A few months ago, a father and son found a hoop and began shooting around. This would not be noteworthy except for the fact that this father was Rick Barry, a Hall of Fame basketball player, and this son was Canyon Barry, a 27-year-old professional basketball vagabond who was then-preparing for the upcoming G League season, and that the two were spending time honing a vanishing art. In fact, it’s fair to assume that at that moment Rick and Canyon Barry were literally the only two people in the world practicing this art.
That art, of course, is the underhand free throw.
“My dad’s still automatic from the line,” Canyon said in a recent phone interview. All of Canyon’s practicing seems to have paid off, too. In March, he joined the Iowa Wolves, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ affiliate, in the G League’s Disney World bubble. There he connected on all 21 of his free-throw attempts, each one shot by gripping the ball on its sides, dropping it down towards his knees and then flicking it up toward the hoop.
“I would like to think that’s the only time someone has shot 100 percent from the line in any sort of season while taking that many shots,” Barry said. He was proud of himself, and like his father, who hit 89.3 percent of his foul shots over 14 NBA seasons and has spent the forty years since proselytizing on behalf of the technique, Canyon is a true believer. He wishes more players would follow in his family’s footsteps.
He’s always felt that the underhand free-throw could offer a lifeline to struggling players. He still feels that way, but there’s another motive now, too: in a way, he’s fighting for the survival of his family’s legacy.
“It’s such a good shot, and we’ve had so much success with it, I hope someone is willing to take up the challenge,” Barry said. “I’d hate to see the underhand free-throw just die.”
Barry understands the hesitancy. He himself didn’t change his technique until his junior year of high school, and in the years since he’s heard every joke.
“Every time I shoot I get an interesting reaction,” Barry said.
There was the time in high school when a referee, after seeing Barry shoot underhand, turned to him and asked in a mocking tone, “Who do you think you are, Rick Barry’s son?” There was the other time in high school when he missed a free-throw and opposing fans chanted that he was adopted. There’s a look he gets every time he joins a new team and steps up to the foul line for the first time.
“It’s the ‘What the fuck are you doing,’ look,” Barry said. “Which is why I get why people don’t want to try it. You have to be able to handle the criticism.”
Barry, who will represent the United States in this summer’s FIBA 3-on-3 basketball tournament, didn’t start shooting his free-throws underhand until his junior year of high school. “And even with my background it still took four years to click.” He transferred from the College of Charleston to Florida before his senior year, and that season shot 88.3 percent from the line.
“The science is proven,” said Barry, who has a masters in nuclear engineering. “The motion is more repeatable because the shoulders are the only joints that are moving. The ball lands softer on the rim, which leads to better bounces.
“The key,” he added, “is to bring the ball straight down between your legs, not to bring it back. And when you bring it up not to use your wrist but instead roll your hands together when you get around chest level so that your thumbs point down.”
It’s complicated, but he’s willing to offer his services. “IF YOU SHOOT LESS THAN 70% consider switching,” Barry recently wrote on Instagram. “Tag a bad free throw shooter who needs to switch.” He puts tutorials on YouTube.
He doesn’t expect to receive many calls in the upcoming days, but he’s optimistic that, just maybe, his G League performance will help the cause. During one game he pump-faked a defender into the air, drawing a foul.
“What the f— are you doing?” Barry heard the opposing coach shout at the player. “I told you he doesn’t miss foul shots.”
“Maybe people are noticing,” Barry said.
Photos via Getty Images.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA reporter and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman.