Why Don't More NBA Players Shoot Free-Throws Underhanded?: An Exploration of Masculinity in Professional Sports

by Mike Cotton, Director of Sports & Media (Ryerson Futures), Amy Ge, Associate (Feminuity)


As the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup approaches its conclusion this weekend, we were inspired to revisit a curious part of basketball history: players and their long-standing reluctance to perform the “granny shot.” On Season 1, Episode 3 of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, “Revisionist History,” he explores this exact phenomenon, beginning with a story about Wilt Chamberlain.


Wilt Chamberlain is regarded as one of the best basketball players to ever live. He is also objectively one of the worst free-throw shooters in NBA history. In fact, he had a career free throw shooting percentage of 51.1%, meaning he made a little over half the free throws he attempted. Then prior to the 1962 season, something changed: Chamberlain started shooting free throws underhandedly and his percentages drastically improved.


This change in strategy was partly the reason why Chamberlain set the single-game NBA scoring record on March 2, 1962, also known as the night of his infamous 100-point game. To this day, no other player has come close to surpassing this mark.  Chamberlain’s free throw percentage that night was an astounding 87.5%; that season he would achieve the highest free-throw shooting percentage of his career at .613. However, the next season, he stopped shooting underhand and reverted to shooting overhand, and his percentages steadily declined back to his career averages.  


From a physics standpoint, underhanded throws are a better method to shoot because the ball lands softer at the rim and therefore, decreases the shooter’s margin for error. In a league that is obsessed with using statistics and data to identify any advantage that could tip the scales, no matter how marginal, most players still refuse to throw underhandedly despite the science supporting it. Why is this?


The reason players don’t throw underhandedly is simple: it looks “girly.”  In fact, the underhand method is pejoratively dubbed “the granny shot,” regarded as overly feminine and, therefore, “sissy” and unimpressive, which reinforces certain sexist and ageist attitudes of the professional sports world. Meanwhile, the slam dunk is a highly praised move—the crowd goes wild when they see such a feat.  When a player dunks, the commentary typically contains militarized language like “killed it.” It exudes the polar opposite image of the granny shot because a slam dunk is often executed with aggression. 


Sometimes the pressures of gender role expectations can be far more powerful than the desire to make the shot. NBA Hall-of-Famer, Rick Barry briefly relays a story about trying to convince Shaquille O’Neill to shoot underhanded: “I tried to get Shaq to change his approach and he said, ‘I’d rather shoot zero than shoot underhanded.’” O’Neill’s response to Barry underscores an interesting behavioural pattern among basketball players: they would rather forgo their self-interests than compromise a certain image of their masculinity. In Chamberlain’s instance, he consciously refused to continue implementing a solution that at least partially solved for his professional deficiency due to how he was perceived.


Masculinity in professional sports – particularly, black masculinity, as is the case with a 75 percent black NBA league – is often scrutinized by an unforgiving eye. Professional sports establish acceptable (and unofficial) boundaries of masculinity and those who step outside of the lines are penalized harshly. Odell Beckham Jr., a black, star wide receiver for the NFL’s, Cleveland Browns, has been the target of homophobic slurs by his peers and football fans. Despite identifying as a heterosexual, cisgender man, Beckham Jr. still faces a barrage of hateful comments about his perceived sexuality. The impetus for the harassment comes from assumptions made about his smaller stature, his flamboyant hairstyle, and his on-field celebrations which include dancing and pirouetting. Some have said that he “celebrates touchdowns like he's performing in a Broadway show.”


The problem with the traditional framing of masculinity is that it is not an inherently negative or positive thing, nor is it exclusive to any specific gender. Instead, it is a trait that exists in people regardless of a person’s gender identity.  Hypermasculinity, or toxic masculinity, however, is an extreme version of the masculine ideology that exaggerates dominance, risk, and violence. Hypermasculinity emphasizes that “men” should in no way be like “women.”* This is why we must interrogate the collective mindset that deems the granny shot unappealing. 


The danger of this rigid portrayal of manhood in professional sports is that it gets reproduced outward in the broader society. It sometimes becomes the only model of masculinity to which impressionable young viewers can refer. That isn’t to say that there aren’t athletes who reject this tired paradigm; professional sports can also be a site for alternative versions of masculinity to flourish, such as NFL player Colin Kaepernick who demonstrates manhood through moral integrity, resolution, and political activism. There is space for different conceptions of manliness that are not shaken by how an athlete chooses to celebrate a touchdown, how they express their principles, or even the way they choose to shoot free-throws. 


*Referring to genders in this way usually means the traditional notions about “men” and “women”, leaving little room for other genders, or other ideas about gender roles, to be discussed.


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Feminuity Team