Dakota Datebook

Big Kahuna of Free Throws

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Today’s story is about Tom Amberry, who on this date in 1993, made The Guinness Book of Records by sinking 2,750 free throws in a row. In the words of one announcer, Amberry is “the best free throw shooter ever to touch a basketball.”

At the time of his record-breaking performance, Amberry was already retired. In fact, he had just turned 71 two days earlier. Amberry says, “The worst part at this age is not being limber. For the first three to four hours I didn’t take a break. Thereafter I just had a four-minute break. I couldn’t take too long a break, the muscles would get cold.”

Ironically, the record he set that day was limited to 2,750 swishes not because of fatigue, but because the gym was closing.

Since then, Dr. Amberry has been featured on NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, ESPN, Dateline, Day One, The Late Show with David Letterman, NBA Inside Stuff, and ABCs World News Tonight. He’s also traveled the country presenting motivational speeches and basketball clinics for the likes of John Wooden and Bobby Knight. In addition, Amberry serves as Michael Jordan’s free throw coach at MJ’s Flight School.

Amberry grew up in Grand Forks, where he attended Winship Central High School and then UND – until World War II interrupted his life. When he returned, however, he didn’t miss a beat. He was All-American two years in a row and was the nation’s highest scorer in 1946 and 1947.

The Minneapolis Lakers offered Amberry a two-year, no-cut contract when he returned from the war, but he turned it down, because a podiatry school accepted his application. At the time, college enrollments were limited, and he was afraid if he took out two years to play basketball, he might miss his opportunity to pursue a career in medicine.

It was a decision he’s never regretted, but when he later retired, he needed something to do. “In 40 years, I touched a lot of feet and not a basketball,” he told writer Joel Amos. “I retired at the age of 70 and suffered a midlife crisis. I got tired of doing the dishes and vacuuming the house. A friend said, ‘Hey, in the old days you used to play basketball.’ So that’s how it started.”

Proving it’s never too late, within 22 months Amberry became the best free throw shooter in the history of the world. The process began when Amberry set out to learn why he could sink more baskets during practice than in competition. He did a lot of reading, watched a lot of videos and talked to many coaches.
“Everything from how you part your hair to how you tie your shoes,” he says, “I figured it out that it’s like anything else…focus and concentration. Like Yogi says, its 99% mental and 1% physical.”

Dr. Amberry is now called the “Big Kahuna of Free Throws.” He has won 300 gold medals in the Senior Olympics and has twice won the world’s masters’ games in Brisbane, Australia.

“When I’m shooting a free throw,” he says, “I don’t think of anything else. I am 100% positive I will make the basket. Never have a negative thought on the free throw line.”

To help others learn how to accomplish what he has, Dr. Amberry has written a book called Free Throw: 7 Steps to Success at the Free Throw Line. “If you are going to do something,” he says, “why not do it absolutely correct every time.”

Sources:
Tom Amberry, Biography. Harper Collins, Canada. http://www.harpercanada.com/global_scripts/product_catalog/author_xml.asp?authorid=182
Tobin, Paulette. GF elementary school celebrates 100 years. Grand Forks Herald. 7 May 2004.
Amos, Joel D. Two Thousand Free Throws and Counting: The Dr. Tom Story. http://www.members.cox.net/joeldamos/profambery02.html

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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