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A Foolish Consistency

A Foolish Consistency

by William H. Benson

July 14, 2016

     Last week, I happened to hear Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast on two former NBA players, Wilt Chamberlain and Rick Barry. Gladwell, the author of the best-sellers—The Tipping Point and Outliers—noticed that Wilt Chamberlain holds the record for the most free-throws made in a single game, 28 out of 32, on March 2, 1962, the night he made 100 points, another NBA record. Yet, over his entire career, Wilt the Stilt only made 51.1% of his free-throws.

     Gladwell wondered about that anomaly. What did Wilt Chamberlain do different that one night? The answer: he shot his 32 free-throws underhand, holding the ball with both hands, but down low, between his knees, “a granny style,” instead of overhand, the standard free-throw shot. For a time then, Wilt shot underhand, but then later he reverted back to the overhand shot, and his percentage dropped.

     Why did he stop? Wilt explained, “I felt like a sissy.”

     Gladwell insists that the underhand shot is the more accurate method, and yet few, if any, college or NBA basketball players shoot that way, and their percentage-of-shots-made stands at about 70%.

     Rick Barry played professional basketball for fourteen seasons, won the national title in 1975 playing for the Golden State warriors, and he shot most all of his free-throws underhand. “At the time of his retirement in 1980, his .900 free throw percentage ranked first in NBA history.”

     When Rick was young, his dad encouraged him to shoot underhanded, but Rick complained, “Dad, that’s a sissy shot.” His father replied, “Son, they can’t make fun of you if you’re making your shots.” Rick was convinced, and from then on he did not care what other players or fans said about his style.

     Gladwell said that Rick is a guy who does not bow to peer pressure, to the current wisdom, and who “is not looking around the room, checking the temperature, before saying or doing anything.”

     Gladwell provides other examples of commonly-accepted ideas that if challenged, may prove false.

     He wonders why most football teams punt on fourth down rather than run or pass the ball. He is convinced that if teams would fire their punter, they would “win one or two more games each season.” Perhaps, he is correct, but others say it depends upon the team’s offensive strength, as well as the opposing team’s defensive strength.

     Gladwell also suggests that NFL teams should avoid the first round draft picks because of their extreme price and their record of disappointment. General managers will find the future stars, Gladwell says, in the later rounds. For example, the New England Patriots picked Tom Brady in the seventh round, the 199th pick, of the 2000 draft.

     Who among us dares to question and test every idea in the market place of ideas? Gladwell talks about a person’s “threshold,” that moment when she or he lays aside all fear of rejection, all taunts and laughter, all peer pressure, and says or does something another way.

     Historians know that the conventional wisdom has not always proven itself correct, but that it changes, as the generations change. It is the historian who identifies and measures that change.

     In the United States, slavery was once an accepted practice, written into the texts of state and national constitutions. It took the fierce intensity of an abolitionist like William Lloyd Douglas, the political skill of Abraham Lincoln, and a bloody civil war to stomp out that miserable institution.

     Although conditions have improved, human beings all over the world still today must confront racism, segregation, gender discrimination, sexism, exploitation, and tyranny. It is the duty of a courageous man or a woman to challenge those mind-numbing attitudes that smother human creativity.

    Early in the twentieth century, most people were unaware of the health consequences of prolonged tobacco use. “The U.S. Army included cigarettes in soldiers’ rations until 1975.” The conventional thought for decades, that tobacco use was harmless, was proved wrong.

     Human beings kill animals, both the domesticated and wild types. Farmers kill rattlesnakes and prairie dogs. Trappers trap coyotes. For centuries hunters shot and killed this continent’s immense buffalo herds, almost to extinction, but they did drive to extinction the passenger pigeon.

     One person who disagreed with the wanton slaughter of this planet’s rich animal life was Albert Schweitzer. His compassion extended to all life forms, down to the pesky insects; he refused to kill any life form, anything with a will-to-live, after he moved to Africa. He called his philosophy, “a Reverence for Life.” He believed all life forms sacred, and his fundamental principle of morality: “It is good to maintain and cherish life; it is evil to destroy and check life.”

There are always other ways to act. Circumstances change, new technologies and products arrive at the market place, and life-enhancing opinions force themselves forward for others to notice. It takes courage to try something different. Some like Rick Barry embrace the notion. Others, like Wilt Chamberlain, try it for a while, feel ashamed, and quit. Most though refuse to try.