In the waning minutes of a blowout victory Monday night, a largely unknown rookie unleashed a specific brand of momentousness. Making his National Basketball Association debut, Chinanu Onuaku of the Houston Rockets drew a shooting foul and stepped to the free throw line, typically the blandest portion of a game. Except Onuaku held the ball at his waist with both hands and hoisted the ball at the hoop in an underhand motion, his arms spreading apart.
Teammates cheered and pointed on the bench, stars made rapt during a walkover. What remained of the Toyota Center crowd erupted. They had witnessed the return of the “Granny-style” free throw, a relic unseen at the sport’s highest level in decades. Onuaku, a 6-foot-9 20-year-old from Upper Marlboro, Md., outside Washington, had broken a stigma, or at least shown he would not be the victim of one.
Despite evidence it can improve free throw shooting, especially for big men, the form has remained foreign from the NBA since Hall of Famer Rick Barry retired in 1980. Players uniformly resisted it, afraid of looking foolish, standing out as childish or unmanly. Or at least they had until Onuaku made his debut Monday night and made both free throws he attempted, shooting them underhand.
Barry himself had studied Onuaku since last year, when Onuaku switched to shooting underhand as a college sophomore. Barry appreciates Onuaku’s commitment to improve in the face of possible derision. The greatest Granny-style shooter of all time was less charitable about Onuaku’s form.
“I admire the fact he was willing to try something different,” Barry said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “Unfortunately, his technique leaves a lot to be desired.”
As a freshman at Louisville, Onuaku made 46.7 percent of his free throws. After the season, Louisville Coach Rick Pitino showed him video of Barry shooting underhanded and suggested he copy Barry’s technique. Onuaku debuted the form in Greece, while playing in an international under-19 tournament for Team USA, to snickering, bewildered teammates. When he returned to Louisville as a sophomore, his percentage rose to 58.9 percent.
“I don’t really care what people think,” Onuaku told Sports Illustrated last year. “I know they’re going to make fun of me. I just brush it off. It’s all about getting better.”
The Rockets selected Onuaku in the second round of June’s draft. He spent the season’s first two months with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Houston’s NBA Development League affiliate, where he has shot 67.4 percent from the foul line — more than a 20 percent leap from his freshman season.
Foul shots have vexed many of basketball’s greatest big men, most famously Wilt Chamberlain, who may have been the greatest. His best season came in 1961-62, at age 25, the one year he utilized the underhand technique. Chamberlain made 61.3 percent that season, including the night he sank 28 of 32 in his landmark 100-point game.
The next season, he went back to shooting overhand, with a form somewhere between a drunk throwing a dart and an overgrown child hurling a rock. He converted 51.1 percent of foul shots in his career and tried everything to become better at making them overhand, even visiting a psychiatrist for a month. “After I came out of it,” Chamberlain later joked, “the psychiatrist was a better free throw shooter than I was.”
But Chamberlain never reverted to the Granny-style form on a full-time basis. His reason? “I felt silly,” Chamberlain wrote in his autobiography. “Like a sissy.”
The sentiment persists. Opponents intentionally foul mammoth bricklayers such as DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard, believing they will effectively steal a possession once the targeted player misses two free throws.
Barry once tutored a poor NBA free throw shooter, whom he will not name, to shoot underhand free throws. “I had him shooting 80 to 90 in practice,” Barry said. “He never had the guts to do it when he went back to the team.”
Drummond is the Detroit Pistons’ best player, but his dismal, NBA-worst free throw percentage — 35.5 percent last year — sometimes causes coaches to pull him in late-game situations. This offseason, he vowed to try anything, including virtual reality training. And yet he has refused to attempt an underhand free throw.
“Everything was considered,” Pistons Coach Stan Van Gundy said. “He wasn’t as receptive. You don’t really like to do things guys aren’t receptive to.”
Barry resisted, too, when his father instructed him to use the form in high school. “I can’t do that,” he told him. “They’re going to make fun of me.” But he ultimately decided that results mattered more.
“My first time doing it, I was in Scotch Plains, N.J.,” Barry said. “I hear this guy in the stands yell, ‘Hey, Barry, you big sissy, why are you shooting like that?’ The guy next to him, I remember hearing him so clearly as if it was yesterday, says to him, ‘What are you making fun of him for? He doesn’t miss.’ That’s the bottom line. It’s not how you do it. It’s whether it goes in or not.”
In his professional career, Barry drained 89.3 percent of his free throws. He led the NBA in free throw percentage the last three seasons of his career, topping out at 94.7 in 1978-79. The NBA average this season is 76.6 percent.
One argument in favor of shooting underhand, compared with traditional overhand, is that it requires less movement and is therefore easier to repeat. There are physics behind the form as well. Shooting underhand creates a slower, softer shot, because a two-hand shot, gripped from the sides of the ball, allows a player to impart more spin than a shooter launching the ball forward with one hand. John Fontanella, a professor at the Naval Academy who wrote “The Physics of Basketball,” said most shots spin at two revolutions per second, but an underhand free throw will rotate three or four times per second. The additional backspin means more shots that bounce on the rim fall through.
“There’s something to be said for having a different shot for a different situation,” Fontanella said.
Friends of Barry have made an important point to him: Do you think maybe it’s not as easy for people who do not, like him, possess some of the purest shooting touch the sport has known? Van Gundy, the Pistons coach, worked as a counselor at one of Barry’s basketball camps in the late 1970s. One day, Barry challenged anyone present to a contest, and Van Gundy volunteered.
“What the hell, you know?” Van Gundy recalled Tuesday. “I was a good free throw shooter, even though I obviously wasn’t Rick Barry. So I go out there so we’re both 9 for 9. I make my 10th one, I’m shooting first, and he says, ‘Okay. Here’s what I’ll do. I’m going to shoot this next one blindfolded and with double the arc, and it’s got to go through nothing but net.’ If it doesn’t, I win, because he didn’t want to keep it going. So I think, This is great. So they blindfold him, and he shoots the ball, and it seems like it goes up to like where the ceiling was, and straight through. Straight through. And I was like, ‘All right. . . . If you can do that, I ain’t going to win, anyway.’ ”
And so perhaps Onuaku, nearing 70 percent, has used the form to approach his potential. Already, he has brought something back to the NBA.
“I was nervous as hell,” Onuaku told ESPN. “I’m just happy that I made them.”
Onuaku’s story does not have a happy ending, at least for now. The Rockets shipped him back to Rio Grande Valley before their game Tuesday against the Dallas Mavericks. Onuaku’s departure from the NBA will likely be temporary, but it will leave the league, again, without a player willing to sacrifice aesthetics for success at the foul line.
But there is another player out there. At Florida, graduate transfer Canyon Barry, Rick’s son, is making 85.7 percent of his foul shots using the underhand form his father taught him. Attending one game, Rick watched Canyon shoot a free throw and overheard a fan behind him say, “That’s embarrassing.”
“And why is it embarrassing?” Barry asked, turning around. “Isn’t the ball going in the basket?”
“Yeah,” the fan replied.
“Well,” Barry said, “what’s embarrassing about making your free throws?”
Tim Bontemps in Detroit contributed to this report.