The telling and retelling of the Larry Bird story has become an All-Star weekend tradition, in much the same way that " 'Twas the night before Christmas" accompanies Yuletide. It was in 1986—the year the three-point shooting contest became part of the All-Star festivities—that Bird, the Boston Celtics' legendary forward, walked into the Reunion Arena locker room in Dallas, took one look at his seven opponents and asked, chillingly, "All right, which one of you a——is going to finish second?" The psychological battle already won, he then shot his way to the first-place trophy with cold-blooded ease.
Had Bird entered the locker room before the All-Star shoot-out last Saturday at Gund Arena, he would have found a group of marksmen ripe for the taking. The place was silent, save for a television playing in the background, as eight of the best shooters in the NBA wordlessly prepared for battle. "There's something about being in that room, just the eight of you, that heightens the tension," Washington Bullets guard Tim Legler, who won the 1996 contest, would say later. "Last year there was some trash-talking, but this year there were no mind games except for the ones you played with yourself."
There were more than a few of those. "I feel like I should win," Denver Nuggets forward Dale Ellis, the league's alltime leader in three-point field goals made, had said the day before the shoot-out, "but I don't feel like I should feel that way, if you know what I'm saying." Walt Williams of the Toronto Raptors was at the other end of the spectrum. "I'm only a first-timer in this thing," he said. "Those other guys are probably licking their chops."
The three-point contest plays havoc with the shooter's mentality, maybe because it requires him to perform a familiar act under unfamiliar conditions. "Shooting 25 open jump shots in less than a minute is something you're not going to do in a game or even in a normal practice," says Chicago Bulls guard Steve Kerr. "That's why you can be a good shooter and not necessarily do well in this." Evidence to support that theory: In his only year in the contest—1990—Michael Jordan scored five points, tying Detlef Schrempf for the worst showing in history.
If anyone had reason to be cocky before the contest it was Kerr, a former Cavalier who was warmly welcomed by the Cleveland fans. When he arrived at the arena, he was stopped every few steps by someone wishing him luck or telling him he would win. But that karma was at least partly offset by the bad omen of Kerr's last visit to Gund Arena, on Jan. 23, when he missed all three of his shots (two of them three-point tries) and went scoreless in a 87-71 Bulls win. "The next morning Nicolas [Kerr's four-year-old son] walked into my room and started chanting 'No points for Daddy, no points for Daddy,' " says Kerr.
But there was Nicolas on his feet last Saturday, cheering for Daddy. And Kerr had other high-profile boosters, too. There was Cleveland Indians centerfielder Kenny Lofton, one of Kerr's former college teammates at Arizona, high-fiving fans in the stands as Kerr shot his way to the finals against Legler. And there was Kerr's Chicago teammate Scottie Pippen, who was so nervous in the final stages of the competition that he could hardly bear to watch from the sidelines. Touching display, though it was no doubt a reflection in part of Pippen's having a dollar or two riding on Kerr.
And Kerr paid off, making 48 of 75 shots to win his first three-point title in four tries. When the competition was over, most of the crowd stood and cheered his effort, including a tall, sandy-haired fellow in the first row who nodded approvingly. Maybe Bird was thinking that the trophy was in deserving hands. More likely, he was thinking that Kerr would have been a worthy second-place finisher.