The best shots remain airborne forever, in driveways and alleys, at parks and YMCAs, amateur imitations of Magic Johnson's junior skyhook over the Celtics, Reggie Miller's turnaround against the Knicks, Michael Jordan's step-back versus the Jazz. They live in dusty old gyms like the one at Santa Monica High, where on a warm November morning, a 64-year-old former professor and Air Force intelligence officer strides across the key to the right corner. He glances down at the strip of hardwood separating the three-point line from the sideline and marvels at how narrow it is. Someone shooting from that corner would have only three feet to leap and land-not much room for a man who is, say, 6' 5" and wears size-15 sneakers. It's like asking a giant to do gymnastics on a wire. "This son of a gun sprints all the way back here, turns his body, gets his balance, takes his time and sets up perfectly," the professor says. "He can't rush it. He has to follow through. And he does it all because he's done it a million times before. He's waited his whole life for this shot." Then Gregg Popovich pantomimes the stroke that broke his heart.
Popovich has demonstrated in hundreds of sideline interviews that he is loath to discuss many subjects --his success, his emotional state, anything having to do with momentum, whether he is "happy" about a development or "surprised" by it, and how a team "got hot" or "went cold." Ask the Spurs' coach to re-create the most excruciating moment of his career, however, and he grows as animated as Metta World Peace on Jimmy Kimmel. His players, wrapping up a morning shootaround before a game against the Lakers, eye him curiously. Is he ... ? Is that ... ? Yes, he's doing the Ray Allen. "It goes through my mind every day," Popovich says. "It's gone through my mind every day since the game, and I'll be happy when it only goes through my mind once a week."
Jill Popovich noticed her father sulking around his San Antonio home in the weeks after the Heat beat the Spurs for the NBA championship, and she exacted every sideline reporters' revenge. "I'm tired of this," Jill said. "You've been to the Finals five times and won four. Greggy can't lose one? Well, aren't you special!"
"You're right, honey," Popovich replied. He flew to San Francisco with his assistant coaches for their annual summer retreat and dissected the video of Game 6. Miami had won the series in seven games, but it was the sixth that ate at Popovich: The Spurs, 28.2 seconds away from clinching their fifth title in 14 seasons, blew a five-point lead and lost 103-100 in overtime. The video session took seven hours. Popovich then presented the footage to players on the first day of training camp. The Spurs weren't hiding the wound. They were exposing it so it could heal. "I didn't want anybody going into the season thinking, Oh, gosh, we got screwed, the basketball gods took one away from us," Popovich says. "That's bulls---. There's a healthier way to move on. It wasn't just one shot. It was 29 seconds."
On a trip to Toronto this season Allen ran into Frank, and he was reminded of the notorious yellow ropes. "I know you guys were just doing what you had to do," Allen said. In a way, he's grateful for those ropes. They added a little more thread to a 29-second tapestry that will live in montages and driveways forever. The extra twine helped produce the unbreakable knot.