Free throw shooting has few tenets: Stay 15 feet from the hoop, aim and fire away. It’s even been called the charity stripe, since sending someone to the line is almost like donating points.
But some of basketball’s greatest players famously struggled with it, like Shaquille O’Neal, who finished his career with a dismal 52 percent. Plus, nearly any March college basketball game will show even some of the most talented shooters can falter when the pressure’s on.
So how did Colchester native Jacobi Lafferty reach the pinnacle of one of basketball’s most perplexing acts at just 11 years old?
“I just practiced a lot,” he said.
Every day, in fact, and for as long as he can remember; a decade-old photo shows a young Jacobi in pin-striped pajamas dunking a Nerf basketball on a hoop one Christmas morning. Since then, he’s clocked countless hours in the gym and racked up a personal best streak of 130-straight free throws made.
By now, he’s considered a veteran on the Elks Club Hoop Shoot competition circuit, winning on the local, district, state and regional level. And last Saturday, he added to his résumé by becoming the first Vermonter to win the Hoop Shoot’s national competition since 1981.
Shooting around last week just days before the competition, Jacobi mused at his chances with the confidence of someone who’s been there before.
“There’s not really much to be nervous about,” he said with a basketball resting on his hip, its lettering faded from use. “I’m not putting too much pressure on myself to win because I know all the kids made it this far — they’re all really good. Anyone can win.”
Just in case, though, he keeps one trick up his sleeve, or rather his pocket: a rock that reads, “You got this,” which he sometimes touches when he starts to feel doubt creeping in.
After nine months of competition drawing thousands of contestants from around the country, Jacobi was one of only 72 eight to 13-year-olds who traveled to Chicago’s DePaul University.
Boys and girls are split into three groups and shoot only 25 times, split into rounds of 10 and 15.
When Jacobi’s turn arrived, he took the ball, toed the line and started the round in a way he never has before: He missed.
He couldn’t believe it, he said, a mix of nerves and frustration setting in. Then, he thought of the rock, dribbled twice, spun the ball, took a deep breath, bent his knees and followed through.
“Then I told myself I can still win,” he said.
His favorite player is Ray Allen, one of NBA’s greatest free throw shooters. But perhaps more memorable is Allen’s composure when the game is on the line, a trait Jacobi has made all his own.
“He seems to do well under pressure,” Allison Lafferty said of her son.
She’s not always as calm, however, an admission confirmed by Vermont Elks Club chairman Steve Edgerly, who recalled watching her wear out a stress ball Saturday.
“I thought she was going to faint,” he said, laughing.
Lafferty admits her nerves soared after Jacobi’s first miss. But then he made one. Then another. And another. Suddenly, he was 9 for 10.
“It just seemed like he could make them all day long,” Lafferty said. “He was just unbelievable.”
If given the chance, he may have done just that; after his miss, Jacobi went on to hit 44 shots straight, including four sudden death rounds, en route to defeating last year’s champion.
The win was years in the making, he said.
“I’m really proud of myself because I worked really hard on this. This has been my goal since I started the hoop shoot,” he said.
His mother, who’s also his chief chauffer, carving out gym time wherever she can find it, said the competition has shown Jacobi hard work and perseverance pay off.
“Him just stepping to the line made him a winner, but then to see him succeed,” she said, pausing to search for words. “It brought tears to my eyes, because I was just so proud of him.”
The youth phenom said he will likely take some time off after his victory, but don’t mistake that for complacency; when asked if he plans to defend his title, Jacobi offers a quick response.
“I’m definitely going,” he said.