The Orlando arena was electric. The Magic, having lost their first home game against the Boston Celtics, were in a must-win situation. To lose the first two games of a playoff series at home is almost certain death, but they had fought back from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to take a one-point lead. Now they were down by three with 31 seconds to go. One of their stars, Vince Carter, was on the line to shoot two foul shots.
He missed them both. The Magic went on to lose.
Who understands the psychology of foul shots? A player who can drain a contested off-balance nothing-but-net three pointer and then miss a shot where everyone is standing around watching.
Perhaps there’s too much time to think. Shaquille O’Neal, one of the great all-time centers, could hit foul shots during practice but not during games. As a result teams played “hack-a-shaq” whenever he had the ball close to the basket. In his glory days he never missed from the paint but was usually under 50% from the stripe.
Apparently they even have a name for it. Shaqnopsis is “a psychological condition that temporarily renders a basketball player incapable of hitting a freethrow.”
Foul shots are the least dramatic shot in basketball—except when time is running out and a game hangs in the balance. Here’s a poem by Edwin Hoey, sent to me by my father, that captures that drama:
With two 60’s on the scoreboard
And two seconds hanging on the clock,
The solemn boy in the center of eyes,
Squeezed by silence,
Seeks out the line with his feet
Soothes his hands along his uniform
Gently drums the ball against the floor,
Then measures the waiting net,
Raises the ball on his right hand,
Balances it with his left
Calms it with fingertips,
And then through a stretching of stillness,
Nudges it upward.
Slides up and out,
Plays it coy
Until every face begs with unsounding screams—
Right before ROAR-UP,
Dives down and through.