that the game was lost by fouls.”

Overall, free throws don’t change outcomes of games based on volume that often. Games that come down to shooting free throws are a different matter.

Outside of games, the free throw represents a great appreciation of form and repetition. There’s a reason the Guinness World Record holder is Tom Amberry, the late foot surgeon who made 2,750 consecutive shots in 1993 at the age of 71. For over 12 hours, Amberry shot free throws in a California gym without missing. Amberry also gave pointers to the Chicago Bulls on free-throw shooting.

Free throws define players. Shaquille O’Neal was beaten up so badly during his career because teams knew sending him to the line was an easy way to get the ball back, as the dominant center shot just 52.7 percent from the line in his career.

Nick Anderson’s legacy is largely defined by his mistake. Four missed free throws in game 1 of the 1995 finals could have clinched a win for his Orlando Magic, but the Houston Rockets were able to get back in the game after his blunder, swinging the series quickly in their favor.

1975 NBA champion Rick Barry is partially known and beloved for his persistence in developing the underhand ‘granny’ shot that may lead to a better percentage. Usually, underhand free throws aren’t attempted because the technique makes  you look like you can’t play basketball. According to MLive.com, Barry offered to coach Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond, who shot under 40 percent from the line in four of his first five seasons, and Drummond wasn’t quite receptive to that.

There’s certain showmanship to shooting free throws. On Nov. 23, 1991, Michael Jordan attempted a free throw with his eyes closed, mocking Denver Nuggets’ star Dikembe Mutombo by saying “this one is for you Mutumbo,” before drilling a shot while blind.

Free throw routines are the time for players to shine. Routines can range from flashy to simple to bizarre.  Steve Nash, one of the best free throw shooters of all time, would just dribble three times, look at his hand, and crouch and release. Karl Malone, who attempted the most free throws in NBA history, would take nine seconds for each shot, exhausting everyone involved.

Sometimes, free throws are weird. On Dec. 4, 2019, the DePaul Blue Demons played the Texas Tech Red Raiders at Wintrust Arena. Late in the game with a chance to go up by four points, Tech guard Davide Moretti was up at the line. A little graphic on the FS1 broadcast popped up documenting how he hadn’t missed a free throw since March. Next thing you know, he missed the free throw and Tech lost in overtime.

Today, NBA players like James Harden and Luka Dončić orient their playstyles around getting to the line. A popular play in today’s world of basketball is to hook a defender’s arm and go up for a shot that gets called for an easy foul. Harden has led the league in free throw attempts for the past four years. In the past, centers were intentionally fouled. Now, guards like Dončić and Harden try their best to draw those fouls.

Perhaps the most culturally relevant free throw story is Rasheed Wallace’s “ball don’t lie” campaign. Simply, if something is called a foul that really isn’t, the free throw going in or not will determine the validity of the call. The ball really never lies.

Free Throw Numbers:

Worst Free Throw Percentage

Ben Wallace at 41.4 percent

Best Free Throw Percentage

Steph Curry at 90.5 percent

Average NBA Free Throw Percentage

2019-2020 season at 76.9 percent

2019-2020 DePaul Free Throw Percentage

65.7 percent