A Rule Book Legacy

(Originally posted December 2006)

By Dennis D’Agostino

(Originally posted December 2006, in the aftermath of the Knicks’ 111-109 double-overtime win over Charlotte on Dec 20, when David Lee’s soaring tip-in of Jamal Crawford’s inbound ----coming with the bare minimum of 0:00.1 left ---- gave the Knicks the win)

The modern-day Miracle on 33rd Street co-authored on December 20 by David Lee and Jamal Crawford instantly triggered memories of the only player in NBA history synonymous with that most precise measure of time.

            Zero, colon, zero, zero, point one.

Trent Tucker played nine years in a Knicks uniform, and his ability, professionalism and class stamped him as one of the more memorable figures in the club’s recent history. The first Knick to truly take advantage of the NBA’s 1979 three-point rule, the man known as Doc notched 504 three-pointers during his career in New York, still fourth-best on the all-time club list. Later, he would win a World Championship ring with the 1993 Chicago Bulls.

All those numbers live amid the millions of others in the NBA Register. But Trent Tucker’s true legacy is found on page 55 of the NBA Rule Book: Heading, “Comments on the Rules”, subhead, “Expiration of Time”:

            “The game clock must show :00.3 or more in order for a player to secure possession of the ball on a rebound or throw-in to attempt a field goal. . .The only type of field goal which may be scored if the game clock is at :00.2 or :00.1 is a `tip-in’ or ‘high lob’

            “A tip-in is defined as any action in which the ball is deflected, not controlled, by a player and then enters the basket ring. This type of action shall be deemed legal if :00.1 or more remains in the period. A high lob is defined as a pass which is tipped by an offensive player while in mid-air, and is followed instantaneously by a field goal attempt.”

In other words, the Trent Tucker Rule.

The Rule was born out of the unforgettable finish of the Knicks-Bulls game on January 15, 1990, a Martin Luther King Day matinee at the Garden. That season --- 1989-90 --- was the first in which the NBA required teams to display tenths-of-a-second on the game clocks during the final minute of each period. Fans, coaches and players welcomed the precise display of time during the game’s most crucial periods. However, with whole seconds now distilled into tenths, the rules during that first season did not allow for every eventuality that could happen – or not happen – in that short a span.

In other words, what could you do – or not do – in three-tenths of a second? Or two-tenths? Or one?

On January 15, 1990, everybody found out.

 With the score tied at 106 on that Monday afternoon, the Knicks held possession in the game’s final seconds. With Chicago having a foul to give in the last two minutes, Scottie Pippen fouled the Knicks’ Mark Jackson to stop the play.

And stop the clock. At 0:00.1.

Now Jackson would inbound from right in front of the Knicks bench on the Eighth Avenue end of the Garden. Obviously, whatever the Knicks did, they’d have to do quickly. Coach Stu Jackson (now the League’s executive VP for basketball operations) drew up a play that called for Mark to lob underneath to Patrick Ewing, hoping for Patrick to slip behind the Bulls’ defense and lay it in.

“But Michael (Jordan) read the play, so he went back and took the angle away from Patrick,” said Tucker in the author’s Garden Glory.

That left Jackson to hold the ball for one, two, three agonizing seconds. Tucker saw that Ewing was shut off, so he circled along the baseline and came to the ball, running along the sideline in front of the bench and winding up almost in front of Jackson.

Jackson flipped the ball to Tucker. Referee Ronnie Nunn brought his arm down, signifying time in. Timer Bob Billings, as instructed by Nunn, saw the referee’s chop and hit the silver button that would take the final one-tenth off the black end zone clocks.

And Trent Tucker shot.

“I knew I didn’t have much time, so I turned and gave it a little flick, and the ball just got over the outstretched hand of Scottie Pippen, just enough,” said Tucker more than a decade later.

What you remember about the shot was how high it went, looking up at the ball against the wagon-wheel roof of the Garden, and how it came down, straight down, so that even during its descent you knew it would hit dead on (Full disclosure: the author was sitting about five feet in back of Tucker when he shot).

“The ball hung in the air for so long,” said Tucker. “Johnny Newman was standing behind me and said, `Trent, that ball looks pretty good.’ We had a chance to have a conversation because the ball was so high, and I said, `News, it’s on line.’ “

It was. Swish, buzzer, and then Ronnie Nunn turned in front of the scorers table and raised both his arms skyward. Knicks 109, Bulls 106.

That game would be the first – and last – to be decided in such a manner. Basic common sense told you that a catch-and-shoot like Tucker’s had to take more than one-tenth of a second. But since the rules had not yet spelled this out, there was no precedent for a game ending in the manner that this one had. That day, everyone – players and officials – acted exactly as they should have.

A few weeks later, the NBA announced that at least three-tenths of a second had to be on the clock for a catch-and-shoot. . .known then and now as the Trent Tucker Rule.

“To this day, people ask me if the shot counted,” said Tucker, who returned to his native Minnesota following his playing days to embark on a decade-long broadcasting career. “I say, `Sure it counted. It’s in the record books.’ It was a shot that won the game and redirected how things are viewed now at the end of the game.”

Ironically, 16 years later, Ewing, Jordan and Charles Oakley – all of whom played on that fateful January day in 1990 – were courtside witnesses as the clock showed just 0:00.1 remaining in the second overtime of Knicks-Bobcats. . .where the only way, the only possible way, for the Knicks to win would be for Jamal Crawford to somehow get the ball to the rim and David Lee to somehow. . .

 But you know the rest of the story.


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