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Peter Morgan/Associated Press
Ray Allen’s shot. LeBron James’ block. Klay Thompson’s Game 6 explosion.
The NBA has fully entered the internet age over the past decade, and a handful of plays, games, quotes and other moments stand the test of time as iconic basketball memories. But the league has existed for nearly 75 years and has always done an excellent job of memorializing its most exciting moments.
It’s easy for something to became topical in today’s world, but don’t believe that concept began in 2010. As long as the NBA has been around, its most legendary moments have been documented meticulously.
What are some of those most legendary moments from the pre-Twitter era? Here are 10 of them.
This article was inspired by Vince Carter’s jaw-dropping hurdle of Frederic Weis in the 2000 Olympics, but for our purposes, we’ll be sticking to NBA events.
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Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
The Moment: Too Slow, MJ
We wrote about this exact play several weeks ago, but it bears another mention.
Allen Iverson was not a spiritual successor to Michael Jordan, but his entrance into the league in 1996 felt significant for similar reasons. Iverson was arguably the best guard prospect since His Airness, and everything about his rookie season suggested he’d be one of the next great NBA players in due time.
This particular game was nothing special on paper. Jordan and Iverson had faced off twice already in the 1996-97 season, once at home and once on the road, and Chicago won both matchups. As a result, the hype for seeing the two guards clash had cooled slightly.
That is, until Jordan switched onto Iverson on one fateful possession.
Still an outstanding defender 12 years into his career, Jordan should have handled the precocious Iverson like he did so many other prolific guard scorers. The fact that Iverson not only scored on him, but also did so via a perfectly calibrated crossover, was perhaps the first sign that Jordan was not the forever king of basketball.
Chicago would win this game and the next two NBA championships, so it’s not like this moment sent Jordan into an existential tailspin. But for Sixers fans, it served as a reason to be excited about the next 10 years of the franchise, years that would include an NBA Finals appearance, an MVP award for Iverson and eight straight seasons where he scored over 25 points per game.
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John Swart/Associated Press
The Moment: 15 Seconds of Superiority
No, this is not just a list of people who bested Michael Jordan, though that could make sense given how rarely he was on the wrong side of a highlight. But considering Jordan’s dominance over the Knicks throughout his career, any big Knicks play made against him and the Bulls was that much more exciting.
This is especially true of John Starks’ emphatic finish against Jordan and Horace Grant.
To be fair, neither Grant nor Jordan was directly in Starks’ path, so this isn’t the most technically challenging finish. But its difficulty comes from context. This was Game 2 of the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, a close game with just 50 seconds to go, and the Knicks were on the precipice of a 2-0 series lead.
Students of NBA history would consider the Bulls likely to tie the series at 1-1 given they were on the verge of their first three-peat and boasted far more postseason experience than New York. Given all this, for Starks to complete the dunk, do it in such flashy fashion, and maintain home-court advantage against a longtime archrival in the process felt like sweet, sweet victory.
As we learned in The Last Dance, however, Jordan always found a way to triumph over the Knicks, and this would be the Knicks’ last victory in the series. But in the moment, with a two-game lead over Chicago, it all seemed possible for New York.
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Rocky Widner/Getty Images
The Moment: Knowing Sheepishness
It’s nearly impossible to fathom now, but heading into the 1992 NBA Finals, Clyde Drexler was widely considered an equal of Michael Jordan. The Glide had just completed his sixth straight season of averaging over 20 points per game, had made six career All-Star Games and led the Portland Trail Blazers to the Western Conference or NBA Finals in three consecutive years.
Pretty good resume, right?
Unfortunately for Drexler, somebody made Jordan aware of those comparisons, and the burgeoning rivalry was quickly over.
As was often the case with Jordan, he didn’t just thoroughly dominate Drexler—he did so while beating The Glide at his own game. Drexler had acquired a reputation as a decent shooter, making 33.7 percent of his threes in 1991-92 (seriously, that used to be good). Jordan, by comparison, shot just 27.0 percent from range that season.
However, in Game 1 of the 1992 Finals, Jordan temporarily became a deadeye shooter to make a devastating statement. He made six threes in the first half, punctuating the final make with a knowing shrug, and Chicago dismantled Portland by 33 points, going on to win the series in six games.
Drexler, on the other hand, was so flustered by Jordan that he showed up to a Dream Team scrimmage that summer wearing two left sneakers and refused to admit he had done so for fear of mockery. Such was Jordan’s complete mental hold on an otherwise excellent player.
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LUCY NICHOLSON/Getty Images
The Moment: Donaghy and Company Strike
Referees are criticized constantly by fans, even when calls are correct, so imagine the furor if Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals had occurred during Twitter’s heyday.
In one of the most competitive series in NBA history, six of the seven games between the Kings and Lakers were decided by seven or fewer points. However, Game 6 sticks out like a sore thumb in this regard.
The Lakers attempted 15 more free throws than the Kings in that game. While free-throw disparity isn’t proof of suspect officiating on its own, questionable decisions like calling a foul on Mike Bibby after he was elbowed by Kobe Bryant made people wonder. Sacramento coach Rick Adelman and players like Chris Webber and Vlade Divac criticized the game’s officiating, while former presidential candidate Ralph Nader called for an investigation into the referees’ decision-making.
Many conspiracy theories surrounding this game would be given legitimacy, as it became the centerpiece of allegations against disgraced referee Tim Donaghy when he was imprisoned in 2008 for betting on games. Whether or not you believe Donaghy’s argument that he was acting on behalf of the league, which purportedly wanted a Game 7, there’s still reason for the Kings and their fans to be furious.
In another, very reasonable scenario, they could have not only made the NBA Finals but also defeated the New Jersey Nets and claimed the first championship in franchise history.
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Ted Gartland/Associated Press
The Moment: Dr. J Had Enough
NBA fights grab the attention of fans, particularly when the participants play for rival clubs, and even more so when those rivals happen to be two of the most famous basketball players alive.
Neither Larry Bird nor Julius Erving was known as a hot-tempered player. Bird was cocky, and Dr. J was smooth as velvet. This made the two stars’ 1984 scuffle all the more surprising.
As both players ran down the court, Bird locked arms with Erving, and the Philly forward flailed backward and threw his counterpart to the ground. The benches then cleared as a massive fight between division rivals broke out. Ted Gartland took the above iconic photo for the Associated Press. Each star was fined $7,500.
Strangely, this skirmish took place during a low-stakes Celtics-Sixers matchup in early November, months away from a potential playoff series between the squads. Such was the intensity of this particular rivalry and rivalries in general at the time.
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Jim Cummins/Getty Images
The Moment: Earvin Becomes Magic
Apologies in advance to Pelicans fans, but let’s go on a journey.
Let’s say the Lakers win last year’s lottery and choose to keep Zion Williamson instead of trading him for Anthony Davis. Williamson dominates his rookie season alongside LeBron James, and the Lakers make the NBA Finals against the Bucks.
The Finals reach Game 6, and the Lakers lead the series 3-2. However, LeBron is sidelined with a leg injury for this critical game. Would you trust the rookie, great as he’s been all year long, to lead a fairly ordinary supporting cast against likely two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo?
The parallels are not exact, but that what-if traces the path of Magic Johnson’s first season. He made the All-Star team alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a rookie in 1979-80 and became one of the league’s best point guards, but he couldn’t escape questions when Abdul-Jabbar sprained his ankle in Game 5.
Could the rookie seal the title against Julius Erving, Darryl Dawkins and the Philadelphia 76ers?
Of course, Magic proved more than capable. He stepped into Kareem’s shoes at center and delivered a performance for the ages, tallying 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists and confirming hopes that he was en route to basketball immortality.
Magic’s greatness seems obvious in hindsight, but the Zion hypothetical, faulty as it may be, illustrates just how improbable and unprecedented the performance truly was.
We’ll likely never see anything like it again.
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The Moment: A Giant Uses Giant Language
It’s a risky gambit for an athlete to predict the outcome of a game or series. While Joe Namath is still celebrated over 50 years after backing up his boisterous words with a Super Bowl III victory, Trae Young was recently mocked after prematurely celebrating a victory.
So when Moses Malone proclaimed the Sixers would not only win the 1983 NBA championship, but do so without losing a postseason game, it seemed like he’d be setting himself up for failure. To this day, no team has gone undefeated in the playoffs, and Malone’s Sixers, with all due respect, never equaled the peaks of certain Lakers, Celtics, Bulls or Warriors squads.
Somehow, the big man was nearly correct.
Philly swept the Knicks, faltered just once against the Bucks in the conference finals and completed an easy sweep of the Lakers, winning four games by an average margin of 10 points. Malone backed up his words as well, averaging 26.0 points, 15.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.5 steals per game in the postseason and claiming the Finals MVP award.
Because he wasn’t particularly innovative and played for nine teams, Malone has become underrated. That is an unfortunate development. He was superior to successors like David Robinson and Patrick Ewing, not only because of a long track record of on-court excellence, but also because he had the talent to just about follow through on a ludicrous, history-making statement.
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Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
The Moment: Just When They Thought They Were Free…
Even before this moment, Reggie Miller had become the boogeyman for Knicks fans. He punctuated big shots by staring at the crowd and created a rivalry with celebrity Knicks fan Spike Lee, even shooting him the choke sign at one point.
But this was easily his most evil triumph over the orange and blue.
In Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Knicks led by six points with 18.7 seconds to go. Then, Reggie struck. First, he drained a three. Then he stole New York’s inbounds pass, stepped back several feet and hit another three.
The Knicks had a chance to put this game away after Sam Mitchell fouled John Starks. However, Starks inexplicably missed both free throws. Miller grabbed the rebound of the second miss and was fouled, and he delivered the coup de grace by making both free throws.
Before they even knew what hit them, the Knicks had gone from a close Game 1 victory to being behind the eight-ball and losing home-court advantage.
The cherry on top (or insult to injury, depending on who you ask) was yet to come. In Miller’s postgame interview, he said what many fans were thinking: “John Starks choked.”
While it’s refreshing to hear such honest reflections from a superstar, you have to feel for Knicks fans. The team lost the series in seven games and is still looking for its first title in nearly 50 years.
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The Moment: A True Shot of Adrenaline
Klay Thompson’s two free throws on a torn ACL in last year’s Finals gave Willis Reed a good run for his money, and Isiah Thomas’ 25-point quarter on a sprained ankle in the 1988 Finals is praise-worthy too. But the Knicks big man still owns the definitive gritting-through-injury moment in NBA history.
While it’s unfair that this instance often overshadows the totality of Reed’s Hall of Fame career in which he won an MVP award and made seven All-Star games, celebration of his toughness is definitely warranted.
Reed sat out Game 6 of the 1970 Finals, a game his Knicks lost by 22 points to the Lakers, because of a severe muscle tear in his thigh. With the serious nature of his injury, Reed was considered unlikely to play in Game 7, a bad break for the Knicks considering their opponent featured Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain.
But Reed surprised all of Madison Square Garden by walking onto the floor during warm-ups. He then proceeded to not only start but also to score New York’s first four points of the game and play 27 minutes.
Reed was clearly hampered by his injury, as he only recorded four points and three rebounds in the game. It didn’t matter.
His commitment to winning despite potentially serious health risks was an inspiration to the Knicks faithful and the rest of the team, who outlasted the Lakers 113-99 to claim the first trophy in franchise history.
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PAUL VATHIS/Associated Press
The lack of hard information on Wilt Chamberlain, his tendency to self-aggrandize both on and off the court (let’s leave it there) and eyewitness accounts of his utter domination of the competition combine to make him the NBA’s version of Paul Bunyan.
His 100-point game is perhaps the zenith of this mythmaking.
Because there’s no video, some believe this game never occurred despite the existence of a box score. Assuming the numerous people who’ve discussed watching Wilt score a Ben Franklin-load of points are not all conspiring against us and it did happen, it’s arguably even more impressive than it would be today.
The Stilt took a staggering 63 shots in the game, made 28 free throws and grabbed 25 rebounds in a regulation 169-147 victory over (who else) the New York Knicks. The three-point line was still 17 years away from being added to the NBA, so Chamberlain’s feat is that much more awe-inspiring.
Think about all the incredible scorers who’ve graced the NBA with their presence since Wilt’s heyday. None of them—from George Gervin to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to Kevin Durant and countless others—have gotten within 15 points of the century mark, even with a three-point line and numerous rule changes designed to make scoring easier.
Wilt’s achievement stands alone in NBA history and will likely continue to for a long time.