LAWRENCEBURG, Ind. -- As March Madness heats up this weekend, fans everywhere will view trips to the free throw line with a bit of trepidation.
“If he makes it,” they’ll hope and pray.
That will be the case with Northern Kentucky University, the first-time NCAA dancers.
That was not the case when NKU made a deep March run 20 years ago -- at least in the case of one player.
In the 1996-97 season, Paul Cluxton went to the line 94 times and made all 94. It was and still is a record for all divisions of college basketball.
“That record will never be broken,” former NKU sports information director Rick Meyers said. “Not Division I, Division II, Division III or junior college. He was incredible.”
Cluxton is now a salesman for Kelsey Chevrolet. He says he’d hit at least 94 of 100 right now.
“I could not shoot for a month and it would still be 94 of 100,” he said.
Rarely do months go by that Cluxton does not shoot. He married into the Kelsey family. His wife is former NKU women’s player, Katie. Katie’s brother is Pat, coach of NCAA-bound Winthrop. Cluxton and his other brother-in-law, Walt, were planning their trip to Milwaukee to see Winthrop play.
The trip will mean Cluxton takes a break from coaching a couple of his kids, who play at Our Lady of Lourdes on the west side.
So he’s involved in the game. He knows how rare it is for someone to be that good, let alone great, at free throw shooting. He notes that NKU is shooting 67 percent.
“Maybe Johnny (NKU coach John Brannen) should have me out to talk to the boys next year,” he jokes.
Cluxton was a great player at NKU. He was a third-team Division II All-American in 1997. He’s in the school Hall of Fame and is NKU's 10th leading scorer of all-time.
But he is hard-pressed to pinpoint why he was the best free throw shooter in college history.
“I don’t know if your tape is long enough for that,” he said.
Cluxton’s father, Dean, was an all-state player. He got Paul started early with good instruction.
“I remember going out on our court,” he said. “I’m 5. I’m a big kid. I ended up being 6-3 as an eighth-grader. The same size I am now, so I grew fast. That kind of came into play. I still rememberer him telling me to put my hand in the middle of the basketball. You can still see it rep after rep after rep.
“There’s not a whole lot of basketball players out in New Vienna (Ohio). There’s not a lot basketball players in Lynchburg (Ohio), where we moved when I was in the fifth grade. You just shoot.
“I’ve got five kids. They play 20, 30, 40 games a year. We played six games. There was just not that much competition. Kids in the country just work out shooting by themselves.”
Cluxton got involved in the Elks Hoop Shoot as an 8-year-old. He won the competition at his school, the sectional, the district and the state. Cluxton would finish school at 3 p.m. and then go to school gym and get in 500 free throws.
“As a kid, with nobody rebounding, it takes some time,” he said. “Looking back, that’s a pretty big commitment. But the passion evolved, and I’m really competitive guy.”
Cluxton would make 23 of 25 routinely in the competition -- as an 8-year-old.
Cluxton was an 85 percent free throw shooter at Lynchburg-Clay and an all-state player. At Northern, he saw that as way to get playing time.
“It’s about minutes,” he said. “How many games come down to free throws?”
Cluxton shot 92.6 percent as a junior, making 100 of 108. That wasn’t good enough.
“I’d have to make 100 in a row before I left,” he said. “It would take an hour sometimes. My (now) wife would rebound for me. She’s a Kelsey, so she likes to pass more than shoot.”
Cluxton taught at Lynchburg for two years after graduating from Northern. He married Katie two weeks after she graduated from Northern.
“That was no-brainer,” Cluxton said. “The best decision I ever made for multiple reasons. It got me some foot speed for my five kids. Five babies later, I live in a Catholic ghetto, so to speak, over in Western Hills. It’s a great place to raise a family."
Basketball is central in his life.
“Selection Sunday we had 40 family members over,” Cluxton said. “We were just so excited. Kids were everywhere. Man, it’s awesome, an awesome time of year.”
Cluxton puts on two camps each year with Walt Kelsey. Cluxton shoots free throws for the campers while talking about shooting free throws. He swishes nine and then banks the 10th. A few years ago, he got to 200 straight at McNicholas High School without a miss.
“I got on fire,” he said. “I had to quit. I said, ‘We've got to get back to camp.’ Making 200 free throws with a rebounder is 30 minutes of time.”
Cluxton gives free advice on occasion. He talked to talked to Chris Paul and Ish Smith -- now both NBA players -- when Pat Kelsey was an assistant at Wake Forest.
“Just simple stuff,” he said. “You watch them both, they take one dribble and fire. You keep it real simple.”
The advice works better for some than others. Paul is an 86.4 percent free throw shooter (eighth best of the active NBA players); Smith is a 65.4 percent free throw shooter, although he was at 42.9 percent his first two years at Wake.
Cluxton admits he was a better player than coach.
“It ain’t even close,” he said.
The record started to take on a life of its own when it got the 70s. NKU was on a march to the Division II finals.
“We were winning,” he said. “There were some big games. We got to the national finals. It was a side joke to Cliff Clinton and LeRon Moore. They said they were going to step into the lane on one free throw to end the streak. It was that kind of group of guys.
“What a special, special chemistry. It was a really good team. I don’t know if we were the most talented team out there, but we played well together.”
Cluxton made his last four free throws in the national championship game.
Dave Bezold, an assistant coach on that team, put all 94 on tape. Cluxton hasn’t watched it. Bezold told him 88 were swishes, six hit the rim.
As the conversation winds down, Cluxton comes up with an answer to why he was such a good free throw shooter.
“The real answer is great parenting,” he said. “I had passion and they put me in the position. My mom is 80 years old. She drove a 150 miles round-trip to watch my fourth-grade daughter play two basketball games.”
So the credit goes to Shirley and Dean Cluxton.
“I hit the genetic lottery with those two,” he said. “Two of the most fantastic people I ever met. They never missed a game. When we went out to California with Northern, they went out. When we went down to Florida, they went.
“Maybe that was it.”