By: Rob Botts
I love basketball and love the NBA. It’s really depressing when that final horn sounds and a new champion is crowned in early June every year because the following immediate though slaps me in the face: “Now what?” Oh yeah, there is summer league, off-season story lines, draft, blah, blah, blah. All of that is very nice but it’s really just a bunch of shiny distractions to keep you occupied before the start of the next exciting NBA run.
But, there is a show on NBATV that keeps my attention in the meantime. And this particular show always arrives every summer just when I really need a pick me up. It’s “Hardwood Classics.” I was flipping around on the tube last week and boom, there it was. Of course I had to jump ahead in the cable guide time blocks to see if there were any more on after that one episode and boom, again. ALL NIGHT LONG. ONE RIGHT AFTER ANOTHER. I hit “record series” button immediately.
I then settled in to watch game 5,(back when it was a 5 game first round series) New York Knicks vs. Boston Celtics at the old Boston Garden back in the year 1991. As a John McClane(that’s Die Hard) Larry Bird and Celtics fan growing up, I remember every moment of that sad game. I remember the awful free throw shooting by the home team and the missed reverse dunk by Larry Legend as he slipped away along the baseline. I remember how Knicks point guard Mo Cheeks played big, Trent Tucker nailed every big 3 he took and reserve Johnny Newman slashed the guts out of the Celtic’s interior defense. But it was the late, fade away, turn around, 3 point bomb from deep in the corner off of a pass from Charles Oakley which was off of a broken play that Patrick Ewing drilled, that sealed the outcome on that playoff Sunday. Even now, years later, that still gives me the sensations of a mild stroke.
It’s this recent experience that got me thinking about some of the great classic moments I have watched in my growing up years with the NBA from the late 80’s through the 90s and the early 2000s. Let’s take a trip down NBA classic memory lane with some of the best / interesting moments that jump out to me as I think back. In no particular order, my brain will now empty it’s contents:
The 1997 NBA finals when MJ closed out the game with a game winning buzzer beater. He dribbled, dribbled, dribbled then crossed over right to left and nailed a pull up jumper. Game over. 1-0 Bulls. Do I need to tell you who he hit that jumper over? Ok, for that one person on the planet who doesn’t know, it was Byron Russell. Sorry Byron.
Indiana Pacer legend Reggie Miller going absolutely heating seeking basketball missile at Madison Square Garden during the 1994 playoff series vs the New York Knicks and super fan Spike Lee. With every shot that he took, was there really ever a question that every one of his shots would not drop? Nope. Buckets. Buckets of blood really in those series between those two teams. You ever seen so many chicken wing and elbow sandwiches delivered?
The incredible 4th quarter duel between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins in game 7 of the 1988 playoffs. Whether it was “The Human Highlight Reel’s” thunderous dunks, spin moves or high arcing kisses off the glass, he was unreal in defeat. Bird, who guaranteed victory(back when that actually meant something) hit almost very single short jumper off their little curl / pick play in the lane and a HUGE 3 pointer from the corner that sealed the Atlanta Hawk’s fate.
Former MVP and at the time, Phoenix Sun, Charles Barkley nailed a top of the key pull up jumper to give his team a big game 6 win in San Antonio in the 1993 playoffs. These were the pre-Pop / Duncan days but they were still a really strong team with the Admiral David Robinson manning the paint and embodying the spirit of the city. “Sir Charles” crushed their spirit on that day with this absolute dagger of a shot.
The Showtime Los Angeles Lakers forward ”Big Game James,” Worthy game up very big in game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals vs the Detroit “Bad Boys” Pistons. He was unstoppable in the post with his quick moves and soft touch. The ball went from dibble to a slick one handed dunk or a soft fade away in the lane with lightning speed. He even pounded the boards against Detroit’s rough and tough front line to the tune of 16 rebounds. He also dropped 36 for the game. “Big Game James” went big and didn’t have to go home. Well, not without the NBA championship trophy that is.
Let’s stay in that 1988 NBA Finals series for another unbelievable moment. It came one game earlier. Game 6 and in the 3rd quarter in particular. Point guard and future hall of famer Isiah Thomas of the Pistons twisted his ankle severely and then got up, took a break for a bit and then came back in and WENT OFF. He limped and slid his way to 25 big points in the quarter. He hit on jumpers, drives to the bucket and leaners in the lane. He may have snatched the Laker’s hearts on that day, but the “Lake Show” narrowly pulled out the contest forcing game 7.
MJ(number 45 MJ that is) had returned and the Bulls were facing the upstart Orlando Magic franchise of Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal down in Orlando, FL for their 1995 NBA playoff series. Even though he did switch his jersey number mid series from 23 to 45, he was really 45 for that series. Michael was making his way up the court for one of the biggest late game possessions of the contest, and Magic guard Nick Anderson snuck up behind him Jordan’s blind spot(didn’t know he had one) and poked the ball away and the play ended up in a Horace Grant dunk for Orlando. Game over. Bulls lose. A very rare occurrence in the decade of the 1990s.
Of course Michael Jordan flying past Cleveland Cavalier’s guard Craig Ehlo back in 1980s for a playoff, game winning jumper is a huge moment, but the moment that sprung to mind was a young Gerald Wilkins(yes, the brother of Dominique) had mentioned that he was a “Jordan Stopper” in their 1993 playoff series with the Bulls. Of course that statement made it’s way to Michael’s ears where he then internalized it, and then externalized it all over Wilkins in the series where the Cavs didn’t win a game. “They thought they had the problem solved,” Jordan said. “I guess not.” Pretty sweet.
Magic Johnson’s baby sky hook in the 1987 NBA Finals was the shot that changed that series against their rival Boston Celtics. If he misses, we’ve got a 2-2 series tie and if he makes it, the Lakers go up 3-1. The latter became reality as the shot slipped through the net in the face of Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. Nothing like burying a hall of fame front line in one sweet, sweeping stroke. Magic was always able to hit shots with different release points and from all over the court. This was just another case of his coming through in a big moment with a shot that was perfect for what the defense had given him. Again, I can still feel the pain.
When Superman fouls out, you just bring in the “Mamba” to seal the finals deal right? Well, that’s exactly what Phil Jackson did in the 2000 NBA Finals where the Lakers faced off against the Pacers. It was an overtime session in game 4, in Indiana and Shaquille O’Neal had fouled out and it was a young Kobe Bryant’s moment to step up and man, did he ever. He nailed lean in one handed faders, killer fade aways from all over and one absolutely huge offensive rebound and put back that put the Indiana Pacers on their back and on their way for a series knock out eventually back in Los Angeles. This was the real cracking of the legend’s snake egg where the baby Mamba had slithered out and into the collective clutch history of our minds with 28 points at the age of only 21.
It was an NBA finals without Michael Jordan in the 1990s. Yes, it did happen believe it or not. Twice in fact. It was game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals where the New York Knicks were looking for the knock out blow down in Houston against the Rockets. The game went right down to the final moments. Former grocery bagger turned New York Knick hot head, shooting guard John Starks was on fire(27 points for the game and 16 in the 4th) and looking for final shot to give the New York ball club a title. It was a screen off to the left side of the court that started the action on this final play for the Knicks and it ended in a pull up three point attempt by Starks that was blocked by the legendary center Hakeem Olajuwon. There would be a game 7 but there would be no New York title. It was the 1st of a back to back run for the Houston Rockets in the mid 90s.
There were so many more moments but the above were the ones that spilled out of my head and onto the keyboard. There has been some great stuff in recent history that will make my “Hardwood Classic” playlist over the coming years. Can’t wait!