Wizards assistant Dave Hopla shoots, shoots, shoots - and teaches

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WASHINGTON - It seems safe to say he owns the highest shooting percentages of anyone on an NBA payroll.

Even Gilbert Arenas wouldn't dare challenge him to a 3-point contest.

Washington Wizards assistant coach Dave Hopla is a 6-foot bundle of energy with graying temples, a slight paunch and a rat-a-tat-tat patter. He also can put the basketball in the hoop, over and over and over again.

"I'm an out-of-shape, 50-year-old guy," he says proudly, "but give me an open shot, and I'm going to knock it down."

And here's the truly unique part: He has the notebooks to prove it. About 50 of them, going back decades. Most are stored in the garage at his home in Maine, but he totes the current pair everywhere - the green, leatherbound one to chart his workouts, and the black-and-white composition book to chart his shooting at speaking engagements.

So Hopla can tell you, for example, that he made 99.2 percent of his free throws (11,093 out of 11,183) and 92.5 percent of his college-distance 3-pointers (260 out of 281) while delivering lectures in 2007. Yes, that's how well he shoots while talking.

He can tell you he once made 1,234 free throws in a row and reached 1,065 another time. His personal record for consecutive NBA 3s is 78.

When he was 16, at the urging of a coach whose name is lost to history, Hopla began tracking every shot. He records makes and misses and other details, such as position on the floor and how many minutes it took to reach a certain number of baskets.

Why? Because he figures that if one's attitude is, "Who's counting?" then, well, what's the point of doing anything, really? If you undertake a task, the thinking goes, you should want to be as good as possible at it. Perfect, in fact.

He tells his pupils it's not enough to try to make every shot. They should try to swish every shot.

"I'm addicted, to shooting and to the numbers. They go hand in hand," Hopla says in a recent interview, a few days after making 25 3s in a row after a team practice. "I want to see myself getting better. You shoot the ball correctly, you want to shoot it better than anyone else in the world. To know for sure, you've got to write it down."

That dedication - obsession? - helped him become a remarkably good shooter and a respected instructor, someone who has worked with dozens of players around the NBA.

It also helped Hopla earn a full-time gig with the Wizards after serving as a consultant to the Toronto Raptors last season, following years of working at basketball camps and time as an assistant coach at a community college in Baltimore.

Hopla's official title in the Wizards' media guide? Assistant coach/player development. His unofficial titles? Shooting coach. Shooting guru. Shot doctor.

"I just call myself a basketball coach. Teacher. Coach. Teacher of shooting," he says, somewhat Yoda-like, then pauses while searching for just the right phrase.

"Teacher of life," Hopla continues, satisfied. "I think I bring a little bit more to the table than shooting a basketball."

He has two business cards, one from the Wizards, the other from his work as a motivational speaker to companies and kids. That second card touts his "Shooting for S.U.C.C.E.S.S." philosophy, which stands for "sacrifice, unselfishness, character, commitment, excellence, standards in someone."

Like several other players around the league, Arenas was about 12 or 13 when he first met Hopla at a camp.

"He changed my shot. Made me a better shooter, mechanics-wise, timing-wise," the three-time All-Star says. "I used to have a really slow release. It was butter, but it was really slow. He changed that up for me, made me more of a defined shooter."

And why was Arenas willing to listen to Hopla way back when? Because Hopla introduced himself to the group by shooting.

"He made, like, 90-something in a row from college 3. I was amazed," Arenas recalls, eyes wide. "I was just, like, 'Whaaaa? Forget this dunkin' stuff. I want to shoot like that.'"

Arenas also remembers one of Hopla's teaching tools, "Hand in Face." It's a cardboard cutout in the shape of a hand, attached to the brim of a baseball cap to mimic a defender. Arenas went home and made his own.

There's more where that came from.

"Manute Pole" is a broomstick used to simulate a tall-as-a-skyscraper opponent. "The Silent Partner" is a giant head-and-shoulders of foam used to make players work on finishing and getting the ball over a defender. Gardening gloves can help with ballhandling.

And then there are all of Hopla's little sayings, some to do with life, others to do with hoops. "Simple stuff for simple minds." "Three Ts: toe, tack, target. That tack on the free-throw line is at the center of the basket." "Make shots, not excuses." "Good passes precede good shots." "Your foundation is your footwork." "Always challenge yourself."

Those thoughts were developed over the years. Playing at a community college, then at an NAIA school in Nebraska ("People don't know what 'NAIA' stands for," Hopla said. "I tell them it's 'No Academic Information Available.'"). The vagabond, have-shot-will-travel life in outposts such as Wales, Northern Ireland, Germany and Venezuela. The stint in the old Continental Basketball Association until, as Hopla put it, "the checks bounced."

"He's a basketball junkie," Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said. "If he can help one player on the team, it's worth it. And over the short term, we have seen results."

After going 22-for-24 from the line (91.7 percent) in Friday night's overtime victory over the Atlanta Hawks, the Wizards ranked third in the NBA in free-throw shooting percentage at 79.3, an improvement on last season's 76.5 and on pace to break the franchise record. The only teams with better percentages are the Dallas Mavericks, who employ a full-time free-throw coach, and the Raptors.

The Wizards also have higher team field-goal and 3-point shooting percentages than in 2006-07, which could help explain why they are in the thick of things in the East despite a host of injuries that include losing Arenas to knee surgery.

Given the importance of putting the ball in the net, one might think all of the NBA's 30 teams would have a shooting coach. After all, every Major League Baseball team has a batting coach and pitching coach. But fewer than half of the NBA's clubs have someone who coaches shooting full-time.

Note these numbers: Seven of the top eight teams in the Western Conference employ a shooting coach. None of the seven worst teams in the Eastern Conference does.

Asked whether he's surprised so few clubs have full-time shooting coaches, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban replied in an e-mail, "We think having a shooting coach is a terrible investment and no team should have one."

Sarcasm, perhaps? Hmmmm.

The Wizards didn't have such a coach last season, when Brendan Haywood, for example, dipped to 54.8 percent on free throws, putting his career average below 60 percent. After a few months with Hopla, Haywood is at 71.5 percent. Caron Butler's shooting percentages are at career-best levels on field goals (49.6), 3s (40.2) and free throws (89).

Hopla works with players after practices and before games, kidding around and cajoling, to be sure, but also making serious suggestions to tweak mechanics.

These are pros who have been playing basketball for years and now earn millions of dollars. Yet they listen.

"So effortless, his ability to knock down shots. I've never seen anybody shoot like him," says Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Childress, who's worked out with Hopla. "And he has that charisma and that energy."

Hopla gives his Wizards players their own notebooks, of the loose-leaf variety, filled with statistics and color-coded charts showing zones of the court where they've been "hot" or "cold."

"It helps out tremendously," Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson said. "When I'm out there, I know when I'm at that spot he showed me where I'm shooting 60 or 70 percent. So I'm going to make that shot."

Sixty percent? Seventy percent?

Not too shabby, Stevenson. Not quite Hoplaesque, though.


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