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HUTTON: Sweet concept: History of the Valpo free throw

Coach Virgil Sweet Valparaiso High SchoolÕs basketball squad is dwarfed by three returning regulars . The players are (l.r.) Mike

Coach Virgil Sweet of Valparaiso High SchoolÕs basketball squad is dwarfed by three returning regulars . The players are (l.to r.) Mike OÕNeill, Tom Hampson and Steve Seeling.

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Updated: February 18, 2014 6:35AM



Virgil Sweet didn’t set out to write a book called “Specifics of Free Throw Shooting” that would take him around the world to lecture about the fundamentals of shooting free throws.

He simply wanted a job.

In the summer of 1953, when he landed an interview with Valparaiso High School for its basketball coaching position, the school board required that he demonstrate something about his ability to teach kids a basketball concept.

He decided he’d show the board how to shoot a free throw. Sweet didn’t consider himself an expert. In fact, to practice his presentation, he simply went to the gym, shot free throws and then wrote down 10 steps in a manner that he believed the board could understand.

The board liked Sweet and the presentation well enough to hire him. Little did he know the demo he gave would turn out to be a legacy maker for the coach, who is an Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame member.

“I’m still fascinated by how people are still interested in this,” Sweet said by phone from Clearwater, Fla.

Sweet’s preoccupation with the free throw took off after that meeting and, with the help of assistant Dale Ciciora, those 10 steps turned into 20 and he really did become an expert.

Almost every concept that the Vikings players use today — and all of them shoot free throws the same way — originated in roughly the first 10 years of Sweet’s tenure at Valparaiso.

“It’s not at all complicated,” Sweet said. “We just eliminated unnecessary movement.”

For Sweet, success is predicated on total commitment from the coaches to teach it.

Some of the logic behind their methods seems unorthodox.

Sweet felt like he didn’t want to waste practice time on shooting free throws. Form is predicated on being rigid and robotic instead of loose and free. The right form, with elbows and forearms lined up properly to the basket and the correct amount of tension in the shooter’s arm, means the shooter was in position to release the ball. Proper shots had less than three full rotations before they fell through the basket, but more than one. Arc of the shot was supposed to be medium. Those concepts helped a ball that missed short roll forward into the basket. Negative re-enforcement for missed free throws was banished. Free throws were associated with good memories.

The players didn’t shoot when they were tired because Sweet believes it’s false that players have to learn to make free throws when they are worn down at the end of the game. A free throw is mostly arm movement. Fatigue doesn’t affect shots.

Kids that aren’t following the form are corrected immediately. They must know the difference between the right and wrong way to shoot a free throw.

And most of all, free-throw shooting practice was measured. Mike Copper, a 1965 Valparaiso grad, holds the record for most consecutive free throws in a practice at the school. He made 409.

When Sweet coached, his whole team came in at lunch to shoot free throws. It took 21 minutes to shoot 100 free throws, which is what they were required to do. They would have five players on the line. They had managers, coaches and ball retrieval machines spitting back the balls. At lunch, if a kid had a streak going, all the players would clear the line and watch.

“I think Mike Copper missed his whole next class when he made 409,” former Valparaiso coach Skip Collins said.

Collins, who used the Valpo method when he coached, said the only way to really practice is to count streaks.

“Every kid knew what their longest streak was,” he said. “It was like knowing your social security number.”

Both Collins and Sweet know the Valpo method works if the commitment to implement it is there. Collins knows some of his players would’ve been great free-throw shooters without the method.

He also knows it turned lousy free-throw shooters into good free-throw shooters. He required the method because it worked and that’s what coaches do most of the time when something works. For some reason, it just doesn’t always apply to free-throw shooting.

“We don’t give a kid a choice of what inbounds play to run,” he said. “The only resistance kids ever had is it didn’t look cool. You couldn’t come up with a more effective way to deliver the basketball.”

Times have changed. Valparaiso coach Matt Thomas can’t use the lunch hour for free-throw shooting. He doesn’t have a full 21 minutes in the morning, when the kids come to shoot and they couldn’t miss class to work on a streak.

But they still play for something. The best streak of the morning gets a Starburst. And the players are happy to talk about it. Brandon Nicholas, a junior who has made all eight of his free throws this season, can hold a world class conversation on the art of shooting a free throw. He made 7-of-10 last year. That is a priceless conversation you just can’t have anywhere.



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