Hoop Dreams Close To Reality For 13-Year-Old
That’s the sound of a perfectly executed free throw as the basketball cuts a graceful, 15-foot arc and then rips through the netting hooked to an 18-inch metal hoop.
That’s what you usually hear when a 13-year-old machine named Sara Steblaj is shooting.
Sadly, the typical Clark free throw sounds more like a drunk tumbling down several flights of stairs:
“Oof. Clonk! Thud.”
In a moment of true March madness, I challenged young Sara to a free throw duel on her home outdoor court.
I’d be better off asking the computer Deep Blue to play chess. This Spokane Valley seventh-grader ran over me like Bloomsday tramples the finish line at Spokane Falls Boulevard.
Sara was cooler than the unseasonably chilly weather. She stepped up to the line and calmly pumped in 22 of 25. An incredible 88 percent.
Alas, there will be no lucrative Air Clark sneaker contract in my future. After making a scant three of my first 10 attempts, I rallied to finish with a mediocre 11 of 25 (44 percent).
The only thing missing was annoying basketball announcer Dick Vitale screaming, “The kid clobbers the Coot. The kid clobbers the Coot.
Actually, it’s quite believable.
Dead-eye Sara is one of the country’s best free-throw shooters in her age group.
After whupping her hotshot peers in district, state and regional competition, she will head to Springfield, Mass., in May to the Elks National Free Throw Hoop Shoot.
This will be her second trip to the finals. Last year, Sara placed third in the nation. She tied with two other girls who shot 23 of 25 (92 percent), but then lost to both in tie-breakers.
Here’s a sobering statistic: John Stockton, Spokane’s Mr. Basketball, is only an 84 percent free-throw shooter.
“I don’t know how she does it,” says Sara’s dad, Jim, a contractor who made an all-state team playing basketball for University High in the early 1960s. “I entered the (free-throw) contest 30-some years ago and didn’t make it out of the city.”
There are, of course, plenty of fine shooters dribbling about the nation’s courts.
Sara’s twin sister, Lindsey, for example, is a terrific young player. The twins are two major reasons their Horizon Junior High team went undefeated. The girls also play for unbeaten Nothin’ But Net, an AAU team.
But Lindsey doesn’t share her sister’s love of tension-packed free-throw shootouts.
Sara is one of those rare individuals blessed with a cool head to match her hot hand.
She’s incredibly focused. Relentless. The more pressure, the better this braces-wearing, 4.0 student performs.
“Sara always warms up slow,” says her mom, Kathy, a high school counselor. “We watch her, thinking, ‘Oh, no,’ but then she steps up and beats them all.”
Even Sara can’t explain it.
“I like pressure,” she says. “At the nationals I was really nervous, but then I shot the best I ever have.”
How good is she?
Well, nearly 3 million boys and girls - ages 8 to 13 - from all 50 states participate each year in the Elks Hoop Shoot. Contests eventually boil this huge number down to a deft dozen in each age and sex bracket.
Sara has a great shot at becoming Spokane’s first Hoop Shoot champ. The contest was founded more than 40 years ago by Corvallis, Ore., Elks member Frank Hise.
Only champions get their names enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. “That’s what I want,” says a determined Sara, who practices nearly every day.
After being thoroughly drubbed, I gave this kid a few words in the spirit of true sportsmanship.
“Next time, I’ll arm wrestle you.”
Sara was cool as ever. “I’ll beat you at that, too,” she vowed.