Larry's Big Chance

A taste of failure: Larry La Coursiere's long shot sails wide left

Two days before Christmas, Larry La Coursiere got a phone call from the folks at Chicago-based public-relations firm Golin/Harris International. "I almost hung up on the guy, because he couldn't pronounce my name right," recalls La Coursiere (whose name is pronounced La-ka-SEER). But then the caller explained that La Coursiere had been selected as a contestant for the upcoming Million Dollar Shootout, a weekly promotion of Turner Broadcasting System's Tuesday-night National Basketball Association telecasts.

As its name suggests--and as any NBA fan knows--the Million Dollar Shootout offers fans a chance at cash prizes if they are lucky or skilled enough to sink a long ball under the bright lights of center court. Naturally, La Coursiere, who had entered the drawing at a Timberwolves game the night before, began to contemplate what a sudden flood of riches could bring. For some, such fantasies might involve swimming pools or sports cars or exotic travel. But La Coursiere--who is 35, has three kids and makes his living as a machine operator for a Hastings weather-stripping manufacturer--engaged in only the most pragmatic of idylls. "I had just moved into a new house, and I figured if I won, that would take care of all my house payments and free up money for other things."

The shootout was to be held at the halftime of the Timberwolves-Toronto Raptors game the day after Christmas. With three days to prepare, La Coursiere headed off to the Hastings Middle School gym, where he began honing his shots, contemplating his strategy. "On the morning of the game, I hit five from half-court. I guess I put one in every eight or ten tries, and every shot was real close," he says, though he hastens to add: "I'm no basketball player, so I wasn't too optimistic. I knew the odds were against me."

La Coursiere had been a long shot before, and he was accustomed to high-stakes pressure. As a professional boxer with a record of 28 wins, 7 losses, and a draw, La Coursiere had fought five world champions. His biggest opportunity came in a bout with Julio Cesar Chavez in Las Vegas in 1997 (on the undercard of the infamous fight in which Mike Tyson bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield's ear). La Coursiere lost, but he exceeded expectations by going the distance. "At the end of the fight, I was tickled to say I went 12 rounds with Chavez," he explains. "But a few days later I was quite disappointed. I'd settled for surviving. I didn't take any chances."

By the time La Coursiere's second big chance, the shootout, rolled around, he was a ball of nerves. More nervous, he says, than on the night of the Chavez fight. And why not? There was more at stake. For taking on one of boxing's biggest legends, La Coursiere had collected some $30,000. For a single shot on a basketball court, he stood to rake in as much as $1 million. After giddily taking in the first half of the game, La Coursiere trotted out for the first phase of the shootout: a single elimination round in which he was pitted against a fellow fan in a three-point shooting contest. Though La Coursiere hit just 3 of 15 attempts, his opponent fared worse, and La Coursiere was summoned to the table where John Thompson and Danny Ainge, the TBS announcers, were sitting.

Under the rules of the contest, he was given a choice between winning $10,000 for sinking a shot from the top of the key, $500,000 from half-court, or a cool million for three-quarters court. Thompson asked him which shot he wished to take. Given his success in his gym practices, La Coursiere decided to take his chance from half-court. "The crowd was going crazy, and they were playing music, and I was kinda waiting for it stop, but it never did. I could tell people were waiting for me to throw it up there and I felt kinda rushed. I was really nervous at that point."

If the moment had been scripted in Hollywood, the ball would have swished, and the hardworking journeyman fighter would have been rewarded by fate for his years of struggle. But La Coursiere's one-handed heave veered to the left. The ball clanked off the upper corner of the backboard, he clasped his hands to his head, and the public-address announcer gave him a hearty, "Nice try, Larry." Somehow La Coursiere managed to flash a winning smile as he strode off the court. "To tell the truth," he says now, "I thought I was a failure. I felt like total shit."

He need not have. In the two years TBS has run the Million Dollar Shootout, no contestant has won the big money--or, for that matter, even the $10,000. And that's not surprising, according to Zak Woodhead, director of special events for Hole In One International, the Reno-based company that serves as the insurance broker for the promotion. "We figure the odds are about 50 to 1 from half-court," says Woodhead, whose company works on behalf of the sponsors of the halftime contests to buy the insurance policies that pay out when someone wins.

Of course, that's not to say contestants don't win occasionally in similar promotions. In 1993 a basketball fan named Dan Calhoun swished from three-quarters court at the halftime of a Chicago Bulls game and won $1 million--a triumph that ushered in the era of big-cash contests at sporting events.

Nowadays, says Woodhead, about 20 companies specialize in such promotions, offering fans a chance at riches for everything from a 35-yard field goal to a hole in one on a golf course. The latter, Woodhead notes, is the longest of the long shots--about 10,000 to 1. "You can insure a million-dollar hole in one for about $200. A half-court shot on a basketball court, on the other hand, costs between $10,000 and $20,000."

If the spectacle of a fan winning serves as a confirmation of a core American fantasy--loot can rain down on any one of us--the spectacle of a fan losing offers its own peculiar reassurance. After all, there's only so much luck in the world, and the cheering fans at the Target Center on December 26 could leave secure in the knowledge that La Coursiere hadn't expended any of the precious commodity.

The disappointment of his moment of hard-court limelight lingered for a couple of hours, he says. By the time he returned home from the game, he had adjusted. After all, he got free courtside seats, his nine-year-old son Devon picked up autographs from Vikings Cris Carter and Robert Tate, and, what the heck, he did rake in a little cash for winning in the qualifying round.

"I'll never get that type of chance again, for sure," he says, a bit wistfully. "But at least I won $300."

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