A ping drew me to a direct message on Twitter last spring.
Another sportswriter, one who had worked previously at the Independent Record, offered a story idea. The Saints have been strong free-throw shooters under coach Carson Cunningham, and during this reporter's time in Helena, he had not been able to fully explain why. Asking Cunningham for details to the team's success is like asking a chef for his secret sauce recipe. It was foolish to give a "strategic advantage" away, he reasoned.
Unbeknownst to the reporter when he offered the tip, I already told the story.
"That's a really good story," he said.
There have been a lot of stories to be proud of since I began working at the Independent Record and 406MTSports. This one, however, helped folks understand why the Saints were, and continue to be, so great from the charity stripe.
A day after this story originally published, the Saints hit 22 of 23 free throws to narrowly win in the second round of the NAIA Tournament. Cunningham, in a nod to the story, passed by me on his way to the locker room in Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium afterward.
"How about them free throws, baby," he exclaimed. -- Erik Anderson
KANSAS CITY — This time, the moment may not have been as large. The stage, however, grew exponentially, and 15 feet separated a freshman from two points. The lights, glimmer and crowd at Municipal Auditorium all swirled as Steven Helm’s routine began.
Helm had faced pressure before, twice nailing clutch free throws in the regular season to help preserve leads for the No. 4-ranked Carroll College Saints. Wednesday, playing in his first national tournament, Helm delivered again -- 6 for 6, as if there were any doubt, helping the Saints brush away Mount Mercy in the first round of the NAIA national tournament.
He is, after all, one of the best free throw shooters in the nation.
Helm’s stroke was cultivated in Valparaiso, Indiana, and his percentage of 94 is not only an anomaly in the NAIA, but would rank second in NCAA Division I basketball. Hitting 90 percent is a rare ground that inspires awe and can be the basis for elevating players to hall of fame careers.
In the NBA, only three players retired have career free throw percentages of 90 percent.
While Helm’s not NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry, who galvanized with his famous “granny style” approach to breaking the sacred 90 percent barrier, he’s instead refined an Indiana technique that has been taught for many years.
Helm’s hit 62 of 66 free throws in 32 games. He plays about 17 minutes a night, so he’s not relied upon to get to the free throw line to carry the Saints. But when the game shifts to a foul fest, and a desperate opponent begins hacking in an attempt to get back in the game, Helm becomes the Saints’ greatest weapon.
Twice this season, Lewis-Clark State found itself in a dire predicament: The Warriors needed to make up points and sustain as much game clock as possible. Once the ball hit Helm’s hands, LCSC had to foul.
Helm, both times, coolly knocked down two free throws, keeping the Warriors at bay.
In those pressure-filled moments, Helm transported himself. The destination? His childhood church, 6 a.m. The setting where he honed his technique, a process that is “literally drilled into every kid,” at Valparaiso High, Helm said.
Twenty minutes before class, he and a teammate shot. Players shot until they missed. A group of teammates competed to earn “steroids,” several Starburst candies given out to the morning’s best shooters.
“Sometimes in the morning, if I was going, I would just shoot 70,” Helm said. “My partner would just sit there and be like, ‘Come on, man.’”
Once he gets into high-pressure games, Helm says, the tension doesn’t bother him. He’s created tension in each free throw he practices, so his muscle memory allows him to continue replicating his method.
“He went to Valparaiso High School, which is one of the great shooting schools historically in the annals of Indiana high school basketball,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “He left there with the highest free throw percentage in the history of the school. There have been some amazing free throw shooters at that school, including Bryce Drew who a lot of people know from his big shot at Valpo.”
Helm’s craft has jet set during his 19 years. The talented guard was born in Havre, when his father, Steve Helm Jr., played at MSU-Northern. Helm moved from Havre to Athens, Tennessee, until he was 3, when the family moved to Lafayette, Indiana, and then moved to Plymouth, Indiana, when he was 6. As his parents, Steve Jr. and Kelly, pursued new jobs in coaching and otherwise, Steve Helm ended up in Valparaiso, where he became groomed to shoot.
Helm, while developing the technique -- a mixture of stance, limitation of mechanics and shifting weight forward -- actually watched his free throw percentage drop for months. He recalls shooting about 80 percent going into his sophomore year and dropping to the “low 70s” before blossoming his junior year and shooting 94 percent, which led the state of Indiana, he said.
While Helm may be the master of the technique, other Saints have followed suit. It’s part of the reason the Saints have been the NAIA’s most talented free throw shooting team since Cunningham arrived from Merrillville, Indiana, emphasizing the free throw style to great success. It’s also part of the reason other teams around the Frontier have taken notice of the Saints, seeking to replicate their success from the stripe.
“I think if we knew exactly how someone became a great shooter, then I’d think we’d probably bottle that up and give it to everybody,” Cunningham said. “There are so many factors that go into being a great shooter and also free throw shooter. Fortunately, he’s on our team, because he’s one of the best, I think, in the nation, at any level.
“We just feel fortunate we have a lot of guys with a knack for shooting free throws.”
They do, indeed.
But in particular, opponents may want to think twice before fouling The Sniper from Valpo.