The Free Throw
You may have heard a coach say something like, “What the kid lacks in talent can be made up for with hard work and desire.” Don’t believe it.
Timmy was small for his age, clumsy, slow on his feet, lacking in any semblance of hand-eye coordination, and saddled with vision only corrected to a functional level with Coke bottle thick lenses. Other than that, he had all the makings of a great basketball player.
Timmy’s desire and work ethic were unmatched in the history of grade school sports, but he still stunk at everything. This may sound harsh, but I tried other descriptions of Timmy’s ineptitude, and none seemed adequate. He couldn’t throw or catch a football, and his size precluded any of the non-skilled positions. Fielding and tossing a baseball yielded similar results, and Timmy considered it a successful at-bat if he wasn’t hit by the pitch. He was the only kid in the annals of little kid soccer who fanned on trying to kick the ball more times than he connected.
But none of this mattered as the only sport Timmy cared about was basketball. This was the Holy Grail of all things sports, the thing he dreamed about, lived for. He closely followed the NBA and his state’s college teams, and his room was plastered with posters of his favorite players.
Some kids wear out basketballs. Timmy practically wore out the asphalt on his driveway honing his skills shooting hoops in his backyard. He had a regular routine taking ten shots from ten different spots on the court. He kept records of shots made and shots missed. The missed shots side of the ledger was rather lengthy while the made shots side was downright sparse, but Timmy was never discouraged.
Timmy’s futility flourished year-round. He and the mailman would never let the weather stop them. Many a winter day found Timmy shoveling snow and chopping ice off the driveway to clear his basketball court. On particularly frigid days, he would bring his basketball inside to run it under hot water so the ball would get a better bounce.
Never in the history of sports has there been a greater disparity between desire and talent. Timmy was cursed with an unfortunate combination of God-awful talent and an unmatched passion to play the game, and to make it all so much worse was the troubling fact that Timmy never quite understood just how bad he was.
The circumstance of Timmy’s complete lack of physical ability was a true puzzlement to all who knew the family. His father, Jack, had been an all-conference performer in three sports in high school and went on to play Division 1 football. Timmy’s mother, Rachel, was a standout on her college soccer team. Timmy’s complete lack of any hint of physical ability was a near genetic impossibility.
But he tried, oh how he tried. It pained his father to look out the kitchen window and see little Timmy missing shot after shot and bouncing the ball off his foot as he attempted a layup. Jack and Rachel had spent countless hours working with Timmy in pointless efforts to improve any part of his game. Nothing worked. Nothing got better.
His parents tried a different approach. If they couldn’t bring about any improvement in Timmy’s physical abilities, maybe they could work on his mind, as in change it. With Timmy being so entrenched in the world of basketball, they knew it would be a difficult task. They tried everything. Jack took him to an informational meeting of the Boy Scouts. No luck. Rachel took him to a 4-H meeting. No interest. It was a tossup as to who hated his piano lessons more, Timmy or his teacher. They brought home magazines on a variety of hobbies- building model cars, stamp collecting, model railroad trains. Disdain. Timmy would have none of it. In one final act of desperation, Jack brought home a large box of Mr. Wizzy’s Magic Tricks. The $25.99 layout bought a mere two hours of distraction.
Jack and Rachel knew what disappointments lie ahead for Timmy. St. Mary’s had a no-cut policy so Timmy would be on a team through the eighth grade, but there was no hope that he would ever make a high school team.
“I don’t care if he plays or not”, Jack would tell Rachel. “But it means so much to him. We have all those memories. He won’t have any.”
Fifth grade presented Timmy’s first chance to be on a real team. Coach Kelsey was a kind man, but after one particularly frustrating, fruitless effort to get Timmy to dribble the ball properly, he complained to his wife that Timmy was the worst player he had ever coached; no, that he had ever seen; no, that he had ever heard of.
Nonetheless, Coach Kelsey would do his best to get Timmy into every game, usually at “garbage time” at the end of a lopsided contest when the game looks more like pinball than basketball. Heading into the last game of the season Timmy had a perfect stats sheet: points-zero; assists- zero; rebounds- zero. Jack and Rachel agonized nearly every moment Timmy was in a game. There were the dropped passes, the balls thrown to kids on the other team, and the fouls committed strictly by accident as a result of extraordinary clumsiness. Every moment that Timmy was on the floor was an invitation to embarrassment.
The last game of the season would be played at St. Mary’s undersized gym against league champion St. Charles. The home team was down 16-8 at half time which is a lot for little kid basketball. By the end of the third quarter, the visitor’s lead had grown to 14 points. It was close to Timmy time.
When the Coach beckoned, Timmy leaped off the bench like his tennis shoes were spring loaded, and he charged out onto the court, only having to return to the scorer’s table because he forgot to check in. Jack, and to a lesser extent Rachel, began their worry-watch. They no longer wished for something good to happen; they could only hope that nothing too humiliating would befall Timmy in the remaining moments of the season.
Thankfully, the next several minutes were nondescript as far as Timmy was concerned. The last seconds of the game were winding down as mothers gathered their smaller children, and dads picked up hats, gloves and juice boxes off the bleachers. Then, with just five seconds left in the game, the ball somehow found its way into Timmy’s arms. As he struggled to get rid of it, the St. Charles version of Timmy, though to a far lesser extent, crashed into Timmy and the ball went flying into the air. The referee blew his whistle and raised his arm. He ruled that Timmy was in the act of shooting when the St. Charles kid plowed into him. No one was more surprised at the call than Timmy.
Jack was in a near state of shock coupled with justifiable fear. Timmy would be going to the free throw line with the clock stopped and all eyes upon him. This had gloom and doom written all over it. Timmy had taken just two shots during the entire season, and one was at the wrong basket. Jack rubbed his forehead and appeared to be muttering some kind of prayer.
The entire gymnasium grew quiet. At this point of the season, the entire league knew the legend of Timmy, and all present sensed the enormity of the moment. Timmy, the worst player in the history of the league would be going to the free throw line, and they were there to watch it.
The referee handed the ball to Timmy as the players, both coaches and all the fans watched in unsettling anticipation. Most in the stands were mesmerized by the event unfolding before them, and even the small children grew quiet. The merciful in the stands averted their eyes.
“Please, God, please let Timmy have this one moment.” That prayer was on Jack’s lips, but similar supplications were on the minds of nearly everyone in the gym. Truth be known, even the St. Charles players were secretly rooting for Timmy.
Timmy bounced the ball three times, bent his knees ever so slightly, and gave the ball a good shove in the direction of the basket. To the amazement of all, the ball appeared to be headed straight for the basket. Jack about stopped breathing. The ball was indeed on target, but then cruel gravity intervened and dragged the ball down to the floor as it had only traveled three-fourths of the required distance.
Intermittent groans filled the air, but most suffered in silence. Jack and Rachel could only close their eyes and feel for their son.
But wait. It was a shooting foul. Timmy had another shot coming.
In the normal course of human events, this would be a good thing. For Jack, in the wake of the cringeworthy first attempt, a second moment of excruciating embarrassment would be a bad thing. He groaned and muttered something unintelligible.
“Nothing, Rachel. I was just sort of hoping for a power outage, a lightening strike, or maybe an earthquake, anything to keep him from having to shoot another free throw.”
But that’s not how life works. Timmy would be getting that second free throw. The referee was a nice man, and he didn’t want to give the ball to Timmy, but he had to. With visible reluctance, he handed the ball to Timmy and quickly turned away. Those who had demonstrated such interest in the first free throw now wished they were someplace else.
Timmy remembered his dad’s instruction to put some arc in his shot. Timmy took a deep breath, bent his knees, this time a little deeper, and launched the ball high into the air with all the strength he could muster. Arc? No one had never seen a shot with such arc as the ball soared dangerously close to the ceiling. Jack’s eyes popped wide open at the power behind the shot and quickly went back to hopeful prayer.
The shot was as straight as it was high. The players, the coaches and all the fans suddenly realized they might witness a miracle. From Jack’s vantage point, it appeared to have a chance. His dream of Timmy’s one glorious moment might come true.
With the incredible amount of arc Timmy had put into his shot, the ball came straight down and hit the back iron between the backboard and the basket and bounced back up high into the air. It came down, struck the back iron and went right back up again. This up and down motion repeated itself to the point that the crowd appeared to be watching some strange version of vertical ping pong. With each bounce, the attained height grew less and less, until the ball finally came to rest on that flat piece of iron behind the hoop.
Stunned silence overtook the gym.
Jack stared at the basket with agonizing disappointment. “I don’t believe it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. I don’t think it’s even possible.”
Rachel asked, “What happens now. Does he get another shot?”
“No. It’s a dead ball. The ref will blow his whistle, and the other team will get the ball. I can’t stand it. He came so close to getting his moment.”
But the ref didn’t blow his whistle. He appeared to be in a state of shock having just witnessed an act that seemed to defy the laws of physics. The entire scene was frozen in place as those present had just witnessed the impossible.
The eerie silence was broken when Charlie, Timmy’s best friend on the team and distant runner-up for the designation of worst kid on the team, slammed his foot down hard as he stood at the free throw lane. It was act of frustration fueled by empathy for his friend. Perhaps he thought he could jolt that ball into the basket, but the gesture yielded no such result. But then the other St. Mary’s players on the floor at the time followed Charlie’s lead and began stomping their feet. Timmy’s other teammates jumped off the bench and stomped their feet and clapped their hands. In an act of true sportsmanship seldom seen in the ranks of fifth graders, all the St. Charles players joined in, stomping their feet, hopping up and down, clapping their hands, and shouting as loud as they could. Both coaches were now doing the same, and in a serious breach of officiating propriety, the ref joined in. All the while, Timmy stood motionless at the free throw line staring at the ball.
Jack understood the effort, and perhaps in a moment of fanciful optimism, he slammed his foot down on the bleachers. Rachel quickly recovered from the shock and did the same. Soon all the fans in the bleachers, both the Home and Visitor sections, were stomping their feet and yelling at that ball. Anyone standing at the gym’s perimeter added slapping the wall to their stomping. The small children thoroughly enjoyed the chaos and took full advantage of the open invitation to make as much noise as possible.
A bewildered Father Mel, the portly Pastor of St. Mary’s entered the gym to investigate the clamor. Charlie pointed to the ball resting comfortably on its perch, ever so close to its intended landing spot, and Father Mel immediately understood. The image of Father Mel making his best efforts to attain altitude will long be remembered at St. Mary’s.
The sound was deafening, and Jack could feel the vibration in the stands. If faith can move mountains, maybe, just maybe, this tumultuous effort could move that ball.
The ball was stubborn and refused to move, but the crowd was not discouraged, and their efforts only intensified. The bleachers went past vibration and were now shaking wildly. Rachel turned toward Jack, moved close to him, and practically yelled, “You just might be getting your earthquake.”
Then it happened. First a slight vibration, then a bit of motion, and finally the hint of a roll. The crowd went into a frenzy as the ball began edging toward the basket, ever so slowly, half- inch by half-inch, until it arrived at the rim. It teetered for a moment and then dropped into the basket. Shooter’s bounce.
The place went nuts. Timmy raised his hands above his head and leaped into the air. His teammates all rushed to him, congratulating him with high fives, slaps on the back and shoulders, and smothering him with hugs. The ref called the game, and in a symbolic gesture, he presented Timmy with the game ball. The celebration in the stands could only be described as sheer joy.
There are moments in sports history that will live on forever- Bobby Thomson’s home run; Franco Harris and the “Immaculate Reception”; the Ice Bowl in Green Bay. But in this small town, nothing can match the lore of Timmy’s free throw. As in the case of other spectacular events, far more people will later claim to have witnessed the feat than the seating capacity of the St. Mary’s gym would have allowed. For years to come, the subject would come up at the workplace and in the aisles of grocery stores.
“Did you hear about Timmy’s free throw?”
“Hear about it? Hell, I was there.”
As Jack was chairman of the cleanup committee, he was the last to leave the gym that night. He stopped when he got to the door, paused for a moment, and then looked back at the basket at the far end of the gym. He wiped away a tear, turned off the lights, and slowly walked down the school hallway with a smile that only a dad could appreciate.