STROKE of GENIUS
April 19, 2001
It Didn't Look Like a Percentage Move, but Eddie Palubinskas, an Australian Free-Throw Phenom, Made It His Mission and Got Shaq Untracked.
By TIM BROWN, Times Staff Writer
The man who saved the Laker season is 50 years old, with eyes blue as pool water, a rickety gait, and a plan to teach the world how to shoot free throws a driveway at a time, if that's what it takes.
The man who saved the Laker season regards himself as the Johnny Appleseed of jump shots, dropping seeds of shooting-stroke wisdom on a public of bricklayers bereft of touch.
To prove his gift, six months ago he chose as his pupil the largest and most challenged among us.
And Tuesday night at Staples Center, before God, James Naismith, Tex Winter and, out there somewhere, Don Nelson, Shaquille O'Neal fired 13 free throws and made every single one of them, free-throw perfection from the imperfect shooter.
Eddie Palubinskas, the man who saved the Laker season, sat four rows from the floor. In time, he turned off his video camera, lowered it to the table before him and simply watched the last few shots fall.
On Wednesday morning he left Los Angeles, unsure if he'd be back.
His work, as superheroes often say, was done here.
As the Lakers rested Wednesday, the first day of their postseason, they did so with the notion that O'Neal is as whole and dangerous as he's ever been, armed with O'Neal's ferocity and Eddie's foul shot.
"I told Shaq on Day One, 'This is bigger than me and you,' " Palubinskas said. "'This is for the whole country. If we can do this, I want to help every little kid. Every mom and dad. If a kid can shoot, he's got a future. So, if you get better, Shaq, you are touching everybody. Everybody."
And they were off. . . .
Palubinskas is a plucky Australian who attended Louisiana State and played for Coach Dale Brown 15 years before O'Neal did, and then served as a volunteer shooting coach for O'Neal's 1990-91 team. Between stints at LSU, he was a star on two Australian Olympic teams, averaging 33.1 points in the 1976 Summer Games. He was a high school basketball coach in Utah and Louisiana, and now makes a living as an artist and a nationally decorated free-throw shooter, just this month making 523 consecutive free throws at an exhibition at the Final Four in Minneapolis.
More than a year ago, he began faxing Leonard Armato, O'Neal's agent, with offers to reunite with O'Neal, to help where so many others failed.
"I started really feeling deep, sincere sympathy for the guy," Palubinskas said. "It just didn't make sense that we couldn't fix this."
Interest from the O'Neal camp was lukewarm, at best, and then O'Neal was named NBA most valuable player and the Lakers won their championship and Palubinskas figured it just wouldn't work out.
O'Neal thought otherwise. After a handful of faxes, Palubinskas arrived at the Lakers' doorstep on Nov. 1, with a two-month contract from O'Neal and a plan to change the world, starting with O'Neal, free throw by free throw.
"It's a spiritual thing for me," Palubinskas said. "I've been so blessed in my life. As a small [6 feet 1] white guy, I've played every level of basketball. I've gotten every award possible. So, it's doable. By being blessed, I'm looking at what's my value in life. If I can't give back, after what I've been blessed with, even though it's stupid shooting baskets, down the road I'm hoping I did well."
Palubinskas' theory of revolution is part mechanical, part Zen, part angles, part flow. He has terms for the four possible breakdowns in a free throw, from the anatomical anomaly to behavioral dysfunction, cognitive deficiency and habitual inconsistency. Everybody has at least one. Everybody but Palubinskas.
"Oh," Palubinskas said, "he had all of them. We had to totally reinvent the shot." It was a matter of 18 inches. Six inches of flex each at the knees, right elbow and right wrist, all fired together in the name of a single point.
"Grip, dip and rip," Palubinskas said.
"Clank, bank and rank" was more like it, everything but "sank."
On Dec. 8, O'Neal missed all 11 free throws, a horrid thing that actually knocked Wilt Chamberlain from league records, and his season shooting percentage fell to .385. Two weeks later, his shooting percentage was .373.
About that time, Coach Phil Jackson said the Lakers wouldn't win consistently until O'Neal made his free throws. It was costing them points and, in some instances, the Lakers lost close games with O'Neal, the sport's most dominant player, on the bench in the fourth quarter, Jackson guarding against the Hack-a-Shaq.
All the while, O'Neal and Palubinskas were getting closer, 100 practice shots at a clip, 500 or more in a night, sometimes until 11 p.m. Then, as O'Neal practiced, Palubinskas turned up the music in the gym, he danced in front of him and shouted insults, to test his concentration.
"I said, 'Shaq, when you start seeing me in your dreams, you better let me know, because that's when we can start really shooting,' " Palubinskas said. "Forty-five days later, he said, 'Ed, I was dreaming about you.' I said, 'Shaq, I've been dreaming about you for three years.' Then I thought, 'Gosh, this is not good, that I'm dreaming more of Shaq than I do my wife. That's sad.' "
So came the gradual proficiency. O'Neal stopped hitting the front of the rim. The basketball jerked out of his hands less and less. The shots all started to look similar, even if they didn't all fall.
In his last 17 games, O'Neal is 175 for 263 from the line, 66.5%. No longer fearful of the line, O'Neal has unleashed his most aggressive game, bulling over lesser centers who are left with the options of fouling him or being scored on.
He finished the season with 11 consecutive games of at least 31 points. The Lakers, sagging from inconsistent play and peripheral issues of chemistry, jumped on, riding him to a franchise-record eight consecutive victories to end their season and the second seeding in the Western Conference playoffs, their season saved by O'Neal's free throws, and by the man who gifted them to him.
"Now, the press, when they talk about free-throw shooting, it's not a knife in his heart," Palubinskas said. "It's more pleasant. He can discuss it if he wants to. And he'll open up because he's doing it more consistently.
"My dream is to have the playoffs, the seventh game, one second left, Shaq on the line, one-and-one. That would be just suicidal for me. I'd fall to pieces. But that stuff with Shaq is building up. That's the true champion he is. He doesn't want this legacy of these free throws hanging over his head, so he's incomplete. . . . And now, the playoffs, and he wants the ball. Man, oh man."
Eddie Palubinskas, the man who saved the Laker season, smiled and laughed. One down. Lots of jumpers to go. He can't wait to get started.