By: Dave Feschuk
As a recent Raptors practice broke up, the best shooter in the gym was only beginning his work. Dave Hopla, Toronto’s shooting coach, stood on the free-throw line with ball in hand and a hoop to himself. As many players headed for the showers, the swishes began to rain.
Many minutes passed until T.J. Ford, the swaggering point guard, approached Hopla, who, with one bounce and one pump of the knees, was making one free throw after another.
“How many?” Ford asked.
“Thirty-four,” Hopla said without breaking his rhythm.
And Ford, for a moment, was unimpressed: “That’s it?!”
Jim Todd, the assistant coach who was rebounding for Hopla, quickly piped in: “That’s five hundred and thirty-four.”
And it was – 534 straight free throws without a miss, which was less than halfway to Hopla’s personal record of 1,234 in a row. Ford, like everyone else in the gym, simply shook his head and stared. Hopla got to 550 and packed it in, making room for a photo shoot that was commandeering the practice floor.
Other than providing an awe-inspiring sideshow, it’s difficult to say exactly what effect Hopla has had on the club since he joined the staff in November. The Raptors have increased their field-goal shooting percentage every month this season, from 44.2 per cent in November to 47.5 per cent in January. They’ve increased their three-point percentage every month, from 30 per cent in November to 40 per cent last month. And though there are obviously plenty of reasons for the improvements – including the increasing familiarity of the group, an easing of the schedule, a bursting collective confidence – more than a few players cite Hopla’s presence as an important cog in the machine. That the club has shot 55.8 per cent from the field and made an average of 10 three-pointers a game during its current three-game win streak, which it will attempt to extend tonight against the visiting Orlando Magic, has only enhanced the good feelings surrounding the swami of swish.
Morris Peterson, who has tweaked his mechanics under the guru’s watch, calls Hopla’s contribution “tremendous.” Jorge Garbajosa, who has struggled to break out of a season-long slump, lauds Hopla for inspiring him to persevere.
“He’s helped a lot,” says Chris Bosh, who has markedly increased his shooting range this year. “I had a lot of things I was doing wrong in my mechanics, my preparation to shoot. And he got with me. I took his criticism and it’s been paying off.”
Said Peterson: “He always has his door open. He’s helping everybody. And I think as a result guys are shooting better and shooting with confidence.”
Before Hopla was hired, the Raptors, with three assistant coaches – Todd, Jay Triano and Alex English – employed the smallest staff in the league. But Hopla’s not just another body. He has long been gainfully employed as a freelance shooting coach, working the summer camp circuit and providing instruction to some of the game’s most gifted marksmen, among them Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant and Gilbert Arenas. That he’s a rare coach who can actually practise what he preaches doesn’t hurt his credibility.
“When he comes here and you make a shooting contest with him and he kicks your ass, you say, `Yeah, he knows a lot about it and he’s a good shooter,'” Garbajosa said.
Not that he doesn’t have his weaknesses. The joke around the practice court is that the shooting coach is essentially a set-shooting coach. When he’s on the run, Hopla, at age 49, flags quickly. Shooting three-pointers the other day, sprinting to spots around the arc where he took a pass and popped, Hopla was seen missing more shots in five minutes than he’d been previously seen missing all season. The other day he was back to shooting free throws. And if he missed, no one saw the clank.
“They start trying to get me moving and tire me out,” Hopla said, laughing. “But we have a lot of fun.”