Memories of Dr. Tom Amberry, World Champion Free Throw Shooter

I’ve spent much of today reading obituaries for my friend, Dr. Tom Amberry, the world’s champion free throw shooter who made 2,750 in a row. I am pleased that the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post both wrote their own accounts of Tom’s life. I wish my friend, who I called Dr. Tom, was here to see the warmth and admiration people felt for him.

I met Dr. Tom after reading in a local paper that he had shot free throws on the Letterman Show. At that time I was trying to break into sports biography writing. But when I read about Dr. Tom, I realized he must know something that would help me become a better golfer. I called him, and asked for his help. He said, “I can’t tell you anything about golf — but I can teach you to focus and concentrate.” I co-wrote the book Free Throw; 7 Steps to Success at the Free Throw Line published by HarperCollins in 1996.

I had many adventures with Dr. Tom over the last 20 years. Two stand out in my mind. I wrote an essay that earned Dr. Tom the KFC Colonel’s Way Award. Actor Tony Randall gave him a check for $10,000 and Tom flew away on a private jet with the vice president of Pepsi to do talk shows in New York. I got a check for $1,000 and, as Dr. Tom liked to kid me, “all the Kentucky fried chicken I could eat.” I flew home coach.

Another time, Tom was challenged to a free throw shootout at the Los Angeles Athletic club for a fund raiser. He was supposed to shoot against the great basketball player Bill Sharman but at the last minute they substituted then-Los Angeles Laker Joe Kleine, a 7-foot center.

With hundreds of people watching from the running track above the basketball court, and a sports announcer barking out the count, Kleine sunk 23 out of 25 free throws. I was a little surprised he did so well and felt a bit nervous for my friend. But Dr. Tom stepped to the line and began drilling free throws with such certainty it was obvious he would make them all. Watching this, Kleine decided to do something unexpected. When Tom looked down to bounce the ball three times, Kleine slid behind the basket and, just as Dr. Tom looked up to shoot, he yelled and waved his arms. The ball hit the hoop and bounced out. The crowd gasped in horror as if they had just seen a murder.

Dr. Tom made the next free throw, and the next and was soon back in his rhythm. Kleine tried his distraction again but to no avail. Each of the remaining balls hit their mark and Dr. Tom finished with 24 out of 25 free throws, edging the NBA player by one.

These were impressive accomplishments, but being with Dr. Tom on a day-to-day basis was what I will miss most. Until the end he spoke with a North Dakota twang and had a playful, but corny, sense of humor. Most of all, he tried to connect with everyone he met, young or old, famous or unknown.

I will miss you Dr. Tom. I learned so much from your wonderful life. And I will remember what you often told me, “We are more limited by our beliefs than our abilities.”

Philip Reed, Long Beach, Calif., March 25, 2017

 

Dr. Tom Amberry, World Champion Free Throw Shooter, Passes Away at 94

Dr. Tom Amberry, who held the world record for making 2,750 free throws in a row, passed away Saturday evening, March 18, at the age of 94.

Amberry set the world record at the age of 71 on Nov. 15, 1993 in an Orange County gymnasium with 10 witnesses verifying the feat. The former professional basketball player-turned podiatrist walked away without a miss. As he put it, “they were closing the gym so they kicked me out.”

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 4.15.18 PMThis amazing accomplishment, which took 12 hours, was in the Guinness Book of Records for years. His accomplishment earned him appearances on national television, including the “David Letterman Show,” and NBC Nightly News. Many articles were written about him including an indepth profile in the Los Angeles Times.

Amberry, who stood 6’7” tall, played for the University of North Dakota and Long Beach City College in the 1940s. He was twice All-American and the nation’s leading scorer. During World War II Amberry served in the U.S. Navy and was on a destroyer at D-Day. Returning to the U.S. he played for the Minneapolis Lakers but then became a podiatrist, practicing in the Long Beach area and treating athletes such as Billie Jean King.

After retiring in 1991, Amberry returned to basketball and took up free throw shooting as a hobby. He began practicing and researching the best biomechanics for this crucial shot, consulting medical journals and sports psychologists. Once he locked in his method, he began shooting 500 free throws a day. A natural left handed shooter, he wore out his shoulder practicing but, undaunted, switched to shooting righty. He set the world’s record using his “off hand.” According to the meticulous records he kept, Amberry made 500 consecutive free throws on 473 separate occasions.

In 1996 Amberry co-wrote Free Throw; 7 Steps to Success at the Free Throw Line, published by HarperCollins. Amberry helped Chicago Bulls Coach Bill Cartwright raise his team’s free throw shooting percentage and coached many college and high school players. He had “shoot outs” against NBA players and never lost.

Amberry was born on Nov. 13, 1922 in Grand Forks, the son of a Welsh immigrant who was a bodyguard that sometimes boxed professionally. At 152 pounds Amberry was too thin for football but played basketball and baseball, earning a sports scholarship.

Known to his friends as “Dr. Tom,” he attributed his free throw shooting success to “focus and concentration.” When coaching young players he always told them, “you’re more limited by your beliefs than you abilities.”

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

Amberry was preceded in death by his wife, Elon, and one son, Tim. He is survived by his sons, Bill, Tom and Robert and 12 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren.