by John Branch
CENTRALIA, Kan. — With the start of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament, the country is once again contemplating the art of the free throw — mainly, why so many of the uncontested 15-foot, 1-point shots are missed.
Nobody contemplates the lowly free throw as does Bob Fisher, a 54-year-old soil conservation technician and failed high school basketball coach. Nobody on the planet shoots them so well, so fast.
In the past 26 months, Fisher has set 14 Guinness world records for free-throw shooting. He has made 33 in 30 seconds, 50 in a minute, 92 in two minutes, 448 in 10 minutes. He made 2,371 in an hour — nearly 40 a minute — which he called “pretty close to a superhuman feat.”
Fisher has bookcases full of books on basketball and the art of shooting. He absorbs books about biomechanics and anatomy. He has labeled three-ring binders with names like Grip Strength, Range of Motion, Stance and Movement Variability, and filled them with photographs, diagrams and equations.
“I’ve studied it more than anybody,” Fisher said.
He has befriended members of a loose fraternity of shooting gurus and record holders like Gary Boren, the shooting coach for the Dallas Mavericks; Dr. Tom Amberry, who, at age 71 in 1993, made 2,750 consecutive free throws; Ted St. Martin, who pushed the consecutive mark to 5,221 in 1996; and Fred Newman, who once made 20,371 free throws in 24 hours, and 88 in a row blindfolded. In this community of shooters and showmen, some clamor for attention, and most believe they have developed the foolproof method for shooting, particularly free throws.
Fisher is different. He does not believe in a one-fits-all technique. Counter to conventional wisdom, he encourages each shooter to use the most natural wrist motion, even if the fingers do not point to the basket during the follow-through. Optimum launch angles depend on height, as Fisher learned from John Fontanella, the author of “The Physics of Basketball,” and he prescribes placement of the fingers on the ball to complement the direction of the wrist action.
“For me, it’s a natural 16-degree inward position,” Fisher said, flicking his wrist toward the basket. “I measured it.”
No one gets rich peddling shooting tips. Local coaches, from junior high to college, spurned Fisher. In 2009, he was finally hired as a shooting coach by a high school girls’ team, coached by Ryan Noel. The school board paid him $1. A few years ago, Fisher produced a slick video, available through his Web site, secretsofshooting.com. He sold 18 last year, for $24.95 each.
Amberry suggested that Fisher show people how smart he is.
“The records were just simply the outlet for a lot of frustration,” Fisher said. He nodded toward Noel. “Other than this guy, there was nobody who was going to listen to what some small-town, losing coach had to say.”
In Centralia, best known as the boyhood home of the Hall of Fame running back John Riggins, Fisher was an average basketball player. The fourth of 10 children, he bypassed college. He had been married and divorced when he and his wife, Connie, who was two years behind him in high school, reconnected. He has held the same job with the Department of Agriculture for 24 years. And he coached boys’ teams in the area for seven seasons, never compiling a winning record.
“Around here, people thought I was an idiot,” Fisher said.
Fisher’s house sits outside Centralia, a no-stoplight town of 500 near the Nebraska border in northeastern Kansas. The view from the porch is of farmland and sky. In the basement, above a rack of basketballs, a homemade shooting contraption hangs from the joists supporting the floor above.
The thump-thump-thumping of basketballs wakes Connie every morning at 6:30. Each night after work (he helps design drainage for farmland), Fisher shoots alone for two hours at a gym in nearby Vermillion.
In the fall of 2009, Fisher set his sights on records. After a couple of months, he made 246 consecutive free throws, missed one, then made 200.
“From that point on,” Fisher said, “it was: ‘That’s enough. Let’s speed it up.’ ”
He set his first record, 50 free throws in a minute, on Jan. 9, 2010. Two months later, he made 88 in two minutes. By the end of the year, he had set eight Guinness records, including two with a high school player, Garrett Steinlage. Their 29 free throws in one minute by a pair using unlimited balls beat the 26 by the Los Angeles Lakers’ Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown. Fisher later established a similar co-ed record with another high school player, Dana Kramer.
Still barely noted in his community, Fisher was invited to the 2011 N.B.A. All-Star Game in Los Angeles, where he created the record for most free throws in a minute while standing on one leg: 49. Last summer, the Fishers flew to Beijing for a television show. Before an audience of millions, Fisher tried and failed to beat his record for free throws in a minute, a source of great embarrassment to him.
Last December, Fisher made 2,371 shots in an hour, blowing past the old record of 1,968. By then, to fight fatigue, he had developed five shooting techniques for each hand. He made 86 percent of the shots with his right hand, 71 percent with his left, while making nearly 40 a minute on average.
“No one’s going to break that one until they find out what I know,” Fisher said.
Last week on Monday night, Fisher set out to break six records at the Centralia High School gym. His attempts drew 63 spectators, according to witness signatures that Connie Fisher will submit to Guinness.
Seven helpers, teenagers to septuagenarians, wore matching T-shirts and stationed themselves near one basket, ready to retrieve the balls and place them on a homemade ramp that put a continuous supply at Fisher’s fingertips.
Two others held counters to record each basket. A woman operated the scoreboard clock from a table at halfcourt. A photographer chronicled the event. A local newspaper reporter took notes. Connie Fisher stood near enough to whisper encouragement.
Two video cameras on tripods recorded the action, as required by Guinness. A banker was one of two required official witnesses. A high school referee, in uniform, was the other. He counted down — 3, 2, 1 — and blew his whistle.
Fisher, with a blank expression, launched balls to the rim, about one every second, depending on which record he was trying to break.
Most fell through the net. The helpers scrambled for loose balls. People in the stands were mesmerized.
In an hour, Fisher set six world records. After the third — 88 free throws made in two minutes with alternating hands, crushing his old record, 62 — Fisher allowed himself a smile.
“I’ve gotten better,” he said as friends, relatives and curiosity seekers applauded. “I’ve gotten better, and I haven’t reached my potential yet.”
It was a complete success. Fisher, pending Guinness approval, broke four of his records. He and Steinlage, now a college freshman, regained a pairs record. Fisher made 25 shots in two minutes while blindfolded, a new category that Guinness approved.
In a hallway afterward, Connie set up a buffet of barbecue beef, salads and homemade cookies. Once people had left, Fisher loaded his equipment and bags of balls into the bed of his pickup.
Unable to sleep, the Fishers rose at 4:30 Tuesday to watch the video and verify the counts. At 6:30, Fisher went to the basement to shoot for 30 minutes.
By midmorning, he was still restless, his mind consumed by the missed shots. In raising the 10-minute record to 448 from 366, for example, Fisher shot 73 percent.
“It was a pretty poor performance,” he said. “There is a speed-accuracy trade-off.”
It was clear he was thinking: there must be a formula for that.