LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- At first, I thought it was a joke. At the end of a recent Louisville basketball practice, the players spread around to different hoops in the practice facility to work on their free throw shooting.
There, by himself, was Chinanu Onuaku, shooting the ball underhanded.
“No, no," Louisville coach Rick Pitino explained. “That’s how he’s doing it now."
A 6-foot-10, Division I basketball player going straight-up granny style at the free throw line? Yes, the hecklers are going to have a field day with this one.
“Oh, I know they’ll make fun of me," Onuaku said. “My teammates already laughed at me. I don’t really care."
As a freshman last season, Onuaku was a horrible free throw shooter.
“I wasn’t that bad," Onuaku said.
Um, yes, actually you were.
The big man shot 47 percent from the line. So when practice started this year, Pitino called the sophomore to his office. Pitino had cut a video for Onuaku of Hall of Famer and legendary underhanded free throw shooter Rick Barry. Barry, who remains mystified at the resistance to his style, still ranks third in NBA history, converting 90 percent of his free throws during a 14-year career.
Pitino suggested Onuaku give it a try, and to Onuaku's credit, he didn’t laugh. Instead he studied the film and mimicked the style. (It’s actually nothing like most people think. Your hands don’t go under the ball but actually over the top of it. The secret is getting a good backspin on the toss.) The first time Onuaku stepped to the line in practice, squatting down for the toss, his teammates cracked up.
They don’t laugh anymore. Onuaku, who said he can’t remember the last time he shot the ball underhanded, hopes the hecklers will be stunned into the same silence.
Because here’s the kicker -- the ball is going in the basket with a lot more frequency.
At that practice I saw, Onuaku set a personal record, hitting 19 of 19 free throws. At a recent exhibition game against Kentucky Wesleyan, he went 3-for-4 from the line.
As his comfort with the unorthodox shot grows, so too does Onuaku’s confidence. But he also knows concentrating will not be so easy when he’s out of the welcoming embrace of the home crowd.
Louisville, which opens Friday against Samford, has only two true road games through the end of December -- at Michigan State on Dec. 2 and at Kentucky on Dec. 26. That second one, no doubt, will be fun.
“I know it will be harder when I go on the road," Onuaku said. “But I’m ready for it. I don’t care what people say as long as the ball goes in."