When I think back to the 1995 All Star Weeked — the last time it was held in Phoenix — I am haunted by one of the worst shots I ever took in my career. I participated in the 3 point contest that year, and on the first rack from the corner, I shot a ball off the side of the backboard. I heard the crowd gasp — or maybe laugh, I can’t remember — but I never recovered and failed to advance past the first round. If my memory is correct, Glenn Rice went onto beat Reggie Miller in the finals.
That story reminds me that there are a few nuances involved with the contest. For me, not knowing whether I was allowed to move the rack over slightly led to me being buried in the corner. I felt like I was practically shooting from out of bounds, but I was nervous and didn’t ask the referee if I could move it. I should have just moved over to the other side of the rack, but I felt more comfortable on the left side, so I just fired away and got off to a slow start.
I figured it out the next year in San Antonio, and I actually won the contest in Cleveland in 1997. It was one of the highlights of my career. I had watched the shootout for years and dreamt of winning it. From Larry Bird to Craig Hodges to Mark Price, I watched the best shooters in the world put on incredible shooting displays, and I wanted to do it too. By figuring out a plan, I gave myself a better chance at winning.
Actually, I never figured anyone would need a plan. After all, you just fire away — 25 shots in 60 seconds. But there are some keys that are important, because the contest is actually a foreign concept for the participants. In practice, you never shoot off a rack – you shoot off of passes. And you never shoot that many balls in that little time. Practice is more game-like, where you take shots that you’re likely to get against actual defense.
In preparing for the shootout, the first thing to figure out is which side of the rack to pull the balls from. It does matter, because your balance and your ability to square up to the basket are affected depending on which side you choose. I actually changed from rack to rack, depending on the angle of the shot. I practiced with teammates and got comfortable with a pattern over the span of a couple of weeks.
Another factor is the pressure. When I was practicing, I knew exactly how many I made on every round. I would count out loud as I made each shot, and I had an easy time following the shot clock to know how much time I had. In the contest, however, it’s a different story. You hear the recorded voice on the loudspeaker announcing ‘One two, ready go!’ and you’re off and running. The fans are into it, there’s music playing, and you feel totally rushed. If you get on a bad streak, it’s tough to get the feel back because the pressure really mounts. You can feel the clock ticking and you start to press, and the next thing you know the buzzer sounds and you’re done. See you later.
Ultimately,the shootout is about being prepared but not nervous. It’s about having a plan but not not being overly ambitious. On my fourth try,I finally found the right frame of mind and the right approach, and I won it. I figured out what how I wanted to shoot, lowered my expectations and had a great time. I resolved just to have fun, so I relaxed and simply enjoyed the event. With my body at ease, I found my stroke, got hot and won the trophy. It was awesome.
Definitely more fun than putting a ball off the side of the backboard.