World's Greatest Free-Throw Shooter Reaches Out to Shaq, Dwight, LeBron
He just might be the greatest pure shooter in basketball history, the greatest untapped resource the NBA has ignored, hidden away now but still ripe to be mined, a little known key that could open the door to a championship season.
To Shaquille O'Neal, Dwight Howard, or even LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, he could be the ticket to an NBA title in 2011.
"I could make any one of them a 90 percent free-throw shooter, if they had a little time and a willingness to learn,'' he says matter-of-factly. "I guarantee it. Then, how much better would they be?''
St. Martin, 75, is living now in virtual anonymity, still giving shooting lessons, mostly local kids, on his modest, backyard court, a no-frills setup where he has lived and taught for the last 35 years, a middle-class lifestyle that belies his place in history.
He has been the World Record Holder (according to Guinness World Records) for consecutive free throws made without a miss since 1972, officially resetting his own record 15 times.
The last -- and still standing record -- came in 1996 when he made 5,221 consecutive free throws during a shooting clinic that lasted more than seven hours.
And even now, with two surgically repaired shoulders -- the toll from millions of shots he has taken -- and two sore knees that need braces to support them, St. Martin still could outshoot any player in the NBA from the free-throw line.
While the body is breaking down naturally with age, his mind remains sharp, still teaching the art he perfected long, long ago, happy to correct all the flaws and misconceptions he sees in players at every level today.
"I don't shoot myself much anymore, but I could hit them if I had to on a bet,'' he said over the weekend at his home after an impromptu lesson with a youngster. "I still love teaching it. Anyone that's willing to listen, and wants to learn, I can make them a 90 percent free-throw shooter. I guarantee it. I'm not a game coach, but nobody can out-coach me when it comes to free-throw shooting. Nobody.''
It has long baffled St. Martin why NBA teams and their players have ignored his offer to help. For 30 years, he toured the United States and Canada, doing shooting exhibitions at sports shows, shopping malls, boat shows and NBA halftime intermissions, rarely missing a chance to never miss a shot in public.
Even though he loves the game, he finds it hard to watch the NBA, the greatest hoops league in the world. It's just too painful sometimes. More than anyone, he knows how much better it could -- and should -- be.
He also holds a lesser-known world record, 84 baskets in eight minutes from 30 feet or more, a considerably longer shot than today's 3-point basket. It's why he tried once, but was denied, to be part of the NBA's 3-point shootout during All-Star Weekend.
He stopped touring almost 10 years ago -- after his second shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff -- then watched in growing frustration as free-throw percentages in the NBA hovered each season in the 75-76 percent range. The NBA matched its all-time high of 77.1 percent in 2008-09, but free-throw shooting dropped back to 75.9 percent last season.
"It has always amazed me that such great athletes are such poor free-throw shooters,'' he said. "They make so much money, but lose games because they can't shoot free throws. I could take any one of them, and make him a better free-throw shooter, a 90 percent shooter.''
In contrast to St. Martin's guarantee, there were only six players in the NBA last season who shot 90 percent or better from the free-throw line.
One of them was Kevin Durant (90 percent), who won his first scoring title (30.1 ppg). Durant also was one of just three players in the league who averaged at least 10 free-throw attempts per game. LeBron James and Dwight Howard were the others. James shot 76.7 percent and averaged 29.7 points, second behind Durant. Howard shot just 59.2 percent and averaged 18.3 points.
St. Martin cringes when you mention great players but notoriously poor free-throw shooters like Howard and Shaquille O'Neal, who shot 59.2 and 49.6 percent, respectively, last season. Over the years, he has tried to reach out to O'Neal's teams, but he always was rebuffed in his efforts.
"Think of all the games in the NBA that have been lost by poor free-throw shooting. It's something that's easily fixable. It's not rocket science. It's simple stuff,'' he said. "I guess, the NBA just thinks I'm too old, too short, to teach it. It still puzzles me.''
The Cleveland Cavaliers, whose disappointing finish in the playoffs last spring led to the team's implosion this summer, were the worst free-throw shooting team in the league (72.0) last season.
The Orlando Magic, who also ended the season in disappointment, were the second worst at 72.4 percent. Both could have benefited greatly from better free-throw shooting.
If O'Neal, now with the Celtics, suddenly became a better free-throw shooter, it surely would increase Boston's chances of returning to the NBA Finals. If Howard, the Defensive Player of the Year, became a 90 percent free-throw shooter, the Magic certainly would increase their chances of beating both Boston and Miami in the Eastern Conference.
If the Magic, for example, shot 90 percent from the free-throw line last season, they would have averaged 107.4 points instead of 102.8 points. It's safe to assume they would have won several more games.
If James, for example, had shot 90 percent from the line instead of 76.7 percent, he would have won another scoring title instead of losing this one to Durant. If James and Wade both shot 90 percent from the line this season in Miami, the Heat would be as good as their current hype.
"I can usually look at a guy and tell him right away what he's doing wrong,'' St. Martin said. "On most shooters, there's not much to change. Maybe it's the follow through, the finish, the knee bend, the balance, where they line up. Sometimes, it's too much body movement. The more movement, the more chance of missing.''
For now, St. Martin mostly has been teaching younger players, teenage boys and girls in the Jacksonville area. It's probably why some of the best shooting percentages in high school basketball in the South come from north Florida.
His world record-setting basketball is displayed prominently today in the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., but he remains on his backyard court, teaching anyone who wants to learn.
Since he stopped touring, he also has been working as a security supervisor for a local power plant, and many of his co-workers don't even know about his world-record claim to fame. He just smiles at the mention, knowing he always comes home to the court where he honed his trade.
The concrete has faded, and the painted lines have chipped and peeled, but the court is the same.
"I'll keep doing this (teaching) as long as I enjoy it,'' he said. "I think the guys making all the money (in the NBA), sometimes just don't want to bother with free throws. And that's too bad. I know for me watching, the slam dunks don't look as good if a guy can't make his free throws.''