Today in Sports History: May 21st

5/21/1986 - Sampson sends Rockets to Finals

With one second remaining in regulation, the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers were tied, 112-112, in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. With Akeem Olajuwon having been ejected, the Rockets inbounded the ball to their other seven-foot scoring option, Ralph Sampson. The No. 1 pick out of Virginia caught the ball fifteen feet from the basket and, in an incredibly awkward-looking shot, he immediately flung it at the rim. Miraculously, Sampson's impossible shot bounced on the rim twice before falling in, giving the Rockets a 4-1 series win and sending them to the NBA Finals.

"To be honest, Ralph looked kind of spastic on that shot from where I was standing," Houston coach Bill Fitch said. "But he had a man behind him, and he had one second to put it up. This wasn't a gymnastics meet, and he wasn't getting points for style."

"I was happy when I saw Ralph put up such a bad shot," said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was guarding Sampson on the play. "Then the darned thing went in."

"Sometimes it takes a miracle to beat the world champions," said Lakers coach Pat Riley. "It just wasn't our year. You can't beat fate."

The Rockets advanced to face the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, which they lost in six games. Only twice in the 1980's did the Lakers not advance to the finals, and in both cases, the Rockets took their place and lost the Celtics. Houston's 4-1 victory was an enormous upset considering how dominate the Lakers had been with Abdul-Jabar and Magic Johnson. In Game 5, L.A. had led the entire way and only trailed when Sampson hit his remarkable shot.

For Sampson, the shot would be the highlight of his NBA career. He was drafted with enormous expectations and initially lived up to them, making four straight All-Star teams to begin his career. But Sampson's 7-foot-4 body didn't last long in the NBA. Knee injuries cut him down to size and he finished his career with the Warriors, Kings, and Washington Bullets. In his ninth and final season in the NBA, Sampson played in just ten games and averaged only 10.8 minutes and 2.2 points per game.

5/21/2000 - Knicks beat Heat in close Game 7

For the fourth straight year, a playoff series between the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat came down to the final game. And for the third straight year, the Knicks came away with a road victory to clinch the series. This time, the winning bucket came from Patrick Ewing, who dunked home two of his 20 points to give the Knicks a lead they never relinquished. New York won, 83-82, and left the fans at the American Airlines Arena to bask in defeat for the third straight season.

In the end, the Heat had no one to blame but themselves -- though they of course took a few parting shots at the referees. In Game 6, with a 3-2 series lead, the Heat blew an 18-point fourth quarter lead that could have ended the series right there. In Game 7, Alonzo Mourning did not take a shot in the final three minutes, and when the game mattered most, when they needed a bucket to take the lead with less than ten seconds left, it was Clarence Weatherspoon who took the final shot. 'Spoon's jumper was off, and Latrell Sprewell corralled the rebound for New York with 2.1 seconds left.

Controversially, Bennett Salvatore awarded Sprewell a timeout on the play before he fell out of bounds with the ball. It was that timeout that allowed the Knicks to advance the ball and run out the clock. However, Sprewell said after the game that he never issued a timeout. This had many Heat fans irate that Salvatore had bailed out the Knicks by inventing a phoney T.O. In 2007, Salvatore justified the call to Henry Abbott of ESPN's TrueHoop blog.

"There were three people that called timeout at that particular moment," Salvatore explained. "There were three people in blue jerseys that called timeout in that moment, and that was confirmed by my partners. Obviously, I picked the wrong person that called timeout. But I knew that the person next to me wearing the uniform was blue, and I granted the correct timeout, and I was wrong in the person, on the team that called it. I was right in the team that called it."

The fourth quarter of Game 7 was a defensive struggle if ever there was one. The hero of the period, even more than Ewing, was Knicks' backup point guard Chris Childs, who scored their first 10 points of the period and kept them in the game. If not for Childs, then it would have been the Heat who advanced to the conference finals to take on the Indiana Pacers.

This was the final time that the Patrick Ewing-Knicks and the Alonzo Mourning-Heat met in the postseason. After the season, the Knicks traded Ewing to Seattle, while Mourning was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease that nearly ended his career. The Knicks in the 90's could be summarized by three things: their rivalry with the Bulls, their rivalry with the Heat, and their rivalry with the Pacers. All three of those came to an end after the year 2000, as the Knicks ceased to be competitive in the eastern conference.

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