Discover more from The Inside Edge
Meet My Free-Throw-Shooting `Godfather’
At 83 years young, Tom Steury recently made his 1 millionth free throw since he began tracking his efforts in 2005. He’s a sweet-shooting, swish-seeking inspiration to me.
Over the past 18 years, if basketball zealot Tom Steury hasn’t missed more free throws than anyone else in the world, then he’s certainly a contender: the Seattle-area octogenarian has missed 77,016.
But I suppose it’s only right to look on the bright side, to see the cup as 92.86% full, if you will. That’s the proportion of free throw attempts he has made since December 2005.
Tom has learned from those misfires, steadily fine-tuning his accuracy from 80% that first month. Five years later, in 2010, he made 90.46 % of his shots. Over the past two years, he’s been 96.05% and 96.13%, respectively. Somehow, with even less margin for error to maintain the upward trajectory, he’s kept getting better.
When you tabulate it all—or, more precisely, when Tom has done so—it has all added up.
On September 19th at 425 Fitness Redmond, Tom reached the 1-million milestone in front of about 60 friends and family members.
Certainly, now might be a good time to tackle this basic question:
Why would someone not only do the same thing over and over and over again, but go to the trouble of tracking it all?
“I really feel good when I can do something with a high degree of accuracy,” Tom explains. “If I can shoot 96%, I just feel really good that I can do it. What’s the deal with endorphins? Aren’t those things real? My body needs it. It’s just a really good feeling.”
A few months ago, Tom’s wife, Ruth Ann, was in her final days of life after battling cancer since May 2021. Tom’s trips to the local gym slowed markedly, but she continued to give her blessing that he get himself to the gym.
“She was so positive. At one point I asked Ruth Ann, I said, `We’re getting close to (one million makes). I want to know from you, honey—do you want me to push it and get this done before you pass away?” Tom says. “She said, `I’d like to be there, but I won’t be there the way I was a year ago,’” referring to his 82nd birthday, when he made his 1 millionth attempt.
In those final days and weeks for her, Tom found solace in the basketball outlet; now that he is a widower, it remains a refuge.
“It’s a time when I can get my mind off of everything else…I feel her support the whole way to continue to do it,” Tom told me a few weeks ago. “It has definitely been an escape for me.”
Almost without exception, Tom shoots in multiples of 100, usually 300 or 400 at a time. His favored time is early in the morning, and his activity takes about an hour. That’s plenty of time to reflect about other areas of his life and other people, like his parents.
“They raised me, they supported me in whatever I tried to do. They came to every away basketball game, driving through the snow in the winter nights back in Indiana when I was a senior in high school,” Tom recalls. “They hurt more when we lost a game, I think, than I did.”
“What’s going through my mind now is my parents would be really proud to see I was able to persevere and reach one million free throws made,” Tom continues. “God’s been pretty good to me and I’ve had a lot of good success in health and all that. I’m just appreciative I’m able to do these things.”
Eleven days ago, it was an emotional gathering for Tom’s 1,000,000th make. Only two days earlier was the memorial service for Ruth Ann, who passed away on August 3rd. Her photograph, as well as the flowers from her service, were in Tom’s line of vision as he shot.
Tom had lined it up so that he was 30 makes shy of the seven-figure threshold. He broke up those 30 in batches of 10, pausing before each one to share remarks about his lifelong passion for the game, appreciation for the support he’s received from family and friends, and related reminisces.
He made his first attempt, missed his second, then knocked in 29 straight. His 30-of-31 marksmanship was right in line with his standard accuracy: 96.8%.
“I was very pleased that I was as relaxed as I was,” Tom shared afterwards. “The swishing of the net sounded good.”
Tom is something of a Free-Throwing Godfather to me.
I first heard of him in the Summer of 2022, shortly after Seattle media coverage of his 1 millionth free throw attempt (on his 82nd birthday) circulated on social media and came to the attention of two or three friends, each of whom sent me media links, like this one, to his feat.
They did so because, in Tom, they see an older, improbably more obsessive free throw-shooting version of me. Like Tom, I have a lifelong love of basketball and played competitively through high school. And like Tom, I began taking—and tracking—my free throws many years ago, a practice that was chronicled by a local sports columnist during a slow news week 10 years ago.
Tom and I had our first phone conversation shortly after Thanksgiving last year. I had tracked him down through 425 Fitness, and we began comparing notes on our respective journeys.
Tom has taken a whole lot more free throws than I have—I’m at “only” 173,302 attempts. Also, while Tom shoots solely with his right hand, I am ambidextrous, making 84% with both hands since I began my quest as a 38-year-old.
On the one hand, it has taken me 16 years to reach 90% with either hand (I’m at 90.7% righty this year, through 14,754 attempts); on the other hand, at 55, I am 15 years younger than Tom was when he reached that level over a full year, in 2010.
Thanks for reading The Inside Edge! Subscribe for free to receive new posts every Wednesday and Saturday morning.
Tom began in December 2005—at 65 years old, he was done with pickup basketball games, but he wasn’t done with shooting hoops. It began one day after a workout. The gym door was open and a ball was sitting in there, beckoning. He picked it up and took 100 shots. He made 80 of them and decided to make note of it and start tracking his efforts.
In my case, it was March 2007 when I began my journey. Inspired by Guinness World Record ultra-endurance athlete George Hood and his motto of “Set Goals, Keep Score, Break Records.... Anything Else is Just Exercise,” that’s when I decided to start taking, and tracking, my free throw attempts when I was at the gym.
For both of us, our sessions are almost always solo, with no rebounding help. When we’re in a good rhythm, all it takes is a few steps to collect the ball after it drops through the hoop. One of the best feelings is when the perfect swish-and-backspin combination sends the ball 15 feet right back to us; on average, we can muster about six or seven attempts per minute.
As we learned more about one another, Tom and I discovered that we both played with our college fraternity intramural basketball teams (Tom’s a 1962 Purdue grad; I went to Big Ten rival Northwestern University a quarter-century later) and we are both mathematically minded.
Tom was an electrical engineer for Boeing and has served as a math tutor for the last 18 years. I have provided math literacy training to media organizations, among others, since 2001 and see the world through such an overwhelming mathematical lens that people occasionally ask me if I am on the autistic spectrum.
There is one subtle difference in our approaches: Tom takes two or three dribbles before shooting and doesn’t care about shooting with the seams. I take one dribble, or none, and always shoot with the seams—a form that legendary Boston Celtics coach and executive Red Auerbach taught me nearly 40 years ago at his basketball camp.
Our math-minded penchants have enabled us to readily keep track of our makes and misses, with different systems for keeping mental tabs on our consecutive streaks.
His all-time best, set earlier this year, is 273 in a row. (Remarkably, that makes barely a 5% dent in the all-time Guinness World Record of 5,221 straight free throws, set by Ted St. Martin in 1996.)1
My best is 99 righty and 74 left-handed, whereas Tom has made at least 100 in a row on a staggering 313 occasions. That includes stretches of 137, 169 and 187 over a three-day period this past week (when he made 1,159 of 1,200 shots, good for 96.4%).
That’s right—Tom missed another 41 free throws this week.
His 1 millionth make was by no means a finish line—it was just a step along the way. He’s now setting his sights on a few new goals: lifting his cumulative accuracy from 92.86% to 93.0% and making his 1,100,000th free throw. Based on his recent pace, he may well achieve both over the next 18 months.
As he told me yesterday, “The desire continues.”
Tom and I have both befriended Ted, who is truly the Godfather of All Free-Throw-Shooting Godfathers. Tom and Ruth Ann visited Ted and his wife, Barbara, at their Florida home about 12 years ago. In addition, Ted watched Tom’s 1 millionth make via livestream on Sept. 19th. Yesterday, Ted said of Tom, “He looks like he could go for another 10 years.”
As a journalist, I featured Ted twice in the late 1990s, including a profile on a visit he made to a corporate gathering in the Chicago area. We have remained in touch ever since. At 88, Ted is still an avid fan of watching basketball, though shoulder injuries ended his own shooting career when he was 70.