But then came two more air balls. "You're looking at where the ball is going. Just focus on the rim and let your hand-eye coordination work for you." Swish. Thanks again, Robert.
My wife joined my daughters and my mother in accompanying me to the game. And guess who, purely by chance, was in a floor seat near ours. It was Payton, who hadn't attended a Bull game in three years. Through hand signals I told him that today was the day. He put his hands together in prayer.
The Shot—actually, the Shots—would take place during the first timeout of the third quarter. At halftime I had an eerie experience that would be one of the high points of the whole adventure. While my wife and daughters went to visit friends, I took a walk through the crowd, up the stairs, to a men's room. Never before had I felt so alone with so many people around me. The Bulls pointedly had not announced my shots, so no one took special notice of me. As I stood in the banality of a line before a urinal, I had to smile at where I would be in about 10 minutes. On point. In front of family and friends, 23,880 strangers and Roger Ebert. And my beloved Bulls. And Him. And the Knicks.
When the timeout was finally called, I crawled over the front-row barrier and onto the court. I greeted the rank amateur who would be taking the Million Dollar Shot before me. Fortunately he looked more like Roger than like Mike, and as I had imagined he would, he flung three air balls, barely passing the free throw line. Inwardly I smiled, because unlike the gentleman before me and unlike previous contestants, I would actually be shooting the ball from a standstill; they all threw it like a baseball.
I stepped forward as Bull announcer Ray Clay explained my presence and the contest rules. I stared directly at the basket, never noticing a video camera that, I'm told, was only two feet from my face, beaming my image to the four Jumbotron screens on the scoreboard. Bull marketing chief Steve Schanwald would later tell my wife, "Other than Michael Jordan, I've never seen anyone more focused."
And now the first shot. I was prepared for failure, because other first shots had always been air balls. Without warming up, one's body simply doesn't have any frame of reference for a shot of that distance. I also felt myself rushing a bit. I tried to slow down, but I felt the pressure to perform. The introduction had been awfully long. The crowd had to be impatient.
I bent down to make sure to get my legs involved, and then I lofted...an air ball, about four feet short and to the left of the basket.
I felt a flash of sadness. In movie terms, was this the end of Rico? Was I choking?
A videotape replay, however, shows a smile crawling across my face as the ball is returned to me for a second try. Seven months later I still can't figure out why I smiled. Was it a smile at the folly of it all—a "how dare I" smile? Or was it a smile of confidence—an "of course I missed the first one" smile? It's true I had predicted the first air ball to friends and to John Paxson, the Bulls' former three-point specialist, who had told me that a standing-still, one-handed push was indeed the most accurate way to shoot from half-court.
Now I bent down deeper. I could feel my legs get more into motion as I sent the second ball aloft...to the right front of the rim.