His aim is still true

FGCU coach Enfield tutored 1990s Bucks

Andy Enfield could lose himself in a crowd pretty easily.

That wasn’t difficult to do, because he was surrounded by guys like Vin Baker, Benoit Benjamin, Kevin Duckworth and Mike Peplowski, who all stood at least 6 feet-10 inches tall and carried between 240 and 290 pounds.

When Enfield was on the Bradley Center court during pregame shooting sessions, though, he stood out – not because he was one of the shorter guys there, but because his shots were going in more often than those taken by many of the players around him.

In case you haven’t noticed, Enfield is standing out in a crowd again these days – in front of much larger audiences than he saw during his days as a shooting coach for the Milwaukee Bucks in the late 1990s.

In Enfield’s second season as its head coach, the Florida Gulf Coast University men’s basketball team has become the first 15th seed ever to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

The Eagles, who cracked the NCAA field for the first time in their six seasons as an Division-1 program by winning the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament, toppled Georgetown, the Big East Conference champion and second-seeded team in the South Regional, 78-68, in their tourney debut in Philadelphia on March 22.

Two nights later, FGCU returned to the Wells Fargo Center court and dismantled seventh-seeded San Diego State, 81-71, to earn a Sweet 16 date March 29 with the regional’s third-seeded team, its in-state neighbors from the University of Florida.

FGCU’s stunning first brush with March Madness seemed a bit surreal to most of the basketball world, but the Eagles and their coach took care of their business with a matter-of-fact approach. They reveled in their victories, but not as if they did not expect them.

They exhibited the same sense of belonging that Enfield did 17 years ago as a 26-year-old Johns Hopkins University graduate teaching NBA players how to shoot a basketball properly – and doing so with successful results.

I was privileged enough to interview Enfield when he was working for the Bucks … and to see him 17 years later raising his arms in triumph twice on national television as the orchestrator of college basketball’s latest Cinderella story.

The following excerpts are from our interview:

TR: During your years at Johns Hopkins, you set an NCAA career record for highest free-throw shooting percentage, 92.5 percent. How and where did you develop your shooting prowess?

AE: “When I was in elementary school, my father (Bill, who became his coach at Shippensburg, Pa. High School), taught me how to shoot one-handed. I was involved with the Pepsi Hot Shot national shooting competition when I was in junior high, and I went to the national finals a couple of times. I learned how to shoot properly at a young age, and just worked at it very hard.”

TR: How did a guy from Johns Hopkins wind up becoming a shooting coach for the Milwaukee Bucks?

AE: “I had been running shooting camps along the East Coast, instructing kids as well as a few NBA players. Then I worked with several NBA players in the New York Summer League. I’d had enough exposure to NBA players that I knew I could help quite a few of them if given the chance, and Mike Dunleavy (then Vice President of Basketball Operations-Head Coach of the Bucks) decided to take a chance. He decided to hire me because when it came to shooting, a couple of his guys needed to get better.”

TR: What does your job with the Bucks encompass?

AE: “I work with the players before and after practice on individual moves as well as shooting. An hour and a half before games, we try to get in a lot of individual work. On the road, we try to get into arenas early whenever possible and get in some shooting. If some guy needs some particular offensive work, we’ll try to work on either triple-threat, off-the-dribble or post moves.”

TR: All of your shooting credentials as a college player were outstanding, but your free-throw numbers were off the charts. How did you go about sharing your expertise with pros?

AE: “When I came here, I looked at a guy like Vin Baker and a couple of other guys who had low free-throw percentages. I saw my job was to basically teach them how to shoot the correct way, so they’d have a chance to make a higher percentage of their shots.”

TR: Why do so many NBA players struggle from the line?

AE: “I know guys with poor form who shoot two or three hundred shots a day, but you’re never going to get any better unless you have the correct technique. It’s like a science, as far as the position of the hands on the basketball and what they do when they release it.

“There are very few guys in the NBA who have poor form who can make shots consistently. There are exceptions, such as Reggie Miller. His form isn’t really poor; it’s unorthodox. But he’s the exception I use when I speak at my camps in the summertime.”

TR: Is there a common thread among struggling free-throw shooters?

AE: “There can be flaws in the off hand or the shooting hand. I think the off hand can go unrecognized if it pushes the ball as it goes up, wherein the follow-through, you can’t make the ball go straight every single time. The off hand has to stay pretty straight and not shoot the ball at all.”

TR: Have the players ever challenged you to shooting competitions?

AE: “When I first came here, they always wanted to shoot against me. But since I took a few dollars off of them, they try to stay away from that now.”

TR: Mike Dunleavy has been known to put his players to shame in games of H-O-R-S-E or one-on-one. Has Mike challenged you yet, or vice-versa?

AE: “Mike and I don’t shoot against each other. He’s a great shooter, but we’ve just never gone against each other.”

TR: You’ve made 941 consecutive free throws shooting right-handed. You’ve also made 172 straight left-handed. How did that come about?

AE: “I was giving a clinic in New York, and a kid thought I was just born a great shooter, so I decided to start shooting left-handed to prove everyone who thought that wrong. When I started out, I couldn’t shoot at all left-handed from over 10 feet.

“So I taught myself to shoot left-handed the same way I teach everyone right-handed. It took me about a year and a half to be able to shoot 85 or 90 percent from the foul line left-handed and put together strings of over 100 in a row.”

TR: Where do you see your coaching career taking you?

AE: “If I ever get into coaching, I’d always want to do the shooting part of it, and the individual offensive moves. I’m pretty established on the East Coast right now with my camps, clinics and speaking engagements on shooting. I spoke to over 10,000 kids last summer in 50 or 60 speaking engagements.

“I have five of my own shooting camps, and I have a lot of credibility, not only with the guys on this team, but with other guys around the league who come back to me every summer and want my advice.”