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The Game I’ll Never Forget: Rory Sparrow - December 14, 1988

Jul 21 2005 5:03PM

Rory Sparrow only spent two seasons with the Miami HEAT, but they were significant ones: the first two in franchise history. He provided veteran leadership—at 30, he was the second-oldest player on the 1988-89 HEAT—as well as production, averaging a team-best 5.4 assists and second-best 12.5 points per game in Miami’s debut season. He also scored the HEAT’s first basket and, on April 18, 1989, recorded the club’s first triple-double. Sparrow finished his Miami career after the 1989-90 season having played 162 games for the HEAT and averaging 9.2 ppg and 2.6 apg.

Have you ever lost 17 games in a row? It doesn’t have to be in basketball. How about checkers? Tic-tac-toe? Flipping a coin?

Hopefully, you don’t know what it feels like to lose 17 in a row at anything. Because I did, with the Miami HEAT in 1988. And as tough as that was, those 17 losses came at the start of the season. We had to play halfway through December—five and a half weeks—to get our first win as an NBA team. No matter how realistically low the expectations were in Miami in our first year as an expansion team, nobody was prepared to deal with losing 17 games to start the season.

Putting that 17-game streak to rest was a primary objective. That’s why our 89-88 win vs. the Los Angeles Clippers on December 14, 1988, in which I played a leading role, is the game I’ll never forget.

I had already played eight years in the NBA and was an “elder statesman” on this first HEAT team, even though I was only 30. Miami wanted a player with my presence—a combination of leadership and production—on their first team, and that’s just what I gave them in that premiere season.

The problem was, we didn’t have too much else going for us in that first season. Although we had a decent starting five with me, Kevin Edwards, Pat Cummings, Billy Thompson, and Rony Seikaly, we only had a few more experienced guys than that. If you look back, you’ll see we had nine guys dress in 1988-89 who played three or fewer seasons in the league. And there were times during our losing streak when we started four rookies.

So we knew it was going to be a tough year. Just not this tough. Nobody expects to lose their first 17.

There wasn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to those 17 losses, just a team learning itself and, unfortunately, its limitations. Our average loss for that stretch was 14 points; some games were closer (losses of two and three points), some not so close (47-, 29-, 24-, 23-, and 20-point losses). We’d already set a record in the process; at 0-16, we set the league’s all-time record for worst start in a season.

Worse than getting that record was creeping up on the league’s all-time mark for consecutive losses in a single season—we were only three defeats away from tying the league’s all-time worst team, the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers. We didn’t want that record, and we were determined to find a way to avoid it.

Our salvation came at the hands of the Clippers, and our win was a team effort. Cummings, Thompson, and Grant Long—he was a rookie for us—all finished with 15 points. But what made me most proud was my role in the win; I only finished with four points, but I was the most important player on the floor down the stretch.

Fast-forward to the end of the game, and you’ll see what I mean. There was a minute and a half left and we were up by one. We had been leading by 12 in the third quarter and were worried that this game was slipping away like so many others. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen, so when I got open at the foul line, I stuck a jumper to give us the lead, 89-86.

But there was still plenty of time. Ken Norman scored right away to cut our lead to one, and then we committed a 24-second violation while trying to run the clock down, sending the ball back to L.A. We would have to win with our defense. With 12 seconds left, the Clippers had the ball and a chance to run a play…and steal another win away from us.

Norm Nixon got the ball at halfcourt, then dribbled baseline. I hounded Norm just enough to force him into a fallaway jumper, which I had a good feeling was off. I was right, his shot was long, and the Clippers couldn’t come up with the rebound as time expired. We had finally won a game! We just went crazy, with a midcourt celebration. It was such a relief to finally end the streak.

We also exacted a measure of revenge with that win, because it was the Clippers who beat us by 20 points in our home opener that season. We had been hyped to win that first game in front of the home fans, but L.A. knocked us out, 111-91. It was sweet to end this horrible streak against the team that started us on it.

For as much relief as we felt winning this game and finally breaking the streak, to a man we wished we had been able to get that first victory in Miami, in front of the home fans. Those fans had been supportive of us throughout the streak—nine of the 17 losses had been at home—by rarely voicing their displeasure with boos. We appreciated that because we were trying our best.

Although we felt like we were due to reel off a few wins after getting the monkey off our backs, the HEAT continued to struggle. Around midseason, we were stuck at 4-38 and were on pace to become the league’s all-time worst team. Fortunately, we “rallied”—winning as many as three in a row in March—to finish 15-67.

The next year, 1989-90, was my last in Miami. I was playing a smaller role on the team and unfortunately, we didn’t fare much better at 18-64. My two years in Miami has to be as bad a career record as any player has had with one team.

But as you know now, the clouds broke up and the HEAT were in the playoffs by their fourth season. I went on to play for three more teams in my career.

I can’t say that ending a 17-game losing streak is the highlight of my career, but I’m proud of the role I played in bringing Miami its first professional basketball win. It was a long time coming.