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Oh, Shoot
A free-throw contest gives Gene that sinking feeling

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, March 4, 2007

Neither Dave Barry nor I recalls for sure when and where we first had this discussion, which is not surprising inasmuch as beer was involved. But it came down to my assertion that basketball free-throw shooting takes no particular athletic ability, followed by Dave's contention that I am an imbecile, followed by my declaration that if I took a year off and practiced all day, every day, I could then defeat the NBA's best free-throw shooter in head-to-head competition, followed by Dave's assessment that we definitely needed another beer.

(Ladies, you may wish to relocate to another section of the Magazine. Because it's only going to get worse over here.)

Most guys are familiar with this sort of idiotic sports debate, which tends to be lengthy and spirited, even though -- or possibly because -- it is not only un-resolvable, but insane. Could Pete Rose beat Annika Sorenstam in water polo? Would an all-Jewish hockey team defeat an all-Samoan one? Could Rudy Giuliani fight Thomas "The Hit Man" Hearns to a draw if Hearns wore a Darth Vader helmet and couldn't see?

Dave often revisits our free-throw conversation in the presence of others to demonstrate what an egomaniac I am. I respond that it is not about ego at all, that it is logical that, with exhaustive preparation, a moderately coordinated person who is good under pressure (ahem) can reach near-perfection in a physical skill requiring no extraordinary strength, speed, size or dexterity. We are not talking about threading eyes of needles -- we are talking about putting a ball that is 9.4 inches in diameter through a hoop that is 18 inches in diameter, from pretty close range, competing against players who don't focus only on that.

Then, a year ago, I got an e-mail from an author named Todd Gallagher. Through writerly channels, Todd had learned about my boast. He dared me to put up or shut up.

Todd was writing a book that empirically answers idiot sports bets like mine by actually staging them. The working title is Andy Roddick Beat Me With a Frying Pan, and, yes, Roddick really did beat him in a tennis match armed with a frying pan instead of a racket. The book is due out this summer.

If I did the training, Todd said, his publisher would hook me up with an NBA star for an official shootout.

It was definitely tempting: On the one hand, I would have to leave my job, endure a year of lonely, mind-numbing, repetitive, non-toning non-exercise at zero pay for some other guy's book. On the other hand, I could shut Dave up for good.

In the end, I declined. But I invited Todd to find a surrogate. He scoured the planet with his beguiling offer for endless drudgery culminating in no bucks and possible humiliation and finally came up with Jed Donahue, his editor at Crown Publishing.

So there I was one day last month at the practice court of the Washington Wizards, watching my proxy -- like me, Jed never plays basketball and can't even palm one -- compete against DeShawn Stevenson, the Wizards' starting shooting guard.

It was not exactly my stated scenario. DeShawn is hardly the best free-throw shooter in the NBA; he was chosen because Jed did not practice nonstop every day, all day, for a year -- he shot 100 free throws a day for three months. Jed's lack of elite training and DeShawn's lack of elite skill were supposed to cancel each other out.

My contention was that the trained amateur will win so long as he doesn't choke under pressure, a possibility I'd flatly ruled out in the case of me. Alas, right at the start, Jed began heaving bricks, missing eight of his first 10. But then he started bearing down. When it was over, he had drained 33 of 50 shots. DeShawn hit 35, though I must report that at the very end, when it was clear he had won, DeShawn began hot-dogging a little, trying for one-handed fadeaway jumpers off the glass and such.

If you think I have to admit I lost, you are not thinking like a real guy: Eliminate the choke factor, give the amateur a few more months' practice, and DeShawn or any other NBA big shot is toast. I proudly e-mailed the details of my stirring victory to Dave Barry, who wrote back:

"So, as I understand it, you are encouraged because a guy who practiced 'only three months' got beat by a mediocre NBA free-throw shooter who was not taking it seriously. Okay! My feeling is that you could practice for 10 years and still not beat a good NBA free-throw shooter who was trying, any more than you could practice pole vaulting for 10 years and beat a good pole vaulter. Also, you are -- let's not kid ourselves here -- a loser."

The debate lives on. Dave and I have resolved to discuss it further, over a beer.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com.

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