If results mean anything at all, the underhanded free throw — frequently and pejoratively known as the “granny shot” — is the most underutilized shooting style in basketball history. It was exclusively with this shooting form that the most prominent practitioner of this style, Rick Barry, retired from professional play as the all-time leader in free-throw shooting percentage in both the NBA (presently fourth) and the ABA.
The reason for its underutilization may come down to the simple fact that it isn’t popularly perceived to be a manly way to shoot a basketball. This opinion was famously disclosed publicly by NBA legend and famously poor free-throw shooter Shaquille O’Neal. Whereupon O’Neal was advised by Barry that he could vastly improve his historically bad 52 percent free-throw shooting percentage by switching to an underhanded shooting style and receiving the proper instruction for perfecting the technique, he informed Esquire in 2005, “I’d shoot zero percent before I’d shoot underhanded.”
Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that of Barry’s five sons — all of whom played pro basketball — only his youngest, Canyon Barry, has prominently displayed the underhanded shooting style in the professional ranks.
So does this mean that Barry’s own sons rejected their father’s record-setting style in favor of the traditional style because they deemed the common style to be more effective, or are there other reasons for the general lack of underhanded tactics at the foul line by Barry’s sons?
To get to the heart of the matter, I recently spoke with Richard “Scooter” Barry, presently the director of sports and education for United Cities North America, but previously an NCAA-championship winning player with a 17-year pro career under his belt who also happens to be the eldest son of Rick Barry.
You and your brothers have been successful in basketball by almost every objective measure. How involved was your dad in developing each of you to play the game?
I think we’re the only family where the father is a hall of famer and five sons have all played professional basketball. The irony of this is that dad never pushed any of us to play basketball. He didn’t come home and say, “Everyone has to make 100 underhand free throws before you go to bed.” Our world did revolve around basketball, but only from the standpoint that it was dad’s profession. Not everyone in the household needed to be a basketball player.
I spent most of the season when my dad was playing not seeing him as often as you’d think. He was either on the road, at practice or sleeping to get his rest, and then he had 41 home games to play. The offseason and the summer were when we got to do things as a family, and much of that time was spent doing things that revolved around his celebrity status, like the Hyatt Celebrity Tennis Tournament in Las Vegas, or golf tournaments. There weren’t a ton of quiet family-time moments where we just sat around and talked about the game of basketball, or how everyone’s day was going. If we went out to eat, we’d get interrupted by people who wanted him to sign autographs, and if he told them he’d sign something after dinner, they’d get mad at him. So he had to sacrifice a lot of his privacy.
My dad wasn’t able to be my CYO basketball coach, or even to watch many of my games because he had his own games to play; we had the same season. My connection to my dad came from being a ball boy for the Golden State Warriors. I’d come home from school, get my homework done quickly and take my pre-game nap at the same time my dad took his. Then we’d get up to have our pre-game meal of steak and potatoes and hop in the car and go to the arena. I’d get dressed in my ball-boy uniform right next to him in the locker room, and for all intents and purposes, I thought I was on the Golden State Warriors. I got to go out and shoot around before people came into the arena, and I’d get water and towels for the players and sweep the floors and do whatever I had to do as a ball boy. I got to meet all the best players through the 1970s and 1980s.
At what point did your father have an opportunity to critique your game, and did you ever ask him to?
Our most basketball-focused times together were at his own basketball camp at Sonoma State University here in Northern California. He had a sleepover camp, and I’d look forward to that camp every year. I started going before the age that was required because I was still good enough to play with the older kids. That was the space where I could work on my game where dad could watch me play, give me pointers and talk about shooting form and other things. I was a very astute camper who just happened to be able to drive home with the personality who was running the camp. That was the time where basketball was the topic and we discussed how to play the game. Because once I got into my basketball season, he was focused on his own basketball season.
My parents got divorced when I was 13, and my dad was still playing in Houston. I had to move back to Northern California with my mom, brothers and sister. I think there was one high school game of mine where he got to see me play during the four years I was in high school. It did take a bit of time for us to get back to having a relationship because I was disappointed when the family didn’t stay together. He took more interest in my game once my college career began at Kansas. The most influence he had over my game was during my professional career, a lot of which was overseas. Dad flew overseas to visit me every year I played. It’s weird, because that happened between the ages of about 26 and 40, but that’s when I had my most focused basketball discussions with my dad.
Although your father’s underhanded free-throw-shooting technique is arguably the most efficient style of free-throw shooting, I can’t recall you and your brothers ever shooting free throws in an underhanded fashion. Did you discover that it wasn’t as effective as people thought, or is there more to the story?
Okay, so the birth order in our family is Scooter, Jon, Brent, Drew, my adopted sister Shannon and then our half-brother Canyon.
I had the extra incentive not to shoot the ball underhanded because I was the first son and have the same name. Dad is Richard Francis Barry III, and I’m Richard Francis Barry IV. I was already getting bombarded by people wanting to know why I wasn’t scoring 30 points a game and how come I wasn’t an All-American, which are all natural comparisons when you’re the first son of a Hall of Fame basketball player. The thing is, dad was close to 6-foot-8 when he played; I was a 6-foot-3 point guard, which makes me the shortest of the brothers. Regardless, I felt like shooting an underhand free throw would have drawn even more attention to myself and made me feel worse, because it would have opened the door for even more people to say, “He’s not as good as his dad.”
Jon never tried shooting underhanded. He was the type of player who would dive on the floor, go all out and do whatever needed to be done. He has my dad’s competitiveness and scorer’s mentality, and he was probably also the most bitter about the divorce out of all of the kids since he was so close to our dad before it happened. That was probably a major factor in him not wanting to shoot underhanded free throws. He may have opted not to do it out of spite.
Brent was the most physically gifted of all of us, being 6-foot-7 and the slam-dunk champion. He shot underhanded when he was at Oregon State, and he was very good at it. Then he felt like he didn’t want the added attention of being Rick Barry’s son with the Rick Barry free throw. He wanted to branch out into his own identity and stopped shooting it that way. Drew was a very good shooter, but he was a pass-first player. He still owns the all-time assist record at Georgia Tech, and he never shot underhanded.
Canyon, who is dad’s son through his wife Lynn, has shot underhanded his whole career. Up until he had his first few misses a couple weeks ago, I think he was shooting 100 percent from the free-throw line in the NBA’s G League. He was born the latest, and my dad didn’t have an NBA career at the time. Dad was able to be more hands-on with Canyon than with any of the other sons, and he was able to put more time into his development as a basketball player. That’s probably why Canyon shoots underhanded and is able to shoot it so well that way.
How close are the Barry brothers given that you’re spread apart by nearly 30 years from eldest to youngest?
That’s crazy to think about sometimes. I played for my dad when he was coaching in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and held Canyon in my arms during a game. There’s quite the time lapse involved there.
The Barry brothers aren’t geographically close. We all have our own families, schedules and careers, but we try to have a reunion each year. There’s a competitiveness that’s been around since we were kids. We would compete over who could eat the most bowls of cereal in the morning to who could brush their teeth the fastest at night. Whenever we played anything, we played until somebody quit or got hurt, especially if we were playing in a two-on-two situation. We have a common denominator inasmuch as we were all involved in the same sport, and we have a good understanding of each other’s worlds. We all have our own individual personality traits that set us apart, and we don’t really look alike. So you wouldn’t think we were all related if you saw us separately, but when we’re all together, that’s when the similarities come out, and you can see that we have the same brotherly banter.
Does it surprise you that no other NBA players have tried to shoot underhanded even though your dad was so successful with that style?
Well, Shaq not wanting to shoot underhanded was an image thing. His people — when he was trying to put out a rap album and act and do a bunch of other things — felt that shooting a “granny shot” wouldn’t be good for his image. My dad said, “It’s a shame that you’re not a true champion willing to do whatever it takes to be the best at what you do.” Had Shaq shot 75 percent from the free-throw line, it would have drastically adjusted his numbers. He would have been averaging two or three more points per night during all of his best seasons, and the other teams couldn’t have used the Hack-a-Shaq strategy against him.
A few other players tried it. George Johnson played with my dad, and he tried it. Wilt Chamberlain tried it, but Wilt was so bad that he tried hook shots, finger rolls and everything else he could from the foul line. The problem is, Wilt never learned it from my dad, so he shot it incorrectly. But even now, if a modern basketball player took the time to learn to shoot an underhanded free throw correctly, they’d have one of the best free-throw-shooting techniques of all time at their disposal.