CHICAGO — The red, white and blue ball had barely begun its trajectory when the man in the green Boston Celtics warm-up jacket shot his right index finger into the air. For the sellout crowd of 18,403 in Chicago Stadium Saturday, suspense may have been the currency of the moment, but Larry Bird already counted himself richer by $12,500.
That's the amount of money that goes to the winner of the National Basketball Assn.'s Long Distance Shootout, which on Saturday Bird won for the third straight year by making his last three shots from the left corner of the court, the last of five stations from which each player launches five shots from three-point range.
"I made myself sweat a little bit more this time," said Bird, who made 8 of his last 10 shots--including all 5 from the rack to the left of the key--to overtake Dale Ellis of the Seattle SuperSonics, 17-15.
A player is given a point for each shot he makes, two if he sinks the multicolored ball. Bird's last shot broke a 15-15 tie, and merely reinforced his reputation as the league's ultimate money player.
How could anyone who came into the contest in a mini-shooting slump--he had made just 1 of his last 14 three-point tries in real games-- suddenly find his touch in an exhibition? "Right there," Bird said, patting the winner's check that has carried only his name since the contest was started.
This time, Bird didn't even bother trying to do a psych job on the seven shooters that opposed him. Among his opponents was Byron Scott of the Lakers, who finished third and made $5,500.
"He didn't say much this time," said Ellis, who made 10 of his first 15 shots in the final round but just 3 of his last 10. "He just went into his own room and stretched out."
This time, there was no need to talk any locker-room trash, Bird said.
"I didn't have to this year," he said with a smile. "They all knew who was going to win."
Bird's most impressive shooting display actually came in the second of three rounds, after teammate Kevin McHale came out of the stands to line up the seams of each ball in precisely the same way. Bird made 18 of 25 shots in that round, including 7 in a row for 23 points, which topped Scott's first-round total of 19 (he also made seven straight) for the best round of the day.
Did Bird, a notorious tightwad, plan to tip McHale?
"Yeah," he said, deadpan. "I told him, 'Thanks.' "
As usual, Bird saved his most biting words for his teammate, Danny Ainge, who came into the contest with more three-pointers this season (46) than anyone else. Ainge bowed out 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 was trying to psych him out beforehand, but there was no need for that. He's going to choke, anyway."
Even after Ellis saw Bird misfire early in the final round, he knew better than to be thinking about winning. What did he think when Bird missed his first two shots from the last rack, putting him in a no-miss situation?
"I felt like he had a chance to win it," Ellis said.
So, of course, did Bird, who was keeping score in his head.
"If (the last shot) had come up short, I would have been surprised," he said. "It looked down all the way."
What next--the slam-dunk contest?
"I probably could have when I was a rookie," Bird said with a smile. "But not anymore."