Kenny Smith – Game 1 1995 NBA Finals

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The playground fantasy never changes. The ball is almost weightless, all but dancing on the ends of your fingertips. The release is smooth, the arc pure and the rotation of the ball’s panels a rhapsody in slow motion. String music. Basketball’s sweetest sound.

You do not miss. You cannot miss. With its last breath, the shot clock hits zero. The buzzer sounds. The crowd erupts. You are the hero.

Kenny Smith knew the melody by heart. But on the evening of June 7, 1995, fate challenged the Houston Rockets guard to the ultimate game of Name That Tune as Game 1 of the NBA finals dwindled to single digits.

The dying clock showed 5 seconds left and the Rockets looking up at a three-point deficit as Smith took an inbounds pass, dribbled, pump-faked Penny Hardaway, set his feet before elevating and releasing his shot. An old, familiar refrain could be heard as the ball clearly snapped the net and sent the game into overtime.

While Smith’s shot gave the Rockets an opportunity to win, other vignettes also demanded the spotlight. Veteran guard Nick Anderson, who had been with the Orlando Magic since their inaugural season, stunningly and inexplicably missed four consecutive free throws before Smith played hero. Robert Horry, in only his third season, hit four three-pointers and was critical in stretching the Orlando defence. Hakeem Olajuwon, who had been relatively outplayed by Shaq all game, tipped in the game winner with three-tenths of a second remaining to give the Rockets a stirring 120-118 triumph.

The Magic never recovered. Houston would crush Orlando in game 2 (leading by 22 points at half-time before winning by 11), and then survive game 3 (which was a classic in its own right) before finishing the series with a double-digit victory in game 4. The sweep would give the Rockets their second straight NBA championship.

But after game one, the spotlight was firmly on Smith. In what may seem surprising, especially to new fans who only know him for being the overly opinionated analyst on TNT, Kenny Smith appeared to be embarrassed by the attention. “I’m excited about it,” Smith said after the game. “But I’m also realistic enough to know what it really means. No one’s going to remember 10 years from now how Kenny Smith played in Game 1. They’re going to remember that Kenny Smith won and he was on the team that won. That’s all they’ll remember.”

Smith’s humility was pleasant, but his prognostication was incorrect. That night, Smith made seven three-pointers, which broke the NBA Finals record. Ray Allen, in game 2 of the 2010 finals has since broken the record, but the Celtics lost to the Lakers that year, which reinforces precisely the point Smith was making. Winning isn’t everything, but in many ways, it validates a performance. Sure, players can be gutsy and classy in defeats, but rightly or wrongly so, a win can amplify a performance ten-fold. Think back to Isiah Thomas in the 1988 finals and how his game 6 performance would have been remembered had the Pistons won game 6 or game 7. Professional sports is a cut throat world, and Smith’s mindset was to win the game, not break the record.

And that is why, 20 years since, we are still talking about it.