How the CBA Almost Ruined the Three-Point Shooting Contest Before It Could Debut
BASKETBALL LEGEND: CBA players being bad at three-point shooting almost sunk the NBA Three Point Shooting Contest before it ever debuted.
Nowadays, NBA All Star weekend is known for both the All-Star Game, as well as the Slam Dunk Contest, the Three-Point Shooting Contest and the always pointless NBA Skills Challenge (plus some sort of game involving young NBA players). However, it wasn’t until 1984 that the idea of the NBA Weekend was born, built around the revival of an institution of the old American Basketball Association (ABA) tradition of the Slam Dunk Contest, with former ABA legend, “Dr. J” Erving agreeing to participate in the launch of the NBA version of the Contest in 1984.
Initially, the Slam Dunk Contest was paired with basically an Old-Timers Game (called the NBA Classic Game or something like that), but it was hard to really sell a bunch of old players to the advertisers that the NBA was suddenly getting interested in the game due to the fame of guys like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, so Rick Welts, then an NBA executive in charge of corporate sponsorship and marketing, thought it would make more sense to build a new event for the day that could be built around something more marketable, something like shooting.
And the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) almost ruined everything.
The CBA was a longstanding professional league (it actually launched the same year as the Basketball Association of America (BAA), the league that eventually re-named itself the NBA in 1949 after merging with the National Basketball League (NBL), at first set only in Pennsylvania, but then becoming the Eastern League and having teams just in the Northeast. In 1978, it rebranded itself the Continental Basketball Association and began having franchises across the country (even before the name change, it had garnered publicity when it was still the Eastern League by adding an Alaskan franchise).
In 1980, the NBA and the CBA cut a deal where the CBA would, in effect, serve as a developmental league for the NBA. As part of this arrangement, the NBA could also occasionally use the CBA to try out new ideas. Well, when Welts came up with the idea for a three-point shooting contest (as he later noted, a “long distance” shootout was created, in part, due to how he could pitch the idea to both airlines and telephone companies, and he ultimately DID get an airline to sponsor the initial event. He recalled, “We were at a point that we had to figure out something that would draw some interest from companies that hadn’t been interested in the NBA before as a marketing vehicle. I would love to say it was born out of inspiration for the love of the game, which I certainly have, but it was much more self-preservation than it was anything else.”
Anyhow, Commissioner David Stern told Welts to try out the idea in the CBA. Videorecord it and see if it worked. Well, the problem was, the three point shot was still a bit of a novelty at this point in time. It had been around for about 20 years overall, and in the NBA for about five years, but teams still rarely shot threes, and that was in the NBA, where the best shooters were. In the CBA, the three was even less refined, and as a result, the test contest was a mess. Welts recalled, “We videotaped it and came back to figure out if we had something here, and it was just awful. What we didn’t factor in was the fact that the CBA players don’t make as many shots as NBA players do, and watching the ball clang out time after time after time was not exactly exciting.”
Welts wouldn’t give up, and he tinkered with the set-up, coming up with the best spots to set up the balls, and adding the idea of the “moneyball” worth two points, which would be in the colors of the old ABA, to add some extra flavor to it (as the Dunk Contest was also an ABA innovation, and the three-point shot was only added to the NBA when it subsumed the ABA, which had the three-point shot – note, other leagues did, too, but it was specifically the addition of the ABA teams to the NBA that led to the three-point shot becoming part of the NBA).
Larry Bird famously won the first contest (he would win the first three) and the contest has been a major thing ever since (heck, with the rise of three-point shooting in the NBA, you’d almost think that the Three-Point Shooting Contest could be the marquee event of All-Star Weekend nowadays).
The legend is…
Thanks to Jeff Caplan for his excellent article on the origins of the Three-Point Shooting Contest at ESPN.com years ago and, of course, thanks to the great Rick Welts for all of the quotes he gave Caplan.
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