Last January my wife presented me with a most unusual birthday gift, one that prompted a friend to remark, "What does she get you when she's mad at you?"
The gift: a chance to take three half-court shots during a Chicago Bull basketball game. Five thousand dollars would be donated to charity by the Bulls' management if I hit the rim on any of the shots, $50,000 if I nailed one.
The date and place couldn't have been more challenging: Easter Sunday at Chicago's new United Center, during a nationally televised game against the hated New York Knicks. That's right, Knick leg-whip specialist John Starks would be there, and Derek (Flagrant Foul) Harper, who had told me to "shut up" during Game 2 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals at Madison Square Garden after I yelled at him from Spike Lee's seats to "miss it" as he launched a three-pointer.
The crowd would be 24,000 Bull fans, who traditionally boo any nonsports figure. "I'd pay $50,000 not to have to shoot," one friend told me. But I was thrilled. I can shoot long-range—even a one-handed push from half-court—and there would be no downside to the experience. Or so I thought initially.
I'm a 49-year-old, 6'3", 200-pound film critic who sits on his can all day for a living. Who would think I could make one of the shots? And, having attended three fourths of the Bulls' home games in the '94-95 season, I knew just how difficult the shot would seem to the crowd. All year the Bulls had been offering $1 million to fans, selected at random, if they hit 2 of 3 from 43 feet, and I had seen only two hit the rim. Of course, I would train for the Shot. But first I went to work on more important issues.
What to Wear: black Nikes and a loose-fitting Go Silk shirt and pants, which would be dressy, not athletic, but allow freedom of movement.
What to Do If I Make One: Kiss the Bulls' center-court emblem just like Mike did in a farewell charity game at the old Chicago Stadium.
What to Do If I Miss All Three: Contact the federal witness protection program.
What I didn't realize was just how much I would learn about athletic competition in the next few months. The Shot would put me in touch with a number of world-class athletes and, more important, with their mind-set for performance.
On to my initial practice session in February: I happen to play tennis regularly with Stedman Graham, a sports marketing executive and Oprah Winfrey's longtime boyfriend. More important to me than Oprah or than Stedman's tennis ability (big serve, weak ground strokes) was the fact that Graham had played professional basketball in Germany from 1976 to '79, occasionally scoring more than 40 points a game. He would be my first coach.