Making History

In case you are unfamiliar with basketball, let me explain a simple strategy commonly used in the NBA. The Hack-a-Shaq. It was a strategy devised by Don Nelson at the Dallas Mavericks, and the goal was to continuously commit personal foul against one of its opposing player. It is commonly applied against someone awful at free throws. The idea is to bet on that player to miss his free throw, and they would get the ball back. This tactic was commonly used on Dennis Rodman, Dwight Howard and Shaq O'Neil. Shaq's free throw average toward the end of his career was an embarrassing 53%. 53%! He missed one out of every two free throws. He was widely considered one of the best basketball center, but one of the worst free thrower in history. Stay with me, I will explain why this is related to Wing Chun.

Who was the best free thrower of all time? I think it's Rick Barry of the San Francisco Warrior. He played from 1965 to 1980. He routinely threw north of 300 free throws a year and scored more than 90% of the time. What's different about him? His unorthodox granny shots free throw. He placed the basketball between his legs and threw the ball up underhanded. We have all tried this when we were children and didn't have the strength to throw it overhanded. Barry believed the granny shot technique was in fact the right way to shoot free throws. He thought it allowed for a softer landing, giving himself a bigger margin of error if the ball hit the rim. He also thought it was a more natural motion than the universal overhand free throw. He was underhand free throw was anatomically and scientifically superior to overhand free throw. So, if that was true, and Rick Barry was one of the best free thrower in history, then why doesn't anyone in the NBA shoot that way.

Wilt Chamberlain was one of the greatest NBA player of all time. He played for the Philadelphia 76ers from 1959 to 1973. He was unbelievably good, so good that the only defense their opposing team had against him was to foul him. They used the Hack-a-Shaq! The reason why that worked? Because Chamberlain's free throw was awful. About 50%. He missed one out of every two free throws, about as bad as Shaq. So what did he do? He worked with Barry and switched to the granny shot style free throws. And it worked! He became much better at free throws. But then in the following season, he switched back because, in his words, "I felt a sissy". And he went back to being terrible at free throws.

The one distinction about Wing Chun is the way its movements look. It looks very different than all other martial arts style. They look as strange as an underhanded free throw in the NBA finals. But what does a socially acceptable form of free throw or martial arts movement has to do with their efficacy? No big swinging movements, no kinematic linkage, no dynamic tension, no momentum based power delivery. Compare to the fluid movements of Tai Chi, the 3 sets of Wing Chun look rigid and awkward. That was why Yip Man and Leung Sheung had trouble recruiting students in Hong Kong at the beginning. Students complained about ugliness of the movements. It wasn't what they had in mind. It was the same reason why Wilt Chamberlain gave up a working solution to his free throw problem. Fortunately, a lot of younger students stayed with Yip Man and Leung Sheung. And they kept working on simple movements such as a straight punch known as the Sun Character Punch. Because Wing Chun had always emphasized efficiency over orthodoxy, these early adopters went out to see the elders in martial arts circle. They wanted to prove to themselves the efficiency of Wing Chun. As opposed to just paying their respect and discussing martial arts in generality, they asked to work out with these elders in a subtle form of challenge. As opposed to dancing around the floor, grab and push or big swinging hook punch techniques that these elders were accustomed to, these kids stepped in and applied their straight Sun Character punches. These simple moves worked. It was a revolution against the establishment. It unsettled them. The elders would call these young kids uncultured, rough, unpolished. They hated them. While the polishing and fluidity will come later, these young kids did not mind the awkward movements after a taste of their early success.

The next time someone ask why the Wing Chun movements look so peculiar, bordering the antithesis of cool. You should tell them about underhand free throws.

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