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Original Issue

Firing When Ready For Houston's Matt Bullard, the NBA is an outsized game of Pop-A-Shot

A couple years ago Rockets reserve forward Matt Bullard attended
a party in downtown Houston at which the hosts had rented a
Pop-A-Shot machine. Soon enough one of the guests, flush with
liquid courage, challenged the 6'10" Bullard to a friendly round
of the flick-the-wrist shooting game. Bad idea: Not only did
Bullard beat the man--and all other comers for the rest of the
night--but he also set a record on the contraption. "Hey, I'm
telling you," Bullard says with the mock bravura of a
heavyweight fighter, "there's no way someone's going to beat me
at Pop-A-Shot."

Not that this comes as a surprise, considering that Bullard has
basically been playing 24-foot Pop-A-Shot throughout his NBA
career. For 10 seasons, nine of them in Houston, he has been the
gangly gunner camped out behind the three-point line with, as
teammate Walt Williams puts it, "the clip that's always loaded."
More than half of Bullard's career field goal attempts have been
threes. Through Sunday's games he had made 44.8% of his 49
two-point tries and 41.0% of his 134 three-point tries this
season. (Not exactly a slasher or banger, Bullard had attempted
all of eight free throws, and made seven.) "Matt's an example of
a guy getting in the right place and perfecting his skill," says
Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "He's intelligent, he supports
the system, and defenses have to honor him."

Bullard, 33, flashed a lot more game as a kid in West Des Moines,
where his father, Charles, was a bureau chief for The Des Moines
Register. Then came two knee operations at Iowa and two more
early in his pro career. Clinging to the bottom of the Rockets'
roster in the early '90s, he focused on the one skill he'd had
since Mr. Fazio, his fifth-grade coach, showed him how to snap
his wrist and follow through. "I'm a shooter, that's what I do,"
says Bullard, who's in the last year of a three-year, $5.8
million contract. "A lot of guys don't get it. To stick around
you have to figure out your strengths and limitations."

Well aware of the latter--his defense is suspect, and he admits he
has "no handle whatsoever"--Bullard has honed his jumper and even
developed a second strength, inbounding, that has made him the
Rockets' equivalent of a long snapper. "One time I came into a
game just to throw the ball in," says Bullard. "I passed to
Vernon Maxwell, he hit a shot at the buzzer to send it to OT, and
I came out. I never even stepped on the court."

It was also along the sideline that Bullard met his wife, Paula.
While in the huddle during the second quarter of a January 1993
game, he locked eyes with an attractive blonde behind the bench.
A smile led to a wave, then to sign language. "She flashed me
her number with her hands," recalls Bullard. "But right when she
finished, Rudy put me in, so the whole quarter I was repeating
the number over and over in my head. When the half ended, I
sprinted into the locker room to write it down." His memory
didn't fail him. Matt and Paula have two children, Sara, 4, and
A.J., 2.

The last two summers Bullard has served as a commentator for
Houston Comets home games, and although Tomjanovich urges him to
consider coaching when he retires, he plans to follow his dad
into the media. For now, though, the Pop-A-Shot king is content
with his current line of work. "All I do is shoot the ball, and I
get paid millions to do it," Bullard says. "Man, is this a great
life or what?"

--Chris Ballard