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