It was so close, they could see it, touch it, smell it, taste it. It was so real, they could hold it in the palms of their hands.
It hurt so much, they can close their eyes and still remember the searing pain as it ripped through their insides like a hot knife in the gut, and it still leaves some of them doubled over today.
One night, one game, one simple shot that changed a franchise and maybe the face of professional basketball in the 1990s and beyond.
Four times, he missed.
Down through the years, the world of basketball has been populated by so many players with rhyming nicknames, colorful handles that have rolled off the tongue and described the individual with the same ease. Wilt the Stilt, Earl the Pearl, Chet the Jet, Hakeem the Dream, Clyde the Glide.
Nick the Brick.
“What can you do?” he asked in a conversation with Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel just last week. “I can’t change what people think or how they feel. I’m always going to be associated with those four free throws.”
While the lob pass from Hedo Turkoglu(notes) left the Staples Center crowd and a national TV audience swallowing its collective tongues for how wide open he was, Lee’s shot – leaning, spinning off the glass as he sailed beyond the backboard – there was a degree of difficulty involved.
All Anderson had to do was sling the ball through the hoop from 15 feet away, unimpeded, and you’d have thought they were asking him to drive a tractor through the eye of a needle.
Clink! Clank! Clunk! Crash!
The sound of somebody tripping inside the factory where they manufacture stainless steel pots.
If Anderson makes just one of those shots, how much of the ensuing history of the NBA changes?
For starters, Kenny Smith’s double-pumping, off-balance, ducking-under-the-arm-of-the-defense 3-point rainbow does not cap off a 20-point comeback and pull the Rockets into a heart-stopping tie at the end of regulation. If Anderson rattles in just one of those shots, Hakeem Olajuwon’s buzzer-beating tap-in at the end of overtime does not allow the Rockets to dance off the floor in Orlando with another improbable victory on the road to their second straight NBA championship.
Though it rarely makes the lists of infamy, it can be argued that Nick the Brick’s four pas was the biggest choke job in sports history, a hairball large enough to gag a Bengal tiger.
The ball that went through Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series was moving off the bat of Mookie Wilson and may have hit a patch of bad grass on the Shea Stadium infield. When Scott Norwood pushed his field goal wide right in Super Bowl XXV, there were huge, angry New York Giants charging in his direction.
Nick the Brick tossed up four cinder blocks without a defender’s hand in his face. On his home court, before a supportive crowd.
“I still think about that game from time to time,” Magic power forward Horace Grant admitted 1½ years after the fact.
How could they not?
Going into the opener, the Orlando-Houston series was considered a toss-up by most observers long before the Rockets won in a sweep. But instead of a young Magic bunch taking a 1-0 lead on the defending champs and gaining confidence on their home floor, the challengers were never the same in the series.
What should have been – probably would have been – a long, hard-fought war, turned into the closest thing to surrender. Anderson’s confidence was shattered. The Magic vanished. The young team that had swaggered through the playoffs barely put up a fight the rest of the way.
“That game took something out of us,” Grant said. “We never got it back.”
Four shots that changed a series. Four bricks that turned the Orlando franchise on its head and maybe shifted the balance of power in the NBA.
With a championship under their belts, is it as likely the rift between O’Neal and coach Brian Hill would have grown so wide just one year later when the Magic were swept in the Eastern Conference finals by Chicago? Before Penny Hardaway’s body began to break down, wouldn’t Shaq, with a ring already on his finger, have been inclined to stay?
If Shaq doesn’t bolt so quickly to the West Coast, that means he’s not on hand for the arrival that same season of the 18-year-old Kobe Bryant(notes), and the world misses out on their Hollywood histrionics that produced three championships and many soap opera twists in their relationship. If he doesn’t flee and the Magic aren’t still searching for their first NBA Finals win, is Shaq spending his time nowadays jealously tweeting off insults toward Dwight Howard(notes) and Stan Van Gundy?
Anderson, who now works in the team’s community relations department, had been the Orlando expansion franchise’s first draft pick in 1989. He played for the Magic four more seasons, but was never whole again after that night.
“It affected the way I played,” he said. “It affected the way I lived. It played in my head like a recorder – over and over again.”
Courtney Lee surely knows the feeling to have his own personal DVR replaying inside his head. He’s been living with an agony for 24 hours that Anderson has carried for 14 years.
Just 15 feet away. Four free throws. Make one and it’s a whole different series. Maybe a whole different outcome. Maybe an entirely different NBA in the first decade of the 21st century.
“It’s there in the past, and you try not to dwell on it,” Grant said. “But in my mind, I can still see that night.”
And Nick Anderson standing at the line. How quickly things change.