Askville: Hoop, there he is

On April 22, 1989, a hush—or something like it—fell over a crowd of nearly 20,000 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. It was halftime during a Knicks game, and on the Garden’s polished floor, a unique drama was unfolding.

Fred Feder

From the sidelines, Patrick Ewing—all 6 feet 9 inches of him—rose and strode across the court. His opponent, a 5-foot-4-inch man in his mid-60s, met Ewing at the foul line. The man was Fred Feder, basketball’s self-proclaimed free-throw wizard. Looking up into the abyss that is the Garden’s ceiling, Feder realized that his usual points of reference for free throws were missing. His knees began knocking. He steadied himself, and after throwing a couple of stones, got his game back. Even with a bad case of performance anxiety, Feder made a respectable 5 of 10 shots; Ewing, 9 of 10. “You did very well,” said Ewing—a compliment that’s never left Feder.

Feder grew up in the Bronx. At 18, he entered the Navy and served out the final year of World War II on the USS Curtiss. College followed, leading Feder to a long career with the New York state Department of Labor. “Great job,” he says. “I had three state cars.”

Sometime in the 1950s, he began taking his lunch breaks at the nearest gym. He demonstrated a knack for foul shots, and the swish of the net has been the accompaniment to his life ever since, at exhibitions and store openings (including seven grand openings for the Sports Authority. “I’ve never took a penny,” he says proudly), competitions and hours of solo practice.

Today, Feder lives with Muriel, his wife of 49 years, in a modest home on a mountainside near Candler. Nearly two years ago, arthritis brought his free-throw career to a halt, but not before he’d sunk an estimated 2 million baskets. Feder’s book, My 50 Years as a Basketball Free Throw Wizard, is written and awaits publication. Here’s what he has to say:

Mountain Xpress: How did you wind up in Asheville?
Fred Feder: I went up here on my vacation from Florida. I visited the Civic Center and saw the Asheville Altitude, and they wanted me to perform at an open house for the community. This was a few years ago. So I moved up here, and they folded up and were gone—they’re not there anymore. But they sent me a T-shirt.

It looks like you’ve got a patch on your sleeve. What’s that?
Got another hour? [Chuckles.] See, President Bush senior gave me the Presidential Sports Award. The patch I put on myself. It looks nice. I’ve got letters, autographs, from governors—Schwarzenegger, Pataki; from presidents—all the Bushes, [and] Clinton; from Colin Powell, from Bob Dole, Elizabeth Dole, and from the NBA Commissioner David Stern. I’ve had coffee with Walt Frazier. I met Wilt Chamberlain. I spent a week with the New York Giants. Oh, and here’s a picture of me with Terry Bellamy, the Asheville mayor. So many stories.

What’s the story behind your free-throw ability?
I found a new way to shoot baskets. I started shooting and the ball went in. I’ve never played a game of basketball in my life.

How exactly do you do it?
See, the typical NBA player, he never sees his hands. But I bring mine way back, and when I got to that certain spot where the ball went in, I remembered that—how far back, and when to release. But it hurts the shoulders. Most people, when they’re free-throwing, don’t have their head and arms back this far, but I do. You don’t have to see the basket. You can stand on your head, and as long as you’ve got the right angle, it doesn’t matter. I’m a regular free-throw shooter. It’s not a trick; it’s not a fad.

Is it safe to say that free-throwing has been your life?
It was my entire life. I got an addiction. You know Dr. William Glasser? He wrote that book, Positive Addiction, about runners and how they got hooked on running. And he said to me, “You’re the only one I know who gets a runner’s high by shooting free throws.” When I started out I was shooting for two, three hours straight. They had to throw me out. The guy who ran the gym would say, “You’ve gotta go.”

In some of these pictures, you’re shooting from behind a stack of boxes. What purpose do they serve?
The reason why I have the boxes up is so people know I don’t need to look to make the shots. That’s the only reason. In 50 years of shooting, I never saw the basket. I tell you—nobody in the world could beat me over the boxes. Nobody. I talked to NBA stars and said, “Would you like to take a few shots?” And they said, “Not me.” I’m shooting over the boxes and I say to them, “Would you like to try?” And they just walk off.

When you were at your peak, what was your success rate?
Over the boxes, I was shooting from about 70 percent to 85—which is very good, considering that the NBA players, looking, don’t do that well. Ted St. Martin, the world record holder for consecutive free throws, he lived in Florida near Shaquille O’Neal, and he told me, “For $1,000 I’ll guarantee Shaquille will shoot 80 percent against you.” But [O’Neal] never took me up on it.

You were unstoppable.
I know that, but nobody realizes it.

So what’s next for Fred Feder? Is the only way to get your story out there to get this book of yours published?
Yeah, it is. I have so much to tell. I have so much to tell you—never mind the world.

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