The Boston Celtics' Larry Bird warms up before a game...

The Boston Celtics' Larry Bird warms up before a game against the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 1987. Credit: AP / Paul Benoit

Which one of you guys is finishing second?

That's what Larry Bird asked his competition when he entered the locker room before the inaugural Three-Point Shootout at NBA All-Star Weekend 29 years ago.

Sure enough, in each of the first three years of the contest, the other players had to battle for the right to capture second. Bird won in 1986, 1987 and 1988, and in the last one, he never even removed his warmup jacket.

For Bird, hitting a few threes was less of a challenge than trying to distribute minutes among the league's best players when he coached the Eastern Conference All-Stars at Madison Square Garden in 1998 -- the last time the NBA All-Star Game was played in New York before this weekend.

"Everyone thinks they should play the whole game," Bird joked in a recent phone interview with Newsday.

Coaching the All-Star Game was one of many fond memories that Bird, 58, has of competing in New York.

"I always said there is only one Garden, and that's the Boston Garden," Bird joked. "But I always enjoyed coming to New York. New York is New York; you always want to do the best that you can while you're there."

Bird's best and worst memories of playing at Madison Square Garden are both losses.

His most memorable moment was a 113-104 double-overtime loss to the Knicks on Christmas Day in 1985. Led by rookie Patrick Ewing, the Knicks erased a 25-point deficit against a Celtics team that would finish 67-15 and win the NBA championship.

"I hate to say one of my experiences that I remember the most is getting beat in the Garden," Bird said, "but it was a hell of a game."

His worst memory came when he was Pacers coach and Larry Johnson completed a four-point play with 5.7 seconds left that gave the Knicks a 92-91 win in Game 3 of the 1999 Eastern Conference finals.

"But the next day, we beat them," Bird said. "We lost on a Saturday on a questionable call, then came back Sunday and won. That shows you how mentally tough the team I was coaching really was."

There will be no playoff basketball at Madison Square Garden this season. It likely will be the second straight season in which the playoffs go on without the Knicks, Celtics and Lakers, marquee franchises in rebuilding mode.

"Being in a small market, I can't cry for them," said Bird, the president of basketball operations for the Pacers. "It's always good when your major markets do well. It's always healthy for the league. But our league is in a good place right now. We're doing everything we can to make it even for everybody, so I think we're going to be fine."

Bird believes the game is relatively the same as it was in his playing days, aside from increased use of pick-and-rolls and moving without the ball. He also said players self-promote off the court much better than in the past.

Of today's players, Bird said the one who most reminds him of himself is Dirk Nowitzki because of his ability to shoot, pass and stretch the floor as a power forward.

Who was better in his prime, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant?

"I think they're both excellent players," Bird said. "Kobe's career is winding down and LeBron is right in the middle of his, so you never know what is going to happen. They've both been great for our league."

Bird was asked which five players throughout history he would choose to start an All-Star Game, but out of fear of leaving someone out, he named only Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.

"You look at all the dominant centers that we've had come through our league," Bird said, "and every one of them is probably the best players that we've ever had."

Of his favorite All-Star memories, Bird recalled the 1983 game in Los Angeles in which Marvin Gaye sang the national anthem. But for fans, it might be his MVP performance in 1982 or when Larry Legend coached Air Jordan in 1998, or perhaps when Bird took his final shot in the 1988 three-point contest and began walking off the court, finger in the air, before the ball fell through the rim.

Unlike the NBA's more physical demands, shooting is a skill that can withstand the test of time. So if he were competing against the likes of Stephen Curry and Kyle Korver in a three-point contest this year, would Bird make any "who's coming in second?" guarantees?

"I haven't taken a three in about 20 years," he said with a laugh. "I'd come in dead last."

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