When my recruiting class entered Harvard in 1980, its ambition was to bring the university its first Ivy League men’s basketball title. That didn’t happen. But the 1983-84 team left campus with a consolation prize: It set the N.C.A.A. Division I single-season record for free-throw percentage, 82.2 percent. The record has stood for 37 years. It may not survive the weekend.
I should say upfront that I shot 75.3 percent. My teammates, though: Joe Carrabino, 90.5; Bob Ferry, 90.3; Arne Duncan, 86.7; Keith Webster, 86.7; Pat Smith, 78.1. The national leaders that year were Steve Alford of Indiana at 91.3, then Carrabino, Chris Mullin of St. John’s and Ferry.
“It’s the only uncontested shot in the game,” said Carrabino, who was 153 for 169 from the line that season and is still the program’s leading scorer. “So you might as well be good at it.”
And we were. “If only our 1984 Harvard team could have run and jumped the way we could shoot,” said Monroe Trout, a co-captain of that team, which shot 51.8 percent from the field and missed a share of an Ivy title by one victory.
Ferry agreed. “We were never going to get the all-time record for dunks,” he said.
Men’s college basketball in 1984 did not have the 3-point line or a shot clock. But the free throw, the 15-foot shot worth 1 point, has been a constant, with defenders able only to watch and rebound misses. Our secret was probably that we had good shooters to begin with, but our coach, Frank McLaughlin, emphasized shooting free throws when tired (we ran sprints first) and shooting one-and-ones instead of grooving, say, 10 in a row. We ran sprints if we missed, and it paid off. He seldom had to look at a scoresheet and say, “If only we had made more of our free throws.”
McLaughlin recently recalled a predicament for our opponents. Late in the game, if an opponent was trying to catch up, there would be no obvious player to foul. He remembered such a game against Princeton, coached by Pete Carril. “The ball went to Carrabino and Carril yelled, ‘No, no, don’t foul him.’ Then it went to Ferry and he yelled, ‘No, no, don’t foul him,’” McLaughlin said. Maybe Carril was waiting for the ball to get to me.
There has been more chatter among my teammates lately: Colorado and Oral Roberts have made a serious run at the free-throw record. The only other recent credible attempt was in 2011 by Wisconsin, which went into its final game shooting 82.3 percent, but then went 13 for 19 against Butler and finished at 81.8 percent. The undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins would have lit a cigar.
No longer guards and forwards, we wound up in finance, law, banking, investing, teaching, medicine, journalism and, in the case of Duncan, as a U.S. secretary of education. When we get together now, it’s hard for us not to see each other as we were then: at the line, shooting two, short shorts and all.
The record has allowed us to be a tiny part of college basketball history for 37 years, the answer to a trivia question, and kept us connected to the game. For a time, Louisiana State wore “Beat Harvard” T-shirts as a reminder for its players to focus at the free-throw line. The record also allowed some of us to tell people that we were in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
About that: After the ’84 season, we signed a painted basketball that acknowledged the record and shipped it to the Hall in Springfield, Mass. We would live among the greats! The Hall, though, had a different vision of the company we would keep.
For years, probably until 2002, when the Hall of Fame moved to a new building, the ball was displayed in a case with nine others, including one used by the 1955 Knicks; one dribbled from Winooski, Vt., to Worcester, Mass.; one commemorating Mendy Rudolph’s 2,000th N.B.A. game as a referee. “Milestones” seemed to be the theme. When I visited the ball in 1991, it was a thrill. The best part? The previous time I had seen the ball, when I signed it on campus in 1984, it had only a few of my teammates’ signatures. Now it was full of them.
“I always kidded my brother that my name got into the Hall of Fame before his ever will,” Ferry said, speaking of Danny Ferry, who helped lead Duke to three Final Fours and had a 13-year N.B.A. career.
Carrabino joked recently that the ball was probably deflated now, covered in dust and sitting in a box. He wasn’t far off. “There is every likelihood that the basketball is still in the collection,” Matt Zeysing, a historian at the Hall, said in an email when I inquired about it. “But,” he added, “locating the ball has proved unfruitful.”
The power of the free throw as an offensive weapon was never more evident than last week in the conference tournaments. Georgetown was 23 for 23 from the line in its 72-71 upset of Villanova (14 for 22) and eventually won the Big East’s automatic bid to the N.C.A.A. tournament.
In contrast, Colorado, which entered the Pac-12 tournament shooting 83.37 percent, shot 12 for 20, or 60 percent, from the line in the title game, where the Buffaloes lost by 2 points. The lapse not only cost Colorado a title, but also put the team’s free-throw rate at 419 for 510, or 82.16 percent, just behind our mark, which is 82.18 percent. Colorado will play Georgetown in the N.C.A.A. tournament on Saturday.
Harvard isn’t the only interested party watching this unfold. After Colorado’s slip, Oral Roberts now leads the nation in free-throw percentage, having made 364 of 442, or 82.35 percent. On Friday, the Golden Eagles will play Ohio State, which has C.J. Walker, the best free-throw shooter in Division I (75 for 79, or 94.9 percent).
If the team record is going to be broken, this is probably the year. The rate at which Division I players made free throws was remarkably constant in each season from 1965 to 2009, at about 69 percent, but it has inched up lately, surpassing 70 percent for the first time in 2016-17. This year it is at 70.9 percent. That overall improvement, a lower number of attempts by Oral Roberts and Colorado (Harvard shot 535 for 651 in 1984), a shorter season and a lack of crowds might have helped.
“Every record is made to be broken” was a common sentiment among my teammates, and they wished Oral Roberts and Colorado well in the tournament. But if the record is broken, one of us might be tempted, after all these years, to say, “If only we had made more of our free throws.”
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