It’s been a lot of fun to research and write up these #86Celtics pieces over the last six weeks, but there’s one downside that I’ve mentioned before and ran into again this time. So let’s get it out of the way -- you know, just rip off the band aid -- and move on to something better, okay?
The downside is, once again, that fine line between history and urban legend; between what actually happened 30 years ago and what’s evolved in the time since. Basically, what I’ve found through this research is that the facts of back then don’t always match the tales of today. In some cases those tales have been embellished, almost mythicized, and that’s too bad because it would be so much better if everything was real. I don’t want to be Debbie Downer. It feels like I’m about to run through a mall at Christmas time screaming truths about Santa. But ultimately this is the truth, and the truth is still pretty amazing.
So with that, consider this question: What’s your favorite story about Larry Bird and the three-point contest?
If you’d asked me that last week, I’d have told you about the time Bird walked into the pre-contest locker room, looked at the competition and guaranteed victory. “So who’s coming in second?” he asked. From there he walked onto the court -- still wearing his warm-ups -- and eventually walked off with one finger in the air as victory splashed through the net.
It’s really an awesome story. It’s classic Larry Bird. It’s been told over and over throughout the years.
Problem is, it’s not true. It never happened. Not like that, at least.
And here are 10 facts to help explain the why and how:
FACT 1: Larry Bird competed in the Three-Point Contest three times over the course of his 12-year career. First 1986 in Dallas, then 1987 in Seattle, and finally 1988 in Chicago. Coincidentally, these were the first three three-point contests in NBA history. Not coincidentally, Bird won them all.
FACT 2: Bird guaranteed victory in 1986 and we know this because over the years it’s been verified a few different times by a few different sources. Most recently, in 2010, ESPN’s Jeff Caplan tracked down Craig Hodges, who finished second that year, and remembered sitting in the locker room when Bird walked in and asked: "Man, who's comin' in second?"
Bird confirmed the quote in that same story: “Yeah,” he said. “I walked in and said that.”
FACT 3: Bird did not wear his warm-up jacket for the final round in 1986. Instead he wore his full All Star uniform, which is a little bizarre and a lot sexy, but knowing Bird it was probably an intimidation tactic. Just a reminder to Hodges that while he was in his Bucks jersey, Bird was an ALL-STAR.
FACT 4: So the story in question-- the guarantee followed by the finger-in-the-air walk off -- didn’t happen in 1986.
FACT 5: Bird guaranteed victory again in 1987 and we know this because (again) it’s been documented a few times, most prominently by Michael Cooper in Bird’s 1999 SportsCentury profile.
“We had a three-point contest at the All-Star Break,” Cooper remembered, “and Larry walks in and says ‘I hope all you guys are thinking about second place because I’m winning this.' ”
There are a few more stories from that 1987 contest because #86Celtics teammate Danny Ainge was there as well, and passed along a few good ones to the local media: “Someone came in [before the contest],” Ainge said, “and said they wanted the winner to come to center court after it’s over. Larry said, ‘How long do they want me to stay out there?’ ”
FACT 6: Bird did wear his warm-up jacket for the entirety of that 1987 contest. Here he is about to drain a money ball while a pack of the most 1987-looking-people watch from behind.
But while Bird wore his warm-ups, he went first in the final round that year and Detlef Schrempf (playing for Dallas) still had a chance to match. So in this case Bird couldn’t have walked off victorious with one finger in the air because he couldn’t have known that he was victorious.
FACT 7: The guarantee followed by the one-finger-walk-off didn’t happen in 1987.
FACT 8: Bird walked off with his finger in the air in Chicago. He just did. Look at any picture from that night and it’s obvious that they’re in old Chicago Stadium. That means that Bird’s finger-in-the-air moment happened in 1988.
FACT 9: Bird didn’t guarantee victory or even talk trash before the 1988 Three-Point Contest, and we know this because both runner-up Dale Ellis and Bird himself admitted it after the fact.
“He didn't say much this time,” Ellis told reporters. “He went into his own little room and stretched out a bit.”
“I didn't have to this year,” Bird said. “They knew who was going to win.”
Ahhh! There he is.
Bird also had a few thoughts about Ainge, who was back in the contest for the second straight year but eliminated in the first round: “I knew Danny would be out after the first round,” Bird said. “I wasn't worried about him. I sort of feel sorry for him. He's been practicing for the last two months . . . Kevin [McHale] was trying to psych him out beforehand, but there was no need for that. He's going to choke, anyway.”
FACT 10: The guarantee followed by the one-finger-walk-off didn’t happen in 1988.
So it never happened.
Parts of it happened independently but not on the same night, and the reason so many people combine the two incidents isn’t a total mystery. I can’t say this for sure, but I think it goes back to that 1999 SportsCentury profile, and Michael Cooper’s quote about Bird’s guarantee, and one very interesting editorial choice by the producers.
Click here for the clip -- Cooper starts at the 25 second mark if it doesn’t take you there directly -- and as you watch remember two things:
1) Cooper participated in only one Three-Point Contest, and that was in 1987.
2) The video that plays as Cooper describes the 1987 contest is from the 1988 contest.
Who knows how or why this happened. Was it accidental? Intentional? Just sloppy? Whatever it is the implication seems to be that the video goes along with Cooper’s story, and that’s what I’ve personally assumed for the better part of the last 15 years. But it doesn’t. It’s not true. And that’s disappointing, but not a huge deal, and either way here’s something to make you feel better. Here’s your new answer the next time someone asks: What’s your favorite story about Larry Bird and the three-point contest?
Conveniently we’re going to bring it back to the #86Celtics, and to really understand this story you should know that by the All-Star Break the #86Celtics had officially transformed into the monster they are today. After that pathetic Christmas loss to the Knicks, Boston ripped off wins in 17 of its next 18 games. The Celts went into the break at 38-8, with the best record in the NBA, and Larry Bird was their best player in the midst of his third consecutive MVP season.
Not only was Bird at the top of his game heading into that inaugural three-point contest, but the competition was pretty light. In 1986, Bird led the entire NBA with 82 made threes. Today, just before the All-Star Break, three Celtics (Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder) and 35 other players have already topped Bird’s season-long total. Steph Curry has nearly tripled it. Back in ’86 the three-pointer didn’t get the respect it does now, and that original three-point field (featuring names like Leon Wood and Kyle Macy) left a lot to be desired. So you had Bird at the top of his game, and the competition six feet under, and to top it off you had Bird’s teammates trying to get in his head in the weeks and days leading up to Dallas.
"I wasn't going to do it at all,” Bird said. “But my teammates, especially Parish, said I couldn't win it anyway, so that's why I went down there and did it. 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.'"
So he took the court that night without a care in the world, knowing for damn sure that he could defeat the world. You can watch it all right here, and I recommend it if you have 8 minutes and 36 seconds to spare.
You’ll be blown away by the shoddy production value and the lack of fanfare surrounding an event that these days gets more attention than a non-Trump presidential debate. You’ll love that Bill Russell (only 52 years old, two years younger than Doc Rivers is now) serves as the analyst alongside Rick Barry. You’ll love how Bird slowly rounds into rhythm in the first round, sneaking into the semifinals behind Hodges, Ellis and Trent Tucker. You’ll love how Bird kicks into another gear in the semis, finishing with a round-high 18 points. You’ll love how Hodges starts to run out of gas -- posting an ugly 12 in the finals -- just as Bird reaches terminal velocity. You’ll sense that Bird smells blood in that last round, and start to smile as he misses his first shot but then rattles off 11 straight to clinch the title halfway through the third rack.
The 11 straight was the longest streak of Bird’s three-point contest career, and is still the third-longest streak in contest history behind Hodges (who hit 19 straight in 1991) and Curry (who hit 13 straight last year), and you’ll start laughing right along with Russell and Barry as Bird hits shot after shot and makes a total mockery of the entire situation -- but it’s nothing compared to what happens next.
At this point he’s on the fourth rack, on the right wing, and in perfect rhythm. Like I said, the title is already clinched, and now Bird is feeling cocky, or cockier, and just having fun. Finally, with the money ball on that fourth rack, he pulls off the coolest, most bad-ass move that he or for that matter anyone ever pulled in the three-point contest.
He banks it in.
He calls glass.
He essentially turns to the rest of the field raises a different finger in the air.
“Ohh, wait a second!” Barry screams. “Off the glass? Gimme a break Larry!”
“That’s right,” Russell says sarcastically. “I’m sure if anyone needs $10,000 right now, it’s Larry Bird.”
But whether or not he needed that money, there was never a question that it was his.
“As soon as I heard Larry could win $10,000 in one day for shooting three-pointers, I knew it was over,” McHale said.
Added Bird, while standing with a smile in the winner’s circle . . .
“That check’s had my name on it for weeks.”