With Bird in, good things came with 3s
Legend's bravado provided inaugural Shootout with lift during '86 All-Star Weekend
"All of a sudden," recalled Craig Hodges -- then a cocksure, dead-eye marksman for the Milwaukee Bucks -- "he says, 'Man, who's comin' in second?'"
And that's how it all began. The birth of the Three-Point Shootout: NBA All-Star Weekend 1986, Reunion Arena.
Twenty-four years later, the Three-Point Shootout comes home -- well, two miles up Interstate 35E at the American Airlines Center -- on Feb. 13, as All-Star Weekend returns to North Texas. Spud Webb's height-defying dunking might have stolen the show that night, but the original Three-Point Shootout lives on in NBA lore -- and YouTube glory.
It was a different era in those days. The NBA had only been in Dallas for six years, and it had just 23 teams.
Bird and Magic Johnson were in the process of breathing new life into the NBA while broadening its appeal. Corporate America had not yet jumped on the NBA bandwagon as a marketing vehicle, and the league was grasping for ways to convince companies to invest in an NBA that had potential for mass appeal.
The All-Star games were selling out, so the league wanted to play on that success. It felt it was onto something big when in 1984 in Denver it transformed the one-day showcase of the All-Star Game into a weekend that could make for a solid second day of television programming. A new Saturday schedule featured a reprise of the great ABA dunk-a-thons helped made famous by Julius "Dr. J" Erving, plus an old-timers game. The dunk contest was an instant hit. The old-timers game, not so much.
"All these great names come back and I think what we had figured out by '86 is the names are really good and it's great to have the players around, but boy, it's kind of painful to watch these guys actually try to play basketball. It's not quite the way we remembered them," said Rick Welts, a young NBA executive at the time whose task was to break new ground and sell the league to corporate sponsors. "We were really thinking of 'What else?' and shooting was the obvious thing."
The light bulb went off.
Welts, now the president and COO of the Phoenix Suns, is the brain behind the Three-Point Shootout -- or, as it was called in '86, appropriately enough, the American Airlines Long Distance Shootout.
"We were at a point that we had to figure out something that would draw some interest from companies that hadn't been interested in the NBA before as a marketing vehicle," Welts said this week by phone. "I would love to say it was born out of inspiration for the love of the game, which I certainly have, but it was much more self-preservation than it was anything else."
Bird flies in
NBA officials told the 3-point participants to gather in the locker room 30 minutes before the start of the competition for a brief meeting. There sat the game's best long-distance shooters: Hodges, Dale Ellis of the hometown Dallas Mavericks, Eric "Sleepy" Floyd of the Warriors, Washington's Leon Wood (now an NBA referee), New York's Trent Tucker, Chicago's Kyle Macy and Norm Nixon, then of the Los Angeles Clippers, not the Lakers.
There was one notable absentee. Where was Bird?
"No telling," Hodges said. "He was probably the top one or two players in the league at that time so he was walking around All-Star-biggie while we were role-player shooters, coming off the sideline, trying to get a little airtime and a little stardom out here."
Then the locker-room door flew open. Heads turned. Bird walked in.
"So probably like two minutes before the meeting -- and I'm sure he knew exactly when the meeting was going to be -- he busts in the door and walks through," Hodges said. "He looks around the room and doesn't say anything."
Finally, Larry Legend spoke.
"Yeah, I walked in there and said that," said Bird, now president of the Indiana Pacers, of his famous second-place quip. Then Bird tried to dig deeper into the heads of his competitors.
"Then I said, 'Boy, them red, white and blue balls are real slippery. I can't even hold onto them,'" Bird said. "I knew I had a great chance to win it. If I can get through the first round I always thought I was going to win it."
The NBA couldn't have scripted such theater.
"Bird came in with his typical Birdian bravado and just boom, it took on a life of its own," said NBA senior vice president of communications Brian McIntyre, then the league's director of public relations, who watched courtside as the contest began.
Taking a shot
The Three-Point Shootout almost never got off the ground. Welts took his idea to NBA commissioner David Stern, who was inducted into office in 1984. Stern liked the idea and told Welts to test it out at CBA games, videotape it and see what it looked like on television.
"We videotaped it and came back to figure out if we had something here, and it was just awful," Welts said. "What we didn't factor in was the fact that the CBA players don't make as many shots as NBA players do, and watching the ball clang out time after time after time was not exactly exciting."
There was also still stubborn resistance at the time to the 3-point shot, one of the hallmarks of the ABA, from NBA purists, who resented its implementation before the 1979-80 season.
"I know it sounds crazy, but there still was a pretty considerable faction of traditionalists in the NBA at that point that really felt like it was a gimmicky thing that it didn't really have a place in the game of basketball," Welts said. "But by that token, shooting free throws didn't sound too exciting."
The 3-point shot then wasn't like the three-for-all it is today. Consider that Bird's Boston Celtics averaged, as a team, 4.8 3-pointers a game. Today, 23 players average at least 4.8 a game, and 19 teams average at least 17 a game. In the '80s, teams typically had a designated 3-point shooter and attempted the shot mostly on designed plays and certain situations.
Bird led the Celtics in 1985-86 with 194 3-point attempts. The rest of the team combined for 199. Today, Boston's Ray Allen has taken 228 of the team's 861 3-pointers, and Boston ranks just 12th in the league in attempts per game at 18.3. Paul Pierce reportedly will represent the Celtics in this year's contest. Pierce is shooting 46.7 percent behind the arc and is second behind Allen with 165 attempts.
Phoenix center Channing Frye is also reportedly in the contest. The 7-footer has attempted 272 3-pointers and ranks seventh in the league at 43.8 percent. He wouldn't even be the first 7-footer to win the shootout. Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki did it in 2006.
"It was a specialty, and it was that possessions were so critical so a lot of times you wouldn't just flail 3s and you had specific players that you wanted to shoot them," said Hodges, who went on to match Bird's three consecutive Shootout titles with three in a row of his own. "I think every team had who they considered their 3-point shooter, and the players on their team had plenty of confidence that they could knock down that shot."
Despite pushback from the traditionalists, Welts carried on with his plan. He studied the best spots for the participants to shoot, how many times they'd shoot and ultimately how to make it the most attractive and exciting product for television viewing and for those corporate sponsors who might like to air commercials.
"And instead of shying away from the ABA heritage of it," Welts said, "we created a red, white and blue basketball that would be worth twice as much as the other ones to try to add one more element."
A Legend delivers
Just as Welts and the NBA were elated when Dr. J said he would compete in the 1984 dunk contest, enthusiasm reigned when Bird, an All-Star starter, agreed to take part in the first Shootout.
Hodges, who made 45.1 percent (73-of-162) from 3-point range that season, hoped to steal the headlines. He got off to a blistering start, scoring 25 points in the opening round. Bird, wearing the red Eastern Conference All-Star jersey, vintage-era short-shorts and his green Celtics warm-up jacket buttoned up, started slowly. His 16 points were the cutoff for the second round.
"Somebody at one point told me to take that jacket off," Bird said. "But I felt just as comfortable with it on."
Bird heated up in the second round for 18 points. Hodges and Ellis tied and squared off in a 24-second shoot-off to determine Bird's foe in the finals. Hodges moved on and remembered how Bird had asked who would finish second.
"And I died laughing," said Hodges, at the time a fourth-year player who shot 45.1 percent behind the arc that season. "Because to me, I knew Birdie talked [trash] and it wasn't no thing for me because I grew up with people who talked a lot of garbage. My whole thing was I felt like I shot the ball as well as anybody on planet earth at that time, so let's go out here and shoot it."
Hodges went first. The extra shoot-off might have cost him. The pure jump-shooter lost his legs and finished with 12 points. Bird stepped up, sans the jacket.
Swish, swish, swish. Bird found a groove from the start. Between the left-wing rack and the center rack he drained nine in a row. "He's smoking," said the television commentator Rick Barry, who called the action with Bill Russell.
At the right-wing rack, Bird picked up the final red, white and blue ball and lofted a high-archer that banked in. "Off the glass," Barry screamed. "Give me a break, Larry."
Bird finished the round with 22 points. The raucous Reunion Arena crowd gave him a standing ovation as he raised both arms over his head.
"I wasn't going to do it all, but my teammates, especially [Robert] Parrish, said I couldn't win it anyway, so that's why I went down there and did it," Bird said. "I figured after what Robert said, I thought, 'Well hell, I'm going to be there anyway, I might as well go out there and win it.'"