Category Archives: My Finals Memory

My Finals Memory: Schrödinger’s Courtney

It is June 7th, 2009, and Hedo Turkoglu is going to inbound the ball. Courtney Lee is at the top of the key. Dwight Howard is setting a screen for J.J. Redick as Rashard Lewis is running up the middle of the paint. Lee fakes right, as Kobe Bryant bites; a quick counter-dart to the left, and Lewis is suddenly there, setting a hard screen of his own. The opening is there. Hedo somewhat nonchalantly sends the ball flying, using both hands, something between an overhead soccer inbound and a Joakim Noah jump shot. The ball flies, flies, flies… Lee does the same… and…

The Magic were about to steal Game 2 on the road, one round after shocking another overwhelming favorite with another marquee superstar. Dwight Howard could have won his first title in 2009, preemptively killing both his desire to leave Orlando and any future discussions of how his mettle pertains to his ability to win. Hedo Turkoglu might have stayed. Stan Van Gundy could have joined the dwindled ranks of active NBA coaches with titles. Lee himself might have gone from surprising rookie to nationally recognized sports entity.

And on the other side… Kobe Bryant could have lost two consecutive Finals. His first two Shaqless Finals. Could he actually win it alone? This used to be a thing. Would Pau Gasol have been the scapegoat? Lamar Odom, too much candy? Andrew Bynum, not healthy enough to play major playoff minutes? Derek Fisher, Too Old Since 1996? Phil Jackson, no longer the right coach?

Reality has a certain definitiveness to it. Courtney Lee was traded 43 days after he jumped in the air; to deny this would be factually mistaken. Likewise very real were the two Laker titles that followed said jump, Hedo’s Raptor stint, the Vince Carter trade, whatever the hell is going on with the Lakers now, and Orlando’s current burning issue of who to pick 2nd in the upcoming draft.

But Courtney Lee soaring towards the rim unimpaired, springing straight from Stan Van Gundy’s out of bounds arsenal, was as close as possible to a quantum glitch in the generally stable progression of time. For a split second, multiple futures were within grasp; only by observing which way the ball bounces can we land back into singularity. Fake right, lose one of the greatest players ever on a screen, try and meet an orange orb in the air – all this while wearing a facemask! – and watch history fall into place.

My Finals Memory: Michael Jordan’s Team Wins His Third Ring

I think we all knew it was coming. I know no one thought it’d come like that.

Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals was my second live professional basketball game, a ridiculously generous birthday gift from both a family friend and my Phoenix Suns, who were kind enough to make their way to the championship round the same year that my sports fanaticism was ripe for the picking. In retrospect, it’s a miracle that I didn’t end up a bandwagon Bulls fan. My first game was also against Michael Jordan and company; Basketball Reference says Jordan scored 40 on that November night, but all I can remember is being so alarmed by the ease with which he did, well, everything, that I lost my handcrafted sign that I’d smuggled into the third-to-last row of seats in America West Arena on my way out after the game. The idea that my poster board and markers could counteract that seemed silly, even at seven.

When every path offers least resistance, your opponents — and their fans — get very few moments of excitement. Clinging to that two point lead with 14 seconds left was one of those precious fleeting instances, in the way that playing with a downed live wire will make you feel alive for half a second. Once again perched in the crow’s nest high above the action, it was impossible not to feel the sparks flying from the generator clad in red and black, adorned with his 23 Theses on the reformation of your heart into a palpitating mess of terror.

I mean, he’d already done it on the previous possession. With 43 seconds left, Michael Jordan grabbed a rebound off of a Kevin Johnson miss; 5 seconds later, he was at the other rim, trimming a four point Phoenix lead in half. When Chicago got the subsequent stop and prepared to inbound for that fateful John Paxson 3, it seemed inevitable that Jordan would do something. And he did — he took the inbound pass, and he dribbled to halfcourt.

Then, he passed. And he faded to above the three point line, not really part of one the most crucial play in my seven-month old passion. Scottie Pippen drove into the lane, dished to Horace Grant, who found Paxson … and Jordan’s contribution was simply the most emphatic celebration.* The greatest player on the planet in my new favorite thing had, with the game on the line, trusted in his teammates to take him to the promised land.

*Check out the almost proto-modern movement of the ball from the Bulls on the play. Today, the player in Grant’s position would be spaced out further along the baseline, or even in the corner, depending on the set and the personnel. But the path of the ball is almost exactly the same: dribble penetration (by a small forward with guard-like quickness and handles, no less) leads to a collapsed defense and a pass to a sort of basketball pivot table. Grant has the opportunity to take a shot if it’s open or swing it to the next open shooter. Truly, all that’s different is the defense’s inability to station a defender in the lane prior to the drive (given current zone defense rules) and Grant’s spacing.

And it worked, twice! Because even after that Paxson three, the game wasn’t over; Phoenix had the ball with 3.9 seconds remaining. Kevin Johnson inbounded the ball to Oliver Miller, who flipped it back to KJ and set a clearly illegal screen on Jordan as he trailed behind Johnson. That left Horace Grant to contain the dynamic point guard, but Grant overcommitted and, for another electric second, it seemed the Suns might force Game 7, which would be at home again, and they’d shown they could take these Bulls to their limit, take the best that Jordan had to offer and …

But Grant recovered. KJ’s shot ended up going backwards; the man in the goggles had swatted that flicker of hope into the offseason. Jordan once again celebrated more jubilantly than anyone; given all the personal turmoil, it seems clear why he was so happy to get that third ring. Yet all I can remember is imagining that he was just that happy that his teammates had won the game.

It was a perfect first love, replete with loss and lessons. The Suns — my team — had lost on the brightest stage, but not to the best player in the world. They lost to the best team in the world. And that made all the difference.

Image by paloetic via Flickr

My Finals Memory: Foreign Relations

 

It’s June 6th, 2010. I’m sitting in the patio area of a random bar in downtown Toronto with my parents. It was one of those places that would let minors in as long as they were accompanied by an adult. It’s safe to say that a lot of what I was experiencing was alien to me. This was my second time visiting Toronto but it was the first time I truly fell in love with it. I felt like I had grown since the last time I was here. The noise. The speed. The rush. The life, the inexplicable feeling that the city had a beating heart and a vibrant soul. It was a captivating experience, one that was a welcome contrast from the drudgery called Edmonton. And the game was pretty good, too.

In plain sight, there’s a full-screen television inside the bar and Game 2 of the Lakers-Celtics series is playing. At this point, I’ve been a die-hard NBA fan for about four months. I’m captivated. “Seerat, what are you looking at? Seerat, are you listening? Seerat?” “Sorry, what? I was just… uhh.. what?” If you wrote about this day from my mom’s perspective it would probably end with something along the lines of “… and that’s when we knew we’d lost her forever.”

In reality, I was infatuated with basketball since I was nine years old but it wasn’t often that I cared to watch it. My summers consisted of endless days at the playground trying to master the art of reaching the rim on free throws. My winters consisted of kicking ass and taking names with Steve Nash in whichever NBA video game dictated my life at the time.

This brings me back to 2010. Like almost every 16-year-old girl in high school, I’d recently developed an all-consuming interest in the NBA. Naturally, I began to spend the majority of my time watching highlight reels, “studying” basic statistics and watching every nationally televised game I could get my hands on. I didn’t know much but I had picked up on a few things. I knew I loved the Bulls — familial obligations had figured that out for me years ago — and that Kirk Hinrich was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I knew Kobe had willed himself to be great but that LeBron was destined for a kind of greatness that came naturally. A few nights earlier, Kobe and the Lakers made mincemeat of my beloved Nash-led Suns so I knew I hated them. In response, I knew I loved the Celtics.

The Celtics won that game and Ray Allen hit a bunch of threes, as I’m sure you’ve heard. This was probably my 100th time watching basketball, and I can’t exactly explain why, but it was the first time I fell in love with it. I felt like I had grown since the last time I was here.

My Finals Memory: Flu Game Flashbacks

What I remember most is the soothing stench of Ozark lake water, the familiar feel of mildewed shag carpet between the tips of my toes and fingers, and sitting so close to the television that I could easily make out its pixels. Does that make it any less significant?

I was eight and Michael Jordan was sick. My grandfather was rooting for Utah; he loved John Stockton, and as to be contrary I pulled for the Bulls as much as I pushed for the Jazz. And as anyone born between 1988 and 1992 will tell you, the Jordan maelstrom was inescapable. We weren’t born Chicago fans but we might as well have been. There was just no other choice.

Game 5 was never in doubt. That’s not true, of course; the Bulls barely survived to regain control of the series. But my naïveté knew late-game Jordan heroics were inevitable. And that’s actually the only specific game sequence I know I remember. MJ hits the dagger jumper over the top of Stockton, staggers to the bench in Scottie’s arms and my mighty Bulls win.

The Flu Game isn’t my earliest NBA memory or even my fondest. But what it’s not doesn’t matter half as much as what it is – the first time I understood I was watching history. So don’t ask about Pippen’s shooting struggles, Chicago’s fourth quarter comeback or Ostertag’s surprising double-double. I’d be lying if I even tried to answer.

But that smell, that touch, that sight and that feeling I vividly recall. And I remember, too, knowing I’d still remember it all almost twenty summers later.

My Finals Memory: Seven-Foot Tall Boys

In January of 2011, I was invited to become a contributor at The Two Man Game, writing about the Dallas Mavericks. Although I didn’t know the Mavericks much better than any other team in the league, I had been presented with a fortuitous, gift-wrapped excuse for hopping on the bandwagon just before things started filling up. As I was getting to familiar with the Mavericks, they were getting familiar with each other and their own limitations, preparing for a remarkable playoff run.

At that point, my wife and I were nearing the end of a seven-year run as East Coast transplants in Idaho. The NBA playoffs that season coincided with our last two months out west, before schlepping our lives and accumulated flotsam back across the country.

During the NBA Finals we were travelling around the state on a ‘farewell tour’ with my in-laws. We were camping and hiking and there was a scramble every other night trying to find a place to watch the games. I would drift into a coffee shop for an hour or so to submit my pieces to The Two Man Game, but never with enough time to delve into the coverage other writers were providing. On the day of Game 6 we rolled into Stanley, Idaho, population: 57. It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and where my wife and I got married, but not the kind of place where you can count on the conveniences of modern life. We were in luck because someone had wheeled the enormous and archaic big screen from their own living room down to the local honky-tonk, The Kasino Club. NBA basketball is not a hot ticket in rural Idaho and the regular crowd doesn’t roll in until much later. For the entirety of the game we were the only ones in the joint.

I remember that series, and that game in particular, for the sheer incongruity of it all. In retrospect we remember that series as the exposure of the Heat as an undeveloped, unfamiliar and misaligned collection of talent. But at the time it felt completely and utterly improbable, right up until the final buzzer sounded. The picture was fuzzy, but the wings were hot and the PBR tall boys were cold. As Dirk Nowtizki and Jason Terry capped off their stunning destruction of Miami, I sat in disbelief at a table in the center of the emptiest restaurant, in the emptiest town, in the emptiest state in the Union.

My Finals Memory: Call it a Comeback

In the summer of 2008, I was living in New York City whilst working two different internships between my junior and senior year of college. A friend from school and I shared one of those college dorm rooms they rent out to non-city dwellers for the summer, and our cable connection stopped working on the third day after we moved in. This meant I was boxed into watching the last few weeks of the NBA playoffs at various friends’ dorms/apartments and bars around the city.

My college roommate – who hails from Boston – was in town for the summer, so when the Celtics and Lakers eventually met in the Finals, we agreed to meet up at one of the many “Boston bars” sprinkled throughout the city to watch at least one of the games together. The game we eventually settled on was Game 4, which we would watch at the Riviera Sports Bar & Cafe.

As the Celtics fell behind by five, 10, and eventually 24 points, the place turned into a mausoleum. It was one of those stereotypical “it’s so quiet in here, you could hear a pin drop!” situations. Thinking the game was over, we were getting ready to leave the bar after the third quarter, but a 10-1 Celtics run capped by P.J. Brown (!) throwing down a dunk convinced us to stay. Anyway, Riviera was getting rather lively again. Both the beer and the Irish whiskey were flowing, and the crowd was bubbling with excitement.

A few Eddie House (!!) and Leon Powe (!!!) jumpers later, the Celtics had somehow come all the way back to tie the game, and the bar went into a frenzy. When the Celtics eventually took the lead with about four minutes left in the game, you couldn’t hear anything. You could have been standing next to the amplifier at a KISS concert and it wouldn’t have been louder than this bar.

As the Celtics stretched their lead in the final minutes of the game, the bartenders started playing some typical Boston music, the crowd started chanting “Beat L-A!” and I had to hightail my ass out of there. No way was I watching a bunch of Celtics fans watch Paul Pierce celebrate.

My Finals Memory: When Dwyane Wade Was Dwyane Wade

It’s not often that an NBA title is anything other than an apex. Dirk Nowitzki shook off various career-poisoning labels when his Mavericks outmatched the Heat in 2011; LeBron James did the same in 2012. The NBA Finals is a giant hump and stars spend careers trying to get over it. Some never quite make it – Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, famously – and for others it doesn’t really matter. Allen Iverson will never be judged in championship terms.

For Dwyane Wade, the 2006 Miami Heat NBA title, or more directly his performance in those six games, was a harbinger. Earlier in the season, gel-lathered hardwood kingpin Pat Riley swooped down from his tiny glass box to kick aside Stan Van Gundy, a high-pitched and portly but undoubtedly talented coach in his own right, to reroute the ship and save the season. An aging Shaq willfully handed over the reins to Dwyane Wade. Udonis Haslem was presumably being the heart of the team, just as he’s been credited in these 2013 NBA Playoffs. Gary Payton was still playing basketball and he wasn’t just padding his Hall of Fame resume, even if he definitely was.

But Dwyane Wade was only a third-year player then. He averaged nearly 35 points per game in the series and lived at the free throw line. Though his supporting cast was hardly dynastic – championship infrastructure doesn’t typically include Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, James Posey and post-peak Alonzo Mourning – it was reflective of a certain truth about the brimming star himself, that he was exactly that. It’s just that his coming out party so happened to coincide with and end in the Larry O’Brien trophy. In the narrative-laden NBA, when championships supposedly pay the toll of multiple failures and near broken egos and various and trying adversity, Wade had skipped a few steps. There was a rookie in a loaded draft class and an outstanding second season and a championship. He was 24 years old.

Then there were injuries and first round losses and years lost. Pat Riley slunk back into his emotionless and franchise-looming shadow. Dwyane Wade, as with the rest of the league, folded into LeBron James, second class among first class basketball citizens. Expectation, it seemed, had been fulfilled. What was once promise was shelved memory. Meanwhile Riley began to puppeteer the great coup of the 2010 offseason, parking lot handshakes and basement deals and all those slicked-back, mafia hair transactions. By the end of it, a handful of fan bases were emotionally spent and LeBron James and Chris Bosh were on their way to South Beach. Dwyane Wade’s career, as it was in an individual sense, was effectively over at the age of 28.

And that’s what’s here, in 2013, with these Finals. 2006 was the last time Dwyane Wade was ever Dwyane Wade on a national stage. I don’t remember anything particular about those Finals, other than lots of foul calls and years-later relief that Twitter was not around for what would have been inevitable real-time conspiracy baiting. But it’s the last time any of us saw Dwyane Wade play the game of basketball as dictated by his promise, and that’s mildly depressing.

My Finals Memory: The Step Over

“I don’t even have money for a cheeseburger.” – Allen Iverson

Iverson said this during his divorce case in 2012 and we all shook our heads in dismay. Has it come to this? Iverson, who according to a February 2012 Forbes article made over $200 million in his career, couldn’t even afford a cheeseburger?

Was this the same guy who was the 2007 Rookie of the Year, an 11 time All-Star, a two time NBA All-Star MVP and the 2001 NBA MVP?  Do you remember A.I. in 2001? 2001 was a fine year for Iverson and him stepping over Tyron Lue in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals will always be ingrained in my memory.

Despite his character flaws, I will always have love for A.I. and The Starting Five phenomenally summarizes why like me, so many love him:

His humble beginnings are something that many of us can relate to in some form or another. Just coming up with the deck stacked against him the way it was is enough to garner respect from anyone…It didn’t matter if he came in at six in the morning, missed practice and arrived just before tip-off, if Iverson was in uniform he gave us all he had, all the time. Never dogging it, and after his antics got old, we were still willing to live with it because we knew he was worth it.

When it comes to basketball, Iverson will be remembered for his crossover on Michael Jordan and this step over. Sure Jordan is Jordan, but this step over is simply amazing as it was during the NBA Finals and Iverson had an unbelievably game – 48 point, 6 assist, 5 rebound and 5 steals. A game and a move that will always bring a smile to my face.

 

Top image via Got ‘Em Coach

My Finals Memory: The Round Mound of Rebound

clappstar | Flickr

Most of the memories of basketball I have from my childhood merge in my brain like some super-montage. “Roundball Rock” is inevitably playing in the background, I’m seeing a lot of orange, white, and blue fly across the court, and on occasion, there’s a black and red blur streaking across my mindscape… always with a tongue sticking out. No actual personal physical exertion is present in this montage, though. Most of my basketball memories were from watching others on a flickering screen. Except for that puffy-paint Mark Price jersey my cousin made me from an old t-shirt. That’s in there, too.

TV and video games were how I was plugged into the NBA for the most part. I always knew who played in the Finals every year because there was a video game series called “[East team] vs. [West team]: NBA Finals” that EA sports used to put out. I’d played “Celtics vs. Lakers” and “Bulls vs. Lakers,” but for some reason, my favorite was always “Bulls vs. Blazers.” I’m not really sure why. Lots of red and black symmetry, perhaps.

The year that game came out was the year that the Bulls made the Finals again–this time, against a super-team Phoenix Suns. Sir Charles, KJ, and Thunder Dan (along with a pretty stacked roster) were finally something we all thought could dethrone the MJ-era Bulls. We all know they came up short, but that series–20 years ago now, holy shit–was my first Finals series that I remember watching. I don’t think I stayed up late for every game (I was only 8, after all), but it was the summer, and I did get to see at least part of most of the games. And for the first time after watching the tongue-protruding red and black run amok on my Cavaliers did I have another protagonist to grab my attention: a portly, bald man with a thin mustache and a foul mouth by the name of Charles Barkley.

I don’t remember all the details of the series so well, but I do remember that I was mesmerized by Chuck. Not only was he giving the the Bulls a run for their money, but he was a beast doing it. He was an inch taller than MJ (later we found out that he was actually 2 inches shorter than MJ), and he was strong and grumpy. The night he was his grumpiest, I assume, was the night the two teams went to triple overtime. I don’t remember all the details of the game, but I do know that it’s the first time my brain ever processed the phrase “triple overtime.” I mean, can you even imagine laying it all on the floor for 2.5 hours, then having to play for basically another hour? No energy. No sleep. Just adrenaline.

The night of that game, my family was at a party at a friend’s house. They didn’t have any kids my age, so I didn’t really have anyone to hang out with. And I was 8, so sit me in front of a TV or video games, and I was set. They had a TV in the basement with a Sega Master System with “Alex Kidd in Shinobi World” and “Hang On,” so I played a lot of that. But when I got tired of dying a million times, I shut off the system, and turned on the TV. And there he was, in all his rotund glory. Saying “FUCK FUCK FUCK” on national television after a call he didn’t like.

I suddenly felt shocked, but at the same time, I felt a little bit grown up. That moment was mine. It was my secret; no one else was around. I didn’t try to sneak anything past the grown-ups. I was just thrown at the big kids’ table, and I was initiated. I watched a lot more of the game, and I tried simulating dunks and “3, 2, 1, [buzzer]” fallaways while the game was going on. I didn’t want to be like Mike, though. I wanted to be like Chuck (minus the profanity in front of the parents). I didn’t stay up for the rest of the game (it was a Sunday night, and, again, I was 8), but I found out later that the Suns had won the game. Later, I also found out that the Suns had won that game in Chicago… after losing the first two games of the series at home. What a series.

To this day, every time I see him on TNT, the kid inside me smiles. Not in the same way that maybe the rest of you all smile–like, he’s saying something unexpectedly brilliant or he called someone a dummy. No, in my special way. He’s reminding me of that first time I was hooked on the Finals and hooked on the NBA. He reminds me of all the posters I I accumulated–like my Sir Charles one and my Muggsy Bogues/Shawn Bradley one. And he reminds me of that one time I bought a $1.95 book from the Scholastic book sale by counting out 195 pennies and scrawling my mom’s name on the permission slip–as if that was some sort of convincing forgery.

So, thanks, Chuck. Thanks for helping me remember. And thanks for helping me get here.

My Finals Memory: Push-Off? Your Face is a Push-Off!

Photo: Elliott/flickr
I may have grown up a Timberwolves fan, but like every other late-80s/early-90s baby I was also secretly a Michael Jordan fan. In fact, the three films I was raised on (In no particular order.) were Tommy Boy, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Michael Jordan’s Come Fly  With Me. Additionally, I owned a black number 23 Chicago Bulls jersey and a few of MJ’s trading cards I loved dearly. Basically, I was no different than any basketball fan at that age.

Since I was all of four or five years old when Jordan won the last of his first three titles, I missed out on experiencing them first hand. Fortunately, through films like Come Fly With Me I had learned about the buzzer beaters from Jordan’s time at North Carolina up until him rising over the Cavaliers’ Craig Ehlo for the game winner in the first round of the 1989 playoffs, but had yet to experience any of these moments firsthand.

That is until the ’98 Finals.

I can still tell you where I was. I was sitting anxiously on my living room floor, instead of the couch or a chair like a normal human being. I remember sitting some three feet away from the television set and the Bulls being down one with with :20 seconds left in Game 6. Then it happened: Jordan stole the ball from Karl Malone, brought the ball up court, and knocked Byron Russell off-balance before rising up over him for the go-ahead basket.

That moment was special because it represented everything we tend to romanticize about the Finals: a great player coming up big at the most pivotal moment. For someone my age, we were able to witness a feat like those of which we had only been able to read about or watch on film. Moments like these are also why we played out these scenarios in our driveways as children.

“Fourth quarter. Game 7, down one. 5…4…3…”