Nick Anderson: The Game I’ll Never Forget
That Magical Steal
May 7, 1995 Orlando Magic 94, Chicago Bulls 91
Nick Anderson can stake a legitimate claim to being "Mr. Magic." He was the very first Orlando draft choice, and remains the franchise's all-time leading scorer (10,650 points) as well.
All told, Anderson played in 12 NBA seasons, finishing his career with one season with the Sacramento Kings and one with the Cleveland Cavaliers. His career averages of 14.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals reflect his superb all-around play.
I was shocked, like everybody else, when I heard Michael Jordan was retiring from basketball in 1993. I'm from Chicago and went to the University of Illinois, so I obviously had followed his entire career. But MJ leaving the game after leading the Chicago Bulls to a third straight title took me completely off-guard.
Of course, once I accepted that the greatest player I'd ever seen was hanging up his sneakers, I realized that the door was wide open for my Orlando Magic. And by 1994-95, we were ready to become champions.
We had the ultimate big man in Shaquille O'Neal and a dynamic point guard in Penny Hardaway. Dennis Scott was a terrific outside threat, hitting better than 40 percent of his three-pointers, and Horace Grant brought a nice all-around game to the power forward position. I was coming into my own as a dangerous swingman and had the best complete season of my career. By mid-March we were 49-17, which was the best record in the NBA.
Then Jordan announced he was returning to the Bulls, and it seemed like a lot of people wrote us off. That only made us more determined; we were a young, hungry team, and we didn't think anyone -- Jordan, or Wilt Chamberlain, for that matter -- would derail us off our Finals track.
Meeting the Bulls in the second round of the 1995 playoffs was a great opportunity to test ourselves against the best. Jordan's play improved over the final 17 games of the season, and with Scottie Pippen as his sidekick, Chicago was dangerous. We had the best record in the league, but no one really knew what to expect -- after all, before the '95 playoffs, the Magic franchise hadn't yet won a single playoff game.
Jordan was my responsibility on defense, and you couldn't ask for a bigger challenge than that. People have asked me what it was like to have to stop the most powerful offensive weapon in basketball history, and I always say it's like being in hell. There's no rest, no letup. You're almost predestined to fail. It was the worst assignment possible.
But I also realized that Jordan may be a living legend, but he's just another man. Why should I be scared of another man? I had plenty of skills myself, younger legs, and a stronger team behind me. It was my mom, Alberta, who reminded me of that. She told me before Game 1 that Jordan was going to make me work -- so I had to make him work, too.
Mother knows best, and she gave me a good boost and a smart game plan. I knew Jordan was still catching his wind after 18 months as a baseball player, and I was going to put his stamina to the test.
We felt we had an overall advantage over the Bulls, but they certainly didn't believe that. And in Game 1, the Bulls countered our every surge and broke out to their biggest lead of the game, eight points, in the fourth quarter. We battled back, but with the game in its waning moments, we were in trouble. Chicago had the ball and a 91-90 lead with 20 seconds left.
In the timeout huddle, Coach Brian Hill told us not to foul. We were going to pressure Chicago and try to secure a steal to take the lead. I suppose that went against traditional strategy, and when we didn't immediately foul, it certainly took the Bulls by surprise. But it turned out to be the best call of the series.
The Bulls inbounded at their baseline and Jordan got past me, bringing the ball upcourt under pressure. I was pursuing the ball down the floor, figuring that Jordan had made so many last-second shots he was just going to pound the ball all the way to the rim. But he didn't, which allowed me to catch up and move into a blind spot behind him.
Jordan turned to look over his left shoulder, but I was on his right. I poked the ball away from MJ. Penny gathered it after it sprung loose and passed ahead to a streaking Grant, who dunked to give us a one-point lead with six seconds remaining.
The turnaround was shocking. Not only did we deny the Bulls any points to extend their lead, we took away the ball. And not only did we take away the ball, but we scored an uncontested basket to take the lead.
Maybe the only "drawback" was leaving enough time on the clock for the Bulls to get a good look at the basket. I'm sure the Orlando fans, elated as they were, had a little lump in their throats. They'd all seen what Jordan had done on last-second shots vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers, Phoenix Suns -- just about everybody.
Every soul in the arena knew what would happen. Our plan was to put as much pressure on Jordan and not give him a clean look, even if it meant leaving another player wide open. You have to do your best to prevent MJ from beating you.
Jordan got the ball on the inbounds pass, dribbled to the free-throw line, rose, and ... passed?
Talk about a break. Jordan passed to a wide-open Scottie Pippen, but Pippen was breaking to the basket to rebound, so the pass was behind him and went out of bounds. The Bulls didn't even get a shot off, and Game 1 was ours. To be honest, I was shocked.
As for the way the game turned, I give a lot of credit to our fans. They were so loud that even though the other Bulls were yelling at Jordan that I was swooping down on him, he couldn't hear their warnings.
The win was a huge confidence builder. It was more than just a 1-0 lead in a series: It was a first playoff win against a team many still felt was the defending champion. Best of all, we stole the game from them when they, as Steve Kerr later said, "had it gift-wrapped."
We ended up defeating the Bulls, 4-2, and making it all the way to the NBA Finals, where we were swept by the Houston Rockets. That was a disappointment of course, but the 1994-95 team is still the only Orlando club to make the Finals.
And the way we willed a victory in Game 1 vs. the Bulls is something I'll never forget.