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Failure Most Foul
Jack McCallum
March 20, 1989
Cleveland's Chris Dudley and Denver's Jerome Lane are the latest on a long list of NBA bricklayers from the foul line
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March 20, 1989

Failure Most Foul

Cleveland's Chris Dudley and Denver's Jerome Lane are the latest on a long list of NBA bricklayers from the foul line

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There's a mild buzz of anticipation as Christopher Guilford Dudley—a graduate of Yale, the grandson of a former U.S. ambassador to Denmark and, most notably, a bad, bad, foul shooter—moves to the free throw line for two shots. The date is Jan. 29, 1989, the place is the Baltimore Arena, where the Washington Bullets are playing a "home" game, and Dudley, a backup center for the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers, is about to make foul-shooting history.

Dudley is adequate in all other phases of the game, but from the line he's absolutely awful. So no one is surprised when Dudley's first shot is a dud, which may soon become standard NBA lingo for a bad free throw. Dudley misses his second try, too. Ah, but Bullet guard Darrell Walker goes into the lane before the shot hits the rim, and Dudley gets another try.

Dudley puts up his third attempt. It misses, but ref Earl Strom calls a second Washington lane violation, on center Dave Feitl. So Dudley shoots a fourth time. It misses, but Feitl is called for yet another lane violation, again by Strom, a veteran official who to that point thought he had seen it all. Dudley fires up throw number 5. It misses. There's no lane violation. Washington rebounds the ball. And Dudley has become the first NBA player to miss five free throws on a single nightmarish excursion to the line.

Walker and Feitl, like so many other players before them, were confused by Dudley's style. He dips his arms and bends his knees, like most players, but does not release the ball on his way up. Instead, he returns to the start-up position, sometimes dips his arms again—he has a hitch in his hitch, as Leon (Daddy Wags) Wagner used to say about his baseball swing—and then releases the ball. The effect is the same as when one of the Harlem Globetrotters launches a free throw and the ball zips back to him on an elastic band, except that Dudley isn't trying to be funny, and the opponents are the Washington Bullets, not the Washington Generals.

In an exhibition game against the Miami Heat at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Oct. 16, Dudley was so exasperating, he was whistled for a "fake free throw." Referee Darrell Garretson thought Dudley was trying to draw a lane violation with his strange shooting motion. When there's no lane violation on a Dudley free throw, there's at the very least a scene in which several players struggle to keep from falling into the lane too early, a tableau that suggests a bunch of kids trying to keep their balance on a log floating in a creek.

It goes by two names: free throw, which it almost is when the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird (.880 for his career), the Milwaukee Bucks' Jack Sikma (.846), the Detroit Pistons' John Long (.847) or any of a couple of dozen other players shoot it; and foul shot, which it certainly is when Dudley, the Denver Nuggets' Jerome Lane, the Pistons' Dennis Rodman, the Heat's Rony Seikaly, the Golden State Warriors' Larry (Mr. Mean) Smith or the Los Angeles Clippers' Greg Kite shoot it. Most foul. Definitely.

At week's end Dudley, who's in his second NBA season, and Lane, a rookie, were scuffling around in the nether regions of bad foul shooting, down there where few have laid brick before, not even the patron saint of the breed, Wilton Norman Chamberlain, whose career mark was .511. Dudley, a .563 foul shooter last year, was at .357 (35 of 98), while Lane was at .353 (30 of 85).

Smith, a career .553 shooter, was right with them, but had attempted only 44 free throws this season, so we'll withhold judgment. Dudley and Lane are outclanging another foul foul shooter of recent vintage, the San Antonio Spurs' Ozell Jones (.398 in 1984-85), but they'll have to go some to beat Utah Jazz's Steve Hayes (.306 in '85-86).

Consider: NBA coaches will kill for a 90% free throw shooter, would be overjoyed if everyone shot 80%, silently hope for 75%, accept 70% from certain players and even endure 60% from one or two others. But 50%, 40%, 30%? Rarely.

Rodman was the most celebrated bad foul shooter last season, having air-balled a couple in key spots during the playoffs and having said, "I'm shooting fouls so bad, frankly I'm amazed when I make any." But even Rodman, who worked with a shooting coach in the off-season and was hitting .596 at week's end, must seem almost Birdlike to Dudley and Lane.

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