The greatest moment of Tim Legler’s NBA career almost didn’t happen. If the former Bullets guard had to choose between flying to San Antonio to participate in the three-point shootout during All-Star Weekend in 1996, or being by wife Jennifer’s side for the birth of their first child, the choice was obvious. The league could find a replacement shooter.
But Jennifer insisted that skipping the event wasn’t an option and, after consulting with her doctor, the couple elected to induce labor a week before the baby’s due date. Nine days after he helped welcome Lauren Nicole to the world, Legler shot his way to the title and a $20,000 prize earmarked for her college fund. For a 29-year-old who had signed a two-year contract for slightly more than the league minimum in 1995 after bouncing around Europe and the CBA between brief stints in the NBA for the first eight years of his career, the feeling was overwhelming.
“For you, little Lauren,” Legler told TNT’s Craig Sager after defeating Dennis Scott in the finals and hoisting the trophy that still occupies a spot in his entertainment center. “I’ll be home, after I get back from Milwaukee, we’re going to share this together.”
Over the past 22 years, Legler has shared his love and knowledge of basketball with Lauren, who played the final game of her college career last month in Division III Neumann’s 71-64 loss to Cabrini in the Colonial States Athletic Conference tournament championship game. She remembers the first time she asked her dad to watch the video from his three-point shootout triumph like it was yesterday.
Legler came into the contest leading the NBA in three-point shooting at 51.3 percent. His competition included defending champion Glen Rice, Dana Barros, Hubert Davis, Steve Kerr, George McCloud, Cliff Robinson and Scott. Thanks to a lucky draw and a strong warm-up, the nerves Legler initially felt quickly faded.
“I was nervous beforehand because it meant so much, and I was worried I was going to be gripping the ball too tight,” Legler, now an ESPN analyst, said last month. “I got out there and I started warming up, and I knew that I wasn’t going to be fazed by anything that was going on. I was really confident that I was going to win before it even started.”
Legler was randomly assigned to shoot first, which meant he didn’t have to sit around and risk getting cold during the prolonged introductions and commercial breaks. He put up 23 points in the first round, which tied Larry Bird for the fourth-highest total in shootout history, and never cooled off. Bullets teammate Juwan Howard joined him in celebration after Scott came up short in the final round.
The Bullets finished three games out of a playoff spot that season, and Legler tore his ACL in the penultimate game of the year. As the reigning champion, he was invited to Cleveland to defend his title at the 1997 All-Star Game, but his knee injury kept him out of action into February. On the way to his doctor in Chevy Chase to get cleared to return, Legler heard on the radio that Bullets Coach Jim Lynam — the man responsible for giving him a chance in Washington — had been fired.
“It was a jolt to my system,” said Legler, who starred at J.R. Tucker High in suburban Richmond. “I just loved playing for him so much, so now, not only was I coming back from this injury, but I was coming back to a new coaching staff.”
Legler was cleared to return and, despite not appearing in a game before the all-star break, participated in the three-point shootout. He lost to Kerr in the finals. Bothered by nagging injuries, Legler was limited to 15 games in the second half of the season and shot only 28 percent from three-point range. After two more injury-plagued seasons with Washington, he was traded to the Orlando Magic with Ben Wallace, Terry Davis and Jeff McInnis for Ike Austin. He retired after being waived by the Warriors three days after his 33rd birthday in December 1999.
Lauren was too young to remember those days, but Legler has fond memories of shaking her little hand before he ran onto the court as she leaned over the railing by the tunnel leading to the locker room at MCI Center. While working toward his master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 2000, Legler accepted a job as a studio analyst at ESPN. That same year, Lauren played her first organized basketball game. The game was in Lauren’s genes; Jennifer once held the career scoring record at New Jersey’s Middle Township High and was a captain of the women’s basketball team at La Salle, where she met Tim. It didn’t take long for Lauren to graduate from the Little Tikes hoop in their house.
“She was really tall at a young age,” Legler said. “She was a head taller than like every kid in her class by age 9. At one point, I was thinking we’re going to have a 6-footer on our hands who can shoot. Hey, U-Conn.”
Tim and Jennifer, who divorced in 2002, both spent time coaching Lauren’s travel and AAU teams. Tim typically commuted to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., early in the week so he could be home for games on the weekends. He also coached son Ryan’s AAU team, often resulting in back-to-back practices in the same gym.
“They put me in the preschool league, and ever since then I fell in love with it,” said Lauren, who stopped growing five inches shy of 6 feet. “It was never like pushing me to do it. It was natural. It was something that I feel like bonded us. Me and my dad would go to the gym all the time together to shoot and work out. It’s just something that we’ve always had, that bond.”
That bond contributed to the homesickness Lauren felt as a freshman at Division III McDaniel College in Westminster, Md. During her first couple of months at college, she made the four-hour drive home to South Jersey to visit her parents and boyfriend every chance she got.
“I wanted to get away and do something different, but it was just too much for me,” Lauren said. “Most of my teammates were from Maryland, so their parents were always coming to the games and mine weren’t, and I couldn’t really deal with them not being a part of it like they were in high school.”
After Lauren took her last exam of her first semester, she transferred to Neumann, a more manageable two-hour drive from home, and was practicing with the team the following day. Lauren scored 16 points in her Neumann debut, which Legler followed on his iPad. Earlier this year, Tim and Jennifer were in the stands when Lauren, who averaged 11.1 points as a senior and is No. 3 on the school’s all-time three-pointers made list, scored the 1,000th point of her career.
“She’s got a lot to look back on and be proud of,” Legler said. “Most important to me, she was a 4.0 student and made the all-conference academic team four times.”
Legler, 51, is in his 18th season as an analyst at ESPN. He continues to enjoy his position, but with Lauren set to graduate in May and pursue a job as an elementary school teacher, and Ryan finishing up his freshman year at Rowan University, he’s considering a career change he has put off for years.
“I’ve always wanted to be a D-I coach,” he said. “That’s been a dream, that’s been my passion, and it’s one of the reasons I stayed involved with AAU. I knew I couldn’t go take a D-I job over the years after I retired because my kids were young and because they’re based here in New Jersey. I wasn’t going to do that until my son was through high school and into college. I wanted to coach them. I put it on the back burner, but it’s definitely something I spent time on over the last year and a half preparing myself for.”
Legler has been in contact with various search firms and hopes to draw interest for coaching positions as they become available later this month. He pointed to St. John’s Coach Chris Mullin, his teammate for one season with Golden State, as an example of someone with no coaching experience at the college level getting a chance to turn around a Division I program.
“I’m not as high a risk as someone might think because of my experience coaching in a high-level AAU circuit and the connections I’ve made in recruiting,” Legler said. “If a player doesn’t know who I am, probably the kid’s coach or kid’s parents are going to know who I am. I think that brings credibility. This isn’t some pipe dream. I think I’ve really prepared myself for an opportunity, and I’m hoping I can find an open-minded [athletic director] that’s a little more progressive and outside the box.”
Legler was traveling during this year’s All-Star Weekend festivities, but he made it a point, as he always does, to watch a replay of the three-point shootout. He was pulling for Bradley Beal, who was eliminated in the first round.
“I wanted another Wizard to do it, and I predicted him to do it,” Legler said. “I didn’t get that one right.”
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