At just 9 years old and 70 pounds, Ayyub Ali has his hands full when holding a basketball. But the 4-foot-11 Ayyub says shooting baskets is no problem for him.
"It starts out heavy, but the more I shoot,the more comfortable I get," said Ayyub, a fourth-grader at Hillsmere Elementary School. "And the ball just gets lighter and lighter."
Who's going to question Ayyub -- a defending state champion free-throw shooter who can shoot 10 straight free throws from 8 feet away and at a basket that stands more than twice his height?
At Towson State University last Saturday, Ayyub missed just one shot in 25 to win his second consecutive district title in the 8-to-9-year-old division of The Elks National "Hoops Shoot" competition. The effort matched his personal best, which was good enough to win last year's state title.
A week from tomorrow, Ayyub will try to defend that title against competitors from Maryland, Delaware and Washington.
If successful, Ayyub will take his sharpshooting skills to the East Coast Regionals in Charleston, W.Va., next month where he will go up against the state champions from North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia. The regional winner then goes to the national competition.
"I've been working on my shot, and I think I can do it," said the right-handed marksman. "I used to turn my shoulder on the shot and the ball wouldgo off one side of the rim. Now I shoot straighter and the ball goes in more."
In Ayyub's division, the players shoot from 4 feet inside the free-throw line. So they're actually shooting 8- not 12-footers. But when Ayyub turns 10 on June 9, he'll move up into the next age group (10-12).
"Then he'll be shooting from the foul-line, but hecan already do it," said Abdur Ali, Ayyub's father.
His free-throw shooting brilliance notwithstanding, playing the game is Ayyub's first passion. He is the leading scorer for the 76ers, a 8-10 squad in the Peninsula Athletic League.
"I'm not so tall, and I get banged up a lot. So I try to take the ball inside more. And when I get fouled, I can go to the line," said Ayyub, using the confidence gained from kung fu, in which he has a blue belt. "Kung fu helps me with my strength. I do a lot of push-ups and that helps me get the ball up there."
Last year, Ayyub made 9-of-10 free throws to win the title at Hillsmere and advance to the Annapolis City championships, where he connected on 16 of 25.
Then, despite playing with strep throat, Ayyub improved on his city performance by connecting on 21-of-25 to win the district title. He then shot 24-of-25 to win the state title against competitors from Maryland, Washington and Delaware.
"His shooting accuracy just kept getting better and better," said Ali. "His attitude is what got him there. He kept his cool the whole time. He didn't care whether he won or lost, he was just enjoying himself."
Like most 9-year-olds, Ayyub has plenty of interests.
"He likes a million different things and the day doesn't have enough hours for him,"said Ali, whose son has a B-plus average at Hillsmere. "When he comes home, he'll do his homework first. Then he'll settle down in front of the television -- ESPN is his favorite channel. He's interested inall the sports, especially football, basket
ball and baseball. He likes a million different things."
Said Ayyub: "I like to read. My favorite magazines are Black Belt and Sports Illustrated. And I like novels, like 'How to Eat Fried Worms.' "
Ali has taken Ayyub and his five brothers and sisters to two Annapolis High basketball games --the Panthers' loss to Baltimore's Dunbar and their overtime victory over Southern of Baltimore.
Ayyub came away from the games with two high school heroes -- Annapolis' Dennis Edwards and Dunbar's Donta Bright.
"They were both good players," said Ayyub. "Personally, I want to play high school basketball like them some day and lead our team to a state championship."