Posted Nov 1 2010 2:53PM
It's an instant in time that lives on for every lifelong fan of the San Antonio Spurs. One also standing as a lesson of perseverance. Before titles became an expectation in the Alamo City, there had to be this moment.
The moment when the Spurs took the leap they had never taken before. The moment that forever changed the perception of a franchise and, in many ways, a city. The moment that rose above those disappointments of the past. Whether it was the wasted drafts -- Alfredrick Hughes? Those what-is-he-doing passes at the worst possible time -- Rod Strickland? Those heart-wrenching losses to the Bullets and Lakers and Rockets one rung short of the Finals. They somehow seemed necessary to get to this point.
The moment they became champions.
The moment that belonged to Avery Johnson.
The Spurs were in the Finals for the first time in 1999, facing the one of the league's glamour franchises in the New York Knicks. The series wasn't particularly memorable on its basketball merits, other than serving as the worldwide coming-out party for Tim Duncan.
San Antonio was clearly the better team. Leading three games to one going into Game 5 on June 25 at Madison Square Garden, I was there on assignment as the Spurs were primed to close out their first title. They still had to do it, and it wasn't easy.
The Knicks weren't about to roll over, especially before the educated masses at the World's Most Famous Arena. That contest was grind-it-out basketball at its finest -- or ugliest -- and New York took a lead into the final minute.
That's when the Cajun-dipped Johnson stepped up by stepping into a baseline jumper just inside the 3-point line. The shot from a guy who wasn't supposed to have a shot in any sense of the word gave San Antonio a 78-77 lead with 47 seconds left.
The score didn't budge for those last 47 agonizing seconds. Johnson jumped into David Robinson's arms at the buzzer and life would never again be the same for the Silver and Black. Johnson went from being a beloved member of the Spurs to an all-time franchise/city treasure.
All thanks to his moment.
"That's where I really made my mark," Johnson told me years ago of his time in San Antonio. "The other teams were just pit stops. Playing there  years it means a lot, especially with the way my career started off. Hopefully, it serves as an inspiration for those young people out there that really aren't the high-flyers or the dunkers or the 3-point shooters or the ones that aren't big in stature.
"Here's a guy that wasn't drafted, that was in obscurity, didn't really go to a big college, that had a chance to join the big boys in the rafters that went to the big schools, that were bigger in stature, that scored a ton of points and that made All-Star teams and Top 50. There's an opportunity for them also."
Johnson was an underdog in a city that considers itself one, too. He went undrafted out of Southern despite leading the country in assists. Twice. His jumper looked more like a shot-put. The Spurs cut him twice, including once on Christmas Eve, before the 5-foot-11 lefty found an NBA foothold. He credits a 10-day contract in Houston as saving his career.
Johnson persisted with dogged determination and belief. He peaked during those Finals, averaging 12.6 points and 7.4 assists. Johnson would end up being San Antonio's starting point guard for seven straight seasons. His No. 6 jersey was retired about three years ago and hangs in the rafters of the AT&T, joining the likes of the Admiral and Iceman, forever serving as a physical reminder of what Johnson meant to the franchise.
But what endeared this proud son of New Orleans to Spurs fans everywhere were the sum of those moments during his San Antonio ride. And many of those moments were substantial for the man nicknamed "Lil General."
But none was bigger than that Big Apple baseline jumper with 47 seconds left.
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