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.
This is an article from the Dec. 23, 2013 issue
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."
Losing the Finals, players will tell you, is a little like being in a car accident. "Everything slows down," says Miami center Chris Bosh, "and you see things you don't usually see, hear things you don't usually hear. It's kind of terrifying." Trailing 94--89, the Heat huddled around coach Erik Spoelstra during a timeout. "I thought it was over," Bosh says. "I was having flashbacks."
AmericanAirlines Arena looked the same to him as it did late in Game 6 of the 2011 Finals against the Mavericks. Security guards surrounding the floor, bent at the waist, holding yellow ropes in anticipation of another team's celebration. Staffers waiting in the tunnel, carrying duffel bags stuffed with another team's championship hats and T-shirts. Fans rising from their seats, stomping into the aisles toward the parking lots. Only one image was different. Bosh's wife, Adrienne, so forlorn that night two years earlier, stood and applauded from her courtside seat across from the Heat bench. How sweet, Bosh thought, she doesn't know we're going to lose. "I figured if she was still clapping, I could still do my job," he says. "It was improbable, but I guess it wasn't impossible."
He looked at Spoelstra, scribbling a play. "Just focus on the clipboard," the coach said.
Spoelstra sent out a lineup with five three-point shooters, leaving Bosh on the bench. Popovich countered by removing center Tim Duncan. As forward Mike Miller prepared to inbound near the Heat bench, Allen ran across the key, screening Manu Ginóbili and Danny Green to free LeBron James at the top of the circle. James caught the inbounds pass, but Green recovered and contested James's three-point attempt with an outstretched right hand. The shot, as hard and straight as a four-seam fastball, smacked off the bottom right corner of the backboard square. My God, Popovich thought to himself. We're up five and he just shot an air ball. The game might be over.
Danielle Calixto, manager of a children's boutique in downtown Miami, sat among season-ticket holders in row 26, section 124. She had purchased two tickets on Stubhub for $287 apiece and brought her boss's eight-year-old daughter, Diandra. "The season-ticket holders were all getting up, shaking hands, telling each other, 'I'll see you next season,' " Calixto says. "I told them, 'You're going to regret this,' and they said, 'Yeah, you're funny.' Diandra started crying because everybody was leaving, and she didn't understand why we weren't leaving too. We were surrounded by empty seats. She wanted to call her mom. I told her, 'You just have to sit here right now and believe with me.' "
If James had shot a standard brick, San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard would have grabbed the rebound in his colossal 9.8-inch mitts and sealed the game at the free throw line. But the shot was so wild Leonard couldn't corral it, and the ball rocketed off his hand and straight in the air. The closest Heat player was guard Dwyane Wade, stuck behind Leonard, giving up three inches and nine years. Wade jumped off his right leg, the one with the bone bruises in the knee that require daily treatment and occasional prayer. "Kawhi has those claws—his hands are claws—and you're just doing anything you can to get a fingertip on the ball," Wade says. "I got just enough."
Green was the Finals' breakout star, but here he made a costly mistake. Instead of shadowing James on the left wing, he assumed San Antonio would come away with the loose ball and drifted downcourt. "Most important rebound of the game and we have a player who's backing up," Popovich says. "All he had to do was pick up LeBron."
Royce Young, a reporter for CBSSports.com, was packing up his laptop. Young was sitting at a press table in section 102 and wanted to beat the crowd to the Spurs' locker room. He already had his story. He was going to write about Tracy McGrady, San Antonio's 12th man, finally winning a championship in his 16th season. "I don't blame the Miami fans for leaving," Young says. "I think 29 other teams' fans would have left too. The game was over." Wade's rebound tip bounced off Allen to Miller, who shoveled it back to James.
Andre Wade was five in 2003, when Miami drafted Dwyane Wade. "Daddy," Andre told his father, Ricky, a Jamaican expat who owns 14 McDonald's franchises in Palm Beach County. "That's D-Wade and I'm A-Wade. We have to get season tickets." Andre and Ricky have spent the past decade in row 19. "With 20-something seconds left, I blew a gasket," Ricky says. "I told my son, 'I'm busted and disgusted. We're leaving.' " Andre protested, to no avail.
"I was angry at the fans who left," Allen says. "This is it. This is Game 6. We don't win and it's summer." He saw the ropes, encircling the floor, as a metaphor for his rage. "When you get to the end of your rope," Allen says, "tie a knot."
With Green scrambling back, James elevated on the left wing and buried an open three. "Suddenly the energy in the building totally changed," says Heat general manager Andy Elisburg. Young pulled his laptop back out of the bag. "Let me sit down just a second," he thought.
Popovich used his final timeout. Spoelstra told his players which Spurs to foul and what play he would likely call after the ensuing free throws. James nibbled his right thumbnail. Allen swigged a bottle of water. "There was a play we'd worked on all season, but we didn't use more than once or twice," Spoelstra says. The mere mention of it induces an eye roll from Bosh. "We practiced it a million times," he says. "We never ran it."
Duncan extricated his feet from the ropes along the sideline and inbounded to Leonard, who was promptly fouled. Allen waved his arms up and down, begging the crowd for noise, for life. Leonard missed the first free throw. Behind the San Antonio bench a woman in a white tank top and sunglasses waved a red foam finger over the players, like bunny ears. McGrady bowed his head. Leonard made the second: 95--92.
All season the Spurs had taken Duncan out when leading by three late in games because they switch defenders on every pick-and-roll to blanket the three-point line. At 37, he is the slowest of the starters—and therefore the likeliest to be late on a switch. Duncan, who had 30 points and 16 rebounds, was replaced by Boris Diaw. Bosh, however, was back in for the Heat.
Spoelstra called the play, the one the Heat never run. Point guard Mario Chalmers, who made the buzzer beater that forced overtime for Kansas in the 2008 national championship game, dribbled down the left side.
Allen, like most snipers, didn't grow up shooting corner threes. He only discovered their value once he reached the NBA. The corners yield the highest percentage three-pointers, not only because they're closest to the basket, but also because teams swing the ball around the perimeter, forcing the defense to rotate. The last swing pass, and the last rotation, is to the corner. "I always go to the corner first," Allen says. He jogged down the right side. But he was nothing more than a decoy to space the floor for James.
Chalmers continued all the way to the left elbow. "Some people thought we should foul," Popovich says, though Chalmers shot 79.5% from the line last season. "O.K., so you're three points up and you foul, now it's a one-point game and a free throw shooting contest. And we're one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the league. All we need is a rebound and it's over. I wouldn't give that up for a free throw contest."
A panel of 11 voters, spread around the arena, chose the Finals MVP. NBA staffers radioed the picks to Tim Frank, the league's senior vice president of communications. Frank feverishly tallied the votes on press row so he could relay the result to commissioner David Stern for the trophy presentation.
Bosh screened point guard Tony Parker on the left wing to clear James at the three-point line, and since San Antonio was switching everything, Diaw picked up James. But San Antonio committed another uncharacteristic error. Instead of switching back onto Bosh, Parker joined Diaw and lunged at James. "It was my job to screen Tony," Bosh says. "When he went under me, I was like, Oh, s---. I thought about screening him again, but I didn't want to pick up the foul." Bosh didn't yet recognize the opportunity Parker had handed him.
"In 2011, the first year this group was together, we had so many failures in late-game situations," Spoelstra says. "We spent an inordinate amount of time fixing them. In 2013, during the 27-game winning streak, we had games where we were down in the fourth quarter and had to storm back. We realized we've been here before."
James fired, Diaw in his face, Parker in his shorts. Bosh had nowhere to go but the rim. "He was all by himself at the top of the key," Popovich says. "He walked right into the lane."
Bosh is no bruiser, but the Heat used him at center in the Finals to keep more shooters on the court. "He was making sacrifices that whole series," says former Miami center Alonzo Mourning, now a member of the team's front office. "He didn't score much, but people don't realize how much he focused on clogging that middle and getting those rebounds."
James missed—albeit with a lighter touch this time—and the ball caromed off the left side of the rim. Ginóbili, guarding Allen in the right corner, abandoned him to track the rebound. He got one hand on the ball. Bosh got two. Ideally, the Spurs would have fouled immediately, but Bosh held the ball only for a second, and in that second he noticed something. Ginóbili, the man assigned to the best three-point shooter in NBA history, was falling down.
As a young player in Milwaukee, Allen invented a drill in which he lies in the key, springs to his feet and backpedals to the corner. A coach throws him a pass. He has to catch and shoot without stepping on the three-point line or the sideline. In Allen's first training session with the Heat, just after Labor Day 2012, he performed the drill. "It was the first time I ever saw anybody do that," Spoelstra says. "He told me he does it for offensive rebounding purposes. He said, 'You never know when you'll be in a situation where you have to find the three-point line without looking down.' "
Allen had followed Ginóbili into the key, even though Bosh was in a far better rebounding position. "Get where you need to be!" he told himself. He took five furious steps backward. "CB!" he shouted. "CB!"
"I used to have nightmares about Ray," Elisburg says. "The ball works around the three-point line, and there's Ray, and he's wide open in the corner, and you see it coming in slow motion. Now he plays for us, and it was in slow motion again. You see Chris looking at Ray and Ray running back. It's make or miss, win or lose, live or die. But isn't that the beauty of sports?" Bosh backhanded the ball to Allen. "I wish I'd waited a little bit longer," Bosh says, but John Stockton couldn't have made a better pass. Allen caught it at his rib cage with his right hand, and as he gathered, he took two final steps back over the three-point line. He didn't look down. The next day Frank asked Allen if he knew his size-15s were over the line. "I hoped," he said.
Mike Breen and his friends at Fordham used to follow the basketball team wherever it played. They sat in the stands, and when a Ram hit an outside shot, Breen yelled "Bang!" He incorporated the catchphrase into his broadcasts first as play-by-plan man for the school radio station and later as lead NBA announcer for ESPN. Breen arrives at arenas around three hours before tip-off. In Miami, and before that in Boston, and before that in Seattle, and before that in Milwaukee, one person was sure to greet him. "Ray was always on the court," Breen says. "He was always shooting."
Allen's game-day routine never changes. He naps after shootaround. He eats chicken and white rice for lunch. He arrives three hours before the tip. Game 6 was no different, but for the first 47 minutes and 54 seconds, he made just one basket, a layup. He was concerned enough about his rhythm, or lack thereof, that he retreated to the practice court at halftime for extra shooting.
With Ginóbili down, a cavalry of four Spurs charged at Allen, led by Parker. But he wasn't rushing. According to an ESPN Sport Science segment, Allen's average shot release takes .73 of a second. This time he waited a leisurely .83. "If you didn't know the context—if you took a picture of my positioning, my body, and erased the backdrop—you'd just say, 'Oh, that's Ray shooting a three-pointer,' " Allen says. "It looked exactly the same."
Norris Cole knew first. "I was on the bench, in the opposite corner, so I had the best view of it," says Miami's backup point guard. "That's why I jumped so high." He tracked the flight of the ball, traveling at a 40-degree angle, and leaped three feet in the air. "Rebound Bosh!" Breen said. "Back out to Allen! His three-pointer! Bang!"
A viewing party at the AT&T Center in San Antonio fell silent. "Oh s---!" Heat forward Shane Battier yelled on the bench. "We're in it! We're here! We're here!" Even a security guard, holding the yellow rope behind Allen, pumped a fist. "There was a collective violence in the building," Elisburg says. "It was like an explosion."
At the scorers' table Frank stopped tallying MVP votes. In row 26 little Diandra bawled again, and Calixto tried to comfort her. "Someday you will understand all this," she said. "You will be glad you were here." And in section 102, Young thought about his wife, Keri, whom he called after Game 5 in San Antonio. He wanted to fly home to Oklahoma City and leave Game 6 to another reporter. "What if something amazing happens that you'll remember for the rest of your life?" Keri said. "You don't want to miss that."
Ricky and Andre Wade were walking through the parking lot when they heard the eruption. "I think the Heat came back," Andre said. "No," Ricky replied. "That's just the Spurs winning the bloody championship." They flipped on 790 AM, the Heat's flagship station, in their car. "The announcer was screaming, 'Ray Allen did it! Ray Allen did it!' " Ricky recalls. "My son was so pissed at me. He said, 'I told you. We got Ray Allen for a reason. Ray Allen is clutch.' "
Bosh heard Popovich's voice cut through the din: "Run! Run!" Popovich wanted the Spurs to inbound the ball, while the Heat were celebrating, and drive straight to the rim. "We've won games just like that before," Popovich says. But referee Joey Crawford stopped play to confirm that Allen was behind the three-point line. "He was clearly behind the line—that's why I was so livid," Popovich says. "But I talked to the league about it later, and I understand it intellectually. They wanted to make sure they got it right."
As Crawford reviewed the replay, Spoelstra put James on Parker, to take advantage of his size as well as his adrenaline. James gathered the Heat, urging them to harness their emotions. "We need to commit together to finish this game," he said. "That shot is for nothing if we don't focus here."
In 20 years, Spoelstra believes, people will forget that there were another five seconds left, plus overtime, plus Game 7. Fans outside the arena who learned of Allen's shot on their smartphones tried to force their way back in. But the doors, marked NO RE-ENTRY ALLOWED, were locked. "I asked one of the ushers what it was like, and she said people were banging on the doors, jerking the handles, trying to get them open," Young says. "She was nervous that if they did open one, she'd get trampled." The marooned fans watched through the windows on a television in the Heat souvenir store.
Parker took the inbounds pass and drove down the left side, but he couldn't turn the corner on James, who wore him like a second sleeve. Bosh raced over to contest, and Parker unleashed a one-legged fade-away as he fell across the baseline. It didn't reach the rim.
Royce Young was not going to write about McGrady. Little Diandra would have to hang in there for five minutes of overtime. The real fans poured down from the 300-level into the expensive seats. "We needed a historic 30 seconds," Battier says. "And we got it."
"Get those mother------- ropes out of here," Allen hollered as the buzzer sounded, and off went the security guards, off went the duffel bags, off went the Spurs' championship shirts and hats—eventually to impoverished regions of Africa as donations from the NBA.
After the Heat had won to force Game 7, Spoelstra retreated to his office and watched the last half-minute of regulation. "It crumbled me in my chair," he says. Breen went back to the Mandarin Oriental hotel and barely slept. Bosh went out to dinner and barely ate. "What's wrong with you?" friends asked. "What happened tonight," he replied, "never happens."
"But it happened!" they said.
"I know," Bosh explained. "We could play out that scenario a million times and maybe we win twice." He told his wife what a difference her applause made. "Really?" Adrienne said. "I was just trying to keep from crying."
Ricky and Andre Wade, elated but embarrassed, decided not to tell anyone that they bailed early. But TV cameras had captured them leaving the arena, Ricky in green pants and a white shirt, Andre in a white shirt and Heat hat. "We started getting calls from friends and family in England, Jamaica, South America, asking, 'What the hell were you doing?' " Ricky says. "I told my son, 'We are scandalized. The world knows we walked out.' " Ricky was offered $7,000 for his two tickets to Game 7, which the Heat won 95--88. He turned down the cash. "This has impacted us so significantly," Ricky says. "It teaches you, Never turn your back on something important to you. Stick it out until the end."
The day after Game 6, Popovich gathered the Spurs. "I know you don't believe this now," he told them, "but if that's the worst thing that ever happens to you, you'll lead easy lives. You've got jobs, you've got wives, you've got children. S--- will happen to you. It's called life. Mark this down as a tough one, but if it's the toughest, then you're lucky. So get over it and let's go play."
He delivered a variation of the same speech three months later on the first day of training camp. The Spurs, to no one's surprise, began this season 17--4. Six months have passed, and Allen sits in the cramped visiting locker room at Minnesota's Target Center, considering the consequences of his 3,209th NBA three-pointer. "If we don't win that game," he says, "I'm probably not here right now. This locker room is very different." Bosh would be the scapegoat. Spoelstra would be under fire. James would be back in the public crosshairs.
Instead, James won his second straight Finals MVP, and Spoelstra signed a contract extension. They're all kings. "I've been overwhelmed by people who saw that shot," Allen says. "Famous people, regular people, everywhere I go it's all anyone wants to talks about. But it's never really about my making the shot. It's always about where they were." He savors their stories. One friend, in Brooklyn, left a house party because the guests were too loud. He returned to his apartment just in time to see his buddy let fly. His shriek woke the building.
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.
Where does Allen's shot rank on the 113 Of '13, the most astounding, extraordinary, outrageous and unforgettable moments of the year? Check out the list this week at SI.com