Last week, in the seventh place game of the Wooden Legacy tournament in Anaheim, a scrawny freshman for College of Charleston stepped to the free throw line and did something we haven't seen on national broadcast television in a long time: He shot a Granny free throw. He shot one underhanded.
His name is Canyon Barry, because of course it is.
Last year, freelance journalist Kevin Fixler sat down with Rick Barry to discuss the NBA Hall of Famer's legacy. It was a good piece, but nothing particularly new, mostly because Rick Barry is always talking about his legacy. Rick Barry, who has so much legacy I'm slightly worried there's a random Barry son in the room with me everywhere I go, will tell anyone who will listen how important the Granny free throw is, and how idiotic everyone is for not shooting it.
Barry's theory, as explained to Fixler, is that 80 percent is the bare minimum free throw percentage using the Granny shot, and that 90 percent, his lifetime percentage, is the ideal target spot. Every time an NBA superstar struggles at the free throw line, from Shaquille O'Neal to Dwight Howard, Barry pops up to explain why his way of shooting free throws is best. He even puts together instructional videos.
This does not change the fact that the number of players in the sport of basketball who have ever shot an underhanded free throw has hovered right around zero for roughly 50 years now. The only time I've seen it in the last 20 years was when Chris Andersen had a wrist injury and tried a couple in the first quarter of a game against the Lakers. (You can tell that clip was early in Andersen's career because he still looks like a human being.) Barry produced four sons who played professional basketball, all of whom he spent years imploring them to shoot underhand free throws, and none of them did. Brent quit in high school; the others (Scooter, Jon and Drew) never even got that far.
There might have been personal reasons for that. In a famous Sports Illustrated story in 1991, Rick Barry is portrayed as a distant, self-absorbed figure who wants to control his children's lives -- to live on through them -- without ever being much of an actual father. (Killer quote from Scooter: "I think he could see his career was coming to an end and suddenly realized that all the future held for him was being stuck with five kids. His freedom was the most important thing in the world to him, and by leaving he was able to maintain it. But we paid a big price for that. My father's number one priority was his own career, what he was going through." Remember back when SI would occasionally do deep-dive features -- Frank Deford on Kirby Puckett comes to mind -- just to expose certain athletes as real jerks to their friends and family? It is impossible to imagine such a thing today.)
The underlying theme of that piece is the Barry sons sort of rebelling against their father by refusing to shoot underhanded, as if the shot is some sort of brand, a tattoo symbolizing ownership by the father. The family has apparently come to some peace since then, as will happen with families over 23 years, but it's clear Rick is still obsessed with passing this on. Because here is Canyon.
Canyon is a redshirt freshman for College of Charleston, a 6-foot-6 guard who, already, is the Cougars' best player. (He's the team's leading scorer and, not surprisingly, shot-taker.) He has obvious athletic ability -- his mother is the only woman in William & Mary school history to have her basketball number retired, and apparently she's quite the character as well -- and is hardly some stick-in-the-mud fundamental boring Hickory High player. And he has embraced the teachings of his father -- who was 50 when he was born -- in a way his half-brothers never did. That includes the underhand free throw.
"I definitely think it's been a blessing in his life," Canyon Barry told Fixler. "It's kind of put him on the map since not many people shoot it like that. I haven't seen anyone, ever, shoot them in a game, so I could be one of the last people to shoot them."
College of Charleston isn't good this season -- the Cougars are 3-5 with a home loss to UNC Asheville -- so you probably won't be seeing Canyon shooting those free throws in the NCAA Tournament anytime soon. But as long as he shoots him that way, his father will be all anyone will talk about. Though Canyon needs some more work, apparently: He's only 21-of-32 from the line this year, 65.6 percent.
This brings me to the ultimate question: What exactly is "sissy" about shooting a free throw underhand? (That's Rick Barry's word.) A former generation might have turned this into a gender issue, or even one of sensibility -- I don't think I've ever heard anyone under the age of 40 use the word "sissy" since I was a child -- but I want to know: How could that ever have become a thing in the first place? Why is it, precisely, that everyone finds it so hilarious when someone shoots an underhanded free throw?
On "Inside the NBA" last year, Shaq told a story about Barry contacting him in college to try to sell him on the underhand free throw. Shaq's response: "I'm a hip-hop kid. I'd rather shoot zero percent." This jives with Barry's argument with why people reject his shot: "It's … all … about … the … ego," he told Fixler. "They don't think it's macho enough for them, and that's fine. If you're shooting 80 percent or better, great. If you're not shooting 80 percent or better, then you better think about making some kind of change."
But what is it that's so manly about an overhand free throw? Are we supposed to be impressed that a player is able to raise the ball over his head? Do we watch someone shoot an underhand free throw and think, "Man, that guy can barely even lift that ball?" Maybe shooting a free throw underhand is better than shooting one overhand and maybe it isn't, but I'll confess: I'm a bit baffled as to what is precisely so embarrassing about it. Is it just because it's different?
Because it doesn't make much sense to me that the form would be so humiliating to even attempt that it's only practiced by one strange family, and even then only barely. I don't know whether Rick Barry is right about the underhanded free throw or not. I do know that it's bizarre that it still, 50 years later, seems to belong solely to him. His protests to the contrary: Part of me wonders if he prefers it that way.