victor prieto

Victor Prieto poses after winning the NBA's first Pop-A-Shot Championship at All-Star Weekend.

I’ve always prided myself in my ability to play Pop-A-Shot. The fast-flowing motion of transferring a ball from one hand to the other. A simple flick of the wrist to propel the ball towards the rim and in. It’s such a silly and simple game at its core.

I love it.

And as I found out on NBA All-Star Saturday Night, I’m pretty good at it, too. I won the first annual NBA Pop-A-Shot Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Saturday at All-Star Weekend.

With former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal by my side, I held a legitimate NBA All-Star trophy over my head while Twitter deemed me “the pop-a-shot kid,” producing numerous memes at my expense. It was one heck of a weekend.

I’m sure you’re probably wondering why there’s Pop-A-Shot at All-Star Weekend and how I, of all people, ended up there.

Well, it’s all thanks to a man named Jonny Pizzo and the Miami Heat.

Back in the 2017-18 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder held an oncourt Pop-A-Shot competition for its fans. It was a well-received on-court promotion, but nothing more.

Pizzo, who worked for the New Orleans Pelicans, then thought of an idea to do a league-wide Pop-A-Shot competition to pit the best against the best with each team’s winner representing its organization at All-Star Weekend. He submitted the idea to the NBA, which loved it and ran with it. I represented my hometown Miami Heat in Charlotte after qualifying for and winning the local championship by beating out 132 competitors.

I thought nothing could surpass competing in front of a Heat home crowd and winning that trip to All-Star weekend.

Boy, was I wrong.

There’s something about All-Star weekends that are so enticing as a fan. The leagues’ brightest and best stars all gather on one court to celebrate and entertain. I know the NBA All-Star weekend sometimes gets a bad rap, but it’s always been my favorite. Attending it in person gave me a new-found appreciation for it.

My dad and I attended the Rising Stars Challenge that Friday with my sights set for Saturday. The next morning, we attended All-Star media day and practice with the Pop-A-Shot competition following shortly after.

All 30 competitors competed on the floor of Bojangles’ Coliseum with the top two scorers battling for the ultimate crown on All-Star Saturday Night in between the 3-point contest and dunk contest. When it was my turn, the current leader was at 22. I racked up 24 points in 30 seconds and earned a seat in the Leaders Lounge.

I was a finalist.

Fast forward to that night. I’m standing on the same court that Steph Curry just lost the 3-point contest on. Shaq is standing by my side as my “shooting coach,” and I walk out to my name being called as if I was voted on to represent the Heat at All-Star Weekend. It’s these moments that make sports so special.

People flock to sports for many different reasons. Some use it as an outlet to leave the struggle and worry of their everyday lives behind. Others use it as an opportunity to get lost in the moment altogether. Whatever the reasoning may be, it’s these moments that captivate and gravitate fans towards sports. Those goosebump-giving, unforgettable times that carry with you. Pop-A-Shot gave me that.

Rather than following along in the stands or sitting in a press box, the cameras were pointing at me. All 19,000-plus people in attendance that night cheered as I made 36 shots in 30 seconds to become the first annual NBA Pop-A-Shot Champion.

I’m honestly still not sure what came over me in the moment. Maybe it was Shaq’s inspiring advice to “beat his a**."  Maybe it was just all those years of playing Pop-A-Shot in arcades and my backyard that amounted to this performance.

My smile couldn’t have been wider on the walk back from the Spectrum Center to my hotel.

It goes to show how a silly little game can give you so much. By saying yes to attending that qualifier round at Florida Blue Health in Miami (which I almost didn’t even attend), I received an unforgettable weekend in Charlotte with my dad and a surreal experience I couldn’t imagine in my wildest dreams. All because of Pop-A-Shot.

See ya next year, Chicago.

Victor is a sports writer at the Alligator. Follow him on Twitter @victorprieto_11, and contact him at [email protected].

Victor Prieto covers women's tennis and golf and has been with the Florida Alligator since Fall 2018.