The Upside of an Underhanded Approach

In Paying Your Debt to Society we took a traditionally negative term and showed how it had potentially been misunderstood.  Today, I would like to take a different perspective on the term “underhanded”.  One definition that I came across described it like this:

Performing an action in a way that - while otherwise completely legal, seemingly neutral, and not apparently malicious, is extremely undesirable to somebody affected.

Just reading this makes me upset.  The single most costly financial event of my life came at the hands of a person who, while arguably not doing anything illegal, most certainly was guilty of behaving in an underhanded way.  While that is a story for another day, it may be an interesting motivation for me to try to reclaim the term with a positive spin.

This brings us to the topic of Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain.  Unquestionably one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Wilt holds numerous NBA records in scoring, rebounding, and durability categories. He is the only player to score 100 points in a single NBA game!  While people remember his championship rings, scoring, rebounding, and assists, it is easy to forget that Wilt was terrible at shooting foul shots!  

In a league where the best shooters can hit over 90% from the free-throw line, Wilt shot a career 51.1%!  One season, he shot as poorly as 38%  and over his career missed more than 5,000 total foul shots!  With this many misses, it makes you wonder how he was ever able to score 100 points in a single game.  Why didn’t the opponents just foul him and force him to make the free-throws?  This is where things get strange…

In Chamberlain’s now-famous “100 Point Game” over the New York Knicks, they did foul him!  Their problem is that he made the foul shots.  In that game, Wilt made 28 out of an attempted 32 free throws for an astounding 87.5%!  To put this into context, a career free throw shooting percentage of 87.5% would be good enough to make someone the 23rd best foul shooter in the history of the NBA!  How in the world did one of the worst foul shooters in the league, suddenly perform like one of the best?  If you ever see a video of the game, one reason should be obvious.  He shot them underhanded.

Shooting underhand foul shots is not unprecedented.  Rick Barry, the fourth-best foul shooter in NBA history (89.98%) shot them that way for his entire career.  Not only did Wilt Chamberlain shoot underhanded free throws in his 100 pt game, but he did so for the entire 1961-1962 season and finished with the best foul shooting percentage of any season in his 15 playing as a professional.  After such a successful experiment, he then did something truly confounding. He stopped shooting his foul shots underhand, and never performed so well from the line again.   Chamberlain eventually explained this in his autobiography.  He says, “I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong, I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. I just couldn’t do it.”

It is the end of the year, and this means many things to many people.  To many households in America, it is a time to hang wreaths and lights around the house.  In some areas of finance, the end of the year is a season for a different kind of “window dressing”.  Many fund managers will adjust their portfolios, not to position them in such a way to deliver good results for investors in the future.  Instead, they are buying what we all know has worked in the past several months.  When the December 31st statements come out, they want investors to be able to look at their holdings and see that they have the “winners”.    This is all in the name of maintaining appearances and comes at a cost to the end investor.  It is a shockingly common tactic.       

Wilt Chamberlain's job was to win basketball games.  More specifically, when he was at the foul line, his job was to make the shots and give his team the points they needed to win.  Looking good was nowhere in the job description.  Fitting in with what the other players in the league were doing should not have been a concern for a professional.  In all walks of life today, I see a great number of people trying very hard to look a certain way or to fit in, and they are doing this at a cost.  What they should be doing is making use of the most effective ethical techniques at their disposal to legitimately succeed.  If getting the best results means swallowing their pride and taking the metaphorical shot underhand, then that is what a professional will do.  Nobody is paying you to fit in.  They are paying you for results.  Your priority should not be to “look good”, but then again what looks better than delivering a win? 

In this spirit, I submit an alternate definition of “Underhand”



adjective: underhand

Performing an action in a way that - while unorthodox or unexpected, is extremely desirable to those you wish to benefit.

As consumers, perhaps we would all be best served by avoiding the people behaving in an underhanded (old definition) fashion by seeking out the people who are not afraid to try an underhand (new definition) approach in order to provide the most benefit to us.

Related: Fear is Nothing to Be Afraid Of