Larry Legend

Shoot this footage of Larry Bird's 1988 3-Point Contest right into our veins

February 6, 2020
1988 NBA Three Point Shooting Contest
Walter Iooss Jr.

I'm gonna level with you: I don't think Larry Bird is a top-10 NBA player. Or perhaps more accurately, I'm not sure Larry Bird's game quite lives up to his lore. Bird was a great player for his generation, but he was always a prisoner of his own context, his myth amplified by the fact he was white guy from who knows where who could hang with Magic. Boston loved that. Large swaths of America loved that. He was clutch. He was gritty. He was (and remains) so infamous that it became tough to separate Larry Bird the Celtics forward from Larry Legend the sports icon. Top 15? Definitely. Top 10? A Space Jam stretch.

But on Thursday, a little over 48 hours before the 2020 NBA 3-Point Contest featuring randos like Devonte' Graham and Davis Bertans, I came across this footage of Larry Bird's performance at the 1988 iteration of NBA's downtown throwdown and suddenly it all clicked. The jacket. The jumper. The swagger. Is it possible, I can't help but wonder, head in hands, staring out a rain-slicked window, that I've been wrong this whole time?

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I mean if Michael Jordan is geeking on the then-32-year-old Bird as he drains tre after tre without ever removing his trainer, that's probably evidence enough. Plus, after a knockdown, drag-out decade dominated by big men, the NBA has taken a tire-squealing detour toward sharpshooter small-ball, where Bird would absolutely clean up. If the trends persist, it's not hard to imagine Bird looking a lot like Dan Marino in retrospect: A man out of time. A harbinger of things to come. Underrated if anything, given the current climate of the game. The only difference is Bird has a couple championships to his name. That always helps.

But don't let my personal basketball crisis distract from what's really important here. The grainy nostalgia. The massive check for $12,500. Bird raising his finger to the sky before the final shot drops. If we see anything even half as good come Saturday night, we now know who to thank.

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