Robert Horry’s voice was playful as he discussed the historic shot he hit 15 years ago today, the one that yanked the beating heart out of Sacramento’s chest and crushed it on the hardwood floor under a high-top sneaker.
“I’ve had people tell me that was the most devastating moment in Sacramento,” said Horry, the former L.A. Lakers power forward, on the phone Thursday from Houston where he lives. “I started laughing when I heard that. It was just a shot.”
No, sir. Horry’s buzzer beater was most certainly not just any NBA shot in any NBA playoff game.
If Horry had clanked the rim in the final seconds of Game Four of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals, the Kings would have taken a commanding three-games-to-one lead against the Lakers, and they probably would have gone on to win an NBA title. The capital of California, already whipped into a frenzy over that best-of-seven series of regional animosity, was poised to explode in communal delirium.
We might have seen the most excitement in Sacramento since the Gold Rush had Horry been forced to chase a ball slapped in his direction by then center and now Kings General Manager Vlade Divac. The history of the Kings might be much different than the sad tale it ultimately became after Horry was mobbed by his teammates in an ominous foreshadowing of an eventual series loss to the Lakers.
If Horry had missed, maybe the Kings would have won another title the next year. Maybe that success would have attracted free agents to Sacramento to keep the run going. Maybe an arena would have gotten built in Sacramento much sooner. Maybe the Kings wouldn’t have become an NBA laughingstock with 11 straight losing seasons.
“Ugh! Are you trying to drive me crazy?” former Kings swingman Doug Christie said this week, when asked about the infamous shot and all the “maybes” a missed might have created.
You see, Mr. Horry, you are mistaken. Your shot was far more than “just a shot.”
Those games, and the rivalry with Lakers during that period, tapped into something tribal. TV ratings in Sacramento during that 2002 series eclipsed those for the Super Bowl. Otherwise rational Sacramentans were ready to throw down with Lakers-fan friends at any moment. Unlike today’s cozy NBA culture, Kings and Lakers players truly disliked one another, adding the aura of a heavyweight fight to each game.
A heavyweight fight with plenty of intrigue. Before Game Two, Lakers point guard Kobe Bryant suffered food poisoning in a Sacramento hotel, and there are Lakers fans who believe to this day that he was poisoned as part of a Kings conspiracy.
In the same game as Horry’s shot, Lakers forward Samaki Walker hit a three pointer at halftime that would not have counted if instant replay were used as it is today. It was clearly after the buzzer. The refs made a mistake in allowing it and it proved critical.
And in Game Six, the referees called almost twice as many fouls against the Kings as the Lakers, an abysmal discrepancy that some Kings fans feel was a plot to keep the small-market Kings from beating the mighty Lakers.
But the one moment that crystallized what was a heroic drama for the Lakers – and a rueful tragedy for the Kings – was Horry’s clutch shot when it seemed the Kings were about to prevail.
It’s the civic wound that never heals. It’s the regret that marks the time. It altered the direction of the Kings franchise and the sporting lives of all the passionate unfortunates who followed the franchise and sensed that deliverance was at hand until Horry let the ball fly as Kings star Chris Webber rushed at him, arm and fingers out-stretched.
To this day, there is endless parsing of the sequence that proceeded the shot.
“Vlade couldn’t have passed him that pass (any better),” said Christie, whose incredulity at Horry’s skill is immortalized in a photograph taken by The Bee’s Hector Amezcua. No matter how fervently Sacramento wishes the outcome had been different 15 years ago, Amezcua’s photo never changes. There is 2002 Christie, frozen in a kind of helpless stupor, as the ball leaves Horry’s hands with ruthless precision.
“What was I thinking in that moment? ‘Oh my God, what is HE doing out there?’” said Christie of Horry, who was alone beyond the three-point arch while most other players on the court were engaged in a wild scrum under the basket as the Lakers tried to stay alive in a game that had the Kings up 99-97 with mere seconds left. The Kings had led that game by as many as 24 points earlier. They had led by 20 points at the end of the first quarter.
Just before Horry’s killer three, Divac stood at the foul line with a chance to put the Kings up by three points. He missed his first free throw but drained the second. Divac reached the foul line 12 times that day, more than any King. But he missed three of those attempts. He ended the Kings leading scorer with 23 points. Like the Kings, Divac was star crossed in that game and in that series, giving all he had but falling short to fate.
I happened to be in Staples Center for Game Four and have those final moments seared into my brain. When Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal caught the in-bound pass, the capacity crowd was on its feet, screaming. O’Neal passed the ball to Horry who shoveled it Bryant who snaked toward the basket. Everyone crashed the paint except one man.
Divac did just enough to divert Bryant’s layup. Then the Kings center wheeled around and kept O’Neal from tipping it in. The ball fell away from the rim, and some have wondered if Divac blundered by slapping it away toward three-point territory. But not Horry. “He did what big men are taught to do in that situation,” he said.
Horry, however, did what most big men are taught not to do.
“Why was Horry, a power forward, standing way out there?” Kings guard Bobby Jackson asked this week, as if the notion still haunts him.
So many questions from that day, but Horry chuckled at the suggestion that he was out of position.
“We ran that play all the time,” Horry said. “I went to my favorite spot and waited to see if someone would kick it out. I was just watching for a minute but I never left my position. The ball came to me and so did Chris Webber – but he was too late.”
Boom. Nothing but net. Horry, chest puffed and arms flexed, gave a cold matador’s stare as his team rushed to him.
Staples Center exploded. In 40 years of attending and covering sporting events, I never had heard such as sound as that moment.
Horry, who left the Lakers on bad terms and later lost a teenage daughter to illness, is not one who fills his home with trophies from a career that saw him win seven NBA titles with three different teams. He said he has only two photographs of his pro-hoops days in his house, and one is Amezcua’s photo.
“It’s in my play room,” he said. “When I have people over they will say, “Aw man, I remember that.’ ... It makes me happy and proud.”
But does he really think it was “just a shot”? No. Horry acknowledges that basket was the biggest of his storied career.
When asked if he knows what his buzzer beater means to people in Sacramento, the playfulness leaves his voice, and the fierce competitor that he once was is replaced by a man who has seen more than his share of life’s ups and downs.
“I hope that people don’t hate me as a person or a player,” he said. “It was a great moment in the history of the NBA, even though you just happened to be on that bad end of it. ... I was just doing my job.”