The referee hands Canyon Barry the ball at the free throw line and the Elon student section goes after him almost immediately.
They’re college students, so they’ve done their homework, studied the subject material and mapped out an appropriate course of action for what they are about to witness.
“You are a grandma! You are a grandma!” the students chant while clapping in rhythm, even before Canyon has a chance to attempt his underhand free throw — a shot that became a trademark of his father, NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry.
With no preamble, Canyon takes the ball from the referee, bends his knees slightly and softly tosses the ball from below his waist just over the front of the rim and into the basket. He does it exactly the same way on his second free throw, and then jogs to the other end of the court.
The Elon students are silenced for a moment, but quickly regroup and take one last dig at the College of Charleston sophomore: “Not Rick Barry! Not Rick Barry!”
Standing just a few feet away, Canyon can’t help himself as he lets the slightest smile cross his lips.
“You try not to listen to them, but sometimes, even I’ve got to admit they are pretty funny,” he said. “I think that atmosphere, the fans getting on you, is what college basketball is all about. It’s what makes it fun and why I love to play.”
Of course, this wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last time Canyon is taunted by opposing fans. As far as anyone knows, he is the only player at the collegiate or professional level that shoots free throws underhand.
Rick Barry might be one of the few people on the planet that can empathize with his son.
Long before Rick was voted one of the 50 best players in NBA history, fans ridiculed him for his “granny” free throws when he was a high school player in Roselle Park, N.J.
Rick says he was an average free throw shooter before his junior season — making about 70 percent of his attempts — and wanted to improve. His father, Richard Barry Jr., who played semi-pro basketball and coached at a parochial school, convinced him to switch to the underhand free throw. Rick worked the entire summer between his sophomore and junior seasons to perfect the shot.
He recalled the crowd’s reaction the first time he used the underhand shot — against one of his high school’s biggest rivals.
“I could hear this one guy say, ‘Hey, Barry you big sissy, why are you shooting like that?’”
The heckling continued, even as Rick made every free throw. Finally, another fan yelled: ‘“What are you making fun of him for, he doesn’t miss.’” Rick said. “From then on, I was OK with it. What they said in the stands didn’t matter after that.”
Rick would become one of the game’s all-time great free throw shooters, making nearly 90 percent of his attempts during a 14-year professional career in the ABA and NBA. At the time of his retirement, the eight-time NBA All-Star was the best free throw shooter in league history at 89.3 percent. During the 1978-79 season, Rick missed just nine free throws in 169 attempts, shooting at a 94.7 percent clip, the best of his career. He shot better than 90 percent from the free throw line in seven of his final eight seasons in the NBA. Only Steve Nash (90.43 percent) and Mark Price (90.39 percent) finished their careers with better shooting averages.
“I got better as my career went on,” Rick said. “You learn from your mistakes, you make adjustments. I did it basically by myself because no one else was shooting them like I was.”
For more than three decades, Rick has preached the gospel of shooting free throws underhanded. He has crisscrossed the country trying to get players to overcome the stigma of shooting “granny” shots.
“It’s a pride factor,” Rick said. “It’s the easiest shot in basketball. It’s the same spot, the same distance every time. No one is guarding you. If you’ve got pride in your game, in your craft, you should make four of five free throws every time. I don’t understand why guys who are not making 80 percent of their free throws don’t just try it.”
Two North Carolina State University professors — Dr. Chau Tran and Larry Silverberg — did a study on free throw shooting and found that the motion of shooting underhanded was more natural than the traditional overhand approach.
“It’s physics,” Rick said. “It’s one fluid motion. It’s not three different movements. It’s just more natural to shoot them that way. That’s not me saying that, that’s science.”
After a recent College of Charleston practice, Rick showed the underhand free throw to several of his son’s teammates. Freshman Donovan Gilmore and 7-2 junior center David Wishon took their turns working with Rick. Gilmore is a solid free throw shooter at 75 percent (21 of 28), but Wishon has made just three of 10 attempts this season.
After a just a few minutes, Wishon and Gilmore were making free throws at a respectable clip.
“It’s different,” Gilmore said. “I can see why it would work better for some guys. I’m just used to shooting the way I’ve been shooting so I probably won’t change.”
Wishon was still a little skeptical.
“I would need some time to work on it and get confident in my shot,” he said.
Rick Barry has five sons, four from his first marriage — Scooter, Jon, Brent and Drew — all of whom played professionally.
Besides Canyon, Brent is the only one to shoot free throws underhand, when he played for Oregon State in the early 1990s.
“I didn’t want to pressure any of my boys to shoot free throws the way I did,” Rick said.
Canyon didn’t use the underhand shot until his junior year at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, Colo. He would have started sooner, but his hands weren’t big enough.
“You want your hands to be on top of the ball,” Canyon said. “I didn’t have big enough hands until I got to high school to grip the ball the way I needed to.”
He spent an entire summer working on his underhand free throws. His shooting style is a little different from his father’s — Rick Barry would take three dribbles and then shoot, Canyon forgoes the dribbling.
“Canyon is a science and math guy,” Rick said. “Dribbling takes time. He doesn’t dribble so he can get more practice shots in. Having the same routine is the key, so no matter what situation you’re in, it’s always the same.”
Besides deleting the dribble, Canyon also holds the ball further away from his body. That’s more out of necessity because of the uniforms players wear these days.
“My dad’s shorts were a lot shorter,” Canyon said. “The shorts now are way longer, so when I was first shooting free throws, the ball would get caught in my shorts. I had to hold the ball further away from me.”
During his freshman season at the College of Charleston, it wasn’t just players and fans from other teams that were puzzled by Canyon’s shooting style.
“The first time he did it in practice, I did a double take,” Wishon said. “Fans are always shocked when he takes that first free throw if they haven’t seen it.”
Some fans taunt him, but most are intrigued and want to see it again. Fans at UNC Wilmington and Northeastern begged their players to foul Canyon.
“You hear, ‘Foul No. 24, foul No. 24’ all the time when we’re on the road,” Gilmore said. “They think its cool he shoots like that.”
Canyon hasn’t mastered the technique yet. He’s shooting 69 percent (20 of 29) from the free throw line this season.
But he isn’t about to go back to the conventional style.
“It’s a process,” Canyon said. “I think it’s a way to honor my father.”