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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published August 04 2012

Eriksmoen: North Dakota man holds record for consecutive free throws

The man who holds the record for “most consecutive free throws made” played basketball for both Concordia and the University of North Dakota.

Unlike most great free throw shooters, Tom Amberry was tall and lanky – at 6 feet 7 inches tall, he played center in college – and relied primarily on a left hook-shot.

Amberry did not establish his record while in college or during the years he played semi-pro ball, but much later. He entered a gym on Nov. 15, 1993, and began shooting free throws while 20 other individuals kept track of how many balls went through the hoop. After he had made 2,750 in a row, he was informed that he needed to leave because the gym was closing for the night. Amberry established the new free throw record at the age of 71.

Amberry was born Nov. 13, 1922, in Grand Forks to Robert and Tillie (Moen) Amberry. Robert worked for the Great Northern Railroad while Tom attended the public schools in Grand Forks. By the time he entered Grand Forks Central High School, he was well over 6 feet tall and tried out for the basketball team. During his years at Central, the team was one of the best in the state, largely due to Amberry in the center post and Lou Bogan at guard.

After graduating from high school in 1940, Amberry enrolled at Concordia College in Moorhead. He took a full load of classes, played on the freshman basketball team and worked at the Northern Pacific depot. He started 1941 at school, but after the U.S. entered World War II, he dropped his classes and enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the Fargo recruitment center.

Amberry was assigned to the destroyer U.S.S. Brush and sent to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Beginning in September 1944, the destroyer escorted convoys in the South Pacific. Amberry participated in naval action at Leyte, Luzon and Iwo Jima. On Sept. 24, 1945, the Brush left the Far East for the U.S. and arrived in Seattle on Oct. 15. Amberry was discharged on Nov. 25 and planned to enroll at Ohio State.

The basketball program at the University of North Dakota was struggling. From 1928 until the early 1940s, UND dominated basketball under the leadership of coach Clem Letich, finishing lower than second only two times. When he died in 1943, Letich was replaced by athletic director C.A. “Jack” West in 1944. The interim reins to the team were then handed over to Glenn “Red” Jarrett after he was discharged from the Navy late in 1945. Jarrett inherited a squad with good playmakers such as freshman Roger Stromme and recently discharged Bogan, but the team had no dominating big man. This changed when Amberry decided to enroll at UND instead of Ohio State.

During the second semester of 1945-46, UND put together a better-than-expected season with Amberry on the squad. The next year, he transferred to Long Beach City College in California and became a dominating player. He led the nation in scoring, averaging 19.7 points a game. At the conclusion of the 1946-47 season, Amberry was named “Junior College Player of the Year.”

Amberry was visited by John Kundla, head coach of a newly established professional basketball team, the Minneapolis Lakers. Kundla had scouted some of the best college talent in the nation, signing George Mikan and Jim Pollard, and saw the Grand Forks native as a perfect fit. Amberry was “offered a no-cut contract by the Lakers,” but turned it down because he was committed to attending graduate school in an area of specialized medicine. In fall 1947, Amberry enrolled at the California College of Chiropody, now the California College of Podiatric Medicine, in San Francisco.

While attending graduate school, Amberry played with semi-pro teams in the area. In the summer of 1950, Amberry was asked by the U.S. government to take a group of West Coast all-stars on a tour to Latin America to serve as basketball “ambassadors.” In 1951, he set up a podiatry practice in Long Beach and “didn’t touch a basketball for 40 years.”

After retiring in the early 1990s, Amberry decided to concentrate on perfecting free throw shooting. He realized he needed to “focus and concentrate.” He would not let anything else enter his mind during the six seconds needed to shoot the ball. He incorporated a successful routine, keeping his feet parallel, squaring his shoulders to the basket and bouncing the ball three times before shooting. He kept his shooting elbow in and always held the ball with the inflation hole up to maintain the same grip along the seams each time he shot.

Amberry began each morning by shooting 500 free throws. Near the end of 1993, he believed he was ready to challenge the 16-year old record that existed in the Guinness Book of World Records. On Nov. 15, he shattered the old mark by more than 700 shots and could have pushed it even further had he not been chased out of the gym.

When word of his feat got out, it hit every sports show on television. Tom Brokaw on NBC Nightly News labeled Amberry “the undisputed champion of the free-throw line.” David Letterman invited him to shoot free throws on his “Late Night Show.”

Amberry was invited by coaches from many of the large western colleges to put on clinics for their players. He was also invited by professional basketball teams to work with their players.

Because of his undisputed mastery at the charity line, Amberry is often referred to as “The Big Kahuna of Free Throws.”

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.