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Look at this monstrosity. Imagine how many nascent basketball careers in makeshift driveway courts were ground up in the gears and levers and turbines and whirring blades of Bill Cartwright's shooting form. If Cartwright had been on any other team in the early '90s, any other, tragedy might have been avoided. But he was not on any other team; he was on the Michael Jordan Bulls, which meant that 80 to 85 percent of the NBA on NBC comprised a wagging tongue, some John Tesh music, and that ... thing. That two-fisted heave, that backboard's nightmare of a shot. It was everywhere, and everywhere it was abominable. It was Charles Barkley's tee shot before Barkley had a tee shot. It looked like something made by Acme.
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It was dangerously irresistible to imitate. You'd be clowning around with your friends, and someone would get the idea to try to replicate this spasm of limbs, and then you'd all be hitching your elbows and lurching your torsos and obliterating your muscle memory of what a clean, smooth shot had ever felt like. What did our mothers say? If you keep making that face, your face is going to freeze like that?
The whole is more gruesome than the sum of its parts, but let's look at these parts—these awful, mismatched, malformed, carnival-midway-freak-show parts.
00:00-00:01: [Dribble. Dribble. Dribble.]
00:02-00:03: [Dribble. Slowly lower the body at the hips so that your torso and face are now exactly parallel with the basketball court. Dribble.]
00:06: [Pause. Think to yourself: Did I leave the tea kettle on? I think I definitely left the tea kettle on. Dammit, now it's going to be all burnt inside. You know that's never coming off now. Probably just get a new one, I guess. Whole place is probably going to smell awful now, too.]
00:07: [Pump fake]
00:08: [Pump fake]
00:09: [Pump fake]
00:10: [Pause. This thing is not falling for the pump fake. New strategy ...]
00:10-00:11: [... slowly raise ball from between your legs as far above your head as is possible so that it is level with the rim. It won't know what hit it. Bend left arm so that it creates a 90 degree angle at the side of your face. Bend knees.]
00:12: [Spring up. Release ordnance in direction of target.]
00:13: [Wait. Hold follow-through pose in a sort of ghastly contrapposto. Ignore fainting women behind backboard.]
00:14: [Nylon. Gather up limbs and get back on D.]
This is, of course, the most evil thing about the Bill Cartwright free throw. He wasn't terrible at it. Ray Allen, he was not. But neither was he Shaquille O'Neal. Bill Cartwright was a perfectly decent free-throw shooter.
Cartwright's whole game was about just getting the thing done. It was elbows and position and leverage. But at the free-throw line, he crossed over from acceptably ungainly to aggressively grotesque. If all of basketball looked like Cartwright's free throws, no one would watch it. No one would want to play it.
Watch that shot again, taking note of the mechanics of the release. Look closely. In his routine's final moments—the flick of the hand, the swan's-neck finish—Cartwright and his Rube Goldberg shooting form surrender completely to convention. The toy car hits the ball bearing, which drops into the cup and falls on a domino that knocks over the other dominoes and triggers a catapult that flings a tennis ball at a bucket that tips over and sends a radial tire bounding down a ramp, and at some point a flamethrower goes off or something, etc., etc., and 20 minutes later, somehow, you get a neat little pour of coffee in your mug. That's Bill Cartwright's shot, but without the whimsy. In the end, that shot is utterly, sinisterly, almost imperceptibly normal.
Don't you see? This is how the wolf gets the sheep. "It looks goofy, but it kind of works," a poor sap might say before opening that door we all know he should never open. So he does it on a lark, the way you or I might bowl from between our legs. But this is different. Everything immediately changes. His muscles rearrange themselves. His neural pathways harden. He is forever lost in the irreducible complexity of a Cartwright free throw. He will never take a regular shot again. Another young shooter, ruined, and up in his mountain lair Bill Cartwright laughs the laugh of the long laughed-at. If no one is normal, then everyone is normal, even Bill Cartwright.
Image by Jim Cooke.