It’s a question that every sports fan can readily answer because somewhere throughout their fandom journey, a “what if” moment has taken place and they still can’t get over it.
But in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals, a “what if” moment took place that didn’t just affect the Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic, but the entire future of the NBA, and how we view many of its stars.
After a game in which Orlando was up by 20 points at one time, and following a frenetic fourth quarter, Nick Anderson, the first draft pick in Magic history, missed four consecutive free throws. Making just one of those would have clinched the game, and maybe the series, as his team was leading 110-107 in the final seconds.
Following Anderson’s fourth miss, Kenny Smith nailed a game-tying 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds remaining, his seventh of the game, and forced overtime. The Magic fell 120-118 to the Rockets in the extra period, as Houston never looked back. They would go on to sweep the Magic en route to back-to-back titles, as Game 1 was the closest of the series.
But to understand why those free throws were so important, you first have to understand the moment.
Jordan was riding a bus somewhere playing baseball and the Rockets had taken advantage of it. After beating the Knicks the year before in the Finals, a veteran Houston team was looking to run it back one last time and were ignited by the arrival of Clyde Drexler. Because nothing fuels a team of champions like adding a guy whose entire legacy is built on how he could get to a championship but never win one.
The Rockets were the sixth seed in the Western Conference in 1995, making them underdogs in every series they played in that postseason. In getting to the Finals they had to beat the teams with the three best records in the league at that time: Utah (60-22), Phoenix (59-23), and San Antonio (62-20).
On the other side, the Rockets were facing a squad that had been prematurely anointed the team of the decade.
“The Magic are universally regarded as the NBA’s team of the future. There are almost certainly championships ahead for Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway & Co.,” said Bob Costas as he opened the telecast.
Shaq was 23 at the time, and coming off a season in which he averaged 29.3 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game while being selected All-NBA Second Team. Penny Hardaway was also 23 and made the All-NBA First Team after averaging 20.9 points, 7.2 assists, and 4.4 rebounds.
“We were Shaq and Kobe, before Shaq and Kobe,” said O’Neal in the 2016 ESPN 30 For 30 Documentary “This Magic Moment.”
Throw in sharpshooter Dennis Scott, veteran Horace Grant, and Anderson, and the Magic had the best starting five in basketball.
As we now know, that team never made it back to the Finals. The next year they got swept by the 1996 Chicago Bulls (the greatest team of all-time) in the Eastern Conference Finals, after knocking the Bulls out of the playoffs the year before and forcing Jordan to change his number back to 23 from 45.
A year later Shaq left Orlando for Los Angeles when the Magic lowballed him in free agency. And with Shaq gone, Hardaway’s body began to break down with the weight of the franchise on his back. He would soon be traded to Phoenix, ending an era of basketball that the Magic have yet to replicate.
But instead of me telling you how important those free throws were to a young team’s psyche, and destiny, I’ll let the people who were there speak for themselves, as they explained it in the 2016 documentary:
“Before he took the fourth [free throw], the whole energy kind of changed. Because now if he doesn’t make this one, then that could really change the outcome of this game,” – Brian Shaw; guard, Orlando Magic.
“We weren’t good. The momentum was shot. Confidence was shot.” – Dennis Scott; forward, Orlando Magic.
“Our guys were kind of broken mentally a little bit by that game. And it was very hard to get them back.” – Brian Hill; head coach, Orlando Magic.
“I tried not to let it affect me, but my confidence wavered.” – Nick Anderson; free-throw misser, Orlando Magic.
“After [the] Game 1 loss, it was just like ‘Humm, are we really that good?” – Shaq.
“Once they got us down, they never let us back.” – Penny Hardaway
“I think everybody changed their minds pretty quickly about the Orlando Magic after that first game.” – Jackie MacMullan; journalist, Sports Illustrated.
If just one of those free throws goes in, the entire series would have changed. And the Rockets knew it.
“After Orlando lost the first game at home, they were demoralized,” said Hakeem Olajuwon in NBA Entertainment’s 2015 documentary “Clutch City.”
“When we won the first game, we were like ‘Yo, we’re never coming back to Orlando,’” added Kenny Smith.
In 2010, I ran into Dennis Scott at a sports bar in Atlanta and asked him the question I’ve always wanted to know.
“What really happened in the locker room with Nick Anderson after Game 1?”
He dropped his head and told me something I’ll never forget.
“Mugs (guys) was tapping him like ‘It’s OK, we’ll be alright.’ But we knew it was over. He was just sitting there with his uniform on at his locker, silent, with his head down. Personnel had to get him up and get him to the shower.”
The trickle-down effect of those free throws, and that game, raise endless questions and theories that deserve to be asked and explained. Because if one of those free throws goes in and the Magic win an NBA Championship, then….
Shaq doesn’t leave in free agency, and now the Bulls have a legitimate foe in the East, right?
Does Jordan still have six rings? If the Magic beat the Bulls, do Stockton and Malone actually win a title in ’97 or ’98?
If Shaq stays in Orlando, it means that a high school kid from Lower Merion, Pa., may have played 20 years with the Charlotte Hornets instead of the Los Angeles Lakers. Because you can’t have Shaq and Kobe if Shaq isn’t in L.A. waiting for him.
Clyde Drexler would still be ringless, and Olajuwon’s resume would have one ring on it, instead of two. And does Kenny Smith have a long career in television without multiple championships?
That means that Phil Jackson’s fingers would certainly have less jewelry on them, while Rick Adelman’s coaching career would have been elevated, as three of his teams (Trail Blazers, Kings, Rockets) had championship dreams snatched away by Jackson’s squads.
And oh yeah, Dwyane Wade probably doesn’t have Shaq as a sidekick in 2006, while the Spurs could have been a true dynasty in the West without having to repeatedly face the Lakers.
The ideas are infinite as to what the NBA would have looked like back then, and now, if Anderson makes just one of those four attempts on that fateful night in 1995.
It’s truly one of the great “what ifs” that will never be answered. But if there’s one thing that we know for certain, it’s this.
Free throws have never been “free.”