CENTRALIA — At the corner of C Road and 96th, after miles of gravel-y roadway and fertile farmland, two punctured basketballs perch atop wooden posts.
Russ Deters, who once lived at the house before the intersection, planted the first ball five years ago, a nod to his world-class shooting neighbor. Bob Fisher, owner of 28 Guinness world records in 14 free-throw shooting categories, lives a few hundred feet from the other side of the crossing. He added the second ball a few months back to honor his former neighbor. Deters moved three years ago but has been present for all but one of Fisher’s record-breaking events.
“He gets a kick out of this whole thing,” Fisher said of Deters.
Fisher has lived at 1303 C Rd. for 22 years. He’s spent the last 15 studying the science behind shooting a basketball. And as the wall of Guinness plaques in his office indicates, he’s a dedicated student.
Fisher’s one-story Centralia home is filled with the fruits of his experiments. Upon passing through his tan-carpeted living room and by the laminate kitchen countertops, he’ll lead you to the basement door. And, after ducking your head to avoid the indented ceiling above the basement stairs, you’ll find Fisher’s basketball laboratory.
The first door on the left doubles as an extra bedroom, but today the bed is occupied by two royal blue gym bags. Inside: old scoop ball toys, tennis balls wrapped in rope and (among other things) an old popcorn bowl hooked to a piece of pink string. Fisher, showcasing the cover for his 2018 book, “Straight Shooter,” on his T-shirt, promises they’re all important shooting tools.
The same goes for the stack of binders that line the shelf on the room’s far wall. One is labeled “grip strength.” Another is solely dedicated to still images of pro players releasing their jump shots. Others contain pages examining the five muscles that construct the wrist, internal vs. external focus and old shooting instruction guides, many of which Fisher believes are “total crap.”
Remember B.E.E.F.? You know, balance, eyes, elbow, follow through? Fisher has notes.
Keeping your elbow “in,” or vertical, is the wrong phrasing, Fisher said. “Under,” as in under the ball, works better, because it helps shooters understand the goals of that mechanic: one, to balance the ball in their hand. And second, to help with forearm rotation, which controls distance and range.
Follow through, according to Fisher, is overrated. “I set three records the other day,” Fisher said. “The last thing I was concerned about was my fingers going out.”
Instead, he concentrated on balancing the ball, his launch angle and, most importantly, applying force to the center of the ball (referred to as “the centerline concept” in his book). And while most shooters would rely on feel and results to measure their success, Fisher checks his work. He watches each of his record-setting performances on tape after returning home from Centralia High School, slowing the video when he reaches the final moments of his release.
“You never want to let (your shot) become rote, automatic,” Fisher said. “You always want to be tweaking.
“That’s how you become really, really good is by picking it apart.”
During his first 52 years on Earth, Fisher lived, by his own standards, an average life.
Born one mile south of Vermillion, Fisher played basketball for Centralia High School, where he was a good — “but not great” — shooter.
He left college after one semester and took a job as a configuration technician for the Natural Resource Conservation Service, where he helped design drainage systems beginning in 1987.
He married his first wife and moved to Dallas. Then they divorced and he moved back. He met his current wife, Connie, in 1999. (She graduated from Centralia two years after Fisher.)
Fisher’s shooting curiosity had piqued 10 years earlier. He’d been listening to motivational cassette tapes, from which he heard powerful advice from Dr. Joyce Brothers: “Become an expert in something. Pick out one small area and become an expert in it.”
The only thing Fisher cared enough to study hard was basketball. Specifically: shooting. So he volunteered to coach youth teams and worked his way into junior high and high school jobs (while maintaining his job at the NRCS). Fisher coached teams at Onaga, Nemaha Valley, Seneca, Axtell, Valley Heights and Belleville, but never to a winning record. He played in men’s leagues until he turned 44, but “the young kids were so much quicker,” he said. “Every year they got quicker.”
Still, Fisher’s basketball thirst demanded quenching. He read articles, bought instructional videos and checked out a ton of library books.
The local librarian would let him view the state’s book inventory and choose up to 50 at a time. Then she’d order them — one or two per week — and Bob would rip through them.
Most of the books preached the same lessons Bob had learned about shooting as a child: Make an “L” between your elbow and forearm; push off with your middle and index fingers; B.E.E.F. Around 2006, he felt his knowledge was “plateauing.” Axtell fired him as coach because, in Fisher’s words, he encouraged players to shoot too many 3-pointers and not enough layups.
Fisher’s wife wondered whether her husband was spending his free time wisely.
“You’re not going (anywhere) with this,” Fisher remembers her saying. “When are you going to give it up?”
In 2007, however, Fisher found a new book with a refreshing perspective. John Fontanella’s “The Physics of Basketball” explained shooting in terms Fisher had never been taught before. The four factors that affect the flight of a basketball, Fisher learned, were gravity, the drag force, the buoyant force and the spin of the ball. The ideal launch angle for a 6-foot player? 51 degrees, which produces a shooter’s touch. And in an NPR interview concerning his book, Fontanella discussed the success he found experimenting with releasing the ball of his middle and ring fingers, another idea Fisher had never heard.
“That (book) changed everything for me,” Fisher said. “He used science to come up with his answer, and that appealed to me.”
So Fisher incorporated science into his own shooting studies. He built a super-sized protractor to calculate launch angles and filled binders with articles from medical journals, online coaching clinics and photographs of the world’s best shooters, mid-release.
In 2008, Fisher reached out to Gary Boren, a former investment banker who became the NBA’s only free-throw shooting coach a year earlier. Boren invited Fisher to Dallas.
After a tour of the Mavericks facilities and several hours of shop talk, Boren was impressed. He asked Fisher to build another protractor after seeing the one Fisher built (Fisher lugged it to Dallas in his car). In return, Boren paid Fisher $100 and a compliment that validated the years Fisher had invested into his craft.
“Of the smartest people about free-throw shooting I’ve ever talked to,” Boren recalled saying, “You’re in the top 1 or 2%.”
Instead of answering, Fisher turned to his wife.
“Connie, come over here,” he said. “I want you to hear this.”
With Boren’s co-sign in tow, Fisher kept reading. He cites “The Talent Code,” by Daniel Coyle, “Talent Is Overrated,” by Geoff Colvin and “The Genius In All Of Us,” by David Shenk as key inspirations.
All were published between 2008 and 2010. And all of them taught Fisher the same lesson.
“All it takes to become good at something is knowledge, practice and time,” he said.
In 2009, Fisher began to seriously practice shooting in addition to studying it. Tom Amberry and Ted. St Martins, both of whom have owned the world record for consecutive free throws made, encouraged Fisher to set his own records when he contacted them about their respective shooting videos (“Secrets of Shooting,” Fisher’s 2008 video venture, was met with a “thunderous silence,” according to him.).
“I didn’t think there was any way I’d set any records,” Fisher said. “But then I put in the time.”
Fisher constructed a pop-a-shot-esque contraption in his basement. He made the rim six inches narrower than a traditional rim (18 inches) and rose at 6:30 each morning for 20 minutes of practice. Instead of coaching after work, he secured the keys to the gymnasium at Vermillion Grade School, the first gym he’d ever played in. His high school classmate, Marceil Hasenkamp, approved the idea with the local school board, and Fisher spent 90 minutes practicing each evening.
“Two hours if you ask Connie,” he said. “She counted the time it takes to me to drive there and back.”
Four months after he started practicing, Fisher proved himself wrong. On Jan. 5, 2010, he broke the world record for most free throws made in a minute (50). In March, he made the most free throws in two minutes (88). By year’s end, he’d claimed 12 more of Guinness’s free-throw shooting records.
On March 5, 2012, he broke six more while The New York Times’ John Branch chronicled his performance. Branch had written a story in March of ‘09 explaining that free throw shooting had barely improved over 50 years. But each time Fisher broke a new record, he sent Branch an email that suggested otherwise.
After the eighth or ninth email, Branch responded: “You’re on my radar.”
Soon, Fisher could be detected by transmitters across the globe. He shot free throws at the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles, on China Central Television in Beijing and at the Governor’s mansion in Topeka. In 2013, he appeared on the Jay Leno Show with Charles Barkley.
Despite his newfound acclaim, Fisher remained focused on his craft. He clipped video of past and present NBA players shooting their jump shots. He spent “thousands of hours” watching their releases in slow motion. And he began bringing single-subject spiral notebooks to his practice sessions.
He filled dozens of them with diagrams, concepts he researched and musings from his practice sessions.
Dec. 27, 2016: Ways you can miss: Fingers don’t go straight and they don’t control centerline.
Aug. 5, 2017: Key to shooting? In-Line and 90 degrees to apex of shot.
“Who can understand all this?” Fisher said recently while combing through old notes.
During the 2019 NBA playoffs, Fisher received an email from then-Boston Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga.
Larranaga had read Bob’s book. He liked it a lot.
“The best book I’ve ever read about shooting and the learning process,” Larranaga said.
So, Larranaga said to Fisher in his email, would it be all right if I came to visit this summer?
“Yeah, right,” Fisher said to himself. “Like he’s going to come out here.”
Fisher had written a book chapter explaining his centerline concept in 2013, part of a collaboration with other shooting aces. Eleven experts were supposed to write 11 different chapters on shooting. Only two — Fisher and Tom Norland, an ex-Stanford player from the late 50s — finished theirs.
In 2016, Amberry died. Fisher, who had befriended Amberry over the years (he stayed at Amberry’s house whenever he visited California) attended the funeral in Seal Beach. That’s where he met Phil Reed, who wrote “Free Throw” with Amberry in 1996.
Over lunch, Reed and Fisher discussed writing an addendum to the book. Fisher sent Reed the chapter he’d written years back.
Reed liked it. A lot.
“I believe there’s a book here,” Reed emailed back. “And I believe you’re just the person to write it.”
Three weeks later, Fisher’s would-be draft became Chapter 3 of “Straight Shooter,” which was published in 2018. He used no notes and saw no need to outline.
“I had it all right up here,” he said, pointing to his cranium.
Turns out, Fisher’s ideas made sense to a lot of people. Boren, who hadn’t thought about Fisher since they met in Dallas 11 years earlier, was taken aback when he saw Fisher’s book listed as the top-selling book in Amazon’s shooting instruction category. Larry Silverberg, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at North Carolina State, spent four hours discussing the book with Fisher after Fisher asked to use Silverberg’s bank-shot studies in the book. Silverberg later added a guest chapter on the physics of the free throw.
And Larranaga, who prides himself on expanding his coaching horizons during the offseason, did come to Centralia. By plane, then by car, then by tow hook — Fisher’s son, Dan, helped Larranaga wriggle his rented Camaro from a deep rut on a dirt road about two miles from Fisher’s home. Larranaga and his son, James, chose the muscle car as part of their Father’s Day weekend adventure.
Once the Larranagas arrived, Fisher showed them his basement setup. And the 36-slide power point presentation he used at clinics. And the 100 extra slides that Fisher cut from the original (236 slides exist today).
“My wife always tells me, ‘Don’t ramble,’” Fisher said.
They went to the Vermillion gym, too. And Larranaga scribbled notes while Fisher gave James a shooting lesson. As he’d done with hundreds of kids before, Fisher stood behind James with his phone’s camera pointed at the free throw line. After a few shots, Fisher stopped James and told him to try releasing off his index and ring fingers instead of his index and middle fingers.
By the end of the lesson, James couldn’t believe his improvement. He called his sister.
“I’ve never made this many shots before,” he told her.
James’ father was just as impressed — though more with Fisher than his son. Fisher’s method offered fast feedback and faster results. A perfect fit for the quick-fix generation, Jay thought.
To this day, Fisher’s sister-in-law still jokes that the Larranagas only visited Kansas so they could try the fudge at Elsie Grace’s in Frankfort. But Jay left no doubt about his intent when he invited Bob to Boston two days after he left. Larranaga had sent his notes to his bosses, head coach Brad Stevens and general manager Danny Ainge. They wondered if Fisher could assist with Boston’s pre-draft workouts.
Just like he did with James in Vermillion, Fisher stood behind future NBA stars at the Celtics’ facility, his phone pointed at the free throw line. After a few shots, Fisher pulled the prospects aside, replayed the video in slow motion and told each player how to adjust.
“Every person that I’ve introduced to Bob’s philosophy,” Larranaga said, “they bought in, because everything he does make sense.”
Through the 2020-21 season, Larranaga’s last with the Celtics, his colleagues continued to pass along Fisher’s teachings. Former pros have told Larranaga that they wish they understood shooting during their careers as well as Fisher does now.
Jeff Teague, who started the season with Boston but finished it with the Milwaukee Bucks, made five 3-pointers during the Bucks’ playoff run that ended with a title earlier this week.
Larranaga said Fisher deserves credit for every one.
“Bob’s the best,” Larranaga said. “If I ever get a head coaching job, he will definitely be our shooting coach.”
At the corner of School St. and West Third, five miles back the way you came down the pebble-pecked roads, the letters that spell out “Vermillion Grade School” are peeling away. The gymnasium, which lacks air conditioning, loosens sweat glands almost as quickly as its resident shooter can make free throws. Cafeteria tables and children’s toys line the walls.
No matter. All Fisher needs is a rim and his bag of balls.
Rocking blue-topped Asics and ankle-cut socks, Fisher looks more prepared for a walk-a-thon than a hoop lesson. But then he starts shooting.
He swishes one-handed free throws with his right and left hand. He sinks hook shots from 20-plus feet away. And if you let him stand behind you with a camera phone pointed at the free throw line, you’ll start to understand what James Larranaga felt a few years back.
“Your left thumb stays on the ball too long,” Fisher said, rewinding his slow-mo recording of your first few shots. “Take the guide hand off earlier.”
Matter of fact, he said, lose that left hand altogether. Balance the ball on your right palm. Now hoist it up to your shoulder. Make sure you’re pushing through the center of the ball.
Now you’re swishing free throws. One hand, two. When’s the last time you made eight in a row?
You succeed until he sees you’re comfortable. Then he lines his home-made ball rack, attached to the rim with PVC pipe so it can rebound your makes, with seven basketballs. “Shoot them as fast as you can,” he said, and you try your best. But the balls roll down the railing too fast.
Attempting every shot is enough of a challenge. Making them is almost secondary.
Fisher expected this result, expected your brain to default into sensory overload. “That’s how you push yourself,” he said. “That’s how you really get better.”
After 11 years of serious shooting, Fisher can empty that seven-ball rack in 3.5 seconds, and he’ll make most of them. He can sink 33 free throws in 30 seconds, 67 in one minute and 49 in a minute while alternating hands.
Years of study and experimentation have transformed him into a respected basketball mind and author, too. In a 2007 letter framed on Fisher’s basement wall, Boren called him “One of the top shooting coaches in the country.” In a text message Fisher had painted on the wall next to his shooting contraption, Larranaga said Fisher “will never be able to fully appreciate” the impact he had on the Celtics. And Fisher still can regurgitate Silverberg’s assessment of his book — “Finally, somebody with some common sense!” — from memory.
But Fisher’s work is far from finished. As NBA sharpshooter Kyle Korver is quoted on another poster in Fisher’s basement, “The goal is to make your shot exactly the same every time.”
That goal requires time, repetition, tweaking. So even after Fisher bagged his balls and started for the door, he stopped himself.
“Actually,” Fisher told the Mercury staffers he’d been training. “I think I’m going to shoot a few more.”