[Did you know that Larry Bird’s least-favorite NBA defender was . . . Mike Bantom? Yes, Mike Bantom, who logged eight productive NBA seasons in the 1970s and early 1980s before heading to Italy to close out his pro career. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon takes a closer look at Bantom’s mastery of Bird, checks in on his struggle at the free-throw line, and throws in a little Tae Kwon Do. Lyon’s article appeared on May 15, 1982, which turned out to be the final weeks of Bantom’s one-season run with the Philadelphia 76ers. Then it was off to Italy for six productive years.]
He had made nine in a row. Seven were swishers. One crawled over the front rim and fell through. And one was what the players call a crier, bouncing, back rim, side rim, then, tantalizingly, dropping. The 10th one clanked away, sounding like an anvil dropped from the balcony. Mike Bantom bit his lip.
Nine of 10 free throws, that’s not too shabby. But when you are wallowing in a slump, you forget the nine hits and are haunted by the single miss. Practice doesn’t always make perfect; sometimes it makes ulcers.
He walked to the basket at the other end of the Spectrum, staying late again after the 76ers’ practice yesterday, fired up some more. There were three other Sixers shooting at that end. One by one, they sidled over to him with helpful whispering.
“I just got,” Mike Bantom reported, grinning, “three more philosophies on free-throw shooting.”
The end of Mike Bantom’s key chain is a miniature Rubik’s cube, that infuriating, exasperating snarl of colors. “No,” he said, bouncing the ball for emphasis. “I haven’t figured that out, either.”
Larry Bird is on record with this—the player he most hates to see guarding him is Mike Bantom. The Celtic who is arguably the most-complete, all-around talent in the game today says he would rather be worked over with a rubber hose than try to shake loose from Mike Bantom.
So free throws, for the moment, are a puzzle. And the Rubik’s cube is still an unsolved frustration. They will give him advice from all sides on how to shoot, and they will snatch the cube away and twist it madly. But when the puzzle is Bird-watching, then all they have for Mike Bantom is questions, not answers.
“I got a headstart on the rest of the NBA with Larry Bird,” he said. “I was playing with the Pacers in Indianapolis when he was at Indiana State, and most of their games were on TV. I just had a feeling then that if I was still around when he came to the pros, I might be matched up with him. So, I started memorizing his moves then.
“At Indiana, I was an integral part of the offense, so I’d tried to make him work on defense, take some of the run out of him, try to get him in foul trouble.
“Here, I’m not as involved offensively, so against him I concentrate almost exclusively on defense. We’re the same height, and my arms are maybe a little longer, so I try to contest every shot. And I try to be physical with him, bumping, distracting.
“If he’s just having his normal game, I can bother him. If he is in one of those unconscious rhythms, forget it. He gets into one of those, and you couldn’t stop him with a baseball bat.”
Bird is best when he is allowed to fly freely, play an up-tempo transition game . . . And he came out swooping Wednesday night, gunning in 10 quick points in the first few minutes, jump shots over Bobby Jones. [Sixers Coach] Billy Cunningham frantically dialed his bullpen. Mike Bantom again became Larry Bird’s personal Rubik’s cube. Unsolvable. For the rest of the night, Bird scored only eight points, as the Sixers won, 121-113.
“In the summer,” Mike Bantom was saying, “you’ve got all this energy to burn, but you need time away from basketball itself so you don’t burn out.”
He found his outlet several years ago in martial arts, specifically in Tae Kwon Do, a form of Korean karate. He earned his blue belt last year. The purpose, however, is not to bust stacks of bricks, nor even stacks of heads under an NBA basket.
“It stretches you, helps keep your body flexible,” he said, “and it’s a great mental discipline. Sharpens your concentration, and I find it helps my defense in basketball. It is, after all, a form of self-defense. You’re anticipating your opponent’s moves, hitting and recoiling, countering.
“The people I work out against aren’t 6-foot-9. They’re small and very, very quick. And they don’t have the basketball in their hands slowing them down. If you can keep up with them, you can do all right on the court.”
More free throws. Five straight conversions this time, then three misfires in succession. It is not for lack of persistence. He has stayed after every practice, attended every optional shoot-around, flung up 200-300 free throws every day. But in the playoffs, he is at exactly 50 percent, and without a 6-for-6 game at Milwaukee, would be saddled with an even-more anemic figure.
Mostly, he thinks, he is suffering from over-advice and under-confidence. “I used to be a pretty good free-throw shooter,” he said, “not great, but decent. They said I had a hitch in my swing, and if I smoothed that out, I’d be even better.”
So, he got rid of the hitch. And with it, his touch.
“It seems like I’m not shooting my shot anymore, it’s a combination of everyone else’s suggestions.”
What especially bothers him is that his lack of confidence at the line is now inhibiting the rest of his game. Mike Bantom is most effective when he is aggressive, taking the ball to the basket. “Now my aggressiveness is limited,” he admitted. “It’s like I’m subconsciously afraid to drive because if I get fouled and missed the free throws, it’s like I’ve made a turnover, just given the ball to the other team.”
Rubik invented a cube, and now they have written whole books on how to solve it. But Rubik never had to shoot free throws. And, one-on-one, Larry Bird would have Rubik for lunch.
Mike Bantom sighed and nodded. It was only small consolation. He bounced the ball and stepped back to the line . . .