What If Nick Anderson Made One Of Those Free Throws? An Excerpt From Shea Serrano’s ‘Basketball (And Other Things)’

An attempt to answer an unanswerable but important question.
by October 04, 2017
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Writer Shea Serrano’s new book, Basketball (And Other Things), is a hilarious, informative group of passages that answers questions you never realized needed to be asked. Here’s an excerpt, in which Shea provides a fascinating hypothetical: What if Orlando Magic guard Nick Anderson drained just one of those four freebies at the end of Game 1 of the ’95 Finals? —Ed.

At the end of the 1995 NBA Finals, Jim Gray interviewed Nick Anderson, shooting guard for the Orlando Magic. The Magic had lost the series four games to no games to the Houston Rockets, who’d repeated as champions, and so Gray wanted to ask Anderson about that, but really he just wanted to ask him about the end of Game 1.

The championship series that year was mostly an unremarkable one, save for the first game, which remains an all-timer. The Magic, overwhelmingly talented [1] but still very young, [2] built up an early 20-point lead at home, only to give it all back later in the game. The fourth quarter was taut and perfect; no team had a lead larger than four points in the final six minutes. The Rockets’s Kenny Smith hit a very contested three with just under two seconds to go, which sent the game into overtime, and then Hakeem Olajuwon won it in overtime by tipping in an errant Clyde Drexler layup with 0.3 second left. All most anyone remembers from that game, though, is what happened right before Kenny Smith’s three.

The Magic had the ball and were up three with 55 seconds left in the game. After a bit of stalling, Penny Hardaway drove into the lane and missed a layup. Horace Grant grabbed the offensive rebound and dribbled it out so the Magic offense could reset itself (37 seconds left). The Magic ran down the clock a bit more, then Brian Shaw fired up a three-pointer. It missed. But Grant, banging around in the paint again, got just enough of his fingers on it to deflect the ball over to Penny (20 seconds left). Penny threw it out to Nick Anderson, and then Anderson and Brian Shaw and Penny played keep-away with the ball until the Rockets were able to foul Nick Anderson a few seconds later, sending him to the line (10.5 seconds left).

At that exact moment, the Magic had a game win probability of 98.5 percent. [3] Then all of the trees and birds and humans and animals in Orlando died.

Anderson short-armed his first free throw. It clanked off the front of the rim. The second free throw was even shorter, ricocheting back toward Anderson. After the ball was batted around some, Anderson managed to secure the rebound and was fouled again (7.9 seconds left). And at that exact moment, the Magic had an overall game win probability of 99.0 percent. “How can you expect to win an NBA Finals game if you . . .can’t get a rebound after a really tough player like Nick Anderson misses two free throws?” Bill Walton, a large set of teeth acting as a commentator for the game, asked exasperatedly.

Nick Anderson settled in to shoot his third free throw. This time it was too long, and when the camera zoomed in on his face after the miss he was fake-smiling to himself and everyone knew right then that not only was there no chance he was going to make that next free throw, but that we were all watching a potentially legacy-altering, history-shaping meltdown, and that’s exactly what happened. Anderson missed that fourth free throw, the Rockets (fucking finally) rebounded the ball, Kenny hit his three, Hakeem hit his game-winner, and the Magic never recovered. They lost the series, Shaq signed with L.A. 13 months later, Penny’s knees turned into bubble gum, and everything went dark. [4]

But so that’s why when Jim Gray was interviewing Nick Anderson after the Magic lost the series; [5] he wanted to ask him about those free throws. He said, “Would it have been a difference had you made one of those free throws back in Game 1?” And Nick, who, for my money, only ever handled the situation like a hero, stood right there and considered the notion and then said, “Yeah, maybe it would’ve. But, uh, yeah, I can’t think about that. That’s in the past. Can’t change what happened.” [6]

Here’s the thing of it, though: We can change what happened. At least, we can change it here anyway. So let’s do that. What happens—how are things different—if Nick Anderson makes those free throws? How is the NBA different after that?

What happens in the Finals that year?
The Magic players talked a bunch later about how that Game 1 loss sapped them of their confidence. So let’s assume the inverse is true, too: Let’s say that Nick hit at least one of those first two free throws, and so they won that game, and so then they’d have really been feeling themselves. Then someone would’ve leaned in their ear and told them that home teams who win Game 1 of a best-of-seven series end up winning the series 85 percent of the time, and so then they’d have been feeling themselves even further. So then they’re feeling unbeatable, which is what they become. They end up winning the Finals 4–2. (I can’t say it’d have been a 4–0 sweep in their favor because even in a dream imaginary scenario with all of the knobs and levers turned to your favor, 1995 Hakeem Olajuwon is still going to beat you twice.) So the Magic win the 1995 championship. And if that happens, then the whole NBA as we know it today gets turned upside down.

Like what? How do you mean?
Well, there’s an ESPN documentary that came out in 2016 called This Magic Moment that was all about how the Magic came within earshot of becoming a dynasty before watching it wash away. [7] As the credits roll at the end of it, Shaq and Penny are sitting in deck chairs by a pool talking about things. During their conversation, Shaq says that if Orlando had won a title, he’d have never left. So there’s that: Shaq stays with the Magic.

And since we’re rewriting pieces of history, let’s go ahead right now and erase the parts where injuries stole Penny Hardaway’s career. That means you’ve got a young and healthy Penny Hardaway, an unbroken Nick Anderson, an unflappable role player in Dennis Scott, a seasoned winner in Horace Grant, a wonderful basketball mind in Brian Shaw, and a not-yet-to-his-prime-but-already-dominant Shaq. And those guys all get to stay together for several years after having won a championship? Shit, man. It’s murder for the rest of the ’90s and early 2000s.

Yeah, but what about Jordan? He was all the way back from his retirement by then. And the Bulls swept the Magic out of the playoffs in 1996 in the version of the NBA that we know as true today. What happens there?
That’s fair. But if the Magic didn’t lose to the Rockets in 1995, I can’t say for certain that the Bulls would’ve beaten the Magic in 1996. I’m just not quite sure how that series plays out, especially when you consider that the Magic knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs in 1995. [8] And, I mean, sure, that was the first year Jordan was back from his retirement and he only played in 17 games before the playoffs started so you can argue that he was not the fully formed Jordan that nobody could beat, but it still happened. We can’t just ignore that. But, okay, let’s go conservative: Let’s say the Bulls did beat the Magic in 1996. They probably would’ve beaten the Magic in 1997, too (the Bulls were so good in 1996 that when they went 69–13 in 1997 it was somehow a regression). But let’s at the very least give the 1998 championship to the Magic. That opens up a whole bunch of interesting doors, too.

Like what?
Well, let’s jump back a bit first. So the Magic win the 1995 championship. Shaq falls in love with the way being a champion paints him, and so all of his side projects (the rapping, the acting, etc.) all get pushed aside as he tries to chase down more rings. That means that the leading role in Kazaam is open. And Hakeem, distraught from having lost the 1995 title and looking to boost his own signal, picks it up. So, boom, behind Shaq staying in Orlando, there’s the next major thing that happens: We get Hakeem Olajuwon as Kazaam.

WHAT?
I know, right?

What else?
If the Magic get the 1998 championship then that means Jordan only gets five championships instead of six, and so all of a sudden his accepted status as the Greatest of All Time starts to get a little bit grayer.

What about Kobe? We’re basically replacing Kobe and Shaq with Penny and Shaq. What happens to Kobe?
There are probably two ways that that situation plays out.

The first is that Vlade Divac, who the Lakers traded to Charlotte to get the rights to Kobe, decides he doesn’t want to play in Charlotte. In January of 2016 he said he’d contemplated retiring when his agent told him that the Lakers had traded him to Charlotte. And so if that had happened, then: (1) Kobe plays for Charlotte, [9] which would’ve been a real disaster. [10] Kobe probably ends up with a career closer to, say, Tracy McGrady’s or Vince Carter’s. (2) We don’t get the 2002 Sacramento Kings (Webber, Vlade, Bibby, Peja, Doug, Jackson), and let me tell you something: You can get fucked if you think I want to live in any branch of reality that doesn’t include the 2002 Kings.

The second is that Vlade says, “Okay, fine, I’ll play in Charlotte,” then goes to Charlotte. [11] The Lakers get Kobe but they don’t get Shaq, and so that means Kobe definitely isn’t finishing with five rings. Here’s the cool thing, though: Rather than teaming up with Pau, Kobe calls Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007, tells him he’s sick of losing and also tired of seeing KG lose, and convinces KG to make the move to LA instead of Boston for the 2008 season, so we get at least three seasons of Kobe and KG together, which is like if you put a sun right next to another sun. That’s good for two championships, maybe three. Of course, just as likely is that the Kobe/KG partnership turns toxic real quick and ends with zero titles for them and so then Kobe becomes Carmelo before Carmelo becomes Carmelo.

And all of that means the championships for 2000, 2001, and 2002 are definitely all up for grabs since the Shaq/Kobe Lakers aren’t around to win them, and the 2008, 2009, and 2010 championships are possibly also up for grabs since the Celtics don’t have Garnett to help them win in 2008 and Kobe doesn’t have Pau to help him win in 2009 and 2010.

Who gets those?
The Magic beat the Trail Blazers 4–2 to win the 2000 championship, giving Shaq and Penny their third title together. (They cap off an amazing Game 7 fourth-quarter comeback when Penny throws an alley-oop to Shaq to put the game out of reach.) The Spurs beat the Sixers 4–3 to win the 2001 championship. (Allen Iverson steps over Avery Johnson.) The Kings beat the Nets 4–0 to win the 2002 championship. (Vlade Divac gives an all-world petty postgame interview where he talks about how none of anything would’ve been possible without the Lakers trading him to the Hornets for Kobe.) The Pistons beat the Pelicans 4–2 in 2008 (the lowest-rated Finals in history). The Magic (this time with Dwight Howard) beat the Nuggets 4–3 in 2009 (people start to talk about how Dwight vs. Carmelo is the next big rivalry because people are stupid). And the Cavs (!) beat the Lakers (!!) 4–3 (!!!) in 2010 (the highest-rated Finals in history).

What happened with Hakeem’s acting career, though? It seems like you didn’t talk enough about that. Were there any ripple effects from that?
With Hakeem at the lead, Kazaam, regarded now as basura, is an international smash success. Everyone loves it. Kazaam 2: This Time Call Me Hazaam is an even bigger hit. It sets into motion a two-year period where movie studios plug in basically any NBA player they can get into any movie that’ll let them. We get Titanic starring Kate Winslet and Jason “White Chocolate” Williams (the scene where Jack and Rose go to a party in the bowels of the ship and dance gets replaced with a scene where Jack and Rose go to a 2-on-2 tournament in the bowels of the ship; Jack gives an Oscar-worthy speech to Rose where he delivers the iconic line “I’m throwing you a no-look pass with my heart, Rose. Will you catch it?”), Good Will Hunting starring Robin Williams and Latrell Sprewell (there’s still the scene where Robin Williams’s character chokes Matt Damon’s character, except this time it’s Williams choking Latrell and so everyone gets a big kick out of that), Boogie Nights starring Patrick Ewing (Pat Riley gets used for Burt Reynolds’s part), The Devil’s Advocate starring Al Pacino and Shawn Bradley (a total box-office bomb because Bradley decides halfway into the movie that Pacino actually really is the devil and so he refuses to film any of the remaining scenes with him so half of the movie is CGI’d), Face/Off starring Keith Van Horn and Kerry Kittles (shoutout the Jason Kidd–era Nets), Armageddon starring Reggie Miller, American History X starring Steve Kerr (Kerr gives a rousing performance as a reformed Nazi), and Rush Hour starring Shawn Kemp and Dennis Rodman (shamed by everyone because Rodman decides he’s only doing the movie if the studio lets him do so in yellowface, which it does).

Holdonasecond. You’re telling me that if Nick Anderson had made one of those four free throws, we’d have all ended up seeing Patrick Ewing’s dick? That’s what you’re telling me?
That’s exactly what I’m telling you.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I suppose that depends entirely on whether or not you are pro–Patrick Ewing’s dick or anti–Patrick Ewing’s dick.

That’s fair. So what’s the tally?
Where are we right now in this Nick-Anderson-Makes-A-Free-Throw version of the universe? To this point: The Magic win the 1995 championship; Shaq stays in Orlando and he and Penny win three titles together; Hakeem Olajuwon does Kazaam, which vibrates out into Hollywood massively; Jordan wins five titles instead of six and his legacy isn’t as guaranteed as it is now; [12] Kobe possibly wins two titles instead of five but probably actually wins zero; Duncan wins six titles instead of five; Chris Webber gets a ring (hooray!) but so does Dwight Howard (boooooooo!); Carmelo makes a Finals; we get LeBron vs. Kobe in an NBA Finals Game 7, which LeBron wins, which means he never goes to Miami; and everyone sees Patrick Ewing’s dick. All if Nick Anderson makes one of those free throws.

Footnotes

  1. Shaq, Penny Hardaway, Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott, Horace Grant, Brian Shaw.
  2. I mean this as far as the players go (Shaq and Penny, the team’s two best players, were both 23), but also in relation to the franchise (it was only in its sixth season of existence).
  3.  This is according to Inpredictable.com’s Win Probability Calculator.
  4.  Following the 1996 season, the Magic didn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs for 12 years, and five of those years they didn’t make the playoffs at all.
  5.  A neat little note: Nick Anderson was actually the very first pick that the Orlando Magic ever made. They drafted him 11th in 1989.
  6.  By two seasons after the missed free throws, Anderson’s free throw percentage plummeted from 70 percent to 40 percent.
  7.  How unlikely was the formation of that championship-caliber Magic team? The Magic not only had to win the number-one overall pick two years in a row to get there (they drafted Shaq with the 1992 pick; they had a 1/66 chance of winning the number-one pick in 1993), but they also had to be lucky/smart/dumb enough to trade Chris Webber, who was their number-one pick in 1993, for Penny Hardaway (and three first-round draft picks).
  8. The defining play of that series also happened in Game 1 and also involved Nick Anderson, though his role in it was philosophically the exact opposite of his role in the Rockets Game 1 disaster: The Magic were down by one with 18 seconds left in Game 1. Anderson, guarding Michael Jordan, was able to poke the ball away from him, leading to a game-winning basket from Horace Grant.
  9.  Or the Nets. The Nets really wanted to draft him with the eighth pick that year. They were warned against it since he wanted to get to Los Angeles once he heard Jerry West wanted to trade Vlade for the pick to get him. The Lakers don’t trade Vlade if Shaq never leaves Orlando, though.
  10.  Their roster that season: Rafael Addison, Muggsy Bogues, Scott Burrell, Tom Chambers, Dell Curry, Tony Delk, Jamie Feick, Matt Geiger, AnthonyGoldwire, Eric Leckner, Anthony Mason, Ricky Pierce, Glen Rice, Malik Rose, Donald Royal, Tony Smith, and George Zidek. The five names italicized there are big white guys. Five big white guys is way too many big white guys to have on a team hoping to win a title in the mid-to-late ’90s and beyond.
  11. Vlade says it was Jerry West who talked him into going to Charlotte rather than retiring.
  12. Thinking about Jordan with only five championships is somehow the weirdest part of this whole thing.

Shea Serrano is a Staff Writer for The Ringer and the author of The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed and Bun B’s Original Coloring and Activity Book.

Illustrations by Arturo Torres