By Brad Spencer
"No one knows what's going on in my head," says Matt Baron, standing in front of a sign that shouts NO DUNKING in the gym at FFC in Oak Park. Baron, a longtime resident of the village and local entrepreneur, won't be dunking, and to what is exactly on his mind are numbers, lots of numbers.
He warms up by languidly banking a few shots from the post position, moves back to the elbow and swishes a few more, all the while talking. He will not step to the free-throw line until it matters. When his sneakers line up on the charity stripe, well, then, it's official. So begins what Matt Baron calls, "therapy." Matt Baron, 45, is a free-throw shooting hobbyist.
The obsession — if we should be so bold as to call it that — stems from a high school game many years ago. It was Jan. 31, 1986, and Baron's team, the Marshfield High Rams, were tied 62-62 with three seconds left on the clock against Bridgewater-Raynham. Baron was stepping to the line for a 1-and-1. His coach had just instructed the team on what to do "after Matt makes these." The pressure was thick and cumbersome, as if an anvil rested on the nape of Baron's neck. His first shot rolled off his fingers awkwardly, and he was certain it was likely going to fall short or clank off the rim. It went in. The anvil was gone for the next shot, the win was in hand. Baron shot a perfectly executed, fundamentally-sound attempt that of course rolled out.
Okay, there's no last second heave by Bridgewater-Raynham to win the game and send Baron into a bitter obsession of shooting free throws at local gyms for the rest of his life. A teammate of his actually stole the inbound pass and Marshfield won the game, but that moment launched this so-called hobby. It also had something to do with Red Auerbach personally chastising him at a camp when he was 17 years old, but that's neither here nor there.
Baron is not thinking about that shot in high school or Auerbach when he steps to the free-throw line at FFC. Numbers are swarming in his head like bees around a hive. Numbers, equations, sums of numbers and equations. He's been keeping official record of his free-throws for six years now. Including this session, which took place on July 2, Baron had recorded 314 sessions in 6.25 years, or 50 per year, about once a week on average. He's made 21,850 of 27,570 shot attempts total (79.3 percent). He's better shooting with his left hand (82.8 percent), than with his right (74.8 percent).
On this day, he makes 55-of-66 left handed, including 23 in a row. With the right hand he makes what he calls a "desultory" 53-of-76, all the while answering my questions about this strange but uniformly intriguing discipline.
"It's both a physical and mental exercise for me, and I'm doing it in the service of something I enjoy," he says somewhere around 41-of-51 lefty. His record with the left hand is 57 in a row, recorded in Feb. of 2009. Last year, he made 30 in a row with the right hand.
There are young kids, teenagers, and middle aged men strolling around the gym sneaking glances at Baron as he drains another shot and another and then another …. but they have no idea what's going on in his head. The free-throw shooting hobbyist is in his therapy session.