One of my fondest memories from childhood is my dad showing me how to shoot free throws in our basement.
Our miniature hoop was a one-of-a-kind structure that my grandfather had made for him, way back when. Among its endearing qualities was that it mimicked the scale of a 10-foot-high regulation basket – provided you were a 3-foot-tall preschooler armed with a small, red, playground ball. How lucky was I?
As I awaited my turn at the stripe, I’d watch intently as my father paused, cradling the ball in his right hand, elbow raised just above his shoulder, before gently releasing his shot. I can still hear the sound of the rubber ball dropping through the hand-made net.
Following my lesson, I’d conclude my time on the court the way most of us do when practicing alone on the playground. Sometimes the words are spoken aloud. More often, they’re recited in your head.
“Five, four, three, two, one...(insert own last name) shoots. It’s good! The (insert name of favorite professional team, which, for me, was – and still is – my dad’s favorite: the Philadelphia 76ers) win!”
Most of us, of course, will never actually experience having the ball in our hands in the final seconds of a high-stakes contest with the game, the season, and our athletic reputation on the line. Yet that’s precisely the situation 76ers forward Andre Iguodala found himself in during game six of this year’s first-round NBA playoff series against the Chicago Bulls.
With 2.2 seconds left to play, and his team trailing by a single point, Mr. Iguodala was awarded two free throws after being fouled as he attempted a game-winning shot. Though the underdog Sixers led the best-of-seven series three games to two, the Philadelphia crowd knew full well that this was their young team’s only realistic chance of eliminating the conference champions, as a loss meant the battle-tested Bulls would host a deciding seventh game.
It was oddly fitting that Iguodala was now tasked with determining the likely outcome of his team’s season. Despite the fact that he is a spectacular open-court player, gifted passer and, arguably, the league’s best defensive player, many of the Philly faithful have vilified him for much of his career for failing to live up to his status as the ninth overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft.
Compounding the matter is his $80 million contract – seen in some circles as unjustifiable, due to his limited scoring ability.
As they waited for him to take his place at the foul line, no one in the Wells Fargo Center, least of all, Iguodala, needed to be reminded that free-throw shooting had become his Achilles' heel. His free-throw percentage during the regular season was a paltry 62 percent. That number dropped to 45 percent in the fourth quarter of games. In the final minutes of those contests, it sunk to an unfathomable 33 percent.
If anybody could relate to what was unfolding, it was Sixers head coach, Doug Collins. Forty years ago, he was a member of the US men’s basketball team that took on the Soviet Union for the gold medal, at the height of the cold war.
In the championship contest, the Soviets led the US by one point, with three ticks left on the clock. The young Mr. Collins was fouled driving to the basket. Gathering himself after being knocked nearly unconscious on the play, and with the eyes of the world upon him, the Illinois State junior made both of his free throws, giving the Americans the lead and, seemingly, the victory.
The future NBA All-Star’s achievement, however, went for naught, as the Soviets (after being granted two do-overs by the referees) won the game on a basket in the final second.
At this crucial playoff game in Philadelphia, Collins could barely watch as Iguodala prepared to shoot the most important free throws of his life. Not because he didn’t have faith in him, but because he knew how much his captain wanted to come through for the team.
Yet, unbeknownst to him, Iguodala had come prepared with a secret weapon for just such an occasion, courtesy of a veteran teammate who hadn’t played a minute in the series.
Tony Battie had been recruited by Collins, in part, to mentor the flock of twenty-somethings on his roster. Earlier in the series, Mr. Battie told Iguodala of a technique he’d used to help himself relax under pressure: thinking about his daughter. He then told the struggling forward to “think of something you love” whenever he went to the foul line.
And that he did.
Twenty-thousand-plus were on their feet when the referee handed him the ball. And all Iguodala could think about was his five-year-old son.
As he reminded himself to bend his knees before taking his first shot, he imagined himself teaching Andre Jr. how to make free throws. It worked, the ball landing softly in the net, without so much as grazing the rim. His second shot was also perfect. And after a desperate heave by the Bulls bounded off the back rim, pandemonium – and confetti – swept over the crowd. Speaking to my dad after the game, I could hear him smiling through the phone.
No one knows with any degree of certainty whether Andre Sr.’s redemptive evening will be etched in Andre Jr.’s memory. But here’s betting he’ll always know how much he is loved.
John Morlino is a former social worker and commentator who founded The ETHIC (The Essence of True Humanity Is Compassion) to promote peace, nonviolence, and compassion.