Excerpt from Shawn Fury's "RISE AND FIRE: The Origins, Science, and Evolution of the Jump Shot -- And How It Transformed Basketball Forever." The book is released Tuesday, Feb. 23.
By Shawn Fury
For several days in the summer of 2014, I debated a question whose answer seems obvious. Was Larry Bird a pure shooter? I kept this debate internal -- I drafted emails for friends and basketball writers asking for their opinions, but never sent them, for fear of their reaction and eventual abandonment. Instead, I went back and forth with the question. Calling someone a pure shooter can be used as an insult, if pure becomes synonymous with "only" or is the first half of a compound sentence that begins "He's a pure shooter," and ends "but he can't play any defense or put the ball on the floor."
Bird belongs in the discussion for the greatest shooter of all time, but simply calling him a pure shooter might erase the way he controlled the game with his passing, rebounding, tenacity, team defense and floor game. Is calling Larry Bird a pure shooter the ultimate compliment or an underestimation? Praise or pejorative? But then if Bird isn't a pure shooter, who the hell is?
Regardless of definitions and labels, Bird's greatness as a shooter can get lost when discussing his career. His all-around brilliance separated him from everyone else. He could dominate without taking a shot, but it was still that shot that made everything else possible.
At the height of his powers in 1986 -- when he dreamily talked about treating basketball like gymnastics, because he now thought in terms of degree of difficulty -- Bird bragged, "It's pretty hard to guard somebody like me, especially if your range is unlimited." Bird could always just step farther and farther away from the basket to shoot his jumper, as if competing against his own boredom instead of the opposition. And with defenders venturing out to honor his deadly stroke, it opened up the rest of the floor, allowing him to drive despite facing opponents who almost always owned a quickness advantage. Teammate Robert Parish said Bird's "greatest asset is his very poison jumper," a grammatically odd phrase that perfectly described Larry Legend's shot. Very poison. Very good.
Boston sportswriter Leigh Montville believed "the Larry Bird jump shot, free and perfect, is the point where the entire Celtics' offense begins. That one shot is the hum in the background that other teams have to stop first, a night light that the Celtics always can use to ward off the dark, a reason for all the Celtics' success."
The remarkable thing about Bird is he never shot in the pros at his physical peak. He broke the index finger on his right hand during a softball game in May 1979. It remained deformed, as if he injured it in an industrial accident. Later, he played with excruciating back pain and injured his Achilles. The injuries altered his shooting technique and form, but they did little to mess with the final result. Bird himself once said, "I'm not a great shooter, I need to shoot and shoot and shoot to get it right. Some guys can stay off all summer, come back to a gym and get 50 points. I shoot so many wild shots, stuff like fadeaways and off-balance ones, that I need to play a lot to get a feel for the ball." (Bird, I think, meant he wasn't a great natural shooter, so he always worked at it. Perhaps it's an argument that he wasn't a pure shooter. But again, the phrase pure shooter seemingly becomes worthless if Bird doesn't qualify.)
Throughout his career, Bird cultivated a reputation as a supreme trash talker. His jump shot gave him the confidence to tell opponents what was coming or to ridicule them after another soft jumper fell through the net. Seattle forward Xavier McDaniel became a supporting actor in a devious Bird mind game. In a game at Seattle, Bird told McDaniel where he would take the game-winning shot in the final seconds. After a timeout, Bird walked out and hit his right-wing jump shot, just like he prophesied.
Perhaps the most famous example of Bird's arrogance around his jump shot came during the 1986 3-point contest. After asking the other contestants who was going to finish second, Bird went out and hit 11 straight threes in the final round to win. A year later, he expressed mock sympathy for runner-up Detlef Schrempf. "Can you imagine having $12,000 riding on one shot and missing it? I feel really bad about this." And in 1988 he won with his final shot, the red, white and blue money ball worth two points. With the ball headed to the basket, Bird, in his green Celtics warm-up jacket, standing in the left corner at Chicago Stadium, put up his right, mangled index finger to indicate he already knew the shot's outcome. After the victory, he said, "It's been a little easier to win it each year. After winning the first two years, the other guys know who the favorite is. I don't have to talk as much."
The Bird jump shot was at its most dangerous in tight games. "Making a shot when it means something is the most fun in basketball," he told Houston sportswriter John McClain. "When you're down by one point in the closing seconds, you can count on one hand the guys in the building who would take that shot. That's a shot I like to take." In the final minutes of Game 7 of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals -- in a series Boston once trailed, 3-1 -- Bird came down on the left side at the Garden and knocked in a 12-footer off the glass against the Sixers, giving the Celtics the lead. Boston won the game, the series and eventually Bird's first NBA championship. "I hate to bank shots," he wrote in his book, "Drive." "Why I decided to bank that one I'll never know. I just don't like to bank and I certainly didn't want to bank from that far out. Who can explain why you do what you do at moments like that?" Bird often defied explanation.
At the end of Bird's career, which officially came in 1992, he played many games when it looked like he could barely run. Yet even in those final painful years, the jump shot created new memories for Celtics fans, and reminded them of so many old times. Facing the Pacers in a 1991 playoff elimination game, Bird slammed his head on the floor at Boston Garden and left the court, only to make a dramatic return and lead the Celtics to victory in the climactic Game 5. Perhaps the most compelling image from that game -- other than the disturbing shot of the right side of his head hitting the court -- came when Bird collected the ball near the free-throw line, faked a pass, pivoted and drained a jumper for two of his 32 points, followed by a fist pump with his magical right hand.
Montville wrote a story for The Boston Globe in 1988 about a TV station taping a piece on Bird's pregame shooting, detailing how Bird worked out early with assistant equipment manager Joe "Meat" Qatato. Meat threw the ball, Bird shot it. A TV interviewer asked Qatato how many shots he'd seen Bird make in a row during those sessions.
"I never count," Qatato said. "I think it must have been about 30."
Bird also said he never counted, but believed, "I must have hit 50 or 60."
The interviewer told Qatato that Bird thought he hit 50 or 60 shots in a row.
"Fifty or 60?" Qatato said. "Never. Sorry, Larry, never."
So there you have it, straight from Meat: Larry Bird didn't make 60 shots in a row in warm-ups. And he missed half the shots he took in games, despite countless performances when it seemed like he made everything. But even with his all-around brilliance, the jump shot separated him from all of his peers, from all of his rivals -- the jump shot he learned in Indiana and perfected in Boston. That jump shot wasn't the only thing that made him great. But the jumper, pure or otherwise, transformed him from Larry Bird into Larry Legend.
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Shawn Fury is a writer in New York City. This is excerpted from "RISE AND FIRE: The Origins, Science, and Evolution of the Jump Shot -- And How It Transformed Basketball Forever." Copyright © 2016 by Shawn Fury. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.