We Are the Champions – June 24th, 1999. I’d been dreaming about this night, this game, this moment for a little over nine years. To be precise, I’d been dreaming about it ever since renewing my love for the game of basketball after returning to Texas from England as a eleven-year-old in January 1990. Let me explain. While living in England in 1989 (because my dad – a college professor – was teaching abroad), I had naturally gravitated away from basketball – my first love – to soccer – my other sport – because well, you know, “when in Rome.” In fact, I was so into soccer after moving back home to Texas, that when youth league basketball tryouts started a few weeks after we got back, I had no interest in trying out because I wanted to focus on soccer. My dad (who doubled as my soccer coach) had to convince me to return to my first love and tryout for basketball. I did, had a fantastic 5th grade season in my youth league, and once restored to its original place in my heart, basketball has been my unwavering favorite sport ever since. During the very same season that I was rekindling my love affair with basketball playing in my youth league in Georgetown – just north of Austin, David Robinson was playing his rookie season for the Spurs 120 miles south of me in San Antonio. Full disclosure, during the 1980s as a young tike, I was a fan of Larry Bird and Boston during the period of time that all basketball-loving Americans had to choose sides between Bird’s Celtics and Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. But after returning to Texas and basketball from England and soccer, I fell hard for this electrifying rookie nicknamed the Admiral and the team in closest proximity to my home and since the first time I ever witnessed Robinson block a shot on one end and then sprint down the court like a gazelle past his defender to receive and hammer home a physics-defying alley oop dunk, I have been the biggest die-hard San Antonio Spurs fan on planet Earth. (Being the biggest Spurs fan in the world is a title I’m proud to have held with distinction since 1990 and for those of you who are skeptical and think that your own Spurs fandom might rival or exceed mine you are welcome to look here to verify that you are in fact mistaken and that my claim to the title is more than secure, it’s a verifiable fact.). So yeah, after eight well-chronicled and brutally painful Robinson-led Spurs defeats in the Western Conference playoffs (as well as the infamous 1996-97 lottery year that landed us Tim Duncan), June 24th, 1999 was a surreal occurrence, a point in time that I’d been dreaming about daily since January 1990.
There was just one small problem. June 24th, 1999 also just so happened to be the night of my older brother’s bachelor party and – as the universe we exist in is never short on irony – I was the best man. How could this be? How could an event I had been dreaming about for almost a decade be taking place on the same night as one of those rare social obligations where there is absolutely no wiggle room for giving anything less than your undivided attention? Yes, the bachelor party was taking place at a gentlemen’s establishment and yes, the gentlemen’s establishment was going to be showing the television broadcast of the game on their TVs but this simply further complicated my predicament. Casually following along to the game while staying fully engaged in the debauchery…I mean…festivities that I was presiding over in my role as best man was not an option for me. After all, I’m the biggest Spurs fan in the world (remember?) and my team is playing in the NBA Finals at Madison Square Garden up three games to one with a chance to win a championship. Following along casually was not an option. Any diehard sports fan understands this. In a game of this magnitude being played by a team that you love, the ONLY option is to give that game your undivided attention. Keep in mind, this life-altering game was taking place in 1999 not 2019 – there was no such thing as DVRs or watching sporting events “on demand” back then. Suffice it to say, I was in a pretty tough spot. You might be wondering, “Why didn’t you plan to record the game on a VCR (hey kids, VCR stands for video cassette recorder…it was a thing back then) and ignore the game at the gentlemen’s establishment so that you could watch the tape after and give it your undivided attention?” Well, heading into the bachelor party that was certainly my plan but as you can probably imagine, things did not go according to plan. More on that later. For now since this is a 20th anniversary retrospective post, after all, and since I did watch the game in it’s entirety later that night after concluding my duties as best man and have since watched the game in its entirety at least a dozen times over the years on VCR, followed by DVD, and most recently, digitally on YouTube, let’s turn our attention to the events as they unfolded in Madison Square Garden – 1700 miles away from where I was simultaneously hosting my brother’s bachelor party in Austin – on this date twenty years ago.
The scene was set. The Knick home crowd at Madison Square Garden was going crazy. Each time I’ve watched the game, I’ve focused on watching the facial expression of David Robinson and Tim Duncan as they were taking the court for the opening tip. Both displayed a frenetic nervous-excited energy in their expression but balanced that with a calm, confidence deep in their eyes. Jump ball, Game 5, Spurs won the tip and history was set in motion. Both teams traded two empty possessions each before Sean Elliott opened the scoring with two made free throws. Ironically, these two free throws were the only points Sean Elliott scored the entire night. After, two more empty possessions (one each way), Allan Houston tied the game on a floating fader. From there, the Knicks got out to a 6-4 lead but also racked up a bunch of quick, cheap fouls culminating in David Robinson getting the benefit of the doubt on a Charlie Ward block-charge call to earn a dunk and three point play which gave the Spurs a 7-6 lead five minutes in. With such a low score almost halfway through the first period, it was clear that both teams came out a little tight. Shooting was clearly an issue early. The Spurs started 2-11 from the field which, despite our opportunities, allowed New York to swing back into the lead at 9-7 with Latrell Spreewell making 3-4 on foul shots after the Robinson three-point play. Both teams started to loosen up a little and find a rhythm at that point but the Knicks increased their advantage to 15-11 on a 6-4 run. New York got two Larry Johnson post scores and a Kurt Thomas jumper during this stretch but the good news for the Spurs was that Tim Duncan countered with two midrange shots (one a patented banker). Down four, Gregg Popovich called timeout with 3:13 left in the 1st. The Spurs sputtered momentarily coming out of the timeout but after going down six, Jaren Jackson followed two Tim Duncan free throws with a huge 3-pointer to cut the lead to one with 46 seconds left in the first, 21-20. Unfortunately, a Charlie Ward lay-up closed out the 1st quarter scoring giving the Knicks a 23-20 lead after one.
Two minutes into the second quarter, it was clear that second-year phenom Tim Duncan was ready to put the team on his back in order to keep the Spurs within striking distance in the most hostile of hostile environments. Timmy’s stat line was up to 10 points and five rebounds a mere 14 minutes into the game. While Duncan’s dominant play accomplished the goal of offsetting a deadly New York run, the Knicks were still able to methodically increase their lead to eight, 30-22, four minutes and 30 seconds into the 2nd quarter by cobbling together a 7-0 run. The Spurs punched right back going on an 8-4 run of our own (Timmy four points, Robinson two points, and Mario Ellie two free throws) to cut the New York lead to 34-30 with 3:47 left in second. The momentum stayed with San Antonio the rest of the half as the team started showing signs of the dominance that had propelled us to a 14-2 playoff record. We closed out the half on a emphatic 10-4 run that included a Tim Duncan lay-up, an Avery Johnson jumper, a David jump hook and free throw, and finally Jaren Jackson’s huge second three pointer of the half which gave the Spurs their first lead since the first quarter 40-38 heading into the locker room.
The “Remember the Alamo” Twin Tower-led Spurs ratcheted up the defense to start the second half. At the beginning of the third quarter we put together a defensive spurt that included two steals, a Duncan-Robinson block of Latrell Spreewell at the rim, and another Robinson contest at the rim that led to a transition lay-up for Jaren Jackson to increase the lead to 42-38 two minutes into the third. The excitement back home in Texas started building after the Spurs got another stop that led to Jaren Jackson draining his third three of the game. All of the sudden San Antonio had 45-38 lead thanks in large part to Jaren Jackson’s 11 huge points. It didn’t stop there. After Mario Ellie got fouled on a transition lay up and made two free throws, all told, the Spurs had enjoyed a 25-8 run to take a nine point lead. As expected, the Knicks were not going to allow their season to slip away without a fight. New York went on a quick 5-0 run to cut the Spurs lead to four and had the ball with momentum in a pivotal moment when Latrell Spreewell swung the rock cross court to Allan Houston for an open three (which he drained) but unfortunately for the Knicks, Houston stepped out of bounds before his shot. This was a lucky break for the Spurs in a tight game and a reminder that basketball is a game of inches, if not millimeters. Despite the setback, the Knicks kept coming at us. After the Spurs got two empty trips to the Knicks one, Spreewell elevated for a massive dunk over Jaren Jackson and got fouled. He drained the free throw to cut the lead to one, 47-46 with five minutes and 30 seconds left in the third quarter. Knicks were now on an 8-0 run and Madison Square Garden was going bananas. It should be noted that Spurs point guard Avery Johnson committed his fifth turnover of the game to setup the Spreewell dunk. The floodgates continued as the Spurs missed and then Spreewell hit a baseline jumper to give the Knicks back the lead. The New York lead was now 10-0. Pandemonium in the Garden.
Lucky for us, we had a counter up our sleeves in the form of a two-time champion starting shooting guard (Houston Rockets, 1994 & 1995) who was clearly unfazed by the moment having been there so many times before. Mario Ellie displayed some of his Clutch City swagger on the ensuing possession, draining a three to immediately swing the lead back to the Spurs. While Ellie’s dagger temporarily silenced the crowd, the Knicks came right back with another pure Spreewell jumper. The “is the moment too big for Avery Johnson?” question reared its ugly head once again as Avery committed his 6th turnover on the next possession and Charlie Ward turned it into a transition lay-up to regain the lead. Knicks were back up two, 52-50 with three minutes and 30 seconds left in the third quarter. At this point, the game was ground to a sudden, unexpected halt due to technical difficulties. The issue was the Spurs’ basket’s shot clock stopped working. After several minutes of officials huddling, the referee’s solution was to put a shot clock on the baseline of the Spurs side since, while on offense, the Spurs weren’t going to be able to look up over the basket to check the clock. But since NBA players are trained to look for the shot clock over the basket, the decision by the referees put the Spurs at a huge disadvantage since our players would have to now unnaturally look on the baseline for it instead. Coach Pop asked the refs to also turn the shot clock over the Knick’s basket off to make it fair and eliminate the possibility that the referees were giving New York a competitive advantage.
After further delay, Popovich lost a ridiculous decision by the refs who ultimately ruled to allow the Knicks to continue to use their over the basket shot clock while the Spurs were being forced to use the back up shot clock on the baseline floor. After all of the negotiation and delay, the Spurs had an empty trip before Allan Houston canned a jumper and increased the Knick’s lead to four, 54-50. Unfazed, Tim Duncan came right back by drawing a foul and then draining a turn around bank shot. He also made the free throw to complete a three-point play. A mono y mono theme had begun to emerge as Spreewell broke the Spurs off with another baseline jumper on the Knick’s next possession. Down three, a still unfazed Tim Duncan just put his hard hat on and scored the next four points with another patented angle bank shot and then two free throws giving the Spurs the lead back by one. Sprewell, clearly the Knicks go-to player at this point in the game, also showed no signs of slowing down. He hit another 10-foot fade away jumper. San Antonio responded and worked it back to a one point lead with Malik Rose and Timmy both splitting a pair of free throws each to close the third quarter. After three, the Spurs were clinging to a 59-58 lead.
The referees finally evened the playing field for the fourth quarter by turning off the Knick’s basket clock and having both teams use a shot clock on the baseline floor. After the teams traded empty possessions to start the fourth, Timmy hit a world class ridiculous fading bank shot jumper to open fourth quarter scoring. Not ready to let the Knick’s season end, Spreewell came right back with quick 5-0 run on a lay-up and then a three-point play (getting fouled on a jumper and then making the free throw) that gave New York the lead back by two. At this point, there’s no other way to put it: Tim Duncan and Latrell Spreewell were officially dueling with 26 points each. On cue, Timmy spun in an “anything you can do, I can do better” baseline jump hook to re-tie the game at 63 a piece. After watching the Spurs’ power forward regain the upper hand in the Spreewell duel, 28-26, the New York Knickerbockers called timeout.
NBC, the network that had the broadcast rights to the NBA Finals in the late 1990s, came back from this particular commercial break to what would later, for people re-watching the telecast, prove to be and eery visual. Obviously, the game was played at Madison Square Garden in New York and just as obviously, the Spurs featured a pair of seven foot all-stars nicknamed the Twin Towers. Those two things being obvious, it was a no brainer that at some point during the broadcast, NBC would come back from commercial with an areal shot of the actual Twin Towers standing tall above the Manhattan sky line. Perfectly sensible at the time, but in retrospect, this shot has proven to be quite solemn and a little spooky knowing this was a mere 15 months before 9/11. I just wanted to acknowledge that and the victims before moving ahead with my recap of the game.
Heading into the timeout, if you remember, Tim Duncan had a 28-26 lead in his personal duel with Latrell Spreewell. Well, on the ensuing possession after the timeout, Spreewell said “not so fast,” when he canned a three pointer to take the scoring lead right back from Duncan, 29-28, and, more importantly giving his Knicks the overall lead back, 66-63. If you haven’t caught on to our mini-theme, I guess it will be a spoiler to tell you that on the next possession, Timmy worked the Knick’s in the post swinging back the lead in the duel, 30-29, and cutting the Spurs’ overall deficit back to a single point. What happened next? You guessed it. Sprewell came right back with a turn around jumper. 31-30 in the duel, 68-65 Knicks on the score board. Bob Costas and Doug Collins, NBC’s broadcasters for the game, shrewdly invoked the duel between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkens in th 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Given the back and fourth between Duncan and Spreewell, this was a nice comparison, the major difference being, however, Duncan and Spreewell weren’t matched up regularly guarding each other as Bird and Wilkens were in 1988. So, sure, was the comparison less than perfect? Yes, but to witness two players carrying their teams while going mono y mono in Game Five of the NBA Finals was, nonetheless, an incredible sight to behold.
On the next possession, the mono y mono duel was momentarily tempered when one of the other eight players on the court took it upon himself to forge the audacity to attempt a shot. That player was Spurs point guard, Avery Johnson. He connected on a lay up putting San Antonio back within one. After the Knicks advanced back to their end, David Robinson stole the ball and got to the line, making the first of two and tying the game at 68. The Admiral missed the second and Sean Elliott got the offensive rebound but the Spurs small forward missed the put back attempt and the Knicks regained possession. Back down the court, the Spurs were hit with a second illegal defense (and a technical foul) but Houston missed the free throw. After inbounding again after the miss at the line, Sprewell passed out of a double team and found a cutting Camby for a bucket and an “and 1.” Knicks had regained the lead by three.
The two teams then traded empty possessions triggering a timeout. After the break, David Robinson got fouled rebounding a Jaren Jackson miss. He made both and once again cut the Spurs’ deficit to one point. Back down the court after Robinson’s free throws, Marcus Camby once again dunked, this time on a set up from Larry Johnson. The Admiral came right back with the and 1 but missed the free throw. Still a one point game, 73-72 Knicks. Some great defense by Mario Ellie on Sprewell during the next possession forced him to pass out to a desperation Larry Johnson three that missed. On the other end, Ellie couldn’t capitalize on his defensive effort, missing a fade-away jumper. Spreewell marched right back down, rose up and canned another jumper over Elliott. 75-72 Knicks. (33-30 Spree over Timmy in the personal duel.) On the next possession, Mario Ellie was ready to shoot and redeem himself for the poor shot selection on last time down. Out of the double of Timmy, Clutch City came through again as Mario Ellie drained the straightaway three. Tie ball game! The Texas night electric in anticipation.
Back on the other end of the court, Timmy got cross matched on Spree (the mono y mono match up we wanted) but unfortunately Timmy fouled. Spreewell made both increasing his advantage in the one-on-one dual to 35-30. More importantly, his two free throws put the Knicks back on top on the scoreboard by 2. After the next offensive possession sputtered, Timmy attempted a desperation 3 that was way off but luckily the Spurs secured the offensive rebound and worked it back to Timmy in the post where he is fouled by Larry Johnson. Timmy made one of two, cutting the dual deficit back down to four (35-31) and the team deficit on the scoreboard back down to one.
The next possession proved NBC’s earlier cutaway to the Twin Towers clairvoyant in that Timmy and Big Dave combine to make the first in a series of clutch defensive plays. Robinson and Duncan blocked Sprewell at the rim causing the ball to get pinned for a jump ball. NY won the tap and the Knick’s called timeout with 2:05 remaining and New York clinging to a one point lead. After the break, Duncan once again found himself cross- matched on his mono y mono rival Latrell but this time Timmy forced Spreewell to pass out to Charlie Ward for a desperation three that didn’t hit the rim. The second year Spurs superstar once again demonstrated his all world defensive talent to force a shot clock violation and also prompting one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language…Spurs ball!
Unfortunately the good guys were unable to capitalize on the ending critical possession as Robinson missed a jump hook. The Knicks rebounded the miss with 1:26 remaining. If this game, this first-ever Championship was going to be won, it was going to be won at the defensive end of the court. New York orchestrated a clever play to get Avery pinned by their hot hadn’t, Sprewell in the post. Timmy doubled to force Sprewell to pass out for a wide open Larry Johnson three. Fortunately, though, Grandmama missed and Ellie rebounded to give San Antonio another chance to take the lead.
As any credentialed Spurs fan knows, what came next is not only history but probably the most iconic Spurs moment for all-time: Timmy, doubled in the post, passed out to Sean Elliott. Sean pump faked and drove. Avery Johnson’s man, Chris Childs had moved out to guard Sean on the switch out of the double team so Timmy screened to hold off both Larry Johnson and Spreewell. Sean Elliott hits Avery in the corner and Avery rose up confidently to release a baseline jumper. Spoiler alert: the Little General, the point guard Damon Stoudamire had infamously declared would never lead a team to an NBA Championship, drained the biggest shot in franchise history. Spurs lead! Spurs lead! 78-77. All of the eyes of Texas are emphatically fixated on Madison Square Garden.
The Spurs were still exactly 47 seconds away from heaven at this point and the victory was far from secured. After a timeout, Sprewell, still leading the mono y mono duel with Timmy 35-31 decided to go into full hero ball mode but missed a fade-away jumper over Elliott. Avery skied in for the rebound putting us one possession closer to euphoria with 27 seconds left. SPURS BALL!!!
Needing to both nurse the clock and get a quality shot to extend the lead and provide us with some breathing room, we worked the ball into David. He elevated and missed badly but he missed so badly that the ball didn’t hit the rim. Somehow Robinson got his own rebound. With the shot clock ticking down, Big Dave fired the ball back out to Elliott who swung it over to Avery. Johnson had no choice but to chunk up a desperation 28 footer to beat the shot clock. The Knicks rebounded the miss and called timeout. While to objective of padding the lead had failed miserably, the objective of milking the clock had been accomplished. The Knicks had only 2.1 seconds left to score and send the series to Game 6. If they failed, Madison Square Garden was about to be generously hosting a party for some out-of -town guests.
I wonder who would be getting the ball? Charlie Ward, the Heisman winning college football quarterback at Florida State, was chosen to inbound just passed midcoast on the New York side. The accomplished Quarterback fired a go route pass to Sprewell streaking towards the basket. Sprewell caught the ball in stride, pump faked and then realized the he was under the basket with Sean on him. He spun out baseline to the other side of the rim only to be met by the four outstretched arms of the Twin Towers of Duncan and Robinson. The intimidating defensive tandem had one more shot to intimidate. Latrell Spreewell rose up and shot a floater over the tree of arm but wasn’t able to get enough on the shot to get it over them and on a trajectory to fall back to earth over the basket. Air all. IT’S ALL OVER! SPURS WIN! SPURS WIN! SPRUS WIN THEIR FIRST EVER NBA CHAMPIONSHIP!!!!
Back in Austin at the gentlemen’s establishment, performing my duties as Best Man at my brother’s bachelor party had inevitably taken a back seat on my priority list somewhere around the two minute mark in the fourth quarter. My Uncle Bob, who is also a huge Spurs fan and had taken me to my first ever Spurs game against Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in the late 80’s prior to my family’s move to London, and I had gravitated to the bar area at the gentlemen’s establishment to watch our team try to seal its first championship on the television screen overlooking the bar–the foolish notion of thinking I could avoid the score in order to watch my VHS recording of the game in its entirety at home later that night scrapped as soon as I accidentally discovered we were SO CLOSE to REALIZING THIS DREAM down the stretch. I remember us standing there at the bar completely locked in and hanging on every possession with destiny almost within our grasp. When Avery Johnson hit the go-ahead baseline jumper, Uncle Bob and I exploded in excitement and celebration causing such a ruckus that more of our party joined us at the bar to watch the final minute. As you can imagine, when Latrell Spreewell’s final shot went up high in the air to avoid the four extended massive arms of the Twin Towers it felt like an eternity before it dropped short and pandemonium ensued, Uncle Bob and I hugging and celebrating with others from my brother’s bachelor party. It felt unreal. It felt amazing. THE SAN ANTONIO SPURS WERE WORLD CHAMPIONS. I don’t remember much about the rest of the bachelor party. Most of the details from my brother’s wedding the next day are pretty fuzzy 20 years later. But the moment my favorite team won its first ever NBA title is constantly with me. In this regard, a moment of pure joy makes me believe that time is merely an allusion. The moment the San Antonio Spurs won the 1999 NBA Championship was then, is now, and will always be.
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