Last January my wife presented me with a most unusual birthday
gift, one that prompted a friend to remark, "What does she get
you when she's mad at you?"
The gift: a chance to take three half-court shots during a
Chicago Bull basketball game. Five thousand dollars would be
donated to charity by the Bulls' management if I hit the rim on
any of the shots, $50,000 if I nailed one.
The date and place couldn't have been more challenging: Easter
Sunday at Chicago's new United Center, during a nationally
televised game against the hated New York Knicks. That's right,
Knick leg-whip specialist John Starks would be there, and Derek
(Flagrant Foul) Harper, who had told me to "shut up" during Game
2 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals at Madison Square
Garden after I yelled at him from Spike Lee's seats to "miss it"
as he launched a three-pointer.
The crowd would be 24,000 Bull fans, who traditionally boo any
nonsports figure. "I'd pay $50,000 not to have to shoot," one
friend told me. But I was thrilled. I can shoot long-range--even
a one-handed push from half-court--and there would be no downside
to the experience. Or so I thought initially.
I'm a 49-year-old, 6'3", 200-pound film critic who sits on his
can all day for a living. Who would think I could make one of
the shots? And, having attended three fourths of the Bulls' home
games in the '94-95 season, I knew just how difficult the shot
would seem to the crowd. All year the Bulls had been offering $1
million to fans, selected at random, if they hit 2 of 3 from 43
feet, and I had seen only two hit the rim. Of course, I would
train for the Shot. But first I went to work on more important
What to Wear: black Nikes and a loose-fitting Go Silk shirt and
pants, which would be dressy, not athletic, but allow freedom of
What to Do If I Make One: Kiss the Bulls' center-court emblem
just like Mike did in a farewell charity game at the old Chicago
What to Do If I Miss All Three: Contact the federal witness
What I didn't realize was just how much I would learn about
athletic competition in the next few months. The Shot would put
me in touch with a number of world-class athletes and, more
important, with their mind-set for performance.
On to my initial practice session in February: I happen to play
tennis regularly with Stedman Graham, a sports marketing
executive and Oprah Winfrey's longtime boyfriend. More important
to me than Oprah or than Stedman's tennis ability (big serve,
weak ground strokes) was the fact that Graham had played
professional basketball in Germany from 1976 to '79,
occasionally scoring more than 40 points a game. He would be my
After one of our tennis matches I told Graham about the birthday
gift and asked him to watch me shoot at our sports club. I
warmed up at the three-point line (22 feet) without great
success, but then hit 5 of 7 from 36 feet, followed by 1 of 4
"Do you know how difficult it is to do what you just did?"
Graham asked incredulously. To be honest, I was amazed too. As I
said, I can shoot long-range, but that was about as well as I
had ever done.
Now I was really excited.
My next coach was former Chicago Bear great Walter Payton. We
met, purely by chance, in early March on a flight to Detroit. I
told him about the Shot and the crowd and the Knicks and how I
planned to channel my nervousness into anger at Pat Riley's
storm troopers. I thought that would help get my mind off the
challenge of the moment.
"Don't do it," said the man known as Sweetness. "I never focused
on the opposing team or the crowd. In tough situations I always
focused on my mechanics. Sometimes I tended to round off my
cuts; so in those pressure moments, I'd just focus on squaring
them off. My advice: Practice at the United Center on game day,
focus on your mechanics, and then try to enjoy the experience."
Now I was really excited. And scared.
How could I avoid the Knicks? I would be shooting at their end
of the court. And how could I practice at the United Center on
Fortunately the Bulls gave me a practice opportunity on April 1,
two weeks before showtime. I took along my two daughters, ages 8
and 11, who are rabid Bull fans just like their dad. When else
would they get a chance to see their father on the same
basketball court as You Know Who, who miraculously had just
come out of retirement?
My practice session took place right after the Bulls' pregame
shootaround, two hours before tip-off. As the players left for
the locker room, I spotted then Bull guard B.J. Armstrong and
told him about the Shot. Once he had stopped laughing at the
sight of my skinny white legs in shorts, he sat with the girls
while I took the floor.
My attitude was positive, because I had made 2 of 7 the day
before at the sports club. I went to center court; the distance
looked right. I promptly lofted three air balls.
I looked back at B.J. and the girls. Guess which one--and only
"B.J., I made 2 of 7 yesterday at the East Bank Club," I told him.
"Dad," said my eight-year-old daughter, "that was yesterday."
"Yeah, Dad, that was yesterday," said Armstrong, still laughing.
"Now try to make one in front of 24,000 people." He left for the
Now I was scared ... and humiliated.
At dinner before the game I spotted Bull owner Jerry Reinsdorf,
who, were I to succeed in my mission, would donate the money in
my name to the James Jordan Boys & Girls Club, soon to be built
on Chicago's West Side. "You've had guys pull out of deals
before," I said pathetically, sucking up with a reference to
Horace Grant's controversial departure for Orlando after the
"Hey, whatever you want to do," Reinsdorf replied. "Don't feel
like you have to embarrass yourself."
At the game that night I was still reeling from what had
happened during my practice session. I may be many things, but
I've never been a choke artist. I thrive under pressure. Ten
years earlier, when David Letterman had asked Roger Ebert and me
to shoot free throws to settle a difference of opinion about a
movie, I threw up bricks during rehearsal but hit 2 of 3 on
camera. Ebert did just the opposite, striking out on the
telecast. I love pressure.
Before tip-off I confessed my failure to Tom Dore, the affable
Bull broadcaster. "I know what went wrong," he volunteered. "The
NBA ball is heavier than what you've been practicing with."
The following morning, 14 days before the Shot, I spent $64.94
on a regulation NBA leather ball. Yes, it was heavier, but I
compensated with a more vigorous thrust on my one-handed push.
That day at the club I hit often enough to ask the Bulls for one
more practice session on their court.
April 7. Cleveland game. I arrived at 5:15 p.m. As I walked to
the court I noticed from a distance that there was only one Bull
player on the floor taking practice shots. You guessed it.
Now I was scared ... and delighted ... and afraid to step on the
It took me about 30 seconds to get over that. Michael Jordan was
shooting at my basket, the west hoop that He would grow to hate
for the rest of the season. I never met His gaze, nor He mine.
To the best of my knowledge He did not know about the Shot or
its charitable beneficiary, the facility named after His late
father. He was shooting--and making--rainbows from the three-point
After my routine of shooting from 22 feet and then 36, I went to
half-court, faced away from Him and put up a dozen shots. Eight
hit the rim; one swished. I turned to see if He had noticed.
Supposedly He sees all, but this evening He wasn't looking, and
He left the court without speaking to anyone.
Lisa Harris, the Bulls' manager of client services, then
wandered by, saying, "We're all nervous, Gene." She didn't
explain whether they were nervous about my embarrassing myself
or about my making them pay off.
"Lisa," I said, "this one is for you." And I banked one in. She
was thunderstruck. "That's like a tree falling in a forest when
no one's there," said the Bulls' longtime announcer, Johnny
(Red) Kerr, also a witness. "Let's see you do it with a crowd."
Now, for sure, I would try. Nine days to go.
And then it was game day. Flowers arrived from Coach Graham. "Be
like Mike and sink one," read his card. Later that morning I
explained to my daughters about the crowd booing nonsports
figures and asked if they wanted to sit close to the court or
farther away. "Close," they said. I guess they like pressure too.
I also invited my 87-year-old mother to attend her first Bull
game. She was ready, having just had double knee-replacement
surgery. (Bill Cartwright, call her doctor.) By sheer
coincidence, Ebert--my other significant other--was attending the
game too, with a bunch of his relatives and friends. He would be
seen booing me and turning his thumb down. Hey, Roger, meet Red
At noon, 4 1/2 hours before tip-off, I followed Payton's advice
and went to the East Bank Club to practice with my regulation
ball. Observing me shoot was basketball attendant Robert Coe. I
hit the rim only once during my first set of three shots.
"You're nervous, and your fingers are too close together on your
shooting hand," Coe said. "Spread them far apart." I swished the
next shot. Thanks, Robert.
But then came two more air balls. "You're looking at where the
ball is going. Just focus on the rim and let your hand-eye
coordination work for you." Swish. Thanks again, Robert.
My wife joined my daughters and my mother in accompanying me to
the game. And guess who, purely by chance, was in a floor seat
near ours. It was Payton, who hadn't attended a Bull game in
three years. Through hand signals I told him that today was the
day. He put his hands together in prayer.
The Shot--actually, the Shots--would take place during the first
timeout of the third quarter. At halftime I had an eerie
experience that would be one of the high points of the whole
adventure. While my wife and daughters went to visit friends, I
took a walk through the crowd, up the stairs, to a men's room.
Never before had I felt so alone with so many people around me.
The Bulls pointedly had not announced my shots, so no one took
special notice of me. As I stood in the banality of a line
before a urinal, I had to smile at where I would be in about 10
minutes. On point. In front of family and friends, 23,880
strangers and Roger Ebert. And my beloved Bulls. And Him. And
When the timeout was finally called, I crawled over the
front-row barrier and onto the court. I greeted the rank amateur
who would be taking the Million Dollar Shot before me.
Fortunately he looked more like Roger than like Mike, and as I
had imagined he would, he flung three air balls, barely passing
the free throw line. Inwardly I smiled, because unlike the
gentleman before me and unlike previous contestants, I would
actually be shooting the ball from a standstill; they all threw
it like a baseball.
I stepped forward as Bull announcer Ray Clay explained my
presence and the contest rules. I stared directly at the basket,
never noticing a video camera that, I'm told, was only two feet
from my face, beaming my image to the four Jumbotron screens on
the scoreboard. Bull marketing chief Steve Schanwald would later
tell my wife, "Other than Michael Jordan, I've never seen anyone
And now the first shot. I was prepared for failure, because
other first shots had always been air balls. Without warming
up, one's body simply doesn't have any frame of reference for a
shot of that distance. I also felt myself rushing a bit. I tried
to slow down, but I felt the pressure to perform. The
introduction had been awfully long. The crowd had to be impatient.
I bent down to make sure to get my legs involved, and then I
lofted ... an air ball, about four feet short and to the left of
I felt a flash of sadness. In movie terms, was this the end of
Rico? Was I choking?
A videotape replay, however, shows a smile crawling across my
face as the ball is returned to me for a second try. Seven
months later I still can't figure out why I smiled. Was it a
smile at the folly of it all--a "how dare I" smile? Or was it a
smile of confidence--an "of course I missed the first one" smile?
It's true I had predicted the first air ball to friends and to
John Paxson, the Bulls' former three-point specialist, who had
told me that a standing-still, one-handed push was indeed the
most accurate way to shoot from half-court.
Now I bent down deeper. I could feel my legs get more into
motion as I sent the second ball aloft ... to the right front of
The videotape shows me jabbing my fist in a downward spike. I
was off the hook. I had earned $5,000 for the kids on the West
Side. What the crowd didn't know was that privately I had told
the Bulls that if I missed all three shots I would pony up five
grand myself. Why should the kids be penalized if I turned out
to be a lox?
And now I had a "free" shot. I went into my crouch, I suppose,
but I honestly don't remember it. What I do remember is that
shortly after the ball left my hand, I really liked the way it
looked going toward the basket.
Influenced by the way Jordan backs away from a three-pointer he
imagines will go in, I, too, backed away from the center stripe.
Reinsdorf would later tell me he thought the ball was going in.
So would journalist and Jordan confidant Bob Greene, stationed
under the basket.
The ball hit the right side of the rim solidly ... and bounced
to the right and to the floor. I can now relate to Patrick
Ewing's missed finger roll in Game 7 of last season's playoff
series against the Indiana Pacers, even though my shot was 42
On the Bull bench, center Bill Wennington flashed two thumbs up.
After the game Reinsdorf offered to have me shoot again next year.
And what about Him? Nada. He had other things to think about.
But not I. Not a day has gone by that I haven't thought about
the Shots, how close I had come to hitting one, and all that led
up to the experience. The training paid unexpected dividends.
Payton's instructions have helped me conquer a number of fears.
Last spring I took my kids on Space Mountain, the roller coaster
in the dark at Walt Disney World. For the first time I kept my
eyes open. And twice I went down the world's tallest water slide
at Disney World's Blizzard Beach, a 120-foot drop in which I
reached a speed of 55 miles per hour on my movie-seat-contoured
butt. The change in my behavior: I now seek out a challenging
experience with my eyes rather than close them to it.
One day last May I ran into Paxson. "You surprised a lot of
people," said the man who won Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals with
a three-pointer from about 24 feet. I told him I loved the
athletic experience because its results were so concrete. I did
what I did, and everybody saw it. I told him I felt for the
first time the high of being a professional athlete. And Paxson
replied, "It's the greatest, isn't it?"
Gene Siskel criticizes film for the Chicago Tribune, "CBS This
Morning" and "Siskel & Ebert."