INOLA — Caden Thompson does his best to ignore the noise.
‘If you don’t hit the rim, you don’t miss. If you don’t miss, you don’t get beat,’ he tells himself.
He then steps up to the free-throw line, dribbles twice and takes a shot.
That sweet sound of the basketball falling through the net is one the 11-year-old Inola native hears quite often.
About 93 percent of time, in fact.
His father, Tucker Thompson, does all he can to ensure that.
“I’ve made sure that even in practice, he uses the same two-dribble routine,” Tucker Thompson said. “We try to keep everything the same so that when he’s on that line, he feels comfortable.”
Caden Thompson’s routine, along with his uncanny accuracy and confidence, carried him all the way to the Elks Hoop Shoot national finals, where he placed fourth in 10-11 boys division.
Thompson hit 24 of 25 free throws before losing a five-shot tiebreaker to Dierks Kegler of Parsons, Kan., for third place.
Anthony Thompson of Lebanon, Ohio, sunk all 25 shots before edging Jonah Roehrig (Kaukauna, Wis.) in a tiebreaker to win the age group’s championship.
The boys competition, which took place on Saturday, April 27, at Roosevelt University in Chicago, featured 12 regional champions from each age group (8-13).
Each of the six national champions have their names inscribed in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
However, getting to the national finals is no easy task.
Caden Thompson had to navigate through five phases of competition (school, county, district, state and regional) before reaching the big stage. Only the winner advances from each contest.
Although Caden Thompson is now a two-time state champion (2017, 2019), this year’s trip to nationals was his first. He was defeated by one shot at the regional competition when he was 9.
The region Caden Thompson competes in consists of the state champions from Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
Talk about no pressure.
Nerves seem to have no impact on the youngster, though.
There’s a reason he made 140 of his 150 free throws through the six stages of the competition, not including the shoot-off tiebreaker.
Hence the aforementioned 93 percent.
“Before the competition, I have a little nerves in me, but then I start shooting, and they all go in,” Caden Thompson said. “That’s how it’s been at every single competition every year.”
After his allowed five warm-up shots, Caden Thompson enters a zone of complete focus and concentration, a superlative piece of skill even his father struggles to describe.
Tucker Thompson, who was a senior on Inola’s 1998 3A state championship squad, said watching his son at the free-throw line is even more stressful than playing in a game himself.
Once the competition begins, Caden Thompson sees only the ball and the rim. Everything else is noise trying to deter him from his task of hitting 25-straight free throws.
“It makes me nervous, but as I’m watching him, he doesn’t look nervous at all,” the elder Thompson said. “I think I’m much more nervous than he is. It’s a quiet gym, there’s a lot of people watching and he’s on the free-throw line all by himself.”
So how does a young kid develop such a passion for shooting free throws?
It has a lot to do with the influence legendary Inola basketball coach Clyde Barkley has on the Thompson family.
Both Tucker Thompson and his wife Amanda know the 42-year coach well, and Barkley’s involvement in Elks inspired the Inola sweethearts.
“It’s a big thing to coach Barkley,” Tucker Thompson said. “His son participated in Elks, and I participated in it. He has a good relationship with Dan Smart of the Claremore Elks. That’s how we got involved in it.
“We have a lot of good shooters here at Inola, and it’s a big tradition for us.”
Caden Thompson was soon in the gym shooting free throws with his dad, and before long, it became somewhat of a daily ritual for the father-son duo.
Then Caden Thompson started getting good. Really good.
“I’d shoot free throws and make a lot of them,” Caden Thompson said. “I started practicing them, and at school, I won the Hoop Shoot, and after that we went to (the county competition), and I practiced even more for that.”
He was so good, in fact, Tucker Thompson had to set milestones for his son. Obstacles the youngster had no choice but to overcome.
Caden Thompson must shoot more than 200 shots per practice session, and after that, he must make either 24 or 25 of 25 free throws and end on a swish before he can go home.
If he misses two or more, the process starts over.
Even that has become easy for the soon-to-be sixth grader, though.
“It doesn’t take long,” Tucker Thompson said. “There’s some days he’ll make 50 or 60 in-a-row.”
Since beginning this journey with his son, Tucker Thompson said he’s seen nothing but improvement in Caden’s work ethic, and that has also done wonders for the tyke’s confidence.
“It puts a lot of pressure on a little guy, but not only has he handled it well, he’s excelled at it with his personality,” Tucker Thompson said.
Even on late nights after games, Caden Thompson doesn’t want to miss a day of free-throw repetitions. It could be 9 or 10 p.m., but he’ll still request a gym visit.
His father doesn’t refuse.
“We may go to the gym until 11:30,” Tucker Thompson said. “He tells me when we go practice. He’s his own boss. I just provide the gym and the rebounding.”
His hard work doesn’t go unrewarded, of course.
Along with his favorite post-competition meal — Olive Garden’s chicken alfredo — Caden Thompson receives occasional gifts for his accomplishments.
After winning his second state title, he got a new basketball. For making nationals, he’s asking for Apple’s latest model of headphones.
“He’s wanting a pair of AirPods,” Tucker Thompson said. “Not that we reward him for everything he does, but for all he’s shown us, he deserves it.”
Caden Thompson’s endgame far outweighs those rewards, though.
As good a free-throw shooter as he is, he might be an even better team basketball player.
He’s hoping that will eventually land him a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, and beyond that, an NBA contract.
Those dreams are still in the distant future, but they are reachable nonetheless.
For now, he’s focusing on his summer team, Love For The Game, based in Justus Tiawah, and improving his career-high of 27 points.
“He likes to shoot the 3,” Tucker Thompson said. “He shoots just as well from the 3-point line. Maybe not 93 percent, but he shoots a good percentage.”
Watch out, Class of 2026. Caden Thompson is coming.