“In between games, I didn’t sleep much. I lost weight. The stress level was high. There was no pleasure.”
Those are Rick Fox’s memories from the breathtaking 2002 Western Conference finals against the Sacramento Kings. The series concluded with Fox’s Lakers grinding out a Game 7 overtime victory, in enemy territory, despite the best efforts of the league’s loudest fans. The crestfallen Kings would never come closer to an NBA title, splintering before becoming a league laughingstock. Meanwhile, the Lakers easily dispatched New Jersey in the Finals, never guessing it would be their last title before Kobe Bryant’s deteriorating relationship with Shaquille O’Neal forced Shaq’s trade to Miami. What separated the Kings and Lakers in their epic 2002 series? A miraculous shot, missed free throws, a few unseemly whistles, and two wide-open misses. That’s it.
This series had everything: a blossoming rivalry between the league’s marquee franchise and the aesthetically pleasing, swift-passing, oft-cutting Kings; verbal grenades lobbed back and forth; allegations of tainted food and officiating conspiracies; the burnishing of Big Shot Rob’s reputation; and even the involvement of a onetime dark horse presidential candidate. These were the two best teams in basketball, so nobody was surprised when the last four games of the series were decided in the final minute. Legacies were sealed; legacies were lost. With Miami gunning for its own three-peat in 2014, we forget sometimes how difficult it is to win three straight titles. The 2002 Lakers were the last team to pull it off. And nobody traded haymakers with them like the Kings.
The Kings haven’t won a title since 1951, back when they were playing in Rochester as the Royals. Since then, they’ve moved from their original home to Cincinnati to Kansas City to Sacramento — and last year, nearly to Seattle. All those stops have one thing in common: Across 63 years, no Kings team has played in the NBA Finals. In the 1960s, Oscar Robertson’s Royals kept running into Russell’s Celtics and Wilt’s Sixers. In 1981, an underdog Kings team got steamrolled by Moses Malone. And from 2000 through 2002, the Kings drew the short straw historically, peaking right as Shaq and Kobe were turning the NBA into their own personal buddy cop movie. That they played for Los Angeles only made it worse.
“It was the big city of California against what was perceived to be this sleepy, little capital town of California,” said Scott Howard-Cooper, who covered the NBA for the Sacramento Bee during the series. “North versus South. Established versus wannabe. There were so many things that drew them together.”
They ended up bringing the best out of each other. Neither team would ever be quite the same. The following is an oral history featuring many participants in and witnesses to that series. Everyone quoted is listed with his or her job title at the time of the series, in the summer of 2002.
I. The Roads to Battle
1. Says Divac now: “I played basketball because I loved the game, you know? I didn’t play because of the money. Money is there. If you’re good enough, you’ll make the money. But for me to go somewhere just to play because I have a contract wasn’t fun for me. I was 29, 30 when they traded for Kobe Bryant. I said, ‘Well, I don’t want to go there and play. I quit.’ And then I realized I’m going to screw the deal with Kobe and Shaq and Dr. Jerry Buss and went to Charlotte for a couple days. Coach Dave Cowens was there and I said, ‘I’ll give it a chance.’ And actually, I really enjoyed my two years in Charlotte. But yeah, I was very close to quitting. [But] if I were in Jerry West’s seat, I would do the same thing. I would get Shaq and Kobe for myself, for sure.”
But their three-peat bid began to look shaky after O’Neal showed up for the season out of shape and Bryant started battling behind the scenes with his teammates and coach Phil Jackson. It didn’t help when Sacramento won 61 games and clinched home-court advantage through the playoffs. The Kings had two emerging stars in Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic, and they moved the ball beautifully thanks to the skillful interior passing of Divac and Webber. In a season marred by stilted offense, a talent drought, and too much one-on-one basketball, these unselfish Kings were easily the league’s most entertaining team. We knew that Lakers team had an on-off switch. Could they turn it on in time?
Rick Fox (forward, Lakers): You’re the two-time defending champion, your confidence level rises, you feel pretty good about yourself individually. Collectively, you’ve been patted on the back on a regular basis. You start to believe your hype.
Mark Heisler (NBA writer, Los Angeles Times): Shaquille had come back heavy after the first championship. After they won the second championship, he had said he was going to come in at 300 pounds. He literally came back weighing closer to 400. He was easily 360, 375. So he spent all season playing himself into shape.
Phil Jackson (coach, Lakers): Shaq was suffering from the toe that he eventually got surgery on the following summer, or the fall, actually.
Jim Gray (sideline reporter, NBC): Kobe and Shaq were — I don’t want to say on the same page — but they were in the same book.
Jim Cleamons (assistant coach, Lakers): We had enough guys and enough veteran leadership. We didn’t have to go to Kobe. When Kobe starting chasing the ball and getting outside the pocket, we had enough veteran leadership to kind of rein him in and say, “Hey, this is what we’re trying to do and you’ve got to understand that we’re a team. You’ll have your moment.”
Phil Jackson: We were a little bit undermanned. We had to start shedding some salary, get in line with the league’s CBA. Robert Horry had taken on the load of being a power forward at whatever he weighed, 230 or 235, and that year, we didn’t have a backup for him. We didn’t have a great backup for Shaq, either.
Cleamons: Horry became one of our weapons at the 4 spot. In these days, he was our quote-unquote stretch 4. The bigs wouldn’t come out to guard him — that gave Rob nice looks at the basket with range, and spread the court for us to get the ball in to Shaquille.
Kurt Rambis (assistant coach, Lakers): The possible complacency that’s involved, having every team look at every regular-season game like it’s a big game, having to muster up the energy to not only get through the season and put yourself in a playoff position, but then also be ready physically, is a huge thing.
Phil Jackson: Sacramento won the Pacific. We were kind of complacent because we’d beaten them twice in the playoffs.
J.A. Adande (columnist, Los Angeles Times): The [Kings] had the better season. They had home-court advantage, more talent, more threats. Throughout their roster, top to bottom, they had a better roster. The Lakers didn’t have anybody who could get his own shot other than Kobe and Shaq.
Chucky Brown (forward, Kings): We weren’t afraid of Kobe — Doug [Christie] gave Kobe a tougher time than anybody else would. We didn’t have to come and double him. We felt good about Vlade’s matchup against Shaq. Even though Shaq was a bigger, stronger guy, Vlade was pretty crafty.
Scot Pollard (center, Kings): We had a motley crew of guys. We had Euro guys. We had guys that couldn’t speak English. We had guys that didn’t want to speak English. We had guys like me from planet whatever.
Scott Howard-Cooper (NBA writer, Sacramento Bee): All of the comments you hear about Rick Adelman are he’s boring and too buttoned-down, but one of his great talents as a coach was that he had this team that played much different from his personality and he let them go.
Doug Christie (guard, Kings): One through 5 on our team, everyone could handle the ball, pass the ball, shoot the ball, understood how to set picks and screens and roll and cut. When you get five guys on the floor like that, it’s almost an All-Star team.
Pete Carril (master of the Princeton offense and assistant coach, Kings): There was talk around the league that Chris [Webber] didn’t want to come out to Sacramento, which turned out to be false.  was the first time that [general manager] Geoff [Petrie] had any money to spend there. He came to Rick and said, “I can get Vlade Divac if you’re willing to give him all the money we have.”2
2. After getting swept in the 2001 playoffs, the Kings revamped their backcourt by trading Jason “White Chocolate” Williams and Nick Anderson to Vancouver for Bibby and Brent Price. The year before that, they sent Corliss Williamson to Toronto for Christie.
Rick Adelman (coach, Kings): We always wanted to be a high-post passing team. When you have two big men who can pass like Chris and Vlade, it just makes sense to do that.3
3. Adelman said this to the Los Angeles Daily News.
Carril: You go backdoor off the screen or you curl off it and then you play 2-on-2 with a post guy — if he doesn’t throw the pass, he can pop back, he can shoot it. Go to the other side, you work again, you have a little screen down from the weak side — very effective. And when Webber was at that elbow, he made a lot of shots there. In addition to his passing, that was one of his sacred shots.
Peja Stojakovic (forward, Kings): We went through Chris and Vlade. Those two guys were our point guards, basically.
Vlade Divac (center, Kings): Chris is one of the best players I’ve ever had a chance to play with. Smart player and so unselfish, he makes everybody better. He was the true leader of the team.
Pollard: Everybody looked up to [Divac]. Everybody loved him and then, on the court, of course, he was savvy. He knew how to guard people and different ways to throw them off.
Mike Bibby (guard, Kings): That was obviously the best team I ever played on. Man, it was just fun. They showed me how to love basketball and have fun doing it.
Christie: In practice, we’d always practice passing and cutting and shooting, so when we hit the floor, that was just the finished product. Everything was tight and fluid. It worked like a machine.
Hedo Turkoglu (forward, Kings): It was my second year in the league and I was just first happy to be part of it. I was happy to be coming from Europe, trying to adjust. The chemistry was unbelievable, the friendships with the guys, all of the coaches, that’s why it carried to our success at that time.
Adelman: It’s a tribute to the team that Geoff Petrie has put together. You don’t turn things around overnight. We’ve done this over the course of four years.4
4. Adelman said this to the Associated Press.
Pollard: A different coach wouldn’t have gotten as much out of us. There were times when we lacked focus, when we got too serious. His balance helped our team through the highs and lows … Adelman being the type of guy he was, sometimes we’d lose a game and we’d all be down and he knew it, he could tell we were disappointed. He didn’t need to practice the hell out of us the next day for us to get back on track.
Christie: He had a real good feeling of what was going on with the team. His schedule was always, if we played two games in a row, the next day would be off.
Divac: The chemistry we had on and off the court was amazing. That was a key of our success, because we were good on the floor, but we had fun off the court, too. It was [an] unbelievable joy to be part of the team. We would go together to the restaurants, to the clubs, to family parties, everything as a real team.
Christie: We had a lot of fun on the court. We had more fun off the court, and I think that’s what made it so special. Sometimes we’d be down six or 10. It didn’t matter. We’d always think we were going to come back. Everyone’s saying, “Well, the Kings need home-court advantage.” I don’t think in our mind it mattered, because we knew that we could beat anybody, anywhere, at any time.
Divac: Usually you try to be the best you can, so you can have a home-court advantage. We didn’t care. We knew we could beat anybody.
Gray: They were the most fun team to watch in the NBA. It wasn’t even close.
Divac: We had so many fans outside of the States. I remember we played Minnesota in Tokyo and there was so many fans in Tokyo rooting for Sacramento, it was unbelievable.
Steve Cohn (city council member, Sacramento): People who normally wouldn’t know anything about basketball fully embraced it.
Adande: The Eastern Conference was really nothing that year. Dallas and Sacramento were playing exciting ball. The Lakers really weren’t a fun or exciting team. They were the best team, but they were at their best when they were pounding it in to Shaq.
Geoff Petrie (president of basketball operations, Kings): It was really a team that captured the admiration of not just American basketball fans, but world basketball fans for the style of play and unselfishness and solidarity with which it played. It was probably one of the more popular teams on a worldwide scale up to that time.
Ailene Voisin (sports reporter, Sacramento Bee): They were international. I remember going on vacation and people all over the world knew the starting lineup.
Jerry Reynolds (executive, Kings): We went on the road and I’m sure it was a little bit like the great Bulls teams with Jordan. It’s kind of like a rock band. You’d get into Chicago at two in the morning and there’d be hundreds of fans waiting for autographs. That had never happened [to the Kings] before. It certainly hasn’t happened since.
II. The Trilogy Takes ShapeGame 1, May 18, 2002
Christie: From the very first time we got there in 2000, I believe that they felt us. They felt us coming and there was nobody else in the league, [not] even the Spurs, who were really competing against them the way we were competing.
Adande: Phil and the media quotes were almost as good as the action on the court.
Mark Madsen (forward, Lakers): I remember thinking, Man, Phil has no fear of giving controversial quotes.
Beck: There are very few NBA cities that Phil hasn’t insulted. He called Orlando a plastic city. He made fun of the River Walk [in San Antonio]. He wanted to put an asterisk on the Spurs’ ’99 championship in the lockout year. It’s in Phil’s nature to tweak and to taunt. He enjoys it. He loves doing that.
Phil Jackson: I had some guys near the bench [in Sacramento], we had a jocular relationship. They brought cowbells. They brought an electric bell attached to a battery to let them have that amplified sound. It was a pretty loud arena even during a timeout. I had to move guys away from the bench onto the floor to talk to them. It was a way of kind of diverting attention away from Shaq or some of the players that would get harassed. But it was in good fun. The people in Sacramento understood it as good fun, too.
Gary Gerould (radio commentator, Kings): “Arrogance” I think is the right word, and they had the track record to prove it. I find no fault with that myself. You say, “Hey, more power to them.” They’ve been there. They’ve done that. They’ve won the championships. They had the rings. They had the swagger. They had talent. They were good. They knew it.
Christie: We didn’t really pay attention to it. We were like, Man for man, we know that we can compete and probably beat these guys. But as I look back now, I wish we would have paid attention to it. We had some witty guys, we probably could have played that game with them and still went out and did our job and that might have lent a little better to us. But then they had the Zen Master.
Devean George (forward, Lakers): He’s a master coach as far as how he hides our weaknesses and exposes the other team’s weaknesses. And he just knows how to deal with the media and get them worried about other things. He’s very good at hiding what he really wants.
Grant Napear (play-by-play announcer, Kings): I can guarantee it bothered them. I remember vividly it bothered the Kings players. Without question, it got the town in an uproar.
Howard-Cooper: It drove them wild in ways that can’t be explained. Phil knew exactly what he was doing. Sacramento had this huge inferiority complex in basketball terms to the Lakers, in city terms to Los Angeles and to a certain degree, San Francisco. The big cities. Phil obviously read that, and that was the whole point. I don’t think he really had a genuine dislike for the people of Sacramento, but I think he just had a love for stirring the pot and tweaking people.
Elston Turner (assistant coach, Kings): This was our time to get some payback.
Robert Horry (forward, Lakers): They wanted to take what we had. Rick took it to heart more than anybody. He got caught up in all that stuff. That was the funny part. But for most of us, it was just going about trying to do something special.5
5. Horry spent about half his interview arguing that most of this oral history’s sequences occurred in different years. Horry literally has too many championships to differentiate them all.
Gerould: [The rivalry]really jacked up Kings fans in Northern California. Any time you beat the Lakers, I don’t care if it’s preseason or whatever, from a Sacramento standpoint, it’s a good night.
Howard-Cooper: Almost anything with the Maloofs is going to be very emotional. The owners really were cheerleaders. Sometimes they’d have to go stand under the basket just because they couldn’t take it on the sidelines. They would just get so wound up. Meanwhile, [Lakers owner] Jerry Buss is sitting a couple miles up in the stands at Staples, nowhere to be seen. That was part of the contrast.
Pollard: Rivalries are born from teams that play each other a lot. When you’re not in the rivalry and you look back at it, you’re thinking, Well, I hated that guy because he would have made a great teammate. I didn’t want to play against Shaq. I wanted to play with Shaq. But at the time, my job was to slow him down and beat him up as much as I could.
Fox: They really didn’t draw a lot of our attention until that third year. We had a healthy respect, but didn’t show it. They were our greatest foe emotionally and skillwise.
After working all season to obtain home-court advantage, the Kings lost that edge in less than three hours in Game 1 of the 2002 Western finals. The Lakers led 36-22 at the end of the first quarter and claimed their 12th-straight road playoff win with a 106-99 victory. Kobe and Shaq combined for 56 points, negating Webber’s solid performance (28 points and 14 rebounds).
Mike Breen (play-by-play commentator, NBC): It was like, Whoa. Do not count out the Lakers yet. In all the hype of This is Sacramento’s year, people started to think that. Not so fast.
Horry: If you win the first game, it puts a lot of doubt in some guys’ minds if you can do it or not. You always want to go in and strike that first blow.
Brown: Game 1 was a shock at how physical it was. The Lakers took it to us. I don’t think we really understood what the atmosphere was going to be like.
Pollard: It was one of those things where you just had a bad day collectively and we just thought, Man, wake up. They’re not going to give us the NBA championship even though we’ve got the best record in the league.
Napear: Personally, I thought that was it. I thought for the team to work so hard to be the no. 1 seed, not only in the West, but the best overall record, and then to lose Game 1 against your archrival — I was like, Uh-oh.
III. Beware of the Kobe BeefGame 2, May 20, 2002, and Game 3, May 24, 2002
Kobe Bryant (guard, Lakers): It wasn’t that good, I only had half of it … As far as a conspiracy, I don’t know, I don’t think so.6
6. Bryant said this to the Associated Press.
Vitti: It’s hard for me to believe someone would do that. I seem to have more faith in my fellow man, but I’m pretty sure Kobe still believes it was on purpose.
Jerry Westenhaver (general manager, Hyatt Regency Sacramento): This is the competitive nature of the Kings and Lakers and should be played out on the basketball floor, not in the hotel.7
7. Westenhaver said this to the Sacramento Bee.
George: I was upset and I was mad. At the same time, I was scared. I was like, Are these people really taking this that serious where they would put something in this man’s food? I can just remember how he looked, them giving him IVs, him throwing up. It was ugly. His face was sweating. It was nasty.
Brown: I believe somebody would go that far. When you’re on the road, you have to be careful where you eat. When I was playing, I used to go eat far away from where we normally stayed because I figured they wouldn’t know who I was.
Madsen: When we stayed in Sacramento in the future, we switched hotels because of that incident. And I’m not saying it was anything malicious, but it’s like, “Hey, the mind can wonder a little bit, right?”
Marv Albert (play-by-play commentator, NBC): We’d always stay at the Hyatt and I can’t recall having a cheeseburger after that event. I remember how upset the manager of the hotel was, but then I found out afterward that became a very popular item on the menu.
Pollard: We all just thought it was a ploy. As soon as [Kobe] showed up to the game, we’re all like, OK. He needed another headline.
Vitti: I am surprised anyone would be able to play under such conditions, but Kobe Bryant isn’t just anybody. Think of it this way: If you were in the battlefield, the war doesn’t stop because you are sick. Well, that’s the way he sees it. The game didn’t stop for him, so he had to do battle.
Christie: He seemed like himself. I never fell for any of that stuff. If you’re really, really sick, you just don’t go out there. Otherwise, you can’t use that as an excuse. He was one of the players I respected most. It didn’t matter what you did, he would shoot the ball great. He would go both ways, midrange game, everything. They were like, “Oh, Kobe’s sick.” I didn’t even hear that. I was more like, “Awww. I’m not listening.”
Horry: We weren’t worried. If Shaq would have went down, that would have been an issue. We felt that with Kobe out, no disrespect to Kobe, but we could fill in with B-Shaw [Brian Shaw] and Rick and all the other guys. When you take away size like Shaq, that would have been difficult. But with Kobe, we knew his love for Michael Jordan, [and Jordan] would have overcome his sickness and been able to play. So we weren’t really worried about that.
Bryant: It was one of the toughest things I’ve had to go through.8
8. This quote from Bryant appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.
Fox: I thought he would end up having a better game, he would go into some hyper-focused mode and pull off some game for the ages. Didn’t go that way and Shaq got quick fouls. So it was a double whammy, food poisoning along with foul trouble. We didn’t respect that they matched up with us well enough to beat us in a series. So we showed that the first game. Sure enough, our overconfidence got us the same beatdown that we’d given them the game before.
Cleamons: Shaquille in those days was our mismatch. That’s when Divac really started to play the sympathy card. He’d be flopping with a little bit of contact, trying to draw the offensive foul. Shaquille would bully him in the low block and he’d [say], “How am I supposed to guard this big guy when if I stand up to him, he’s either going to run me over or what am I going to do?” So he started flopping his butt off, trying to get the sympathy of the officials.
Phil Jackson: The discrepancy between what happened when Shaq was in foul trouble in Sacramento [versus] Shaq getting fouled in L.A. was really interesting. Look at those stats. Divac got the calls, which became blocks on our home court, which became charges on their home court. Referees are not immune to the energy home crowds create. They like to be objective and they try to be objective, but these things are just a part of the game.
The Lakers harped on Game 2’s free throw disparity and Divac’s flopping between games. “We had a player on the way to a 50-point game, which he’s very capable of getting,” Phil Jackson told the media. “He’s completely taken out of his game in the process of making foul calls … Vlade finds a way to do his antics at the right time to create the right situation.” The Kings brushed aside O’Neal’s cheating quote. “I just think, if they’re really the world champs, they don’t need to say anything like that,” Adelman responded. Meanwhile, Bryant’s sickness kept him from practicing before Game 3 in L.A. and Sacramento still didn’t have Stojakovic, who had suffered a sprained ankle against Dallas in the previous round. But Sacramento surprised the Lakers with an impressive 103-90 victory, leading by as many as 27 points as the Lakers floundered to a 36 percent shooting performance. Webber and Bibby combined for 50 points. Christie had 17 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, and three steals. And Turkoglu chipped in with 14 in Peja’s place.
Phil Jackson: Game 3, they just shot lights out in the first half. They played with great confidence. Turkoglu was really a force. We were used to Stojakovic. We weren’t used to Turkoglu. Turkoglu was playing with such energy and had such live legs. It was a really good shooting basketball club with a lot of freedom to shoot. [Rick Adelman] promotes that, and I think he does a great job doing that.
Turkoglu: Even though it was my first and second year, the guys, they really liked what I did at that time, and no matter what they supported me. So, all I had to do was go out there and compete my ass off and it would be much easier. That’s basically what I did.
Christie: I depended on my defense too much and wasn’t as aggressive offensively as I should have been. I was aggressive and if I played that way, those were the types of numbers that you were going to get, almost about 20, eight rebounds, and six or seven assists. You know, I deferred a lot to the guys — looking back, I probably should have played the Game 3 games all the time.
Shaquille O’Neal (center, Lakers): Chris Webber was having his way with our 4s.
Samaki Walker (forward, Lakers): Webber had developed a jump shot, which made him more deadly at the time. He was a great passer — not only that, the offense was incredible. They knew how to get him the ball in places that he was very tough to guard.
Turner: [Webber] was a joy to coach and he gave fans and us coaches some tremendous highlights from the style he played. I can’t remember any player not wanting to play with him because he could pass. When you can pass, everybody wants to play with you.
Phil Jackson: It was a struggle just to stay in that ballgame. We came into the locker room at halftime and we were like, Wow. We’ve got our hands full here …
George: We thought if they got a lead, they were really tough. But if the game was close, if they were down a little bit, they played a totally different type of ballgame. If we couldn’t keep it close, they were really hard to snatch that lead from.
Bryant: We’re not bored now.9
9. Bryant said this to the Los Angeles Daily News.
Madsen: To me, there were moments where it was kind of like, Man, these guys are really good. Can we beat them?
IV. Big Shot Rob Saves the DayGame 4, May 26, 2002
Walker: I had no intentions of making the shot. I’ve probably taken two 3-pointers in my career, and I think I’m 100 percent. It was a lucky shot.
Phil Jackson: We needed anything, a momentum boost to get in there.
Walker: Technically, the ball might’ve still been in my hand. I actually [didn't] look at it until probably three years later. I never really knew what the fuss was about. Once I got a chance to actually view it and go back, there’s an argument.
Christie: It shouldn’t have counted. It was the momentum change. They had something to feel positive about going into halftime because we were killing them.
Walker: I think he’s exactly right. In a game like that, when you’re getting down and things are not going your way, you’re looking for that one moment that you hope you loosen the noose around your neck a little bit.
Adande: If he doesn’t make that shot, of course Robert Horry’s shot doesn’t matter.
The Lakers kept creeping closer in the second half as Sacramento finally went cold, scoring just 34 points after halftime. Kobe and Shaq combined for 52 points in Game 4, but Horry (who finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds, and five assists) was the Lakers’ best all-around player. At this point of his career, nobody was calling him “Big Shot Rob” yet. That would change on the final possession, with the Lakers trailing by two points.
Heisler: They managed to scratch their way back into the game and they’re coming and coming and coming.
Mitch Richmond (guard, Lakers): I learned a lot with Phil. I can remember with maybe four seconds on the clock and Phil would say, “Oh my god. We’ve got a lot of time.” Playing for 13 years, I always thought four seconds wasn’t a lot of time. There was just a calmness when we had opportunities and there were four or five or six seconds. That was like an eternity to our team. Everything slowed down. We felt confident and he instilled that confidence in the team.
Horry: I’m always the type of guy, I want to go for a 3 to win. The play was designed for Kobe to go to the hole against Doug Christie.
Christie: When we played the Lakers, I usually told our guys that “I got him.” Not that I was going to totally stop [Kobe] by any stretch of the imagination, but don’t double-team. Shaq, at the rim, is 100 percent. Kobe out here is 50 percent and we can live with that. I was just trying to stick him and trying to make him miss the shot. Luckily I did that and Vlade had this Magic Johnson–Portland flashback, trying to bat the ball to the other end of the court.
Divac: The Lakers game, the Western Conference finals, ’91. I was in my second year. We’re up one and [Terry] Porter took the shot, Magic rebounds and just throws the ball down the floor and lets the clock expire.
O’Neal: I actually had the 2-pointer to tie up. I tried to get it up there quick so Vlade wouldn’t foul me. Vlade did foul me and I missed.
Divac: Having Shaq on my back and Kobe trying to make the layup, I blocked the shot and the ball was loose, so I couldn’t reach. I tried to knock it down so the time would expire.
Bobby Jackson (guard, Sacramento Kings): Grab the damn rebound. That’s what I’m thinking. Don’t panic. Grab the rebound. He’s right there. Get fouled. The only thing that can beat us is a 3. Shaq putting it in ties it up.
Pollard: When it’s a last-second shot, get it away from the rim. Don’t let them win on a tip. Vlade was up there tipping against Shaq of all people. Yeah, you get the ball the hell away from Shaquille O’Neal in that situation or you’re going to get a dunk and foul most likely, so get it out of there.
O’Neal: And then he tried to tap it out and tapped it right to Robert.
Divac: Basically, I made a good pass to Robert Horry.
Reynolds: I still say it’s a very poor play by Horry because the Lakers were down two … here’s their power forward standing 25 feet away from the basket. His butt should have been on the boards. What’s he doing? Protecting the backcourt?
Horry: I was designing to be out there because I’m always going to go for the 3 to win. I don’t like that tie B.S. and going to overtime.
Phil Jackson: He always seemed to gravitate to the 3-point line in situations like that at the end of the game. We actually had him gravitate to those spots, corners and the top. There he was. It was a shot that really saved that series. We needed that burst of energy for our team.
Turner: It’s like Robert Horry has a magnet. It went straight to him. If it was five feet over, it would have went to one of our guys.
Horry: The ball just happened to get to me perfect.
George: Better than a perfect bounce pass. I don’t think he could have gave a two-hand chest pass and meant it better.
Heisler: Nine guys under the basket and Rob is at the arc as if God’s going to carry the ball out to him.
Christie: We could give Vlade a hundred passes and he couldn’t make that pass if he tried.
Pollard: He didn’t have to reach down. He didn’t have to reach up. It was right in his wheelhouse and all he had to do was shoot it. It was like a perfect pass.
Christie: I actually should have probably kept running, but I saw Webb and I was like, OK, that’s the best we’re going to get because he’s closer than I am.
Reynolds: In fairness to Webber, he reacted well once the ball went out there. He really challenged the shot.
Christie: When I ran out at a player, I found that when you stick your hand out sometimes, if you’re really not going to deter the shot, sometimes you should just duck underneath him and run past him. That’ll mess them up a little more. When you stick your hand up, it kind of gives them something to judge off of.
Richmond: You could see when it was leaving his hand that, man, that thing was good.
Gerald Wallace (forward, Kings): It felt like it took the shot forever to get to the rim.
Fox: It went through and just like … we felt like if we were drowning, we got up for air.
Reynolds: I felt like I had seen my first child in a car wreck or something.
Richmond: I think I was the first one to reach Horry. I flew off the bench to give him a big hug.
George: They were handing it to us. That would have been game over. There would have been no Game 7 without that shot.
Divac: Well, I was joking after trying to put pressure on him and the whole Laker team and I called it a lucky shot. But Robert obviously is a great shooter.
Steve “Snapper” Jones (analyst, NBC): The Kings did everything that they had to do. They plugged the middle, the ball went up, they knocked it back out and the Kings are going to beat the Lakers and they’re going to advance and the ball goes to Horry and he’s in perfect rhythm and the ball goes in. That’s part of the reason why he got the nickname “Big Shot Rob.”
Christie: My son is a huge Kobe fan, so I have all this Kobe stuff and Lakers stuff all over my house. I actually bought him the shot of Robert Horry shooting over Chris — it’s signed and it’s on his wall. I look at this picture every day in my son’s room and Webb is stretching. His fingers are stretching and he’s trying to get there and it was just a perfect pass by Vlade.
Cleamons: You’ve got to be good and lucky to win it. And you’ve got to have a little bit of unluckiness or misfortune not to win it. When you get that close, the difference between a championship team and a team that finishes second in your conference final or in the NBA final, it’s minimal.
Jones: The one thing that everybody takes out of sports is luck. You have to have a little luck in order to win a championship … You do everything right if you’re the Kings and it turns out wrong. That’s luck.
Bibby: It just went in, and your heart drops. You figure you’re going back home. It’s the best place to play in the league at that time. I figured we were going to do it at home.
Divac: It’s a playoff series, you just have to move forward. You can’t do anything about what happened in that game.
Reynolds: I told Horry once, I said, “It cost me a new roof on my house and then some.” He said, “I don’t care.” I respect that.
V. Momentum? What Momentum?Game 5, May 28, 2002
10. Said Samaki Walker afterward, “You mean to tell me Vlade Divac is on Shaquille O’Neal and in the fourth quarter he has two fouls and he’s been guarding him the whole game?”
Turner: Vlade, he knew how to play. He had a savviness and a trickiness about him. He knew the right place to bump Shaq, hold him out and release, and play the game. For the most part, it worked. Vlade held his own. Vlade wasn’t a big, overpowering guy. He’d been around forever, and he was smart.
O’Neal: I was trying to be aggressive, trying to play hard. I just got a couple silly fouls.11
11. O’Neal said this to the Los Angeles Daily News.
Beck: Everybody forgets about all the other games in which the refereeing was an issue. Webber smacking the ball out of bounds, but them calling it off Horry and giving it back to the Kings is a key moment.
Phil Jackson: We thought it was our ball. That ball did not go off us. It went off them. And Jack Nies awarded them the ball and we were right there, all of us coaches on the bench were right there. We thought it was a bad call. The guys were upset about it.
Howard-Cooper: There were certainly times when the Kings got huge breaks as well. Nobody in Sacramento ever talks about that aspect when they talk about refereeing. There were controversial plays that went both ways. It wasn’t just the Lakers being handed opportunities every game.
Phil Jackson: We got in the huddle and we tried to say, OK, settle down. We’ve still got the lead and so forth.
Reynolds: [Bibby] loved to take big shots; [he] got better in big-shot situations.
Pollard: Back in college, when I was a senior, Mike was on the Arizona Wildcats and I was on the no. 1 Kansas Jayhawks … We were kind of stacked and we’re dominating everybody, and we’re playing against Arizona and that kid killed us. That was in my head when I became teammates with Mike. He always made big shots.
Christie: When Webb got the ball, Adelman was extremely smart, thinking, If Webb catches the ball, they’re going to think he’s going to shoot the last shot. So when Bibs throws the ball in, his defender is going to loosen up just a little bit. And he did.
Bibby: I told Webb that if he didn’t take the shot, I wanted to. Webb was a good enough teammate to get me open for a shot. Everybody probably thought he was going to take the shot anyways. He set a great screen that just got me a wide-open look.
Christie: Our plays weren’t set for one person. We were a read-the-defense team. We took what the defense gave us.
Reynolds: The Kings probably got by with an illegal screen to free Bibby up on that play. Webber looked like to me he really did move in and clear guys out. But that’s not called a lot.
12. From that piece: “‘It’s been consistent,’ Fox said sarcastically. ‘They’ve been consistently shooting about 35 free throws a game and we’ve been shooting about 18. It’s been consistent.’”
Christie: Bib knocked down one of the biggest shots in Sacramento Kings history and pushed us over the hump.
Bibby: I’ve spent hours and hours in the gym taking that shot. So I felt comfortable with that shot.
Breen: It was Mike Bibby’s coming-out party. He was sensational. It seemed at crunch time, he was the one guy that wanted to take the shot for Sacramento.13
13. Few were saying that about Webber. In a 2002 column for ESPN.com, Bill Simmons wrote that Webber “officially grabbed the torch from Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Ralph Sampson, and Elvin Hayes as ‘The High-Priced Superstar Who’s Great to Have on Your Team Unless There’s Three Minutes Left in a Big Game.’ None of this was really a surprise, but watching C-Webb figure out ways to eradicate himself from crunch-time possessions was the most intriguing subplot of the playoffs.”
Reynolds: Mike was a big shot taker, big shot maker. He loved those opportunities. Chris was good in those areas, but I think he had a lot of confidence in Mike.
Cleamons: We made Bibby a lot of money.14 Bibby ought to be thanking us. He made his name in those games.
14. The Kings eventually awarded Bibby a seven-year contract for $80 million.
Adande: Bibby makes his shot to go ahead. Kobe takes his shot on the other end. His jersey was tucked at the start of the play. At the end of the play, his jersey was untucked. That’s how hands-on Bobby Jackson was with him on that play. Kobe missed. No foul called. Game 5 goes to the Kings.
Bobby Jackson: I’m pretty sure I did foul him. But at the end of the day, it was pretty good defense. I made him take a tough shot for him to win the game. I think it was great D.
Bryant: If I’m completely healthy maybe I make those shots, who’s to say? Did I get fouled? You saw the replay; it’s irrelevant. Shaq had fouled out. It was up to me to create something, either score or go to the free throw line.15
15. Bryant said this to the Orange County Register.
Phil Jackson: Bibby makes big shots. He made a big shot and saved their series, basically. They were the team that had to win that ballgame. That one really hurt, but our players were good. Our players were still very confident about how they’re going to play.
Bibby: I thought the series was over, just the way we were playing and how everything was rolling. Going into Game 6, we were unbeatable, really.
VI. As the Whistle Turns…Game 6, May 31, 2002
16. Roland Beech, the founder of 82games.com, went through every debated call in great detail here.
O’Neal: I was sleeping, and my little daughter, she was sleeping on me. She was slobbering, I was slobbering, and the phone rang at about 2:30 and it was Kobe. He was like: Big fella, I need you tomorrow. Let’s make history.17
17. O’Neal recounted the telephone call to many reporters after the game.
Phil Jackson: Well, that’s the way Kobe rolls. That’s the way he does things. He doesn’t sleep a lot. I’ve had players very similar to that. Michael Jordan’s another guy that didn’t sleep much during the playoffs. The intensity is so great, your mind’s working overtime. That’s something that Kobe was, I think, effective in doing with his teammates. He didn’t have a buddy-buddy relationship with Shaq, but he had a good professional relationship with him.
Jones: I don’t think that anyone in Sacramento at that time felt like they didn’t have the better team, that they weren’t going to win the game. The entire region felt that this was their chance to win a championship.
Bob Delaney (NBA referee, Game 6): As a referee, you go into every locker room hoping to have a perfect game. When you leave the locker room to go out on the floor, while that’s your hope, there’s a reality that whether it was this game or the other 1,800-plus games I worked, you come in and there’s some calls you wish you made and some you wish you didn’t make.
Heisler: Vlade was giving Shaquille a lot of trouble by flopping. It was that way for about four games, and then after that, Shaquille finally figured it out. Shaquille completely cleaned up his act. He wouldn’t create any contact so that Vlade could flop off of him.
O’Neal: When you flopped, that means you fear me, so when I smell blood, I was going to attack and that’s all Vlade and Scot and them tried to do. They tried to get me in foul trouble.
Divac: [Pollard] tried to wrestle and I tried [to] run up and down the floor and make him tired. When they’d go on offense, he would be a little bit tired and he’s not going to score every time.
Pollard: Every once in a while, I’d go in and try to get out of Shaq’s way, but he’d just find me and knock me over anyway and still dunk it. So it didn’t work out well for me. It was better for me to try and punish or push back.
Richmond: Shaq at one point said, “Hey, give me the ball. Ride me and then everything feeds off of me.” And we did it. We turned it around and started going down low to Shaq.
O’Neal: All the time. I used to tell them that all the time.
Divac: You can’t really guard him, you know? He can score anytime he wants to. Playing physical against Shaq is suicide. I tried to run the floor up and down, take charges, and pressure him to be in foul trouble. That’s why I sometimes forced referees to call some fouls, and then they started calling it flopping, you know? That’s the only way you can defend the big fella.
Delaney: We all knew Vlade flopped. We watched enough tape and we got so much better at it. When flopping first came into the league, we were fooled by it. But as time went on, any kind of “fool the ref” play, we usually get pretty good at it because we watched so much tape and we could tell the difference. You can tell a delayed reaction versus a full hit.
Pollard: We went in at halftime and said what we were saying the whole series. “Hey, guys, they aren’t going to give it to us. We’ve got to win. We’ve got to beat the other five guys and it seems like the other three guys in uniform, the referees, are against us, but we’ve got to beat them, too. Don’t think about it. Just do it.”
Richmond: We were trying to get them in foul trouble and make the refs call fouls and slow the game down. They wanted to go at a little faster pace than us.
Voisin: Game 6 was the most poorly officiated big game that I’ve ever covered, and I started covering the league in ’81. I think the refs just had a bad game. There were a couple really ticky-tack fouls against Pollard and Divac in the fourth quarter that just took them out of the game.
Divac: I felt bad, but what are you going to do about it? Me and Scot, we fouled out very quickly, but you can’t do anything about it.
Delaney: Shaq should’ve been to the line a lot more than he was because he would go through hits, where some other players would have a flutter of the ball, or maybe couldn’t go through it. So when he went through the hit, many times myself, other referees when we talked about it, we didn’t think he got hit — it was incidental because he would just go right through it. But the reality of it, when you went back and looked at tape, you go, “Wow, he did get hit.” What he was complaining about was true.
Ted Bernhardt (NBA referee, Game 6): When [O’Neal] turned and pivoted, people bounced. A lot of times [it was difficult] to judge whether or not it was an offensive foul or he got fouled or it was a no-call. There were so many things that could happen every time he turned around.
Delaney: I know when Divac fouled out, that became a big rally cry. But I also know in watching tape, the foul should’ve been called first on Webber on the first move by Horry. He grabs his wrist, which causes the ball to come loose. I missed that call, and if I had perfection in the game, I would’ve called the first foul and I think it would’ve been Webber’s sixth foul.
In retrospect, I’m not on the floor remembering if it’s [Divac's] sixth foul. Robert goes to get the ball, and when Vlade collides with him, it causes the ball to come loose again. So in my opinion, it’s a foul whether it’s his first or sixth. It’s a foul when someone loses possession of the ball due to contact. I missed the first [call], I get the second one, and that causes it to be Divac’s sixth foul, which caused the hoopla.18
18. “If you watch the tape, Robert Horry comes right to me, and what he says to me is, ‘Don’t be lunchin’ on me out here,’” Delaney said. “I looked at him and he says, ‘That’s my word, lunchin’.’ It means, ‘Don’t take a break. C-Webb fouled me.’ So it was Robert’s way of saying to me, ‘You missed the first one.’”
Pollard: When you count up the fouls that we had against Shaq and then the ones that he committed, you’re saying, “OK, wait a minute. Something’s wrong here.” Of course, three guys are going to have more fouls than Shaq. But consistently, there were three or four guys fouling out guarding him. Our guys aren’t scoring and he’s not fouling out. And neither is Samaki Walker.19
19. Shaq was whistled for four fouls in Game 6. He was called for 19 fouls from Game 3 through Game 6.
Bernhardt: The one play that is so difficult at the end was the Kobe play [against Bibby with 12 seconds to go], where he goes after the ball. That was a play where I could have had a whistle, or not a whistle. So could the other two guys.
Gerould: He just steamrolled Mike Bibby and it was right in front of us. I’m picturing Bob Delaney. And there was no whistle, no call. And you’re thinking, Oh my God. What do you have to do to get a foul?
Delaney: I see Mike Bibby defending Kobe Bryant, and I see his arm wrapped around his waist, and to me it’s a hold. I’m processing in my mind to start to call that foul, and if I call it, it’s an away-from-the-play foul, because it’s like a foul off the ball. If a foul takes place prior to the ball being released during an inbound pass, it’s deemed to be an away-from-the-play foul, which would mean one shot and possession. So anybody on the floor could shoot the free throw for the Lakers, and then the Lakers would retain possession at the point of interruption.
Bernhardt: You could almost have a blocking call before what looks like an elbow to the face.
Delaney: While I’m processing that, then Kobe is trying to break free, comes up, the ball is inbounded and then a foul is taken. And it becomes [clear] to me that somehow Mike got hit in the face, and obviously it was when Kobe was pulling his arms up. All that in microseconds.
Bernhardt: It was really just [Kobe] trying to step through there after the defensive player stepped up into him. That was a tough play. Period. You look at it and one side, you have one opinion. Another side, you have another opinion.
Delaney: I’ve seen elbows thrown; to me that was not a thrown elbow. But if I had my perfect game, if I could sit down, break down the play, and have that perfect ballgame, I would’ve called the away-from-the-play foul, which means the Lakers would’ve shot one and retained possession, and called a technical on Kobe. Sacramento shoots one technical foul, L.A. does the same, and they inbound the ball from the same spot.
Bibby: It pissed me off because when I got up, I thought they called a foul on him. I didn’t know what happened. I remember saying, “You called a foul on me?” And my nose was bleeding, and I blew some of my blood out onto the court just to show them.
Pollard: All we could do is laugh. We’re watching Shaq step over the free throw line and we’re yelling it out and they’re not doing anything. We’re watching Vlade guarding Shaq like he’s guarded him all year and they’re calling fouls on him. You’re watching me getting bumped off my spot by two feet and then Shaq elbows me in the chin on the way up and it’s a foul on me. And then you’re watching Lawrence Funderburke try to do anything he can possibly do when he’s outweighed by 100 pounds, because we’re down to him and Chris Webber. And then you’re watching Mike Bibby get absolutely plastered in the face by Kobe and it’s a foul on Mike Bibby. And you’re just sitting there, just trying to laugh it off.
Adelman: All I have to say is the elbow from Kobe to Mike’s mouth and Shaq taking Lawrence Funderburke down. Those two calls during the regular season are flagrant fouls.20
20. Adelman said this to the Los Angeles Daily News.
Chris Webber (forward, Kings): It was a funny game. Not a fun game.21
21. Webber said this to the Chicago Tribune.
Rambis: Even though referees say they ref games the same way, each game of a series and in the playoffs compared to the regular season, I just don’t think it is. I think the game gets more and more physical and the referees allow more and more things to happen.
Phil Jackson: It wasn’t as ridiculous as you saw in, say, the Miami versus Dallas series in 2006 when Dwyane Wade was shooting 20-something free throws a game that series.
Michael Wilbon (columnist, Washington Post): I think officials are the most unfairly criticized people in sports. I think they have no agenda, and I’m including NBA officials who I know. I think they are by far the most impartial people in sports and they don’t have an agenda. I think scouts and officials are just the most honest people in sports, I do. But that game was an abomination.
Brown: We got robbed that game. There was no way, in my mind at least, that we were going to commit all those fouls. We were a finesse team.
O’Neal: Everybody says, “We’re going to put Shaq on the free throw line. We’re going to foul him.” They are going to Hack-a-Shaq. So all that stuff with the fouls, that was part of their strategy. That’s what they did. Maybe one or two phantom calls, but that’s every game, every year that I played in the NBA. Their strategy was to foul the whole time.
Brown: Officials are going to miss calls, like an out-of-bounds call, stuff like that happens. But when you’ve got stuff going on with the fouls, that’s a little bit different.
Wilbon: I don’t believe that David Stern called anybody or that my bosses at the network called anybody. I don’t believe any of that, because it would get out. Nobody can keep their mouths shut. I just think that people have a bad night.
Bernhardt: Ed Rush, my boss at the time, called and asked what I thought about the game. I said, “I’d rather not say.” He said, “Tell me, Ted.” I said, “You know me, Ed. I’d rather not say.” He goes, “Ted, tell me.” I said, “Well, I thought my partners sucked.” He says, “OK, thank you. That’s what I’d thought you think.” Click. That’s why I hate talking about it, because I really care about Delaney and [third official Dick] Bavetta.
Reynolds: That particular quarter was just remarkable. There are always breaks that go with you and against you. I’ve seen it for a lot of years. But that just struck me. I’ve never seen it go against just one team so consistently.
Bernhardt: I wasn’t happy with the game. I wasn’t happy with my partners as a whole. Overall, I didn’t think anybody got hosed or anything like that. It was a tough game.
Christie: Shaq played strong. We were on him. Did he get calls? Yeah, he got some calls. But, anybody who puts up those type of numbers — those are dominant numbers, man. They were like 40 and 20 or something crazy. Those are just like, Hey, big fella, we’re coming to you all night long and you do your thing. We threw everything that we had at him. We played a heck of a game and we couldn’t get over the hump.
Heisler: There wasn’t a single outrageous call. The Lakers were the ones taking it to the hoop and they were taking it to the hoop time after time after time. Shaq typically took dozens of free throws a game.22
22. O’Neal averaged 12.1 free throw attempts per game during the 58 playoff games that encompassed the Lakers’ three-peat.
Bobby Jackson: Come on, man. You shoot 27 free throws in one quarter? Who does that? Nobody’s ever done that in the history of the NBA. At the end of the day, we kind of felt like we got screwed.
Wallace: We were a referee away from going to the Finals.
Pollard: It was just dejection. We felt like we battled back and we came from a huge deficit and the halftime shot, all that other stuff, and we still felt like we won that game. Basically, we won that game and we just ran out of time.
VII. The 15th RoundGame 7, June 2, 2002
Voisin: Before the game, I went into the locker room — the thing that always stuck with me was that players were still whining about Game 6, how they got screwed, everyone from Rick Adelman to Geoff Petrie. They were still consumed by Game 6.
George: Forty minutes before the game started, every seat in the house was packed. They had the all-white shirts on, white towel waving, cheering loud. We’re talking warm-ups. The game hasn’t even started. I remember them playing James Brown the whole time, “The Payback,” like this was their time.
Napear: It was a chance for this community to do something that no one ever thought you would see out of this community, this town, the team — that was to go to the NBA Finals.
Brown: The one thing that I remember, we had been shooting free throws and working on free throws all year. We didn’t shoot a whole lot of free throws before Game 7.
Pollard: People ask me if I miss the game. I’ve been retired five years now. I say, “Hell no.” They say, “You don’t miss it? I say, “Well, I miss the paychecks. I also don’t miss doing what I had to do to get those paychecks.” The only thing I do miss is that adrenaline rush. I miss walking out on the court and having 20,000 people screaming. Rock stars do that until they’re 70 because of that feeling. Players play past their prime because of that feeling.
Fox: We were the more experienced team out of the two. I tried to focus on that. I tried to focus on the fact that we played Portland in a Game 7 a couple years earlier.
Christie: I had never dealt with anything like that. I was emotional. I didn’t understand what I was going through. After you have been there before and you’ve experienced it, you know what to expect. So I’m sure at the other end of the court, they’re calm as a cucumber.
O’Neal: During the national anthem, I like to look at people’s eyes. I keep my head down through most of the song until the rocket part comes, “And when the rockets’ … ” that’s when I put my head up and look at people, and when I catch eye contact and guys put their heads down, I know I got them.
Fox: We knew how emotionally exhausting and physically exhausting a Game 7 could be — during the game, how much pressure and heightened every possession became. So I knew we knew what that felt like. And I knew the Kings didn’t know what that felt like.
Christie: I was going through emotions like, Man, this is Game 7. This is the Lakers. In my mind, that was it. If we beat these guys, we’re going to kill the New Jersey Nets. It was a powerful moment from many different standpoints. Your whole life, you’ve been working for this moment.
Brown: I didn’t really notice anybody being nervous. I know that Webb and them wanted to win. I didn’t see Doug being scared. I didn’t see that. I didn’t see it. I know Bobby Jackson stepped up big in Game 7 for us.
Rambis: I just remember saying to Phil, “They’re afraid to shoot.” Guys got open looks, they were not aggressive at this point in time, other than Bibby.
Heisler: Late in the game, [Webber] had the ball in his hands and he looked like he was catching a grenade. He did everything except fumble it over to Mike Bibby.
Richmond: I was going through the agony of being down against the Kings and thinking, All these seven years has flipped and the Kings will be going to the championship. There were a lot of things going on in my head. When I was on the bench, I was sweating through my clothes even though I didn’t play.
Christie: Toward the end of the game in regulation, I thought the roof was going to come down. It was just shaking. They were shaking cowbells, but you can’t even hear cowbells. The people were just going nuts. The floor is shaking and I just go up to one of the refs, I was like, Is this just the most incredible thing?
Howard-Cooper: Like a big wall of sound and heat and stress.
Wallace: We actually sat on the bench with earplugs.
In the final seconds, with the score tied, Stojakovic air-balled a 3-pointer that could have sent the Kings to the Finals. In overtime, Christie missed badly on a crucial 3-pointer. They ended up being the two most memorable shots of the game. Other than Bibby and Jackson, every other King looked timid and overcome by the moment. Sacramento missed 14 of its 30 free throw attempts and 18 of its 20 3-pointers. Meanwhile, Shaquille O’Neal, Derek Fisher, and Kobe Bryant made all eight of their free throws in overtime. The Lakers prevailed, 112-106.
Voisin: Most of the team tensed up, with the exception of Bobby Jackson. For whatever reason, he was on the bench. Rick went back to his starters. He put Peja, who had a bad ankle, and Doug Christie back in there.
Pollard: The fourth quarter came around and nobody could hit a shot. That kind of ruined it for me because I was having a good game, maybe one of the best games of my career in the playoffs. And I didn’t see the court in the fourth quarter. After that game, I was pretty pissed off because I felt like I was contributing and doing something and getting guys open.
Christie: We were one of the best free throw–shooting teams in the league. And then, Peja air-balls. Peja never air-balls. Not even when he’s joking around.
Napear: I don’t know if Bobby would have made the last shot, but I know he wouldn’t have air-balled it. Bobby was clutch. You could put Bobby in any type of situation and the pressure would never get to him.
Bobby Jackson: You go with what the coach calls and you respect that and you run with it. Early on in my career, I would probably be upset and mad, but we had such a great team chemistry, we kind of relied on each other and we kind of respected what Coach wanted with his playing time and decision-making. And we didn’t question it.
Fox: The one player I hadn’t left open all series got open for one second. I left to help on a penetration, the ball got kicked out to Stojakovic, and if he’d knocked down that shot that he always knocks down, it would’ve been a different series.
Divac: Peja was hurt, he had something wrong with his leg. But hey, if somebody told you that you’re going to be one shot away from the Finals, and basically whoever goes to the Finals wins …
Stojakovic: Sometimes I do blame myself. I think a lot of guys think about that series and what each of us could have done better. Me personally, I still think about that missed shot. Maybe that could have made a difference. It’s still in my head.
Fox: He shot a complete air ball. Probably because he was shocked to be that wide open.
Stojakovic: Now that I’m thinking about it, I can picture that shot and it doesn’t feel good. Hedo kicked it out to me in the corner and maybe I rushed it. It left correct from my hand and it just didn’t go well. It didn’t go well.
Turkoglu: He was really hurt at that time. He was making the decision to try and come out and try to give his best for the team. If he wasn’t really hurt, I would put all my money that Peja would never miss that shot.
Christie: I shot an air ball myself [in overtime]. It looked good. Looking back on it now, when Bib passed me the ball, I think I had a couple seconds on the clock. I could have drove to the hole. It was a bizarre game for us as a whole.
Wilbon: Doug’s [shot] was curving, like he shot a boomerang or something.
Voisin: Doug was just frozen. He couldn’t hit anything.
Pollard: I think [Doug] was in his own head. He seemed to struggle that series. He didn’t shoot the ball well, especially in Game 7, but nobody really shot the ball well in Game 7. We really laid an egg.
Fox: I knew some of them would tighten, I didn’t know who would tighten. I knew that all 12 weren’t going to be as free and as fluid as they probably were in Games 1 through 6.
George: If we were sitting on their bench, one of their fans could literally reach out and tap one of us on the shoulder. They’re right there. I mean it was loud. They were banging the cowbells and I remember clear as day, we had pretty much beaten them and it got real quiet. The cowbells stopped and I can remember Coach getting on the guy behind the bench, saying, “Come on, I thought you were going to ring that bell all day. I don’t hear it now.” And the guy would just start ringing this big cowbell, pretty much damaging our eardrums.
Adande: Game 7 was so intense, I just remember having a headache afterward. My ears were ringing. My stomach was in a knot.
Adelman: You want to say they’re a better team, you say it. But I’m not.23
23. Adelman said this to the Los Angeles Daily News.
Christie: We looked them right in their face and competed with them. They knew when they were playing against us, in my opinion, that that was the championship. When they beat us, it was a done deal.
O’Neal: The arena was very, very loud. If we can get through that, then we can get through any Eastern Conference opponent. It was just a fun place to play. You come to a hostile arena and they’re expected to win and you win and do your thing, especially having a Game 7. I like that.
Pollard: You can blame the loss on the referees in Game 6 and have a valid argument. But the bottom line is, we still had Game 7 and we choked and we didn’t win Game 7. We should have — as much as it hurts, I feel like I should have a ring from that team.
Adande: If your starting guard is terrified before Game 7 at home, guess what? You’re not ready and you don’t deserve to win that game or the series. The Lakers won a Game 7 on the road. Do you realize how rare that is? An overtime Game 7 on the road? The Kings weren’t quite ready. They lost Game 1 at home. They lost Game 7 at home. Those are two things that shouldn’t happen.
Gerould: The Lakers’ experience in big-game situations really rose to the front. The Kings were so aware of the opportunity at hand in the seventh game, the overtime. I think the pressure of that situation took a toll.
Phil Jackson: You couldn’t ask for anything better in the seventh game of a series.
Adelman: I’m extremely disappointed for our team. They just played their hearts out in this series and it just seemed like they had their hearts ripped right out of them. We did everything we could … In my mind, I don’t know how we didn’t win this series, personally.
Webber: So many things in that series could have gone the other way. It’s stupid to spend all your time thinking about it. It’s a waste.24
24. Webber said this to the Associated Press.
Pollard: As much as I feel like maybe my career would have gone differently had we won it that year, it is what it is.
Divac: Basically, free throws cost us the game.
Howard-Cooper: The Kings couldn’t make their free throws. That’s the bottom line. There was no fix on that.25
25. The Lakers made 27 of 33 free throws, including an unexpected 11-of-15 performance from Shaq. The Kings missed one more free throw in Game 7 than the 13 Shaq missed in the final four games of the series.
Phil Jackson: It ended up being the free throw line that made the difference. That’s all about being relaxed. People a lot of times wonder about guys that can’t shoot free throws, these big kids that get to the line. They shoot 80 percent at practice and 50 percent in ball games. They wonder why these pros can’t do it. But it’s the pressure. It’s the things that go into a game like that, and we had had experience in a seventh game, and this team had been in the position where they had gone through failures. They had been swept twice in the playoffs two years before I came to coach them in ’99 and 2000. So they were really quite aware of it.
Bobby Jackson: We beat ourselves. Watch the tape, look at all the mistakes we made, all the free throws we missed. We were actually a pretty good free throw–shooting team. We shot ourselves in the foot.
Brown: Guys were a little dejected. But it was more so a young team, so you felt like, All right, we got a little bit of a taste. You have to crawl before you walk.
Phil Jackson: I do recall the exodus of when Shaq mooned the people in the parking lot as we went out of the parking lot. They had mooned us on the way in.
Adande: I specifically remember Kobe walking out of the arena with me after Game 7, and I asked about the rivalry. He said, Come on, J. They’ve got to beat us first. You know the rules.
Devin Blankenship (web content coordinator, Kings): After we lost Game 7, we’re still at the practice facility and it’s a late night. We are just wrapping up the press conferences. We walk back to a little open area where media relations was. My boss at the time was Troy Hanson, who was director of media relations. The rest of the department, we had always heard the stories that the team has to lose a few tough ones and that’s how they win the big one. So in our minds, we say, Oh, this is just the beginning. This is going to be the start of our run. And Troy overheard us talking and he was like, “What if that was it? What if that was our shot?”
Epilogue: “Ain’t Gonna Be No Rematch”
Of course, the legend of the 2002 series lives on. After the playoffs, political activist Ralph Nader called for an investigation into Game 6’s officiating. In 2008, disgraced official Tim Donaghy reopened the wound by claiming the league had fixed the heavily debated sixth game, though few took Donaghy’s claims too seriously. “We welcome scrutiny here,” commissioner David Stern responded to reporters. “This is something that should be scrutinized.”
Ralph Nader (political activist): I’ve never seen anything like it. It was almost as if the umpires, the referees, had swallowed some L.A. Lakers pills. It was all kinds of speculation that they wanted a seventh game because it’s more money. So I did call up Stern and I wrote him a letter.
Delaney: The referees want to get it right, the fans want it right, and obviously the players and coaches. So we’re moving the bar and we’re trying to get a level of perfection. While there’s an acceptance that there’s a human factor to a point, it goes out the window when you’ve got a guy like Ralph Nader weighing in. If you ask most NBA players, I would think they’d rather have me referee the ballgame than Ralph Nader.
Nader: Once the fans lose respect for the referees, the game is weakened, obviously. If they think it’s rigged, or if they think there’s incompetence or some ulterior motive, commercial motive — because fans have an expertise in sports that’s unparalleled in any other area that fans interact with, other than their regular job. When you compare how much fans know about their members in Congress, or their state legislature, or corporate crimes, there’s no comparison compared to what they know about the game. They’re not going to be fooled. They’re practiced second-guessers and they’re right very often.
Madsen: When I saw Ralph Nader’s name involved, I said to myself, Man, is Ralph a Sacramento Kings fan?
Nader: So I told Stern he has got to do a review on this. It’s bad enough that the Lakers have money to buy good players more than the Kings, now you’re gonna rig the system even further? He took great umbrage.
Howard-Cooper: People use Donaghy’s [letter] as final confirmation about Game 6. Suddenly, Tim Donaghy was the credible reason to believe every crazy theory. In Tim Donaghy they had their proof, which, of course, is laughable.
Delaney: My background is well documented, and I’ve been dealing with criminals for a long time. Criminals will step on anybody’s head to get out of the water, to get out of the pool … It didn’t surprise me or quite honestly concern me, because I know my own character, I know who I am — my résumé is more than a little bit stronger than Tim Donaghy’s.26
26. Before refereeing, Delaney was a longtime police officer who once went undercover to infiltrate the New Jersey mob.
O’Neal: That’s why I will never talk about the Donaghy situation. Every team in the league used to always put in the paper, “Yeah, we’re just going to put him on the free throw line. Hack-a-Shaq. We’re going to put him on the line.” So …
Bernhardt: I can’t even see where it’s even an issue. I’m from Indiana. There are real problems in the world, you know? It’s a basketball game. It’s an entertainment business. And why did it get so much hype?
Delaney: I’d love to bring the fans out on that floor with me and have them referee a quarter or two of games so they understood what that experience is. Because I think they give us so much more credit than we really deserve. It’s hard enough getting the call right without processing who did the fouling, what’s going on in the game — you can’t put that into your head and make a split decision. The easiest way to describe it, to be on an NBA floor, it’s like 10 guys in a blender and they’re just going at high speed, oh, baby … And then to say that I have the ability to not only process the play but then put into my mind who and which player is doing it, and I’m going to make a decision differently because it’s a Michael Jordan versus another player? Man, we should leave my brain to science, because I’m pretty damn good.
Madsen: Somebody made a rap song in L.A. talking about Vlade and how he flops. It was a wonderful, exciting time to be part of the Lakers and living in L.A.
Adande: Shaq did this civic luncheon … So that was the year Shaq’s toe was acting up, and he said, “Well, my foot’s been feeling better. I’ve had Doug Christie’s wife massaging it.”
Christie: [The preseason fight with Rick Fox] is one of those indelible images that stick in your head. It was more than me and him. It was about them beating us year after year and we had to stand up for ourselves.
Fox: They had to set the tone for the season. It was kind of like an unwritten law in preseason, especially the last preseason game — veterans usually play a couple of minutes and chill out for a quarter and sit out the rest of the game. And man, they showed up as if it was Game 8 of that series.
Adande: Who fights in a preseason game? That’s how heated that series was and that’s how much the bad feelings lingered. So now, at Staples Center to this day, the curtains separating the two teams, the two sides in the back hallways, that’s because of that fight.
Fox: The Rick Fox Rule.
Beck: You think about the Lakers as this dominant team, this great dynasty — because they won three championships in a row — but people forget how close they were to missing in Year 1 and Year 3 of that streak. They weren’t this overpowering team. They were in 2001. But that Kings series was an example of how fragile their hold on that dynasty label was, because they were within inches, several times, of losing it, of not making it back to the finals.
Derek Fisher (guard, Lakers): It’s draining to win one championship and to get through a full season, so to make multiple trips to the Finals and trying to win championships, you have to be very fortunate. Your stars have to be healthy. A lot of things have to happen for you, and it’s not easy. Very few teams have figured out a way to do it, and those teams will go down in NBA history as the few teams that have done it.
Madsen: Nobody could stop Shaq. Nobody could stop Kobe. And nobody could stop the tandem. You add in great players like Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, and it was just an unbelievable thing to be in practice every day and to go out in the games with these guys.
Beck: [The breakup] was building for years in some regard and over the course of , it built for a variety of factors. One, Shaq and Kobe were coming apart again. They had done this dance so many times where they feud, they figure it out, they get along, they win a title. They come apart again. They patch it up again. They win another title. And they had been riding that roller coaster for a few years already. But I think it reached the point of no return sometime [in 2004]. And in the meantime, Shaq’s relationship with the organization had also hit the point of no return, because he was battling them over the extension that he wanted to get.
Wilbon: [Sacramento] might’ve won the next year. Chris’s knees broke down.
Adande: It’s a shame we didn’t get one last Lakers versus Kings, but once Webber went down, that was it. They were finished.
Stojakovic: Our window started closing after 2004. That’s what our potential was, I guess, three to five years that we had together.
Phil Jackson: I have to commiserate — I don’t know if that’s the right word — empathize with Rick in that series, because I know how devastating that is and how difficult. He had been the coach with Portland when we won the series against Portland in ’92. So Rick and I had gone back quite a ways as far as coaching against each other. I really had a respect for his ability to coach.
Joe Maloof (co-owner, Kings): When Robert Horry made that shot, I think I visualized that shot in my mind at least 10 times a day from the moment he made that shot. To lose that series to the Lakers was … there is no words to describe it. That’s how sick I was. Jerry Tarkanian called me after the series and I asked him, “Will my brother [Gavin] and I ever forget about this?” He said, “You’re never going to forget about it. Trust me. Live with it.”27
27. Joe Maloof said this to ESPN.com.
Brian Shaw (guard, Lakers): I’m pretty good friends with Chris Webber. To this day, he still says that they should have beaten us.
Napear: It will always be there. Until the Kings beat the Lakers in a playoff series, it will never go away. I would say if you asked a Boston Red Sox fan about all of their tough defeats to the Yankees, whether it was the Bucky Dent home run or the Aaron Boone home run, that would stay with Boston fans forever. But 2004 erased all of that. That will always be with this franchise until the Kings win a meaningful series against the Lakers.
Wilbon: Chris Webber’s entire career would be remembered differently if they hadn’t gotten screwed out of that. They were going to beat the Nets that year. Everybody knew the Western Conference championship was the NBA championship. Webber’s whole career would be different. Vlade’s whole career would be seen differently. One title does that.
Cohn: [A championship] would have been the biggest thing in Sacramento since the end of World War II, I think.
Bibby: They’ll always be a great basketball city. That’s why I was surprised when they were trying to move the team. I see people all the time: “I’m from Sacramento and I loved that team.”
Richmond: I think the Kings and their fans really deserved a winner, but I just didn’t want it to be against me playing for the Lakers. I think I would have been devastated more if the Kings would have went on.
Kevin Johnson (former NBA All-Star and current mayor of Sacramento): Anytime you get that close to an NBA Finals and lose, it’s going to sting. Until Sacramento gets to the Finals, fans are always going to think about that series and wonder, “What if?”
Christie: I go back to Sacramento and they love that team. They love everything that whole team stood for. Once they win a championship, that feeling is going to go away. But when you get that close and you know that you deserve it, and you have it if you can pass this one team, that’s something that is definitely hard to swallow.
Johnson: As far as what has happened since that series, I don’t believe it had any impact on the fate of the franchise. For a number of reasons, for years we were not able to get a new arena built in Sacramento. Thankfully, all of that is now behind us and I can’t wait for the Kings to raise a championship banner in Sacramento’s new arena set to open in 2016.
Cohn: In all likelihood, there might have been a more accelerated attempt to put [a vote for a new arena] on the ballot [had the Kings won a title in 2002]. But I don’t think the Maloofs were capable of putting together and sticking with a plan to fund an arena. Sooner or later, the problems would have crept in.
Johnson: For almost 28 years, this community has had a love affair with the Kings. For a good chunk of those years, the Kings were among the league leaders in attendance, and in many of those seasons the Kings had losing records and didn’t even make the playoffs. That’s why I wasn’t the least bit surprised when our fan base stood up and fought to keep this team in Sacramento when the Kings were on the verge of relocation.
Cohn: In the long run, maybe that was the silver lining of our not winning. We had to go through this horrible period the last few years just so we could get new ownership to build a more sustainable future. I just don’t think we would have had a sustainable future with the Maloofs as owners.
Pollard: Maybe the Kings win the championship, the Maloofs don’t try to move the team, and they get a new arena already? There’s a lot of sliding doors that could have happened and things that’d be different potentially. How many players’ careers would have been different?
O’Neal: Yeah, it is kind of [weird owning a stake in the Kings]. Every time I go down there, I have to answer that. But I think once people see me more out in the community and get to know me, they understand that I was just playing.
Cohn: It’s hard to stay mad at [O’Neal] because he’s such a likable character.
Vivek Ranadivé (leader of the Kings’ current ownership group): We love Shaq, he’s been a big hit. He’s a global icon, he’s very, very smart, very charismatic. He was mobbed everywhere he went. He was really well received by the governor, by the State Assembly and the Senate, by the fans, by the public. He was a huge hit in Sacramento.
Fox: Yeah, it’s strange. But it makes complete sense because he’s Shaq. Shaq will always endear himself to the masses … It speaks volumes of his likability and how he thinks.
Voisin: I think they’ve come around on him. Time heals and there are so many different elements here. You’ve got the fact that the team is staying. They’re not leaving. I think people are very relieved and grateful. He’s as big a star as there’s been in the game. That there’s an element there that it’s good for Sacramento and good for the Kings.
Ranadivé: We think that we’re on the right path. In the first season, we’re not going to be asked to be measured on wins and losses, we’re going to be asked on Do we have a culture, do we have a system, are we playing defense? What I want to do is create a jazz band, so the 20th-century model was a marching band, where everyone robotically marches to the tune of a drummer. What I’m trying to do is create a jazz band, where everybody can do their own thing and be their own person and improvise, but it still comes together as beautiful music. We are creating that jazz band.
Shaw: Sacramento could have been a different story had the Lakers not been comprised of Kobe, Phil, and Shaq. They were a good team that came along at the wrong time. The Kings’ place in the storybook is still blank because of the Lakers.
Chris Webber, Rick Adelman, and the Maloof family declined repeated interview requests for this story.