For a second, Ed Palubinskas is perfect.
As he toes the free throw line, his right foot, knee, hip, shoulder, elbow, and wrist are perfectly aligned. His right hand, firm and stretched, controls the basketball, the index finger central and perpendicular to the seams. His left hand, fingers vertical and still, stabilize the ball, the platform prior to take off that will hold the ball before launch and remain behind after.
A glance at the rim, a lift of the hands, a pause in the shot pocket, and off the basketball goes, bound for the bottom of the net.
Every. Single. Time.
“I never hit the front of the rim,” Palubinskas says. “I never hit the back. I never hit the side. It’s always in.”
No one is closer to perfection from the line than Palubinskas, the greatest free throw shooter who has ever lived. He’s missed three free throws in 18 years of competitive shooting. He has set the following world records: most free throws made in one hour with one ball (867 out of 880, 98.5%), most free throws made in one hour overall (1,206 out of 1,265, 95.3%, with six balls and six rebounders), and most free throws made in two minutes blindfolded (8), which he shattered the next year (17).
He’s also a painter, a writer, an Olympian, a trainer, a coach, a father, a believer, an entrepreneur, and an inventor. More than anything, however, Palubinskas is a chaser of perfection.
And not just with a basketball in his hands.
“Life is like a free throw,” he says. “You can perfect your life using scientific principles. There’s a way to live a life at a high, high level of excellence. Even though a shot is one second, life is 75 years. I’ve got 75 years to max out my excellence and mastery. Socrates said, ‘Master thyself.’ It’s the same in shooting. Nothing changes. It’s just a different medium.”
THE PLANE WAS already in the air, carrying young Eddie Palubinskas from Canberra, Australia, to Logan, Utah, when his destination changed.
It was 1970, and Palubinskas was Utah State-bound, the result of an international postal campaign launched by the fledgling sharpshooter, who hoped to earn a basketball scholarship. Palubinskas didn’t pick up the game until he was 14-and-a-half, at the behest of his Lithuanian father, Stan, a former ski patrol officer in World War II who was captured and met Palubinskas’ Russian mother, Donna, in a concentration camp. After the war, the two married in Germany and migrated to Canberra.
If Donna was his first love, basketball was the second love of Stan’s life. He became enamored with the sport after his country’s 1937 European Championship, and when young Palubinskas broke his leg playing football as a teen, his father suggested a rounder alternative.
That’s when Palubinskas began crafting his famous shot, hoisting hundreds on Canberra’s outdoor courts toward fan-shaped backboards, blessed with indoor gymnasiums only for the playoffs. By the time his prep career at Narrabundah High School was done, several all-state honors to his name, Palubinskas had his sights set on America, knowing full well he’d need help getting there.
“I wrote letters to a bunch of schools,” Palubinskas says. “It was important that I get a scholarship because our family status wasn’t very good. I couldn’t afford an overseas type of thing. So I wrote to a bunch of schools, and somehow one letter got to Dale.”
Dale Brown, that is, then a precocious assistant coach at Utah State with a knack for letter-writing, himself. Letter-reading, too.
“And he followed up on it,” Palubinskas says. “I guess he felt sorry for me, maybe.”
Never averse to gambling on internationals, Brown took the advice of Australia’s national team head coach Lindsay Gage and convinced legendary Aggie head coach LaDell Anderson, fresh off an Elite Eight appearance in 1969-70, to take a flyer on the unknown Australian quantity, at a time when Aussies playing stateside were few and far between. But before his plane to the States even landed, Palubinskas incurred a drastic change of itinerary – and we’re not talking a new gate or a runway delay.
“Apparently, the head coach at that time – Dale was the assistant – got cold feet,” Palubinskas says. “He said, ‘Ah, I don’t know. We haven’t seen him play. We don’t know whether we should take him.’ So while in mid-flight over here, instead of going to Utah State, I ended up at Ricks College in Idaho, and (Utah State) would look from the backseat to see if I was any good.”
Turns out, he was. Palubinskas shone at Ricks (now BYU-Idaho), developing into an All-American by his second season. Playing under Glenn Dalling – who, interestingly enough, held a dual role as Ricks’ head coach and mayor of nearby Sugar City, Idaho – Palubinskas scored more than 1,400 points in two seasons, earning the school’s Ideal Athlete award for his athletic, academic, and leadership endeavors.
The Wizard of Oz was as famous among the Ricks faithful for his flash and flair – the 6-foot-2 Palubinskas wowed spectators with windmill dunks in warm ups and one-handed, behind-the-back passes in live action – as he was his sweet stroke. In 1970-71, he buried 94.2% of his free throws, the best mark in the nation at any level – pro, college, or high school. All he did was score, posting a 24.0 PPG average, sinking shots, but never aiming any toward Utah State, despite his mid-flight relegation to Ricks.
“I just wanted to get over here,” he told reporters in 1972. “I knew once I got here I could find a school where I could play. Basketball was all I had to live for.”
THE FIRST AUSTRALIAN to thrive in American college basketball was soon shining on the international stage. Palubinskas parlayed his junior college successes into a spot on the 1972 Australian Olympic team, and he helped lead the overmatched Boomers to a respectable ninth place finish. More impressively, he was the tournament’s second-leading scorer, averaging 21.1 PPG and missing out on the scoring title by a single point, ignorant that his tally was so near the top.
Here, Palubinskas discovered his love for art. His father, an artistic baker, passed him the genetic talents, but observing the Sistine Chapel set the stage for a career Palubinskas would profit from after his playing days. Next to his free throw shooting, Palubinskas is perhaps best known today as a world-renowned sports artist, painting thousands of gym floors and walls across the country. One glimpse inside his Palubinskas Basketball Academy, where he trains young players today, reveals his talents, the walls covered with his murals of Tigers (LSU), Warhawks (PBA), Wildcats (Central High School), and other aesthetic marvels.
And it all began in Munich.
“We were traveling around Europe playing other teams, and I got to visit the Sistine Chapel,” he says. “I went to see Michelangelo’s work. I was so impressed, gawking at the ceiling for hours. I couldn’t believe a human being could do that. Little did I know, 15 years later, I’d be doing the same thing, except I’d be kneeling down on the floor, and Michelangelo was laying on his back painting ceilings. It impressed me so much.”
Palubinskas observed history from an even closer vantage point at those Olympics. He was in the Olympic Village during the famous Munich massacre, when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes, murdering a West German police officer in the process, too.
“I was right there,” Palubinskas recalls. “Death covered the whole Olympic City. I was rooming with a 7-footer, an American named Tom Bender, who became an Australian citizen. We were writing postcards at 11 p.m. All of a sudden, we heard shots – BANG! BANG. I thought, C’mon man, it must be some Chinese lighting off fire crackers. The next morning, black death surrounded the village.”
Meanwhile, stateside, Brown – who had left Utah State after the 1970-71 season and spent the 71-72 season as a Washington State assistant – had kept a close eye on Palubinskas, from Rexburg, Idaho to Munich. And when Brown accepted the job as LSU’s head coach and moved to Baton Rouge in the summer of ’72, he brought Palubinskas with him.
“I was a sophomore (at Ricks), and then he got the LSU job, and then they had the Maravich Center built,” Palubinskas says. “Who wouldn’t come to a brand new space age facility? It was a dream come true for me.”
Before long, Palubinskas was burning the PMAC’s new nets – all the while without a scholarship. In the first of many Brown brushes with the NCAA to come, LSU and Palubinskas missed the Aug. 31 grant-in-aid deadline, hindered by geographic and time constraints brought on by the Olympics. LSU had to borrow money from a Baton Rouge bank to keep Palubinskas in school, a loan he couldn’t pay back until after graduation.
“Rules are rules,” Brown said at the time, a precursor of future battles with the NCAA, “and I realize that, but it just seems to me something is wrong in a situation like that.”
NOTHING WAS WRONG on the court, where Palubinskas provided plenty of bang for his bank-loaned buck. He earned All-SEC honors as a junior and a senior, scoring 18.6 PPG in 1973 and leading the SEC in free throw percentage (89.5%). His 16-of-16 performance from the stripe on March 1, 1973 against Mississippi State and 31 consecutive made free throws over two seasons are both still LSU records, as is his career mark (259 out of 295, 87.5%) from the line. His career average of 18.5 PPG – well before the three-point line’s introduction – ranks eighth all-time among the greats in Tiger history.
Playing alongside the likes of Collis Temple and Glenn Hansen, Palubinskas also led the team in assists in both of his seasons, though his memories of passing are less than fond.
“Collis once told me, ‘Did you know I outscored you in one game, and you cried?’” Palubinskas laughs. “And I said ‘Collis, my dear good friend, do you know why I cried? I passed you the ball, and you missed a shot. It upset me so bad, and that’s why I hate to pass.’”
There are fonder memories, of course: beating Kentucky by 11 in 1974, the first of Brown’s 18 wins over the Wildcats; upsetting top-ranked Memphis State in Brown and Palubinskas’ first game as Tigers, in which the latter scored 32 while holding All-American Larry Finch to 9; and the famous Starkville 7 game in 1974, when Brown suspended seven players, playing with just five for 39 minutes, and four for the final 53 seconds when Temple fouled out.
“We were hustlers,” Palubinskas remembers. “We were undertalented, we were just a bunch of scrubs, but we were overacheivers. We busted our ass. We were competitors.”
They were also brothers at a time when the racial climate in the South was anything but temperate. When LSU knocked off unbeaten Vanderbilt on January 12, 1974, Temple, the first African-American basketball player at LSU, clashed with Vandy’s Jan Van Breda Kolff, a vivid recollection for Palubinskas.
“Someone was coming after me from the stands,” says Palubinskas, “so Dale Brown started attacking him. Jackets were ripped, an attorney was coming down out of the stands. Collis Temple drops a kung-fu flying kick on one of the players.”
The return trip to Vanderbilt was even less friendly. At halftime, Brown and Temple received death threats, but Temple played on, as did his teammates.
“We had no black-white problem,” Palubinskas says. “We got on really well together. That’s not saying it wasn’t underlying everywhere. We never had any basketball fights or altercations with any of that race stuff. We all got on well together. We went past that. It’s a losing issue.”
And Palubinskas doesn’t deal in losing issues. He deals in perfection, or at least perfection’s pursuit.
“I WAS ALWAYS a good shooter,” Palubinskas asserts, “probably better than most.”
Talk about your all-time understatements.
After wrapping up his career at LSU, Palubinskas was taken in the 1974 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks, and was later traded to the New Orleans Jazz before the Utah Stars selected him in the ABA Draft. But he made his name as an amateur, leading Australia back to the Olympics in 1976. The Boomers finished eighth, one place higher in the overall standings than in 1972, and so, too, did Palubinskas place a spot higher among individual scorers, leading all Olympians with 269 points in eight games, a 33 point per game average.
Wearing a green sock and a white one, Palubinskas was as colorful as he was potent, setting three world records and posting 50 points against Mexico. The old flair was still there. He even completed a midcourt somersault in celebration of hitting the half-century mark as the clock expired against El Tri. His efforts earned him the distinction as one of the six best amateur athletes in the world, as named by the Citizens Savings Award Foundation.
But perfection still eluded him.
“At that time, I would’ve thought, Well, I’m a little better shooter than most – not realizing that there was more talent or better,” he says, “not even understanding what it was.”
Just as injury pushed him into basketball at 14 years old, so, too would a brush with death lead Palubinskas to new understanding. In 1981, as he was obtaining his Master’s from BYU, Palubinskas hit black ice while driving, smashing into a bridge head-on and shattering the right side of his body.
“At that time I was a 94 percent shooter,” he recalls. “In college I was 90 all the time. Nine for ten all the time – not a big deal. It really bothered me. I couldn’t understand why I would make 94 and miss the other six on a regular basis.
“It didn’t make sense.”
[su_pullquote align=”right” class=”wide”]”Life is like a free throw,” Palubinskas says. “You don’t want friction. You don’t want problems. You want knowledge. You want to make life as smooth, as friction-free, as trouble-free as possible. Why do you want to struggle and fight? Even though that’s part of life. Today’s mighty oak is just yesterday’s nut that held its ground. I’m kind of that nut.” [/su_pullquote]
Restricted to a hospital bed for two weeks, Palubinskas became consumed with the idea of this imperfection gap. When he moved from bed to wheelchair, he began breaking down the shot to its basic building blocks.
“I started observing my arm, my hands, my fingers,” he says. “What could possibly cause it? So I made a few observations, analytics. I got out of my wheelchair, started applying that stuff, and I’ve been shooting 99 percent ever since, because I figured out some principles, scientific principles, natural laws that you have to abide by. You cannot deny the laws of nature. I started applying them, and sure enough, to this day, it’s been reality.”
Those scientific principles have guided Palubinskas to the pinnacle of global shooting. He’s been sought by Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard to fix their free throw ailments, a miracle he’d accomplished before ego caused both to terminate their training with him. He’s helped Brandon Bass become the Celtics’ all-time leader in postseason free-throw shooting. Palubinskas’ individual honors, too many to list in full, include the aforementioned world records, World Masters Games gold medals, and the nickname, “The Surgeon General of the Free Throw.”
This is not the space to break down those scientific principles – for that, take a lesson from him at his Greenwell Springs-based academy, or consult one of his many training products at FreeThrowMaster.net, a library of DVDs, PDFs, and even a patented ball with prints for hand placement, The Smartball.
Those principles, though, underlie a greater truth. Free throw shooters aren’t Palubinskas’ only audience. His aim goes beyond the rim. That close encounter with death, and the quest for mastery it inspired, point to ideas that transcend the basketball court.
“We’re here for a purpose: to help our fellow man, in a way, in one shape,” he says. “Heal people, fix people, bless the lives of others. Write a book, invent something where others can benefit from what you do. I thought, Well, you can’t be as good as what I became and just let it die.”
It’s why Palubinskas is working on three books of his own – one on shooting, one on living, and an autobiography – and why he trains amateur athletes for hours a day in his gym. It’s why he can’t stand watching Howard and DeAndre Jordan stink up the Western Conference playoffs with brick after brick from the free throw line, and why he wants to get with an NBA team as a consultant and elevate the franchise to a team-wide 90 percent average.
It’s why he has become one of the world’s most renowned sports artists, and why he’s invented a product he values at a billion dollars and claims will eliminate 85 percent of global pollution.
The principles he’s used to master the free throw, to write his name in the LSU, Olympic, and world record books, he’s applied to life.
“You don’t want friction,” he says. “You don’t want problems. You want knowledge. You want to make life as smooth, as friction-free, as trouble-free as possible. Why do you want to struggle and fight? Even though that’s part of life. Today’s mighty oak is just yesterday’s nut that held its ground. I’m kind of that nut.”
Of course, that nut isn’t perfect. Palubinskas can hit hundreds in a row, but given enough attempts, eventually, the 99 percent shooter, great as he is, will miss. A little short. A little long. Rarely, and maybe never, right or left, but for every hundred or so shots that bury themselves in nylon, one is rim-bound. Perfection is attainable, but it’s not sustainable. Humanity will intervene.
And that’s alright for Palubinskas. Perfection’s pursuit doesn’t necessarily lead to perfection. But, if his life any evidence, the chase can take you amazing places.
“It’s such a huge need,” he says. “Mediocrity is rampant worldwide. It’s a pandemic. I came up with a system that eventually I think can become the best system in the world, because perfection is attainable. The difficulty is the maintenance of it – to maintain it. Can you do 100 in a row every day? If not, you can allow for humanity and the imperfection of humanity and still live at a very high level of excellence. It’s very possible. That’s what we shoot for.”