Memorial Day and The Greatest Shot In Spurs History

You know from the name that the game had a remarkable finish. And all Spurs fans have seen the highlight: Mario Elie slings the inbounds pass, past a lunging Stacey Augmon, to Sean Elliott. Elliott turns, on his tip-toes, takes a dribble to steady himself, stays on his toes, fires a three-pointer over a leaping, outstretched, athletic, 6’10" Rasheed Wallace…and BANG. It’s the Spurs’ first lead of the afternoon with only nine seconds left in the ballgame. Time out Portland. The way I see it, the Memorial Day Miracle was much, much more than what we see in the highlight or what we get from the catchy name. I will always remember Sean Elliott’s sixth three-pointer of Game Two, 1999 Western Conference Finals, as the shot that ended one Spurs’ legacy and started a new one.

Memorial Day Miracle (via saspursvideos)

If there is a single game in Spurs’ history that I dwell upon far too often, it’s game two of the 1999 Western Conference Finals. Lord knows there have been a huge number of memorable games a Spurs fan can reminisce about: Game Seven, 1979. Eastern Conference Playoffs – Spurs 111, Sixers 108. The first-ever NBA playoff series win in Spurs’ history. Game Two, Western Conference Finals – Spurs 122, Lakers 113. Spurs get the elusive road split at the Great Western Forum against the Showtime Lakers. (Alas, they lost three of the next four, but this was to be the Spurs’ closest look at a championship for twelve years) We cannot forget an inspired comeback in Portland in Game One of the 1993 Playoffs. And there was David Robinson hanging 40/21 on the overmatched Phoenix Suns in the first round of the 1996 Playoffs. Who could forget Tim Duncan’s sensational low-post display against the Phoenix Suns in his first-ever playoff series in the 1998 first round? These were all special moments, and there have been many, many more since the advent of the Spurs’ Championship Era. 110-82. Steves Kerr and Jackson raining threes on the Mavericks to return to the Finals. Timmy’s Near-Quad and The Admiral’s Final Voyage. Robert Horry’s Father’s Day Trey. Bruce Bowen’s ENORMOUS three in Game Five at Phoenix. The Game Seven win in New Orleans. Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal saving the season, if only temporarily, just one year ago. I had to skip over other such moments for space considerations.

But I always come back to that one game. You know, when a sporting competition attains instant classic status, it gets tagged with a mnemonic which very briefly summarizes the events of the contest at great cost to all of the amazing little details which made it a classic in the first place. You can probably identify most/all of the following just by their names: The Drive. Wide Right. 0.4. Miracle on Ice. Mano de Dios. The Duel at Turnberry. Rumble in the Jungle.

The Memorial Day Miracle is like that.

SPURS HISTORY AS IT WAS

Let me begin by clearing up a long-held misconception, one that has a tenacious grip on the human psyche. Hindsight is 20/20, it is said and widely believed. This is not the case. In reality, hindsight is a propaganda tool designed to trick people into believing that the events of history were inevitable, that no force on Heaven or Earth could sway Destiny from making her appointed rounds. Well, with "benefit" of hindsight, what do we see when we look back on 1999 from the year 2012? The Memorial Day Miracle was one of fifteen playoff victories that year by our Spurs, and four seasons later, four players from that squad and coach Popovich would return to win a second title. In between championships, the Spurs won 53, 58, and 58 games. The 2003 squad added rookie sensation Manu Ginobili to the core group of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Bruce Bowen – and that foursome would go on to win two more titles and contend year after year. Sure, the Memorial Day Miracle was special, but winning playoff games was just destiny for the coach-player tandem of Pop and Timmy. This particular playoff game was just rather unusual in its route to victory.

Of course that’s all true in 2012. But let’s turn back the clock a bit – what was infallible hindsight telling us about Spurs’ history back on May 30th, 1999? After sweeping the Lakers in round two, the Spurs advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the fourth time in 23 NBA seasons, their second trip in five seasons. After that Laker sweep, this was only the second time the Spurs had won two rounds in a single playoff. And what had they accomplished so far? They lost game two – at home – to the #8 seeded Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round. In sweeping the Lakers, they defeated a team with all kinds of issues: head coach Del Harris had been fired in mid-season, Dennis Rodman was brought in for twenty-three games, (There’s a stabilizing force, right?) the Lakers stumbled and limped down the stretch and needed four games to defeat a rather aged, lackluster, eminently sweepable Houston Rockets club. Sweeping that particular Lakers team probably said more about the Lakers than it did the Spurs. Yes, the Spurs earned the #1 seed in 1999, but where did that get them in 1995? Recall that after two rounds, the 1999 Spurs were 7-1; the 1995 Spurs were 7-2. Not much difference there.

Keeping our "May 30th Hindsight" goggles on: in 1978, the Spurs were eight games better than the Washington Bullets and had the third-best record in basketball. Didn’t matter - the Spurs lost to the 44-38 Bullets in six games. 1979 was even worse: Despite going up 3-1 in the ECF, the Spurs lost to the Bullets again. To this day, the 3-1 series comeback is exceedingly rare – it’s only occurred eight times – but in 1979, the Bullets win over the Spurs was only the third such occurrence. And things would not improve. In 1981, the Spurs won their division for the third time in five seasons. Since entering the NBA, no other team had won three division titles; but the Spurs were left out in the cold yet again, losing in seven games to the 40-42 Houston Rockets. Well, there’s no way the Spurs could win the division by more than ten games over the Houston Rockets but lose to them in the playoffs again, right?

The essence of Spurs’ playoff underachievement wasn’t only that the Spurs ended up on the wrong side of history in 1979, losing after going up three games to one, or that a team with a losing record won game seven at the HemisFair en route to the NBA Finals – it was also that the Spurs needed every advantage just to have a chance to win. Before 1999:

  • The Spurs series W-L record was not good with homecourt advantage – six wins, seven losses – but without it, the Spurs were an atrocious 3-11
  • When trailing in a series, even by a single game, the Spurs were unable to win even one series (0-14)
  • Leading a series didn’t mean automatic success for the pre-1999 Spurs either (9-4)

And so it occurred that on May 30th, 1999, the Spurs had a 1-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals over the Portland Trail Blazers. Through five games (four regular season, one playoff), the Spurs had beaten Portland by a combined ten points, eight of which came in an overtime home win. These Blazers, fresh off eliminating the two-time defending Western Conference Champion Utah Jazz, were deep and versatile. Going into game two there was no reason to expect the Spurs to sweep the Portland Trail Blazers from the 1999 Western Conference Finals.

SEAN ELLIOTT

Sean Elliott was, in the eyes of some basketball fans (Spurs fans or otherwise), seen as a bit of a draft bust. He was taken third in the 1989 NBA Draft after Pervis Ellison and Danny Ferry. Ellison had a couple of good seasons, but Ferry didn’t really justify his selection. From that standpoint, Elliott looks like a good draft pick. On the other hand, Glen Rice, Tim Hardaway, and Shawn Kemp were available when the Spurs grabbed Elliott. Vlade Divac, born on the exact same day as Elliott, was also available – but the Spurs already had David Robinson and everyone knows you can’t play two seven footers at the same time and have success. Visually, Sean Elliott made a good impression. He had quick feet, great lateral movement on defense. Offensively, Elliott had a smooth shooting stroke, he handled the ball well at 6’8", and he was a capable, willing passer. He could definitely elevate, too. The question that plagued many Spurs fans throughout the 1990s was: Why won’t this guy take the $!@#& game over? Was it a fair criticism? Hard to say. Sean Elliott was a rookie for Larry Brown, and Brown was notoriously hard on his rookies. Brown may have impressed upon the young Elliott to think twice or three times or four times before shooting the ball or making a move. Larry Brown or no, it’s hard to believe a guy with Elliott’s shooting chops could only attempt 155 threes in his first three seasons. To put this in perspective, Elliott’s frontcourt mate Terry Cummings, a player somewhat similar to Carlos Boozer today, attempted 102 three pointers in those same three years. Sean Elliott seemed to have the game to beat any defender in basketball, but he was, for many years, perhaps too unselfish. Going into the 1999 playoffs, Sean Elliott had made his mark on Spurs’ playoff lore as it was then: in his rookie season of 1990, the Spurs trailed late in overtime of game seven at Portland during the second round of the playoffs when Rod Strickland decided to make something happen. On the move down the right side of the lane, Strickland fired a blind pass down to the baseline where he presumably expected to find a cutting Elliott. Unfortunately, Elliott had kept to his spot behind the three point line in the corner. The errant pass was undoubtedly the fault of the point guard Strickland, but some Spurs fans in my family insisted that Elliott’s hesitancy contributed to that turnover. (I’m certain there were other Spurs fans who felt the same way) And in game one of the 1995 Western Conference Finals, the career 80+% free throw shooter missed two big ones down the stretch to help lose game one to the hated Houston Rockets.

I hate to jump ahead while discussing the MDM, but one of my favorite "ships in the night" stories ties in here. We all remember that Sean Elliott was traded to Detroit for Dennis Rodman (and returned in a trade one year later), but perhaps some of us aren’t aware that while playing for Detroit, Elliott was nearly traded back to Texas. Houston, not San Antonio. The trade fell through because Sean Elliott failed a physical due to kidney trouble. Who would have been sent to Detroit for Elliott? This guy. Ships pass in the night.

Playing for the Spurs, Elliott’s kidney trouble would return, worse than before. But in that 1999 season, Sean Elliott kept that information to himself. This Spurs team was championship caliber, and Elliott was not going to miss out on a chance to help the Spurs win their first ever title. The question was, could he? Could that same player with the tentative reputation, the guy who missed the free throws in 1995, be counted on in a big spot?

GAME TWO, 1999 WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

Portland 84, San Antonio 78
4th Quarter, 1:06 remaining

You want big shots? In spots like these, every shot is big. Following a Spurs time-out, Sean Elliott connected on his fifth three-pointer of the game. His 17th, 18th, and 19th point cut the Portland lead in half with 57 seconds left in the game. The league’s best defense then got a stop, and Mario Elie was fouled with 33 seconds left. He connected on both, cutting the Portland lead to one. But when the Spurs got another stop, they somehow failed to secure the rebound. The Spurs were forced to foul, and with 12.6 seconds left they sent Blazers point guard Damon Stoudamire to the free throw line.

DAMON STOUDAMIRE

Karma will find you. If take only one thing away from this piece, make sure it is this. Because it will. When running the point for the Toronto Raptors, Stoudamire was interviewed in 1997 and, bizarrely, opined that a team with Avery Johnson running the point would never win the NBA title. To this day, I don’t know what got into Stoudamire. I don’t recall any incidents between the two players. Such unprovoked verbal jabs are not unheard of in the NBA, but there’s a sort of protocol to them. You may only take shots at top teams and elite players. Chuck Person, in his Pacer years, once said "Karl Malone is not a man…you can back him down". Shaquille O’Neal famously declared "We don’t fear the Sacramento Queens". That is how it’s done. Elite player (Malone), top team (the Webber-Bibby Sacramento Kings). Stoudamire cracking on Avery Johnson then is a little like Mike Conley slamming the point guard play of Ramon Sessions now – no one is expecting Sessions to lead anyone to a championship, and in the 1990s, Avery Johnson was not expected to do the leading. That task fell to David Robinson, Sean Elliott, and (later) Tim Duncan. No matter what his reasoning, Stoudamire surely couldn't have imagined a scenario wherein his team was playing Avery Johnson's team for the right to go to the NBA Finals.

Karma will find you. Having busted on the Little General two years earlier, Stoudamire was now in a position to extend the Blazer lead to three at the free throw line in front of Avery Johnson’s home fans. Of course he only made one, the first one. The Spurs grabbed the rebound and called time with twelve seconds left. (In a related element of this story, I don’t know what to make of the fact that both Sean Elliott and Damon Stoudamire played for Lute Olson at Arizona.)

Ships pass in the night: in overtime of game five of the 2005 NBA Finals, on the Spurs’ final offensive play, when Manu Ginobili was trapped in the corner, he passed out to a wide-open Robert Horry. Look who should have been contesting Horry's three.

With all of that in mind, watch this highlight of the greatest shot in Spurs’ history.

And that was that. Down eighteen, with a tough opponent in their building, with numerous playoff failures in their past, the twelve men charged with changing Spurs history pounded on that rock like never before. And Sean Elliott’s final blow wasn’t just the one to finish off the Portland Trail Blazers. It was the symbol of a new era In Spurs history. An era that would see stability on the bench and in the front office. An era that would see playoff humiliation avenged swiftly. An era wherein trailing a playoff series didn’t mean instant defeat, where winning game seven on the road was possible. The Spurs have won in the NBA since their first steps in 1976, but consistent excellence was always out of reach. Ever since that thrilling comeback and immortal shot on Memorial Day, 1999, consistent excellence in the NBA is now synonymous with the San Antonio Spurs.

EPILOGUE

You tell me what this means. NFL rookie sensation Randy Moss was in attendance for game one of the 1999 NBA Finals, and his presence was acknowledged by the public address during a first quarter timeout. What also took place during a timeout (perhaps the same timeout – my memory is a little hazy on this) was one of the sponsors "recreating" the Memorial Day Miracle shot. A fan was selected to take the shot from the same spot Elliott took his. Although the fan didn’t have to turn on his tiptoes and shoot over a seven-footer, he made the shot with Moss seated nearby. Anyway, in Moss’ rookie season, his Vikings were on the cusp of winning the 1999 NFC Championship game, but their kicker, one who hadn’t missed a single kick of any kind all year long, missed a relatively easy field goal which would have put the Vikings in the Super Bowl. In overtime, Moss was denied a deep downfield reception when Ray Buchanan made a superb play to deflect the ball away, and the Atlanta Falcons would go on to win. Nine seasons later, Moss’ New England Patriots were attempting to finish the first-ever 19-0 season in NFL history, but after a remarkable how’d-he-get-outta-THAT scramble by Eli Manning, the New York Giants’ David Tyree made this remarkable catch on New York’s Super Bowl winning drive. I don't know what to make of it, but my pet theory is that the play that day in the Alamodome that changed everything had something to do with it…

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