- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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Here's a lesson for those who feel wronged by any excruciating call in these NBA playoffs, who wonder if they'll ever get over the agony and feeling of helplessness.
Fifteen years after the tweet of the most notorious whistle of them all, the man who committed the foul has long ago buried the pain beneath his championship rings, and the coach who called it an unprecedented ending hosts basketball clinics with the official who made the call, a referee who wonders what all the fuss is about when he isn't criticizing other calls himself.
The official's name is Hue Hollins, a name that became so associated with the play that if you type it into Google it will suggest "Hue Hollins calls foul against Scottie Pippen" by the time you get to the "H-o-l."
The foul came on May 18, 1994, with 2.1 seconds remaining in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks. The home teams had won every time through the first four games, but the Bulls had a chance to steal this one in Madison Square Garden. They led by one point as they geared up for one last defensive stand.
The Knicks set up a screen-and-roll for John Starks and Patrick Ewing on the right side. It was one of their go-to calls, a play similar to the one they ran the year before in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference finals series that resulted in Starks' famous dunk over Michael Jordan and Horace Grant. This time the Bulls flooded the right side with help defenders as Starks came off the screen. With nowhere to go, Starks passed out top to Hubert Davis, who had his right foot inside the 3-point arc. Scottie Pippen was one of the defenders clogging the middle, and he raced back out to Davis as he gathered himself for the shot.
"It was amazing how quickly Scottie got there," Davis notes, having seen a replay of the ending a few years ago. "He's in the middle of the lane when I caught the ball."
Pippen got back a split-second too late, Davis released the ball and then Pippen made contact with Davis' arms on the follow-through. The shot bounced off the right side of the rim, and for the briefest of moments it appeared the Bulls were going to win the game. But Hollins had blown his whistle, a late whistle, just as the shot was approaching the rim.
"When I heard the whistle, it was like 'What happened? Who fouled?'" Pippen recalls. "I didn't think I had made a foul."
Technically a player is defined as being in the act of shooting from the time he goes up for the shot until after he has landed back on the ground. Except, as even Davis admits, "That's a call you normally don't get."
Today, with concern about defenders sliding under shooters and causing injuries, it gets called more often. That wasn't the case back then, and certainly not with a playoff outcome riding on it. Steve Kerr had been hit the same way several times that year, his first with the Bulls, and never was sent to the free-throw line.
"I went to the ref every time and they said, 'It doesn't matter, the shot was released," Kerr says. "Back then it was not called. And every time I asked the ref, I got the exact same explanation: Once you release the shot it doesn't matter."
This time Davis was awarded two free throws. He made them both and the Knicks won.
After the game, Phil Jackson didn't take any questions when he addressed the media. He made one statement that lasted exactly 38 seconds. His main point: "I've seen a lot of things happen in the NBA, but I've never seen anything happen like what happened at the end of the game."
The Knicks wound up winning the series in seven games.
"Have I ever seen a single call make a difference like that?" Pippen says. "No. Never ever.
It cost us the whole series."
In a wild two weeks that included an in-game fight that spilled over into the front row, a game-winning shot by Bulls forward Toni Kukoc after Pippen refused to take the court because the play Jackson diagrammed didn't include him, and Jackson canceling a practice in New York to take his team for a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, the ending of Game 5 is the moment that stands out. Davis says he still can't leave the house without someone bringing up that 1994 play at least once during the day; his exasperated wife finally asked," Did everybody watch that game?"
It regularly pops up in discussions of the worst calls in sports history. It somehow has more staying power than even the no-call when Derek Fisher landed on Brent Barry in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals just last year -- which the league office later acknowledged should have been a foul -- and the foul called on Bill Laimbeer that sent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the line with 14 seconds left in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals. Nothing pops out of the officiating crypt like the Hue Hollins call.
"I don't understand," Hollins says. "I worked in the NBA for 27 years and had an exemplary record as one of the top referees in the NBA. People harp on one call. Why? It was Game 5 of a seven-game series. They had to play two more. I don't know why it has resonated with people in the media. It was one game, one call. If Scottie hadn't fouled him, I wouldn't have called it.
"Referees make a lot of calls in the course of a game. Do we miss some? Yeah, sometimes.
But the percentile of getting it right is 96 percent right."
It's when one of those in the other four percent comes in a game's final four seconds that it lingers.
The acrimony was such that two years later, the Bulls didn't think it was coincidental that they lost their final home game of the 1995-96 season when a late call by Hollins went against them. But that didn't cost them a playoff game or series. It merely meant the NBA's single-season victory record stands at 72, not 73.
Eventually it was time to let Game 5 of the 1994 conference semifinals go. Jackson always says you have to live in the moment, right? When Jackson got the Lakers job in 1999, Hollins greeted him at a summer league game.
"It was short and sweet," Hollins said.
For the past three years Hollins has worked alongside Jackson at a "Basketball 101" symposium put on by the Lakers to explain various aspects of the game and raise money for charities, with Hollins offering the officials' perspective on things such as the block/charge call.
"There was never a problem," with Jackson, Hollins says. "It was more the media than Phil and myself."
Jackson says: "I never held it against Hue. That's something you just can't do. Those are things that happen in the course of the game. Guys make instantaneous judgments, and that's what they have to do. If they're a second or a beat late in their calls, then they start guessing. You can't guess. They have to react to what they see.
"I don't dwell on those things although that was painful."
Even so, it didn't turn out to be the most excruciating loss for those who came out on the wrong side. Jackson thinks of the next year, early in Michael Jordan's comeback, when Jordan had the ball stolen from him by Orlando's Nick Anderson as the Magic eliminated the Bulls. For Pippen, the one that got away was when he was with Portland, as the Trail Blazers melted down in the fourth quarter of Game 7 in the 2000 Western Conference finals to blow a 15-point lead and the series against the Lakers. Kerr goes back to his college days at Arizona and "my Final Four debacle against Oklahoma in '88. I shot 2-for-13."
They all stayed together in Chicago for the Bulls' second three-peat run after Jordan's return. Jackson won three more rings with the Lakers, and Steve Kerr picked up two more with the San Antonio Spurs.
"Believe me, I don't feel like I got shortchanged," Kerr says.
"I'm cool," Pippen says. "I had a successful career. Maybe that's why it didn't really have a long-term effect on me."
So why is it still part of NBA lore? Why can't the rest of us "get over it," as Hollins advises?
Location. If this had taken place in Milwaukee or Indiana it wouldn't have been such a big deal. But this was Madison Square Garden. Whether it's launching a jump shot or limping through a tunnel, everything that happens in that building gets overhyped like Kim Kardashian.
Storyline. After Jordan's retirement on the eve of training camp suddenly turned the Bulls from three-time champions to underdogs, Jackson and the players put together a 55-win season. Pippen stepped out of Jordan's shadow to become an MVP candidate. Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong made the All-Star team. And a team that went from Jordan to Pete Myers as the starting shooting guard had the presumed Eastern Conference heirs, the Knicks, on the ropes.
Emotion. This was the fourth consecutive playoff meeting between the Knicks and the Bulls. The animosity peaked in 1992, when the Bulls were in the midst of their first three-peat and the upstart Knicks surprisingly took Chicago to seven games in a series marked by hard fouls and plenty of verbal jabs between Jackson and Pat Riley. In their 1993 meeting the Bulls overcame a 2-0 deficit, and the series also turned on a play at the end of Game 5, when the Bulls turned back four point-blank attempts by Charles Smith. (There's no need to link to that play. The transcript of Marv Albert's call is all you need: "Ewing for Smith Smith swiped. Smith stopped. Smith stopped again by Pippen.")
"This was not just an average team we're playing against," Pippen says. "This was a team we'd built three, four years of rivalry and hatred against."
What if? If the Bulls had won that Game 5 there was no way they were losing Game 6 at home. That was the last season for the old Chicago Stadium, and the Bulls would have rather spent a winter sleeping outdoors than let the Knicks close down that building. In the next round the Bulls would have faced the Indiana Pacers, whom they beat four games to one in the regular season. The Bulls split their two regular-season games against the Houston Rockets, who wound up beating the Knicks in the NBA Finals that year. If the Knicks took the Rockets to seven games and the Bulls took the Knicks to seven games, it isn't far-fetched to think the Bulls could have somehow squeezed out four victories against the Rockets.
If the Bulls had won it without Michael, maybe he wouldn't have been in such a rush to come back the next season to bail them out. Maybe he would have resumed his hoops career somewhere else, looking for a new challenge. The late-90s NBA could have looked entirely different, liked the revised reality at the end of "Back to the Future."
That's a lot of speculation, isn't it? And that's the danger of focusing on an official's call. We let our minds wander and fill in gaps while omitting key information.
Hollins made the call, but he didn't make the free throws. Hubert Davis had to do it, calmly hitting the most important shots of his career. The Bulls still had 2.1 seconds to hit a shot of their own, which was .3 seconds more than Toni Kukoc needed to make the winning jumper in Game 3. This time, however, Anthony Mason deflected an inbounds pass for Pippen and the Bulls didn't even get a chance.
They had an opportunity to come back to New York and win in Game 7. Or they could have never even let it get that far by closing out the fourth quarter in either of the first two games in Madison Square Garden instead of wilting when the Knicks ratcheted up their defense.
The calls tend to balance over the course of a seven-game series or sometimes over the years.
"We felt like Charles Smith got fouled a year before," Davis said. "Maybe things evened out.
"To be honest with you, we were a better team than Chicago. That series did not come down to that play. If we had to go to Chicago and win, we would've won. We were a better team than them. Chicago was a better team than us the year before."
And the better team almost always wins a seven-game series. Which is why the nagging feeling that a single call could undo that fate seems like such a threat to the basic premise we hold as we watch the playoffs.
Will we remember the abundance of overtimes and clutch shots in this year's Bulls-Celtics series? Or will we remember the flagrant foul that wasn't called? Will that stick with us as long as the Hue Hollins call?
The 1994 Bulls have gotten over it, but they never got rid of it.
Not only does Kerr remember that play; he remembers a play the next season, when he was hit after shooting a 3-pointer and didn't draw a foul. He asked the official why there wasn't a call.
"He said it was after the release," Kerr says. "I said, 'So was Scottie Pippen on Hubert Davis.'"
As J.A. Adande writes, the principals still remember the most notorious foul call in NBA history, even if they'd like to forget.