Admittedly, the #WaybackWednesday this week is one of the lesser talked about moments of 90s NBA basketball. The truth is, in the week after we concluded The Last Dance, stories about the Houston Rockets or San Antonio Spurs feel dull or inadequate… Disney, ESPN, Nike, Jason Heir, Michael Jordan, or some combination of the like have convinced much of America that the titles won in ’94, ’95, and ’99 were merely blue ribbons for being in the NBA when Michael Jordan was not. As he famously said after the sixth Bulls championship, the feeling was “they can’t win until we quit!” While there will be a different time to break that down, today is Wednesday May 20th and the 25th anniversary of one of the greatest non-Jordan moments of 90s basketball.
To set the scene… just a few days prior, it felt as if the defending NBA champion Houston Rockets were nothing more than evidence of the difficulty of repeating an NBA title. To that point, only four franchises had ever done it. Sure the Lakers, Pistons, and Bulls had spent the previous decade winning strings of back to back titles, but the Lakers 1987 and 1988 titles were the first back-to-back titles since the 60s, and the Red Auerbach & Bill Russell titles of the 1960s were the first consecutive titles for any franchise since George Mikan. In May of 1995, with Houston on the ropes, it appeared that the Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, and Bulls were bound to be in rare-ified air. It bears mentioning that Houston, Miami, and Golden State joined the same club (though there were moments that each “membership” felt in doubt). For a reference of the difficulty a repeat championship is a dynasty like San Antonio, as dominant as they were for nearly over fifteen years, couldn’t win consecutive titles at any point of the Tim Duncan led run.
As historic as May 20th, 1995 was for the NBA, there were several times it almost didn’t even happen. In the first round, the third-seeded Jazz were up 2-1 in a best of five series over Houston in the first round. The second-seeded Suns were up 3-1 over the defending champs, and had the lead in early in overtime of Game 5.
Even further back than that, the championship hangover was very real in Houston. Coming off of the first NBA Championship not claimed by Michael Jordan since 1990, appeared to run out of steam. Houston went 17-18 in the second half of the season, even after adding Clyde Drexler in February. Houston finished the year at just 47 – 35 (the year before, they were 58-24).
Needless to say, as the clock wound down in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals, Houston’s time in the limelight appeared to be over. Hakeem had his title, it appeared that Charles Barkley or David Robinson (two recent MVPs in the West without a title) were about to get theirs, assuming that one of them could get through Shaquille O’Neal (future MVP, in the East in 1995). And if none of those guys were up for it, this guy named Mike wore number 45 and had just started playing basketball after a short baseball career.
May 20th, 1995: Kenny “The Jet” Smith of the Houston Rockets sits at the free-throw line with just over 45 seconds left in game seven of the Western Conference Semifinals. He makes both free throws to give Houston a one-point lead. Time-out, Phoenix.
Phoenix’s Kevin Johnson heads up the right sideline of the floor, and receives a screen from Charles Barkley around 15-feet from the basket. As he drives the lane, the defense collapses, and he drops the ball, awkwardly, to Barkley. All five defenders swarm Barkley, and he quickly kicks the ball to Dan Majerle for three. With the ball in the air, the Rockets chances feel over.
But Majerle misses. Barkley somehow tips the offensive rebound to Johnson again, this time on the other sideline. Johnson drove again, but this time, instead of an awkward drop-off, he forces Robert Horry into a foul. Johnson, who had scored 45 at this point, headed to the line with a chance to take the lead back. The first shot swished. Tie game.
The second rimmed out and to Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon, and the Rockets immediately called a timeout. 20 seconds to go, and Houston’s alive again. Just a week prior they were down 3-1 in the series, and all of a sudden they had the ball.
Houston inbounded in the backcourt, and Phoenix pressed. The clock started and the seconds ticked away as Kenny Smith dribbled in the backcourt. As he spun to avoid the sideline, Phoenix’s Danny Ainge attacked to double. Kenny was alone, with two defenders, and had just two seconds to cross half court. He flips the ball to Horry, who walked across half court just tenths of a second before the 8-second violation would have sounded.
Somewhat disoriented, Horry quickly looked around. His defender, Danny Ainge, was sprinting back from the double team. Charles Barkley stood between him and the basket. Joe Klein covered the Olajuwon near the basket. Majerle covered Clyde Drexler as he ran towards Horry for the ball.
That left no Phoenix defender within twelve feet of Mario Elie, who stood directly in the opposite corner of Horry. Horry took two dribbles and launched the ball to the corner. The ball was in the air for less than two seconds off the clock, but it felt like an eternity. Klein fled the block and tried to split the difference, and Ainge was in a dead sprint to recover to the corner. Elie caught the ball and shot it in what felt like one fluid motion. Houston was on top 113-110.
Then Mario Elie skipped to midcourt and blew a kiss to the crowd. The Kiss of Death.
Houston fouled Danny Ainge on the ensuing possession, ensuring just two free throws. Ainge, who had tried to sell that he was shooting a three-pointer in the first place, tried to intentionally miss the second (hoping to get the offensive rebound), only to kiss the glass on the way through the basket. To end the game, after stealing the inbounds pass, Ainge got another shot… from behind halfcourt. He missed, the Rockets bench erupted. Houston had life again.
Houston, after coming back to beat Barkley, ended up being the team to go on to beat Robinson and O’Neal. Olajuwon and the Rockets were officially the fifth franchise to win consecutive NBA titles
“The Kiss of Death” has earned Mario Elie infamy in Houston, but the story is lesser talked about in NBA folklore.
More than two decades before the Cavs 3-1 comeback, over Golden State, or those Warriors’ very own comeback against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the “Clutch City” Rockets were celebrating the same feat. There was every reason to count out the Rockets, but as coach Rudy Tomjanovich said, “don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”
Perhaps it’s because of the Rockets fit so smoothly into the void left by Jordan’s baseball career. Perhaps it’s because they fell earlier in the Western Conference playoffs in the coming seasons. Perhaps it’s because Olajuwon’s presence was felt more as a guy occupying the defense. Whatever the case, Mario Elie’s “Kiss of Death” shot proved as big a shot as there was in the mid-90s.
Part of the awe in Michael Jordan comes from the onslaught of Hall of Fame-caliber talent he kept from winning a title. Part of his greatness comes from denying that prize to other greats. Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Karl Malone, and John Stockton all retired without an NBA Championship. Gary Payton couldn’t win one until the twilight of his career. David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal both had to wait until Jordan retired, and add some Hall of Fame-caliber teammates in Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant.
Houston, even though they won those back to back titles, has never gotten that same recognition. Hakeem Olajuwon, who outplayed Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal in head to head matchups over the course of his championships, doesn’t have the same awe-inspiring aura.
When Jordan retired in 1993, the NBA championship felt open to everyone again. Even though it may be unlikely that the Bulls won a fourth after three straight title runs, Jordan and Pippen at an Olympic summer, and the emotional toll of losing Jordan’s father in the ’93 off-season, it didn’t feel “up for grabs” until he officially did.
But in hindsight, they really weren’t “up for grabs.” Even with less than stellar regular seasons, the Houston Rockets also kept those superstars from winning titles. Though it was a shorter period, they also shut the league off from the Larry O’Brien trophy. They also kept the league at bay.
They gave the league, specifically the Suns, the “Kiss of Death.”
Zach LaVine Is The Missing Piece For The Sixers by Chris Allen
Zach LaVine is a 6’6 catch and shoot lob threat. This 25-year-old two-time slam dunk champion has spent his career trying to make it to the playoffs or keep the Chicago Bulls at 500. In contrast, he’s averaging over 25 points per game since 2019, per basketball reference. LaVine is bound to be an All-Star this year, having career highs in both points and FG shooting percentage. His skill set, and size, might be the missing piece for the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 76ers have themselves projected anywhere from a 2-4 seed coming out of the Eastern Conference. Ben Simmons is the best playmaker and on-ball defender on the team. Joel Embiid is a beast in the post and spreads the floor. Tobias Harris is a solid shooter anywhere on the floor and can create his own shot. Out of the three, the most tradeable player is Harris in exchange for LaVine. Depending on management, you can make LaVine sign an extension or throw in Danny Green and Otto Porter Jr. to offset the salary cap.
How would the 76ers offense and defense schemes work? In theory, depending on matchups, Simmons would play the four on defense for the most part and alternate with LaVine or another guard to play the one. This allows for more explosive offensive firepower surrounding Simmons and still creates space for Embiid to operate in the post or stretch the floor. This open space leaves room for your slashers, Simmons and LaVine.
With all the movement and attention on the central core, spot up, catch and shoot three-point shots will thrive. Matisse Thybulle, Seth Curry, & possibly Porter Jr. offer the Sixers solid shooting on the floor to make this a solid offense. Simmons at the four on defense allows him to turn into the point guard as soon as he gets the rebound hitting LaVine on the fast break for quick transition points.
LaVine can do something that Simmons can’t do, which is the ability to shoot from outside the paint. Whatever position you put them in, they could cover each other’s weaknesses and keep Philadelphia’s offense potent. Philly still has depth with Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey for guards if Simmons and LaVine ran as your forwards.
No one wants LaVine to have career numbers on a struggling team. Simmons and Embiid are rare in their skill set. They could use an independent scorer to take away attention and get a bucket when needed. With LaVine holding the ball more, there’s less talk about where Simmons sits in the offense with his lack of shooting. With the trade deadline coming, it will be interesting to see whether LaVine will stay a Bull or find himself with a contender for a ring.
Damian Lillard Named Cover Athlete for NBA 2K21
There aren’t many players in the NBA that are as exciting to watch as Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard can drop 50 points on any given night, putting up statistics only seen in video games.
Due to his gaudy play this year, Lillard has been announced as the first of three players that will grace the cover of the NBA’s premier video game franchise, NBA 2K.
Lillard was in the midst of a remarkable season prior to the league shutdown, as he averaged a career-high 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. If the season resumes next month, Lillard will look to close a 3.5 games gap across an eight-game schedule to get his Trail Blazers into playoff position.
Regardless of how this season ends for Lillard though, it will still go down as another incredible campaign for the five-team All-Star. One worthy of his first selection as the cover athlete on 2K.
Lillard will be on the cover of NBA 2K21 for all the current-gen gaming consoles including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC and Google Stadia systems. 2K still needs to announce another cover athlete for the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles.
For the 29-year-old point guard, this honor is very gratifying as it continues to solidify his status as one of the game’s most elite players.
Due to the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still unclear whether NBA 2K21 will be released at it’s regularly scheduled drop-date in September, or if it will be pushed back to accommodate the league’s changed schedule.
If the season is played in it’s entirety, many don’t expect the 2020-2021 NBA season to start until late November, if not some time in December.
Stephen Jackson: Journey Man
Nearly two months ago, when the NBA announced the 2020 Hall of Fame class, and in the midst of having no sports to televise, ESPN ran a series of important games from Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan’s careers. For Duncan, ESPN played his near quadruple-double to seal the 2003 NBA Finals. In the fourth quarter, when the Spurs needed buckets, the New Jersey defense collapsed in on Duncan, who kicked to a wide-open, third-year NBA player named Stephen Jackson. Jackson hit three big three-pointers, Spurs win. For many, some combination of that performance (being the secondary star in a non-primetime, 17-year-old basketball game) and his All The Smoke podcast with Matt Barnes was the most thought given to Stephen Jackson in quite some time. Jackson went on, after a brief stint in San Antonio, to play for six franchises in eleven years before retiring in 2015. Many would call him a journeyman for his travels in the NBA, and assumed his life would settle down after that.
Last week Stephen Jackson put himself, and his cause, in front of everyone. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd by four police officers, Jackson took to his Instagram to let the world see and hear the pain he had for his lost friend. Floyd grew up in Houston, Jackson in Port Arthur. For those not acquainted with Texas’ geography, the two went to high school just over an hour apart. Many in Port Arthur residents, like Jackson as a child, go into the city of Houston when they need things you’d find in the city. Port Arthur is a tough-minded oil town that functions as both a suburb of the city of Beaumont and the city of Houston. It’s produced the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Pimp C, and Bun B… but Stephen Jackson is the only notable NBA alum that cites it as home. You can see Port Arthur’s toughness in Johnson, Charles, and Jackson. You can see its swagger in Pimp C, Bun B, and Jackson.
And now, you can see him representing Port Arthur, and making a difference.
Everyone ended their Memorial Day weekend watching the same horrifying viral video. It hit everyone differently. For some, it was a wake-up call to the deadly realities of police brutality. To others, it was an anger-inducing “another one?!” To still others, it was horrifyingly close to home, with a mirror-like reality. And to Jackson? It was his lifelong friend. His “twin.”
Jackson and Floyd have known each other since childhood. Both were active athletes from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds, but the “twin” moniker came not only because they were figuratively brothers, but because they look eerily similar to one another. The two played pick-up basketball in the Cuney Homes housing complex of Houston’s Third Ward. (Jackson has, in the last week, really done an intentional job of pointing out how talented of an athlete Floyd was. To be frank, it is very important. The difference in Floyd’s life cut short and Jackson’s life in the NBA can come down to a few breaks or ball bounces here and there.)
While much of the nation’s initial anger over George Floyd’s murder was in their own homes for the initial twenty-four hours, Stephen Jackson’s was cast for the world to see.
In the following days, Jackson continued to post homage to Floyd while he made his way to Minneapolis to lead protests. Once there, he made his message clear: no one was going to diminish Floyd’s name. No one was going to rest until action was taken. Change was coming, and Jackson was ready to work for it.
Jackson was surrounded by the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie, actor Jamie Foxx, Houston area rap artist Trae the Truth, amongst other protestors. After speaking to the crowd, Jackson and others went outside marched to the Hennepin County Government Center.
Protests and marches have been commonplace all over the United States of America this week. In an effort to combat police brutality, communities are banding together to have their voices heard. Both in-person and online, at the forefront of these protests continue to be high profile athletes and celebrities. In North Carolina, Dennis Smith Jr. and J. Cole were mixed into the marches like everyone else. Jaylen Brown did the same in Atlanta. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an op-ed for the LA Times. It clearly did not take being connected to the situation like Stephen Jackson to take the lead in the community.
In the week since publicly sharing his pain, Jackson has become the face of NBA players involved in the protests, and his movements are seeing results. Within hours of his statements in Minneapolis, the police officer who murdered Floyd was arrested. Protests have continued, calling for both the arrests of his three partners who watched him idly, and for their four convictions. Since Jackson spoke out, major shoe brands, EA Sports, and even Adam Silver have come out in support of the protests. Jackson, who made a career as a reserved tough guy, pushed much of the NBA world to the point of speaking up. While COVID quarantine certainly helped further the cause (everyone is stuck at home with little other distractions, searching social media), Jackson’s activism is the inspiration we look for.
What’s both fascinating and disturbing is George Floyd was not the first unarmed black man murdered on camera. He wasn’t even the first of such since the COVID quarantine started, and the violent reaction to the protests imply he won’t be the last victim of police brutality either. But, his name and case are pushing people to a protesting brink at a national level. There are several factors, but Jackson and the ensuing NBA involvement is certainly a big one.
The murder of an unarmed person at the hands of the police shouldn’t need celebrity grief to become a tragedy. NBA players shouldn’t have to remind the public they’ve been wearing “I CAN’T BREATHE” tee-shirts since 2014. The news should sting on its own and, if you’re paying attention, it always does.
However, in Jackson’s grief he helped elevate this particular case. The NBA, and pro sports, can humanize black people for many white audiences that otherwise don’t get to interact with people that don’t look like them. For decades neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces have been (intentionally or unintentionally) segregated through various means. As pointedly illustrated in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowe, these systems can perpetuate cyclically and lock people into only being around folks that look like them. Humanized professional athletes can bring new faces into white neighborhoods, as they connect with and idolize people on their team. Jackson is one of those faces, and he isn’t just “involved” in the ongoing fight in Floyd’s name. In his own words, he’s “all in.”
Jackson’s activism can bring those conversations into white homes, neighborhoods, and families. It can help force the issue and conversation. Recent generations of NBA players have been very socially active, and time after time we see the issues they take up carry significant weight. It’s sad to admit, but in many ways it’s vital. It makes the stories human to more people, because Jackson is a human known by more people.
Jackson has spent the last week publicly riding an emotional roller coaster. He mourned the loss of his friend, was firm in pursuing justice, and was open in sharing his story. As we enter week two of Jackson’s journey, he has accepted being the leader of the current athlete activists.
“Like, I’m honest with you: I did not expect to have the role and to have so many people waiting to see what I have to say and what’s the next move,” Jackson told ESPN. “Like, I didn’t ask to be in this position, but I’m embracing it. I’m embracing it.”
But what does that mean? What does embracing it look like for Journey Man Jackson?
“We got to vote,” Jackson continued. “I’m not just talking about the president. I’m talking about the local city council. I’m talking about your police chief, your fire chief. We need to vote for all that type of stuff because all that stuff’s going to matter at the end. And what we’re doing now as far as protesting everywhere around the world, we got to use that same energy when it’s time to vote.”
“Coming into this, I’ve seen so many situations not pan out right,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen the impossible happen also. And I think this is that situation. I think this [is] going to be the change. My brother’s death is going to be change. I think we’re going to get convictions for all of them. I think they’re drawing it out right now because this is the typical system. That’s why we got to change the rules — they look out for each other. They try their best to look out for each other. So this is expected by me.”
“But we’re going to fight. This is a marathon. And we’re going to continue this fight, and we’re going to outfight them. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep this thing going. They’re going to get tired of hearing about George Floyd. They’re going to get tired of hearing his name.”
The word “journey” carries a lot more positivity than “journeyman.” A journey can be life-changing, and it can be historically impactful. A journeyman is a wanderer; he’s lost or he has no home. A journey is going to be important. Calling someone a journeyman implies they weren’t important enough to stick in one place.
However, in the NBA journeymen are often beloved by other players because they have to be good teammates to survive. Journeymen change clubhouses frequently, and they’re more appealing to more teams if their past teammates can attest to their characters. But to fans, and outsiders, they tend to be the periphery of the storylines of the league. Sure, Stephen Jackson hit a barrage of three-pointers in the 2003 NBA Finals, but they were off of Tim Duncan’s assists. He’s an emblem of toughness, but Jackson never stayed in the same organization for more than two complete seasons (though he did have two separate two year periods in San Antonio).
Players love Jackson, that’s evident in his podcasting and TV appearances. But he was never integral to the NBA’s story throughout his journeyman-days. He was always going to be remembered as the guy who scored on Duncan’s kick out, or the teammate that got traded, or the veteran on a one-year deal. If you watched the NBA in his 14-year career, you knew who he was… but his playing days didn’t indicate he’d be an unforgettable piece of the story of the league.
But as the latest chapters of Jackson’s story is being written, he’s looking more like a man on a journey than a journeyman. If you persist he is a journeyman, he’s clearly chosen to focus on the breakdown of the word regardless of your perception.
And his leadership has proven far more than necessary in connection to the story of America in 2020 than it ever was in connection to the NBA.
If you have the means to, or would like to donate to help the cause Jackson is at the front of, please consider the following places to start:
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