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Free Throws

Sometime in early January 2007, I woke up at the crack of 10:17 AM. I put on my slippers and threw on my Slanket. I asked my servant to fetch the mail for me, and as he bowed and scraped his way back into my palatial efficiency, my face lit up.

Like Rick Majerus sucking down an Ol' 96er, I grabbed my copy of the New Yorker from my servant's calloused hands and let out a yelp that only a dilettante could appreciate. I opened it up, and found an article entitled Enron, intelligence, and the perils of too much information.

Having been a shareholder of said esteemed company ("Hey, it's in the top 10 of the Fortune 500, I've never heard of it, it must be swell! I'll take 100!"), I was keen and eager to read the dissection of the death of a company with a dearth of do-gooders. Bonus points for the article being written by Malcom Gladwell, who can break down a complex subject and make it into something as easily digestible as a bottle of Plum Organics pumpkin banana baby food.

I immersed myself in the article while sipping on my hemp milk venti decaf latte. I became intrigued by Gladwell's application of Gregory Treverton's "mystery, or puzzle?" question in relation to Enron, and filed the thought away that I might one day make use of this theory to explain some horrific turn of events. As it so happens, that horrific event that triggered me to revisit the article again is none other than Texas' ineptness at the free throw line in 2009/10.

In re-reading it, I also discovered another article from Mr. Treverton himself, in which he defines the difference between a mystery and a puzzle thusly:

Puzzles can be solved; they have answers.

But a mystery offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on a future interaction of many factors, known and unknown. A mystery cannot be answered; it can only be framed, by identifying the critical factors and applying some sense of how they have interacted in the past and might interact in the future. A mystery is an attempt to define ambiguities.

As I read both of these articles, aside from our free throw shooting woes, I also began to think of other important questions of the day. To wit:

  • Is Bobby Knight's nose red all the time, or does he hook himself up to Vince Neil's Jack Daniels IV bags before doing color commentary? (Puzzle)
  • Was Dick Vitale ever young? I mean, does any proof exist that he actually was alive before the age of 50? Are we sure that he's not from some excitable alien race that makes absolutely no sense even on its own home planet? (Mystery)
  • Having survived five heart attacks, does Dick Cheney have the weakest heart ever known or the strongest heart ever known? (actually, this one's solved)

  • Robot Cheney

  • Am I just another shitty blogger (just google "gregory treverton mystery or puzzle" to see that I am only the 1,922nd person to have thought of applying Mr. Treverton's analysis to a different situation) who is co-opting the work of the ultimate co-opter Gladwell, thereby somehow causing the internet to reach a tipping point for a lack of quality content and spontaneously combust? (too difficult to contemplate, but I guess we'll find out after this is posted)
  • So on to the relevant question though: are the free throw shooting woes of Texas a mystery, or a puzzle? All I can offer on this is a non sequitur story of dubious entertainment value. If you have any clues though, feel free to throw up a comment.

    I was in the 9th grade at the time, and the basketball team at my school was a pretty solid one--not usually all state or anything, but good enough. As with many educational institutes, someone decided that a teachers vs. the varsity team game would be good for something or other--the sands of time have lost the purpose of it.

    Enter my physical science teacher, a hulk of a man really. He went maybe 6'4" 260, flabby and desk bound. However, it was obvious that he had an athletic background because he would drone on and on like only an ex-high school athlete could about his glories. He also had a 70s porn 'stache (instant sign of trust) that would make sizzlechest red with excitement.

    He of course claimed to have been one of the best free throw shooters ever to dribble on the face of the earth. So good in fact that he had made 100 in a row during practice sessions. We all rolled our eyes at this suggestion, but he guaranteed that he wouldn't miss a free throw in the teachers vs. varsity brawl to end it all.

    Fast forward to the game, and he's wearing his Kareem goggles, which was enough hilarity in and of itself to sufficiently entertain. At some point he gets fouled on the way to the hoop. Now's the time for him to step up, to truly revel in the glory of his prodigious talents and sink both of his free throws. What happens? He misses both shots.

    If he had been like the scrawny and meek substitute teachers that populated our place of middling learning we would have openly made fun of him to his face, but no one dared mention this epic failure in his presence.

    I keep thinking back to it though when I watch the Horns. I find myself too often turning my head from the television while Dexter (or pretty much anyone else for that matter) trots up to the free throw line and prepares to murder the rim like his namesake on Showtime. I wonder if my teacher did at one point have the confidence to drain 100 in a row, and is this what is happening now to our team?

    Have they somehow become like a 40 year old washed up ex-athlete on the verge of being broken physically, mentally, and spiritually? If so, then it is simply a puzzle of having the kids attend a promise keepers rally and hug themselves a little too tightly afterward. If not, I fear for our tournament chances when we leave 10 free shots off the scoreboard.