Welcome to Infinite Replay, a recurring feature about the plays we can’t stop seeing over and over and over again.
Let’s set the scene. May 16, 1999 at the old Miami Arena. I’m almost 10 years old, sitting in the upper deck. I’m rocking a red “1999 NBA Playoffs” t-shirt, rooting for the hometown Miami Heat against the dreaded New York Knicks in a winner-take-all first-round Game 5. My dad is there, too; he’s a die-hard Knicks fan, a consequence of doing his business school tenure in the city. He’s not alone, either; Miami has long been an enclave of New York City transplants, and to my possibly faulty memory, the crowd was only about 55 percent in favor of the Heat.
The game itself was exactly what people remember about the ’90s-era NBA, and especially the ’90s-era NBA between these two teams. It was sloppy, dirty, violent, and extremely low-scoring. Miami took a 77-74 lead with 58.5 seconds left, and I began losing my little mind. After losing to New York in the first round the year before, and only two years removed from the infamous fight at this same arena, Miami was going to shove these Knicks into the offseason, where they belonged.
On New York’s next trip down the court, Latrell Sprewell went for a floater, which thankfully clanged off the rim, only to find Patrick Ewing for the rebound. He was fouled by Alonzo Mourning before he could dunk the putback, and subsequently hit the two free throws. It was then a 77-76 Miami lead, with 39.7 seconds left. A bucket would make overtime the most likely “bad” scenario for Miami. Unfortunately for young me and my fellow Heat fans, that’s not what happened. Terry Porter dribbled the ball up, then dropped it off to Tim Hardaway, who immediately lost it on a half-hearted attempt at a drive to the basket.
In the ensuing scuffle, the Knicks got the ball back and called timeout with 19.9 seconds left. The pain wasn’t there yet, but it was on the way. This was still that aforementioned ’90s-era NBA, though, and so the possibility of a stop and a trip to the second round was not impossible. Hell, it might have been even more likely, especially after the Knicks’ first attempt at a basket.
Miami’s defense swarmed both Sprewell and Ewing the second they touched the ball, and Sprewell especially seemed rattled by the pressure. He almost lost his dribble, got it back, and then saw the ball fly out of his hand as Porter poked it out of bounds. 4.5 seconds left now. I don’t remember exactly, but I assume my heart was hurting my chest cavity at this point. Less than five seconds until I either walk out of Miami Arena celebrating a win, or … well, I didn’t want to think about the other possibility. I would have to be very soon, because that’s when fucking Allan Houston happened.
I’ve been a lucky Miami Heat fan. I’ve seen Dwyane Wade have one of the greatest NBA Finals performances of all time while the referees were having one of the worst. I’ve rooted for LeBron James not because he is inarguably a top-five athlete of all time, but because he was wearing the Heat jersey. I almost sprained my ankle jumping up and down for Ray Allen’s three-pointer. I am, at the very least, in the cabinet of the Chris Bosh Appreciation Club. With all that in mind, fucking Allan Houston and his bullshit little bouncy shot to eliminate the Heat still stings me 22 years later.
So many things had to go wrong for Miami, and for me, to even be in the position to lose. Hardaway, Miami’s go-to ball-handler and second-leading scorer, had to completely submarine the possession when up 77-76. Sprewell had to recover his dribble and then avoid the ball as Porter poked it out. Someone, preferably not 33-year-old Dan Majerle, had to guard Houston before he got an open lane to the free-throw line. The ball had to bounce perfectly off both the front of the rim and the backboard to maintain its trajectory into the hoop. I could have not been born; that at least would have spared me from the misery.
The worst part of all is that I now know that 0.8 seconds is just enough time to get my hopes up for a miracle. After Houston’s shot went in, Miami still had just under one second to win the game and the series. During the timeout that followed, I remember thinking “Is 0.8 enough to get a good shot? Will it have to be a lob? Are sports inherently cruel?” This was five years before Derek Fisher’s 0.4-second magic against San Antonio, and I was nine years old, so I wasn’t particularly sure what exactly 0.8 meant.
I learned, though. Porter—there was entirely too much Terry Porter in the final minute of this game—received the ball almost at half-court, took a little dribble to try to close some of the distance, then launched the ball just a bit too hard. It hit the back of the rim but, unlike Houston’s cursed shot, this one did not bounce in.
We were sitting behind the Knicks’ basket, so I got a good look at the shot as it hung endlessly in the air. It looked good. It was good, from my angle: It was straight and true. That’s the thing about depth perception and misguided optimism, though. You can’t judge the strength of a shot from behind, and you can’t believe it didn’t go in until your dad starts yelling, “Let’s Go Knicks!” while walking out of a half-dejected, half-elated Miami Arena.
In a cruel twist of fate, I would encounter Allan Houston once again, 12 years later. Back in my former life as a music journalist, I scored press tickets for a show at Terminal 5 in New York. The headliner was Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover. Kid Cudi was also there. I believe this was a rum company’s event but for some reason, there was skateboarding and the guy from the “Evolution of Dance” video showed up to do the whole thing.
And there was fucking Allan Houston, hyping up the crowd alongside Ron Harper, not knowing that he was giving me a horrible flashback in the process. I’m not sure why he was there, except maybe just to torture me. I heard from someone else in the press area that he was signing autographs somewhere else in the cavernous venue. I thought about going and telling him that he ruined my life on May 16, 1999.
I didn’t, though. Time heals all wounds, especially the sports variety, and I was still pretending to be a cool music journalist at the time, so screaming at a retired basketball player was not something I particularly wanted to do. I wish I had gone to meet him, though. I just wanted him to know that, for as long as I live, I will never forget watching that floater bounce, bounce, and drop directly into the pit of my stomach.