Dr. Tom Amberry's biggest problem with free throws is boredom. After a man has made 500 shots in succession, he is liable to lose his edge.
''Yesterday, I made 550 in a row and I quit,'' Dr. Amberry said. ''Today, I missed. I probably made about 270 in a row and then I missed because of not paying attention. But that's just practicing.''
When it really counts, though, no one has ever counted any higher. Northern Kentucky University's Paul Cluxton had made 98 straight free throws through Wednesday's game against Texas A&M-Commerce - passing Micheal Williams' NBA record - but he is going to have to pick up his pace considerably to catch Dr. Amberry.
On Nov. 15, 1993, at the Rossmoor Athletic Club in Seal Beach, Calif., the retired podiatrist sank 2,750 consecutive free throws to gain recognition as the Guinness world record holder. That number again is two thousand, seven hundred and fifty. With brief hourly breaks, Dr. Amberry shot free throws for 12 hours, and never missed. He stopped not because he finally bricked one, but to allow a recreational league use of the floor.
''None of them hit the backboard,'' he said proudly. ''Maybe 50 of them hit the rim. That's a wake-up call. That's when you're bored.''
Better than Shaq
Dr. Amberry was then 71 years old. He is now the guru of the 15-foot set shot, consulted for clinics and private tutoring, author of a guide to free-throw shooting, accumulator of 448,000 frequent flier miles last year alone.
''My goal is to teach players to make two free throws every time they step to the free-throw line,'' he said. ''It's not a formidable task. The object of the game is to put the ball in the basket. It's simple. They try to make it complicated.''
Free throws are basketball's most mechanical and only uncontested shots, but this is not reflected by their apparent degree of difficulty. Among Division I men, presumably the highest level of college basketball, the national free-throw average was 66.5 percent according to the most recent statistics. Shaquille O'Neal, he of the $120 million contract, is shooting 46.6 percent from the line this season.
''They don't focus and concentrate,'' Dr. Amberry said. ''Either they cross-fire or they spend too much time spinning the ball, bouncing and dribbling, and that doesn't put the ball in the basket. The other thing is they don't keep their elbow in.''
By Dr. Amberry's count, there have been at least 1,000 master's theses written on free-throw shooting, and more than 350 doctoral dissertations. Basically, he says, it all boils down to repetition.
''You do everything the same,'' he said. ''Every time.''
'Double-ugly' shooting works
Unlike Cluxton, who shoots with his feet slightly staggered, Dr. Amberry believes in facing the basket with his feet and shoulders squared. He bounces the ball three times - ''That's to clear your head'' - then grips it with the tip of his middle finger toward the ball's inflation hole. With his knees slightly bent, and his eyes trained just above his target, he lets fly from the chest.
''It's a one-hand set shot,'' Dr. Amberry said. ''It's not a jump shot. It's not a two-hander. What you have to do is separate the free throws from the rest of the game. (Arkansas coach) Nolan Richardson says I shoot double-ugly, but I put the ball in the basket.''
Once a varsity basketball player at the University of North Dakota and Long Beach City College, Dr. Amberry gave up the game when he took up podiatry. He says he had not picked up a ball in 40 years when he began shooting again for the sake of exercise.
Soon, he was shooting for the sake of David Letterman, ESPN, CNN and The Nashville Network, for whom he made 305 straight free throws in one on-camera exhibition. Dr. Amberry says he has exceeded his Guinness mark in practice - the record book requires witnesses and signed affidavits - and he is considering a formal assault at the record for his 75th birthday (Nov. 13).
''Psychologically, what happens is after you get to 1,000, it seems like you're right on top of the basket,'' he said. ''You get a euphoria. It just seems easy.''