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Of all the changes the pro game has tolerated in the 21 years since the NBA all-stars last convened in our town—the East whupped the West 144-136 at the Capital Centre in 1980—the reduction in scoring is the least fan-friendly.

Last month, while losing 76-75 to Houston, the Knicks held the opposition below 100 points for the 29th consecutive game, breaking a record set by the Fort Wayne Pistons 46 years earlier. The 100-point game, so commonplace for decades, now seems a quaint part of basketball’s past, like Dr. J’s bouffy ‘Fro and Converse Chucks.

The points dearth that now plagues the entire league is usually attributed to coaches’ wholesale emphasis on defense, a trend that Pat Riley gets credit for kick-starting. But Buzz Braman, the shooting guru and Montgomery County native, has another take. It’s not what defenses are doing, he says. It’s what shooters aren’t.

“Guys just can’t make shots anymore,” he says. “Don’t take my word for it. Look around.”

OK, let’s. Allen Iverson and Jerry Stackhouse have been dueling for the Eastern Conference scoring lead all season. Iverson is hitting just over 41 percent of his shots from the field; Stackhouse now tickles twine on just less than 41 percent of his.

That stinks.

“This isn’t to say Allen Iverson isn’t a tremendous, tremendous talent. Clearly he is,” says Braman. “But I am saying that if he ever learned how to shoot, well, Lord help the rest of the NBA.”

Braman, it must be noted, has a stake in criticizing the state of shooting in today’s game. In 1989, he became the first full-time shooting coach in NBA history, and although he’s currently out of the league, he’s still one of a few folks able to make a living strictly by teaching people how to find the bottom of the net. Players at every level, from Montgomery County elementary school students with rich parents to pros such as Shaq and C-Webb, pay $150 an hour for Braman’s hands-on tutelage.

Braman’s own playing career capped out with some schoolboy heroics. He was an all-met and won a state championship while playing for Springbrook High, where his teammates included future Georgetown Hoyas coach Craig Esherick. He then played on scholarship, but without renown, at East Carolina.

“I wasn’t really a great shooter when I played,” he says.

After college, Braman, whose father is a D.C. Superior Court judge and whose uncle once owned the Philadelphia Eagles, hung up his sneakers and took a job with a relative’s BMW and Porsche dealership in Palm Beach, Fla. He put in 10 years in the auto-retailing business before succumbing to homesickness and a desire to return to basketball.

At 32, he was too old to give playing another try, and he wasn’t interested in being a head coach at the game’s lower rungs. So Braman decided to become a professional shooting expert; the occupation was common in golf but unheard of in basketball at the time. He spent two years studying the mechanical and psychological minutiae that come between gripping the ball and following through. His biggest hurdle came in getting somebody to believe that a guy with no coaching or pro playing experience could actually teach players how to shoot.

Braman’s break came during the 1987-1988 basketball season while he was hanging out at the University of Maryland’s practices and figured that Brian Williams, a struggling freshman at the time, could be a perfect guinea pig. He persuaded then-Terrapins coach Bob Wade to let him do pro bono work with the power forward, who had hit far less than half his free-throw attempts over the first half of the season.

“Brian’s game changed after just three days of working with him,” says Braman. “He shot 86 percent over the last 15 games of the season. I did it all as a volunteer, but I can’t thank Coach Wade enough for giving me that chance. It’s not easy getting people to go away from the traditions of the game. My work at Maryland opened people’s eyes about what I was doing.”

Braman’s career was helped just as much by his own late-in-life shooting prowess. In fact, his first full-time assistant’s job came in 1989, after a demonstration at the Philadelphia 76ers rookie camp. According to legend, he made 246 out of 250 three-point attempts, including the first 92 in a row, as well as an assortment of trick shots, thereby persuading head coach Jimmy Lynam to give him work. Lynam, however, still needed owner Harold Katz’s blessing.

“Jimmy took me over to Harold Katz’s house, and Harold wanted me to teach him how to shoot,” recalls Braman. “I’m working with him a few minutes at a hoop he had, and he hits about 15 or 17 free throws in a row. When he’s done, he looks at Jimmy and says, “Hire the kid.’”

Lynam brought Braman with him when he took the head coaching job at Orlando, where his pupils included Shaq and Penny Hardaway, and then to Washington, where the self-proclaimed Shot Doctor treated Chris Webber (and, according to rumor, regularly took wads of cash from Calbert Cheaney on pre-practice trick-shot wagers).

Webber, says Braman, provides a textbook example of why today’s stars can’t hit the open J.

“Chris told me that when he was in eighth grade, he once dunked 21 times—in a single game!” says Braman. “A kid who can just dribble in and dunk at such a young age isn’t going to work on his shot. But when you’re young is when you should be developing your shot. Today’s athletes come into the league with bad habits, in part, because they’re so talented physically.”

Braman’s stint with the Bullets ended badly midway through the 1996-1997 season. When a beat reporter saw Braman staring up at the ceiling during a pregame workout in the middle of a horrible road trip shortly before the all-star break, General Manager Wes Unseld was asked what the shooting coach was looking at. “Probably trying to bank one in off the ceiling,” Unseld responded sarcastically. Braman, as well as the entire Bullets coaching staff, was canned soon after.

Since then, Braman’s gone freelance, going from individual workouts with all-stars to summer camps for wannabe pros who haven’t yet reached puberty. He still counts Webber and Hardaway as clients, and he paid an emergency visit to Shaq in December 1999, when the Lakers behemoth was reaching pay dirt on just 32 percent of his foul shots. Shaq finished the season at over 54 percent and made all nine of his free-throw attempts in a win over Portland in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals to temporarily derail the Hack-a-Shaq strategy.

Braman’s instruction didn’t hold over to this year, however: Two months ago, Shaq set a record for futility by missing all 11 of his foul-shot attempts, breaking the single-game mark set 40 years earlier by Wilt Chamberlain.

“He can call me,” Braman says when asked of Shaq’s woes. “I don’t need to go looking for business.” —Dave McKenna