Kevin Durant begins his routine by mumbling three motivational words to himself, a quick reminder of his purpose as all eyes descend upon him.
“Knock it down,” the Thunder forward says as he marches to the foul line.
Durant takes a deep breath, relaxes his shoulders. He spins the ball, takes one dribble and bends his knees. While crouched, Durant gives the ball one last spin as he scrunches his shoulders twice over.
The last bit, the shoulder shimmy, is the quirk that's become a staple in Durant's free-throw shooting routine and the latest in a long line of peculiar free-throw rituals by NBA players.
“I don't even think about it. I just do it,” Durant said of his unique free-throw approach. “Sometimes I don't even remember I do it.”
Durant will share the court with one of the more distinctive free-throw shooters in the NBA tonight as Gilbert Arenas leads his Washington Wizards into the Ford Center. Before Arenas hoists his foul shots, he routinely puts the ball behind his back three times and takes three dribbles.
Around the league, Phoenix's Steve Nash practices his form without the ball before receiving the ball from the official and duplicating the same shot. Detroit's Richard Hamilton takes two forward dribbles and one to his right side before shooting. And Dallas' Jason Kidd has long blown a kiss to the rim before each of his foul shots as a signal to his now ex-wife but also to remember to focus on the task at hand.
In addition to having unique free-throw rituals, Durant, Arenas, Nash, Hamilton and Kidd all shoot at least 80 percent from the foul line.
Durant has performed his ritual since the end of his rookie season in Seattle, starting the routine missing a batch of freebies and thinking to himself, ‘Man, I just got to get loose.' He swished the next few and the custom stuck.
But, believe it or not, Durant traces the origin of his routine back to Antoine Walker. When Durant was growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, he remembers being glued to his television set as Walker, then with Boston, posted a career-high 49 points on the Wizards. At the time, Walker, a former three-time All-Star, drew attention to himself by shimmying after heating up and sinking baskets.
“I always was a big Antoine Walker fan. He made it look easy,” Durant said. “Me and my Godfather used to watch him all the time and he used to do it all the time. That's why I liked it. I can't do it after I score so I tried to put in my free throws.”
Durant has noticed other unusual free-throw mannerisms. Two of his all-time favorites were former guards Nick Van Exel and Jerry Stackhouse. Van Exel shot free throws while standing about three feet behind the charity stripe. Before every free throw, Stackhouse would squat so low that his bottom nearly touched the floor.
Other more popular rituals in recent years came from former Utah guard Jeff Hornacek, who would rub the right side of his face as a way of saying hello to his children. Jazz forward Karl Malone talked quietly to himself and took the entire allotted time of 10 seconds, or more depending on who you ask. And former center Alonzo Mourning used to pause just before shooting to kiss his left wristband and blot his brow.
“It doesn't help you miss or make a free throw,” Durant said of the rituals. “But guys just like to have their own unique little deal.”
Jim Poteet, a former basketball coach and athletic director at Southern Nazarene, disagrees. Poteet has won more than 300 medals in free-throw shooting competitions and wrote his doctoral dissertation at Oklahoma State on “The Paradox of the Free Throw,” contending that what makes the free throw look so easy actually is what makes it so hard. A ritual, Poteet said, is vital to successful foul shooting.
Too often, Poteet said, players think negatively by hoping they don't miss, add pressure by thinking they've got to make the shot or think nothing at all, which allows their minds to wonder aimlessly.
“When you step to the line to shoot the free throw, you want to become process-oriented rather than outcome-oriented,” said Poteet, who once made 489 consecutive free throws. “When you watch Kevin, he's one of the very best free-throwers in the NBA because you see him never change the way he takes a free throw.”
Poteet notes that about 21 percent of a all points in any basketball game come at the foul line, which is in line with the Thunder's totals this season. He estimates that over the course of an 82-game season, a team can win or lose between 15 games because of foul shooting. And for many teams, eight wins could be the difference between whether they make the postseason or not.
Thunder fans then would be happy to know Durant, a career 86.6 percent foul shooter, plans to keep his shoulder shimmy around for the rest of his career.
“I don't plan on changing it,” he said.