Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
If you were to play word association with casual NBA fans, the word most associated with Nick Anderson would be “choker.”
Facing off against the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals, with the score at 110-107 in the closing moments of regulation, Nick Anderson missed four free-throws that could have iced the game for the Orlando Magic. All Anderson had to do was make one free-throw and the game would have essentially been over.
As a result of Anderson’s inability to close out the Rockets, Kenny Smith nailed a game-tying three-pointer on the ensuing possession, the game went into overtime, and the Rockets held on to win 120-118. Houston would go on to sweep the Magic and win their second consecutive championship.
Those four missed free-throws defined Anderson’s career and that’s a shame, because he had plenty of memorable moments in a Magic uniform.
“The Steal” was one of those moments.
Trailing 91-90 with 18.1 seconds left in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals against the Chicago Bulls, Anderson poked the ball away from Michael Jordan from behind as he was dribbling it up the floor. Penny Hardaway collected the loose ball, raced down the court, and fed Horace Grant for a dunk that put Orlando up 92-91 with 6.2 seconds remaining in the game. After Jordan turned the ball over again on the following possession, the Magic made two free-throws and improbably came away with a 94-91 victory.
Thanks to Anderson’s heroics, “The Steal” is still regarded as the most memorable moment in Magic franchise history to this day. Which is why it’s ironic that Anderson is also associated with, what’s seen by many Magic fans, as the lowest moment in the team’s history when he missed those four free-throws.
It took a while for Anderson to recover from the Finals. His confidence shattered, particularly in his free-throw shooting, Anderson’s game slowly deteriorated until it reached its lowest point in the 1996-1997 season. Anderson shot 40.4 percent from the line that year. In fact, he was so hesitant to attack the basket and get fouled, Orlando was forced to include an incentive in his contract to encourage him to get to the free-throw line.
After Anderson consulted a sports psychologist, he returned to form and in the following season, he provided the Magic fan base with another memorable moment.
During the 1997-98 season, Shaquille O’Neal made his first game appearance in Orlando as a visitor since signing with the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent during the summer of 1996. In front of a sellout crowd and nationally televised audience, Anderson scored 30 points and hit a game-winning three-pointer with 7.1 seconds left to give Orlando a 96-94 win over Los Angeles. It was an emotional victory not only for the Magic but for Anderson — who could forget him bobbing his head after nailing the game-winner?
Despite the ups and downs, no other player for Orlando has provided the type of iconic moments that Anderson has.
Anderson was the first draft pick in franchise history in 1989 and the last remaining member of the expansion team in 1999. A fitting bookend to a memorable career. All in all, Anderson may be known as a choker or a hero, but he’ll always be known as “Mr. Magic.”
Voter breakdown for Nick Anderson
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Magic Basketball ranks the top 10 players in Magic franchise history. #ORLrank is the Twitter hashtag to use if you want to get involved in the discussion or just follow along.
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Thanks to Daniel Myers, Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference, and Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus for contributing to the project.