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Remembering Larry Legend's three-point shootout three-peat

How Celtic great Larry Bird out-shot and psyched out the field to win the first three All-Star weekend long distance contests

Jonathan Daniel

At the memorable 1986 NBA All-Star weekend in Dallas, 5-6 Spud Webb improbably won the slam dunk contest in front of his hometown crowd over favored Atlanta teammate Dominique Wilkins. The third annual old-timer legends game then preceded the first three-point "long distance shootout" competition.

And fittingly to cap off a fine All-Star Saturday before the mid-season classic contest on Sunday, Celtic long-distance marksman Larry Bird won the inaugural three-point shootout in spectacular fashion.

After being chosen for the event, Bird practiced shooting from the five three-point spots for weeks leading up to the contest, egged on by sharpshooting teammates Danny Ainge and Scott Wedman.

Neither of them were invited to be part of the eight-man field, although both could make an argument they were better long-range shooters than some who were in the competition.

Snubbed, both Ainge and Wedman needled Larry that they should have been included instead of him. Yet Bird would lead the NBA in three-pointers made (82) and attempted (194) that championship season, making 42.3 percent of his triple tries.

Dale Ellis of Dallas, Eric "Sleepy' Floyd of Golden State, Craig Hodges of Milwaukee, LA Clipper and former Laker guard Norm Nixon, Chicago's Kyle Macy (a fellow Hoosier), 6-5 Knick Trent Tucker and Bullet Leon Wood joined Bird. Five of the contestants were relatively small guards, while the 6-7 Ellis was a swingman. Bird was clearly the tallest of the group.

Bird immediately tried to establish himself as the frontrunner when he entered the locker room before the shootout.

"Which one of you guys is going to finish second?" he asked. Only Nixon of the seven other competitors had been an All-Star, so much of the field may have been a bit in awe of the setting and the three-time MVP. And Nixon, an excellent mid-range shooter, was actually a puzzling choice for inclusion.

In his entire career, Norm made just 100 treys as he shot 29.4 percent beyond the arc. The 1985-86 season with the Clippers was his best from long distance, but he still shot just 34.7 percent and made a mere 42 trifectas.

Bird correctly figured Hodges, who would later win the shootout from 1990-92, was his stiffest competition. Wood complained that the red, white and blue ABA "money balls" (a nod to the defunct league's role in popularizing the shot) worth two points were slick and hard to grip.

Actually the American Basketball League, a short-lived pro loop in 1962-63 featuring a Cleveland team owned by George Steinbrenner, pioneered the three-point shot. The ABA picked up the gimmick shot when that league opened play in 1967, and added the popular red, white and blue ball under commissioner George Mikan.

Always looking for an edge, Bird played into Wood's paranoia by grabbing an ABA ball and handling it before agreeing with Wood that it was indeed hard to handle and shoot.

As Larry expected, Hodges came out of the gate firing and scored a whopping 25 out of a possible 30 points. His incredible first round showing is still a single-round record for the event 28 years later. The mark of 25 was tied by contest winner Jason Kapono in 2007 and 2008, but has never been exceeded.

Tucker scored 19 points, Ellis 17 and Bird 16 as he squeaked into the second round. Only the top four scores made it to the semifinals, eliminating Floyd, Macy and Wood (who all tied with 13 apiece) and the jump-shooting Nixon (nine).

Bird started to heat up in the semis by scoring 18 points. "Look at how effortlessly he gets the shots up," noted WTBS commentator Rick Barry. A superstar bomber in both the NBA and ABA, Rick had retired in 1980 and probably wished he could have competed in the event.

At 6-9, Bird had an advantage over the shorter field. He barely got off the ground as he launched his perfectly-arched trifectas and thus burned less energy. In addition, his quick release, fast recovery time and quick hands helped him get off all 25 shots in a minute every time, usually with seconds to spare.

"It's a big man's game, Rick," quipped fellow TBS analyst and Hall of Famer Bill Russell.

The competitors had 60 seconds to get off five shots from each of five ball racks, while the theme to the wildly popular mid-1980's TV show "Miami Vice" played in the background to help let the shooters know how close they were to the end without having to look at the clock and divert their concentration.

Hodges and Ellis each scored 14 to tie for second in round two, and Craig won a pair of 24-second shootout tiebreakers over the home crowd favorite to advance to the finals vs. Larry Legend. Tucker scored 13.

Before the final round began, Bird went and stood next to Hodges in the right corner to playfully intimidate him briefly, then laughed and walked away.

By that time the 6-1.5 Hodges had shot himself out and his legs were tired from hoisting so many treys in a short time, including the shoot-off. He missed his first three shots and clanked nine of his first 12. A rattled Hodges even knocked over the left wing rack in his haste to rally.

He scored just 12 points in the finals, his worst round. "No legs (left) for the little guy," said Russell.

Bird, on the other hand, was just warming to the task. Like a great pitcher who gets stronger as the game goes on, he zeroed in on the hoop as he got in an incredible shooting groove.

The field had failed to knock him out in the first round, and now he was not going to be denied. Larry started in the left corner and after missing the first shot, drained the next four shots cleanly.

He moved to the left wing and continued to be on fire, sinking all five bombs while barely touching the rim on any of them. Getting involved in the run, the crowd began roaring and counting in unison on each make, like at a bullfight when the toreador avoids the charging bull.

"Six, seven, eight, nine," they roared.

Bird nailed the first two shots from out top on the middle rack for 11 successful three's in a row. He finally missed, but not before he had 13 points and the win already, halfway through his round.

Knowing he had the crown sewed up, Larry's concentration waned a bit and he began to have a little fun. On the right wing money ball, he added a little flair by banking the two-pointer in.

"That's why they call him the Bird man," lamented Dominique Wilkins, who was clearly rooting for Hodges while watching from the concourse.

"Give me a break, Larry," laughed Barry after the intentional bank trey.

Bird continued to nail shots from the right corner. On the last money ball, he tossed the final shot as high as he could and it almost went in before bouncing out. He finished with 22 points, but could easily have had 24 or 25.

He walked away and proclaimed, "I am the three-point king!"

Bird pumped both arms in the air and was given a high ten by Hodges, as well as a high five by Tucker as he went to the bench in triumph. His Celtic tormentors/teammates had given him the extra motivation to win.

"As soon as I heard Larry could win $10,000 in one day for shooting three-pointers, I knew it was over," said Kevin McHale, knowing full well Bird's competitiveness, unsurpassed clutch long-distance shooting accuracy - and his frugality.

"That check has had my name on it for weeks," laughed Bird in the winner's circle, smiling as he waggled his tongue in celebration. Then he got serious and humbly added, "Really, I got lucky."

The next year in 1987 at the old Seattle Center Coliseum, Bird encountered a tougher field and endured another close call in getting out of the first round.

He tied for fourth with now-Sonic Ellis and Hodges with 13 points, yet won a 24-second shootout over both to advance to the semis. Ainge, with 14 points, Laker nemesis Michael Cooper (15) and Maverick forward Detlef Schrempf (19) were the others to make the final four.

In the semis, Bird again heated up with 18 points to win the round. Schrempf scored 16 while Cooper and Ainge were left in the dust with 10 and eight, respectively.

This time when he won the toss to determine the order of shooters in the finals, Bird elected to go first and put the pressure on the second-year German out of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Larry swished the first shot from the right corner, then also canned the next four cleanly for a perfect six-point opening rack.

On the right wing rack, he swished the first two and nailed the third for eight in a row to start. However, he missed the next two shots to stay at nine points.

On the third rack from out top, Bird shot from the right side of the ball rack. He missed left, then misfired long before hitting one. After another miss, he drained the money ball. Twelve points.

On to the left wing rack. Swish. Short. Off left. Swish. Money ball off to the left. Fourteen points.

Now to the left corner, where he again shot from the right side of the rack. On the first shot he swished a low liner, an exact replica of the same corner triple he had made to clinch game 6 of the 1981 Finals at Houston.

Shot two was short, but the third one had more arch and swished perfectly through. The next shot missed. Bird lined up the money ball yet missed, and grabbed the top of his head in dismay, knowing he had missed a crucial chance to score two more vital points.

He had to hope 16 points would be enough.

A shaky Schrempf started in the left corner and made just two of his first 11 shots. Shooting with an extremely high arch that took more time, he then made his last four from out top in a row to give him seven points.

Schrempf nailed three shots from the right wing rack, including the two-point ball, to give him 11 heading to the right corner.

He missed the first corner trey, then drained three in a row to give him 14 points with one shot left, the last money ball. if he had made it, the round would be tied which would necessitate a shootout.

Detlef lined it up and fired, but the potential tying shot missed just short and right to give Bird another three-point title, 16-14.

Bird had been watching intently on one knee as Schrempf went to the last rack. After the last miss bounded away harmlessly he got up, high-tenned Ainge, smiled broadly and then shook Detlef's hand.

Whew. His last money ball miss had almost come back to haunt him, but he escaped with another three-point title.

The 1988 shootout at Chicago Stadium was even more dramatic, the most thrilling of Bird's trilogy of three-point triumphs.

This time he finished second in round one with 17 points, behind only Laker guard Byron Scott's 19 points. Ellis scored 16 and Schrempf 15 to narrowly eliminate Ainge and Cavalier ace Mark Price, who tallied 14 points apiece.

In the semis, Bird recorded his career-best round of 23 points to wipe out the field. He began slowly from the right corner. Bird canned the first one, then missed three in a row before hitting the money ball.

On the right wing he got dialed in. He missed the first shot, then swished two in a row before knocking the last two down by grazing the rim. Eight points.

Larry circled behind the rack at the top of the key and almost collided with a ballboy as he came around to put the rack on his right side.

He missed the first shot, drained the second with good arch and made two more. He then drilled the money ball. Thirteen points.

"He's got the rhythm now," said TBS commentator Barry, a great shooter in his own right.

Cutting in front of the left wing rack, he missed the first shot for a third rack in a row before getting the range. He swished three in succession, then barely hit the rim on the money ball make. Eighteen points.

"With that set shot, he doesn't waste a lot of effort," noted Barry.

From the deep left corner, he nailed three in a row to make it seven straight makes. Finally he missed, straight but just long.

On the final money ball, he swished the three to make it 23 points. As he walked off to a near standing ovation, he gave a small fist pump.

Beat that, he seemed to be saying. Bird wiped his forehead with his left hand and strode confidently to the bench, where he was met by a smiling Ainge, who slapped both hands down low with him.

"He has it down to a science, almost like a machine," said Barry admiringly of Bird's stroke. Allowing himself a small smile, the rarely-satisfied Bird sat between Ainge and Schrempf, knowing he was back in the finals.

Ellis tallied a pedestrian 12 points to advance to the finals, edging Scott with 11 while Schrempf scored just five.

Shooting first in the finals, SuperSonic swingman Ellis improved to score a respectable 15 points.

Bird, still wearing his green Celtic warm-up jacket and green road shorts on the advice of former Boston great John Havlicek, started slowly.

All the pressure was on Larry to repeat once again.

In the right corner, he made only one of his first three shots, missing fairly badly. But once again, as he did in the prior round, he canned the important two-point money ball to salvage the rack with three points.

At the right wing rack, Bird's first two tries were on line but short. He then over-compensated and shot straight but long. Shot number four went right in, and again he nailed the two-point ABA ball. Six points.

This time from out top, Bird shot from the right side of the rack. He missed left, missed long and then misfired again. On the fourth shot he connected for seven points.

Yet this time the money ball rimmed out. Things were starting to look grim.

"He doesn't have that normal Bird rhythm," warned Barry as Bird hurried to the left wing rack. Just 25 seconds remained and he trailed by eight points.

Warming to the task under the pressure, Larry drained the first shot. He then hit the second, swished the third, and nailed the fourth. The important money ball was pure. A perfect six-point rack. Thirteen points.

Hurrying to the final rack in the left corner, Bird saved time and shot from the right side of the rack instead of running around it. He was probably not quite sure how much time was left, and he wanted to get every shot off in the 60 seconds allotted.

Thirteen ticks remained when he launched the first corner shot. Straight but just long. The second shot rimmed out. By now Bird was releasing the ball and not even looking at the result, already going to the rack for the next shot, hurrying.

Shot number three nestled softly in the basket. Fourteen points, down one with two shots left and seven seconds to go.

"This one is for the tie," intoned Barry as the next shot floated through the air and swished perfectly through. Fifteen points.

"This is for the win...," Barry exclaimed with bated breath as Bird let fly the final shot with five seconds still to go. It felt good on the release to Larry.

As the red, white and blue ball spun through the Chicago Stadium air and dropped down toward the rim, he walked away confident of victory, his crooked right index finger pointed aloft.

The shot hit the back underside of the far rim and rattled through with three ticks left. Bird was already on his way to the winner's circle as it fell through the net in the most spectacular of wins.

"LARRY BIRRRD," yelled TBS play by play man Bob Neal in amazed admiration, as if to say, "he did it again."

Bird pumped his fist once as the sold-out stadium crowd erupted in a standing ovation. He had done it a third time in entertaining, thrilling fashion. Larry Legend rarely failed to come through and make it interesting at the same time. He was great theater.

The third time was the most charming.

To his credit, runner-up Ellis was the first to shake Bird's hand, and all the other competitors congratulated Larry in good sportsmanship.

As Bird walked past the bench of competitors toward the table to accept the trophy, Neal said, "he has ice water in his veins." Bird shook hands with the ubiquitous Craig Sager before hoisting the winner's trophy.

Barry enthused, "Just spectacular...he was all over the place early. But then it came down to the money time, and this is how the man responded...he needed to make the last three (shots) in a row to win, and now he's a winner, three times in a row."

"He knew it when he let it go, and he was headed for that check and the winner's circle," added Steve "Snapper" Jones, laughing in appreciation. "Bird came through with the big shot."

Twenty-eight years later, it remains the most thrilling and legendary finish in the history of the event. The way Bird rallied to win at the end on the very last shot, and his walk-off pose only added to his legend and mystique.

"It's almost as if Larry missed on purpose until the end to make it more dramatic," said Ainge later.

In 1989, Larry was injured and out for all but six games of the season, so he missed the chance to go for four in a row. With no Bird to compete with, the sharpshooting Ellis finally won.

Many people forget that in his 1989-90 comeback season, Bird competed in the shootout again at Miami. But with his legs weakened and his timing still a bit off, the aura and hold he had on the field had dissipated just enough, along with his long distance stroke, to make him vulnerable.

Bird went out in round one with 13 points, two points from the semifinals, a point behind Cleveland swingman Craig Ehlo and two behind Heat guard Jon Sundvold. Hodges went on to beat Reggie Miller to claim the first of his three titles.

But no one would have bet against Bird in a head-to-head situation had he advanced. So high was his confidence and so feared was he that Larry tended to psyche out and intimidate opponents into shooting less than their normal level, even with no defense on them. And as the rounds progressed, Bird usually warmed up and shot better and better.

Bird missed his final 1991 and 1992 All-Star weekends with injuries, and without Larry to contend with, Hodges won each time. He and Bird are the only three-time winners of the event.

Mark Price (1993-94), Jeff Hornacek (1998/2000), Peja Stojakovic (2002-03) and Jason Kapono (2007-08) are the only other repeat winners, but no one has won three straight other than Bird and Hodges.

Of the 15 money balls he took in his three final rounds, he made nine, and one of those misses was basically a throwaway on the very last shot in 1986 when he had already won by 10 points.

By winning the first three titles in dramatic fashion, Bird cemented his reputation as the greatest clutch long-distance shooter of his generation.

They probably should name the award the "Larry Legend Shootout Trophy."

If you wish to contact the author, you can email Cort Reynolds directly at

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