There have been some, to put it mildly, noteworthy free throw routines in NBA history: Nick Van Exel electing to shoot his freebies from a few feet behind the line … Anthony Mason deciding that his right hand was an unnecessary encumbrance on his stroke … Jason Kidd blowing kisses to his wife who accused him of domestic abuse … Karl Malone mumbling Lousinana-born incantations … Gilbert Arenas wrapping the ball behind his back three times before even acknowledging the rim … Jeff Hornacek signaling to his family that he was thinking about them and confirming to the rest of the NBA fan community that he was sort of creepy looking by petting his face before each shot … the list goes on.
It’s almost impossible not to psycho-analyze an odd freethrow routine, even though, like every superstition, reason has nothing to do with the rhyme. We can’t help it because even via TV, the NBA is easily the most intimate major sport. There are no hats or helmets, the players wear less, hide less and thus, assumedly reveal more.
Which brings me to the swagadelic Kevin Durant.
His routine is, in my estimation, not just the best free throw routine but one of the coolest things going in the NBA. I must start by remarking on how outlandish his still body appears. What looks graceful and lithe in motion appears unwieldy and misshapen when static. ¬ How can anyone control a ball with implements so wildly long? Yet Durant exudes grace even as he bewilders.
His routine is typical, direct: He receives the ball, right foot slightly forward. He spins the ball at his waist, takes a purposeful dribble, spins it once more (he still hasn’t looked at the rim) then — wait, did he just shimmy his shoulders?! — a glance to the hoop and quickly, somehow efficiently up.
… and again
That shiver before he shoots — what in the world is that?
Is it some tic developed messing around in junior high? One imagines Durant in a free throw shooting contest with a friend, throwing in that little wiggle just to rub it in as he unloads swish after swish, accompanied by plenty of trash talk.
Is it something he ever thinks about still? Could it just be that a certain amount of extraneous style is forever programmed into his ruthlessly pragmatic game? Can we make a symbol of this that explains why everyone — from old timers who grouse about today’s players and “style over substance” to young fans who just dig the show — loves him?
What I know is this: There’s a good chance that at some point in these Finals, and perhaps in many more to come, Kevin Durant will walk to the free throw line with the game in the balance.
There’s so much science in Durant’s release. The way he shoots the ball from right in front of his forehead, which has the effect of making his release far more compact than anything arms like his have any right to produce.
The camera will bring us closer and closer to Durant as he focuses on the floor, his mind seemingly off away from the crushing pressure of the moment — what is he thinking?
Then, just as in the first quarter of his first game of his first year in the NBA, when he was just so skinny I actively worried about his safety, something moves through his upper body, that shimmy which is almost a winking challenge — but to whom? — an acknowledgement — but of what?
You know the rest.