It’s quite the honor to be one of 12 boys from around the nation to beat out 93,000 contestants and make it to Springfield, Mass., for the finals of the annual Elks “Hoop Shoot” Free Throw Contest — but sure enough, Albany has not one, but two. Meet 8-year-old Zocko Littleton Jr., left, and 11-year-old Jordan Brown, both students at Lincoln Fundamental Magnet School, who won regional titles in their age division recently in Valdosta and will now represent the Southeast in April at nationals. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ALBANY — The basketball hits the hardwood just three times and stops. There’s a brief pause and only silence fills the air.
Just one sound — the rip of the net — can bring music to the ears of Jordan Brown and Zocko Littleton Jr. These two are the young ambassadors of the foul line in the Southeast. And next month they’ll be shooting in a contest known as the national Elks “Hoop Shoot” Free Throw Contest on April 28 in Springfield, Mass., the birthplace of basketball. Where there were once 93,000 contestants nationwide, only 12 boys and girls now remain in each of three age divisions.
Jordan, 11, and Zocko, 8, are the best of the best at their age at staring down the rim and making the nylon sing.
The key to free throws, Jordan says without hesitation, is concentration.
“You take each shot like it’s a championship shot,” said Jordan, who could out-shoot half of the NBA at the charity stripe.
Both Jordan and Zocko are students at Lincoln Fundamental Magnet School in Albany. Jordan is the old pro at this free-throw game, having won the state title multiple times. He’s been to the Elks Lodge-sponsored national shoot-off before and felt the pressure. He hit 24-of-25 free throws to win the age 10-11 boys division at the Southeastern Regional at Valdosta State University earlier this month to advance to Springfield for the second time.
“I don’t think he’s nervous,” said Brown’s father, Earnest, who played at Auburn University in the mid-1990s and now coaches his son’s local AAU team. “He just gets anxious. He’s a veteran, though. It may be more intense for the parents than it is for the participants.”
Zocko, who competes in the 8-9 age division, is the newcomer but appears fearless. His shot still comes from the waist but the result is the same. Zocko sank 22 of 25 free throws in Valdosta two weeks ago to punch his ticket to nationals.
His father, Zocko Sr., coached Zocko Jr. on a YMCA team and had him try out for the free-throw competition. Soon, the youngster found his stroke at the line.
“Last year he couldn’t hardly play, but he still looked like a natural,” Littleton Sr., said. “He’s got a rhythm.”
And that’s the key. Both boys have a similar three-dribble approach, bend at the knees and a smooth release and follow-through. They’ll each get 25 shots at nationals and near-perfection is needed to be the best in the country.
“He’ll have to make at least 24 to win at nationals,” Earnest Brown said.
The winners of the National Championship will have their names listed in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.
In a younger age group, Zocko shoots from just a few feet inside the foul line. He credits “pushups, milk and jumping jacks” for making him the shooter he is today. And, of course, practice. Lots and lots of it.
“We even shoot when it’s dark outside,” Zocko Jr. said.
The same goes for Jordan, who’s known as “J-Smooth.” He shoots about 200 free throws per day during the Elks Hoop Shoot competition season and said a breakfast of grits is his key to a good day at the stripe.
He can also rattle off the top free throw shooters in the NBA — Ray Allen, Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups (when he’s healthy). Both say Lebron James is their favorite player, although Jordan said James’ free-throw shot could use some tweaking.
“It’s OK,” he said.
Jordan and Zocko are both sponsored by Albany Elk Lodge 713. They had to win local, state and regional events — beating the top shooters from Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi — just to make it this far.
“It’s amazing that two boys from the same school, not just the same area or city, are representing their region at nationals,” Earnest Brown said.
The pressure will be turned up again next month in Springfield, but if anybody knows how to handle that pressure at the free-throw line, it’s these two.
“Hopefully he’ll save his best for last,” Littleton Sr., said of his son.
When everything is on the line, the good free-throw shooters usually do.