You've heard the old adage "Those who can't, teach". While it may be a misnomer at any level, it's especially untrue in collegiate athletics. Take Detroit Head Coach Ray McCallum, for example, who teaches by doing as I've witnessed through a charity free throw contest.
The Titans' fourth-year head man was one of the most prolific scorers in his playing days, chalking-up 2,109 career points at Ball State University. He did it with a smooth shooting touch that helped overcome any deficiencies that his five-foot-nine frame may have hindered.
"I tell the guys it's all about repetition and trusting your routine," Coach McCallum said in a recent interview regarding free throw shooting technique.
To say that Coach is a perfectionist when it comes to shooting free throws may be a bit of an understatement. Through four rounds of shooting freebies against other NCAA Division I head coaches as part of the "Shots from the Heart" promotion to benefit the Skip Prosser Foundation, McCallum hasn't missed. Not once.
And he's gone longer in a few sessions, beyond the 25 shots that each round requires. In round two-- simply at the request of those watching-- McCallum continued to ripple the net with that same familiar sound. And he kept going. Until he reached 62 straight and fell victim to a peanut gallery of players and on-lookers taking him out of rhythm.
Each session starts the same each time. A few side-to-side twists of the mid-section followed by a warm-up of several shots from inside the 15-foot free throw line. It doesn't take long to gain a rhythm before he steps back behind the line and begins the methodical underbed of the ball effortlessly grazing the back of the rim and falling through with ease with the same pace each time.
While it's impressive that a man nearly 51-years old can still outshoot young men more than half his age, it's the message that when he offers a player tips about shooting-- said player should take note. His team has taken his message and translated it into vastly improved numbers this season, especially at the free throw line.
Last year, the Titans-- and in particular then-freshman Ray McCallum-- started slowly and left empty opportunities at the free-throw line. Take a Dec. 11 game at Eastern Michigan, for example. McCallum, who would score a career-high 31 points in leading Detroit to an overtime win, made just 11 of a school-record 22 free throw attempts. The younger McCallum made 44-of-71 (.620) in his first 11 games as a collegian. But, following that EMU performance, McCallum would make 97-of-133 (.727) the rest of the way.
The game following that 11-for-22 was at Central Michigan University exactly a week later.
Little did I know that a nonchalant conversation between father and son, player and coach, would still be remembered more than a year later.
Detroit had just defeated the Chippewas in resounding fashion, 75-49, behind the strength of McCallum's first career double-double (23 pts, 11 rbs). It wasn't until after the freshman and winning coach addressed the media and were dismissed back to the locker room that I heard some simple words that may have changed the mindset of the young freshman as he gained confidence playing in one of the top mid-major conferences in NCAA Division I.
"I made my free throws," the younger McCallum simply stated about his game that night.
Nevermind the highlight-reel steal and fast-break dunk with defenders in his wake, it was the unguarded 15-footer that McCallum smiled about in the glow of a win. And not just any win, one in front of a national audience on ESPNU, on the opponent's floor and against fellow friends and father-son combo Coach Ernie and freshman Trey Zeigler.
Widely-regarded as one of the best talents to land at the University of Detroit Mercy, the former McDonald's High School All-American has showcased his athletic ability, court awareness and knowledge of the game from day one. But, his improved touch from the free throw line has paid immediate dividends.
The Titans are shooting a league-best 73.4 percent from the line heading into Saturday's Horizon League semifinal game vs. Cleveland State. Included in that total are four players that are in the top 10 in the league in free throw percentage, led by junior Doug Anderson's 80.4 percent clip. McCallum has increased his proficiency since year one, making 75.9 percent while senior Chase Simon is at 76.3 percent and junior sharp-shooter Jason Calliste is right behind at 76.0 percent.
Look no further than Calliste for a lesson in repetition and rhythm. It's not conventional-- but it just works. With a good 12-18 inches between his right foot and the black stripe, Calliste goes through the pre-shot ritual the same each time. Four rotations of the ball around his waist, a tribute to his family with four fingers on his chest and the same number of dribbles each time. Then he'll unbend his knees and straighten out with pure shooter's form that produces positive results consistently.
If routines become habits and learning comes from doing, then Detroit-- who has won 11 of its last 13 games-- is poised to continue its winning ways for a fun run in the tournaments of March.