25 Years Ago Today: Nick Anderson Pokes Ball Away From Michael Jordan

ORLANDO - While Nick Anderson’s game-winning ``steal’’ of Michael Jordan in Game 1 of the 1995 playoff series between Orlando and Chicago has become one of the most iconic and memorable plays in Magic history, there are a couple of quirky footnotes from that play that fans likely have forgotten on this 25th anniversary of that moment.

On the play where Anderson came up from behind Jordan and swatted the ball away from the Bulls’ legendary guard, Orlando’s Penny Hardaway – and not the hustling Anderson – was officially credited by statisticians with the steal on the game-turning play. Anderson’s tap-away from Jordan landed in the lap of Hardaway, who pushed the ball ahead and perfectly fed it to Horace Grant, who dunked over Toni Kukoc to give Orlando a 92-91 lead on the Bulls with 6.2 seconds remaining.

On his live call at the time on the Magic Radio Network, David Steele credited Anderson with the iconic play, saying: ``Anderson tries to steal it from Jordan and Jordan dribbles around him. The clock is down to 12 and Anderson stole the ball. Hardaway picks it up, two-on-one, Penny bounce pass to Grant and he dunks it! Six-point-two seconds to go! Nick Anderson stole the ball! Nick Anderson stole the ball from Michael Jordan!’’

Today is the 25th anniversary of Anderson’s poke-away play from Jordan, leading to Orlando’s 94-91 victory over the Bulls in Game 1 of the second-round playoff series. Orlando would go on to win that series, 4-2 by closing out the Bulls at the United Center. Even today, that series is of historical significance because it was the final time that a Jordan-led team ever lost in the playoffs.

Only now – some 25 years later – did Anderson learn that he wasn’t even credited with a steal on the play he’s famous for in his NBA career.

``You know, I never even knew that,’’ Anderson said of the play that resulted in Hardaway’s fifth steal of the game. ``That’s OK; we still got the win.’’

In just their sixth year of existence at the time, the Magic used the defeat of the Bulls to reach their first Eastern Conference Finals. There, they outlasted the Reggie Miller-led Indiana Pacers in seven games to get to the NBA Finals. The Magic were ultimately swept by the Houston Rockets, but fans in Central Florida still vividly remember that playoff run as one of the most glorious times in the franchise’s 31-year history.

``My biggest takeaway from that playoff run was that you really got a sense of the power of sports and its ability to unite a city,’’ said Jeff Turner, a reserve forward on that 1994-95 Magic team and currently a game analyst for Fox Sports Florida. ``People from every walk of life were all about the same thing – supporting the Magic. From the goggles on the water tower and the posters and billboards all around town – it was all just incredible. It was a great time to be a Magic fan, and a great time to be a Magic player, too.’’

For Anderson, a Chicago native who grew up rooting for the Bulls and admiring Jordan from afar, his ``steal’’ of the iconic Chicago guard in Game 1 still brings on a variety of emotions some 25 years later. Rarely does a week pass that a fan doesn’t mention to the play to him – both with fondness and disdain.

``I still get asked about that play a lot and (Magic) fans still talk about how big of a moment that was for us,’’ said Anderson, who was inducted into the Magic Hall of Fame following his 10 years with the franchise from 1989-98. ``And, my friends back home in Chicago are still mad about me for making that play to beat the Bulls.

``My personal opinion of the play is this: It was a great basketball play, but I don’t think it would have been talked about as much if it would have been against someone else,’’ Anderson added. ``But because it happened against Michael Jordan, that just made it an even bigger moment.’’

There were a couple of other footnotes to the Anderson ``steal’’ that might have been forgotten over the course of the past 25 years. Some 2 ½ months prior to that Game 1 in the playoffs, Anderson was the hero of a 105-103 Magic victory over the Bulls at Orlando Arena with some more late-game heroics. With that regular-season game knotted at 103, Anderson batted a ball away and into the waiting hands of Hardaway – sound familiar yet? – and the Magic point guard raced ahead for the winning dunk with seven-tenths of a second remaining. In that instance, Anderson used his defensive brilliance to poke the ball away from a spinning Kukoc for that game-winning steal.

Back to Game 1 of the playoffs, Anderson’s defensive stand in the closing seconds might have actually been more important than the famous play where he is so often credited for a steal. With the Magic ahead 92-91, Chicago got the ball to Jordan, who easily beat Donald Royal off the dribble and appeared headed for the basket. An alert Anderson came off of Scottie Pippen and stopped Jordan at the free throw line. Jordan tried getting the ball to a cutting Pippen, but the pass was behind the small forward and caromed out of bounds as Orlando Arena erupted with raucous noise.

While Jordan is unquestionably one of the NBA’s all-time greatest winners – and ESPN’s ``The Last Dance’’ docuseries certainly has highlighted many of his signature victories in recent weeks – he had tremendous struggles that night with the physical and aggressive defense of Anderson. In that Game 1, Jordan – wearing No. 45 at the time – shot a pedestrian eight of 22 from the floor and turned the ball over eight times – the final two turnovers coming as result of stellar defensive stands by Anderson.

``I’m a big fan of (former Detroit Pistons’ guard) Joe Dumars, and I tried to patent my game after him,’’ said Anderson, who had 20 points, three 3-pointers and a steal in that Game 1 against the Bulls. ``I always wanted to be like Dumars on and off the floor – he was a beast on the floor and then away from the floor, he’s the gentlest guy you’d ever come across.

``(Dumars) used to tell me about when he was facing Jordan, `You’re not going to stop them from hitting shots, but you have to make them work for their shots,’’’ Anderson added. ``So, when it came to guarding guys like Michael, Magic (Johnson), Clyde Drexler and Reggie Miller, I had to try and make them work for their shots and make it tough on them with my defense.’’

Though some historians have tried to discount Orlando’s defeat of Chicago in those 1995 playoffs because Jordan had just returned to the NBA from a retirement a few months earlier, Anderson still feels that series legitimized the upstart Magic and did wonders for the young squad’s confidence.

``That (defeat of Chicago) gave us a lot of credibility and respect, beating Michael and the Bulls like that,’’ recalled Anderson, adding that Chicago had won NBA titles before in 1991, ’92 and ’93 and would go on to win three more in ’96, ’97 and ‘98. ``I know M.J. was coming out of retirement, but as they say, `The game must be played,’ and we won it.’’

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