A child born in May 2001 is now eligible to vote.
Or to serve in the military. Back in the spring and through the summer of 2001, such a commitment had meant, for about a generation, less risk of death than most prior enlistment periods.
The Vietnam War officially ended in April 1975 and the first U.S. bombs didn’t explode in Afghanistan until October 2001. The War in Afghanistan and then Iraq and sometimes Pakistan and Syria has gone by many code names since (Enduring Freedom, Freedom’s Sentinel, Iraqi Freedom, New Dawn, Neptune’s Spear, Timber Sycamore), but by all counts it is now the longest war in our country’s two-and-a-half centuries of combat.
Eighteen years ago this month is also the last time the Milwaukee Bucks were in the Eastern Conference Finals. The world was so different back then, but the NBA playoffs were so the same.
On Sunday, May 20 the 2nd-seeded and 52-win Bucks dispatched the feisty 6th-seeded and 46-win Charlotte Hornets in the seventh game of an unexpectedly even series. Those Bucks then watched from the TVs in the Bradley Center locker room as their two possible opponents—the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers—dueled it out during their own seventh game.
The 2019 Bucks had a lot longer to wait (four days) until they witnessed those same two franchises fight toward the same end: the right to play the Bucks for the right to play in the NBA Finals.
What those two teams saw, separated by 18 years, was remarkably similar. In 2001, right around dusk, in the second game of a nationally televised doubleheader (both games on antenna TV) 24-year-old Vince Carter, born in 1977, pump faked just inside the three-point arc. Six foot nine inch Tyrone Hill, born in 1968, went flying by him to block the mimed shot. After that flail, between Vince and the hoop was nothing but less than less a second. As the buzzer sounded, the ball bounced high off the far side of the rim, and Philadelphia won 88-87.
Eighteen years later the home teams had reversed. Instead of First Union Center in our nation’s first capital, where the Constitution was drafted in 1787, this game was played on foreign soil at the Air Canada Centre (now called the Scotiabank Arena) on the northern shore of Lake Ontario.
What happened in the final second of that game (with the score tied 90-90 and broadcast only only on cable) is already the stuff of legend even though it happened just last Sunday, also at dusk. 18 years later, the game winning (not losing) shot bounced off the front (not the back) of the rim and then ruptured impossibly high in the air before hitting that front side again until it hit the back side twice and then…
When our own eyes deceive us (and no one who watched that Kawhi Leonard lollipop fadeaway over the 7-foot-tall Joel Embiid live thought it could ever possibly careen home) and therefore the laws of basic physics appear to bend toward an unknown will, that is when we all begin double-checking our historical footnotes, to figure out just what in the hell used to happen, and therefore what might possibly be about to occur.
OLD ENOUGH TO REMEMBER THE ’80s
I was born in June 1977—six months after Vince Carter—and his 42-year-old body is still doing things against men half our age. Yes, the man who missed that Game 7 buzzer beater in 2001 is on an NBA roster in 2019. And the man who inbounded him the ball for that fateful shot was born in 1964 (on my exact birthday, June 25) and he is now so old that two of his kids (Steph and Seth) will be playing against each other in the Western Conference Finals opposite the Bucks this season.
When it was time for the 2001 playoffs I was 23. The Bucks hadn’t been any good since before puberty i.e. the 1980s.
THE 1987 “WHISTLES HEARD ‘ROUND THE GARDEN”
Back then we had Paul Pressey and Sidney Moncrief and were just good enough to lose to Philadelphia (in ‘81,‘82,’83,’85) or Boston (‘84,’86,’87) in the playoffs every damn year.
Yes, we technically make the conference finals in ‘83 and ‘86 but we only won one game total in both of those series. Our best team of that era was in ‘87 when we took the Celtics to seven games in the conference semis. Ahead by eight points in the closing minutes of that deciding game the referees called several consecutive fouls every time Larry Bird motioned like he wished to go near the basket.
With under three minutes to go and the Bucks still ahead 113-111 the referees called a sixth personal foul to disqualify Pressey for supposedly holding Bird in the paint away from the ball. Replays show incidental contact. The refs would immediately blow the whistle twice more for Larry the Legend and his six consecutive foul shots would invert the score to 113-117.
It was an obnoxious example of the NBA star system enforced by the referee’s whistle. But for the next decade and a half after that clear injustice in Boston, the Bucks weren’t ever good enough to find out if the refs would stop them again from advancing past a league-certified star.
Fourteen years later, the answer hadn’t changed.
This time the star’s name was Allen Iverson.
THE 2001 EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
In retrospect, the 2001 Bucks appear to be an odd blip on the radar screen. Unlike the 1980s teams which won seven consecutive division titles, this team won just the one.
The core of that elite roster began being assembled during the 1994 draft, when the Bucks chose Purdue’s Glenn Robinson with the 1st overall pick. The Gary, Indiana native held out for unprecedented terms and ended up forcing a sitting U.S. Senator/NBA team owner to pay him or risk losing re-election.
Two years later (1996) Ray Allen was added to the still underachieving Bucks, who this time had the 4th overall draft pick, which they used on Steph Marbury but immediately traded to Minnesota for their 5th overall pick (Ray Allen) plus a future first-rounder. The first overall pick that year was Allen Iverson to Philadelphia.
Three years after that (1999) during a lockout-shortened season, Marbury was again a pawn in Bucks trade schemes, this time to bring Sam Cassell to Milwaukee.
With that “Big 3” in place, the Bucks made the playoffs again (barely) for the first time in nearly a decade. Then they made them again in 2000 (barely) where they gave the #1 seed Pacers a real scare. The 2001 season started out worse than mediocre, with nine losses in the first twelve games.
Something clicked, though, and by the end of the season the Bucks were clearly the class of the Eastern Conference. Maybe even the class of the whole league. That year the four teams in the Western Conference—the Spurs, the eventual champion Lakers, the Kings, and the Jazz—went a combined 0-8 against our Milwaukee Bucks.
They weren’t just winning 52 of their final 73 games before the Charlotte series, they were playing beautiful basketball. This was before the current analytics phase of the NBA, back when big men stayed near the basket and the midrange jumper was still cool.
The Bucks did not have an elite big man (Ervin Johnson, Scott Williams, and Jason Caffey ate up most of the paint minutes) but they did have three guys who could shoot from anywhere on the court—and loved to do it. The 6-3 Cassell, the 6-5 Allen, and the 6-7 Robinson couldn’t all be guarded at once, and there was a real flow to the passing game as they each ran to their favorite spots waiting for the quick pass and then the even quicker release. Between them they averaged 62 points, 16 rebounds, and 16 assists a game and there was no defense that could stop them.
The #1 seeded Sixers had the league’s MVP (Iverson), defensive player of the year (Dikembe Mutombo) and sixth man of the year (Aaron McKie) and in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals they held the Bucks to 85 points during an 8-point victory.
In Game 2 Ray Allen exploded for 38 points (he was 7-11 from beyond the arc) and the Bucks cruised to a 92-78 win, seizing home court advantage, despite shooting only six free throws the entire game, compared to 30 for Philadelphia.
Allen Iverson watched Game 3 from the Pfister Hotel with a sore hip and maybe a few other ailments but Ray Allen went suddenly ice-cold (0-4) from deep and despite the friendly crowd the refs still gave the Sixers 31 free throws compared to just 23 for the Bucks. With the score unexpectedly close in the second quarter Sam Cassell made five straight jump shots to put the Bucks up eight and they held on for an ugly 80-74 win.
Iverson returned for Game 4 and missed 22 of his 32 shots from the field, but still managed 28 points thanks to getting to the foul line 12 times, one more free throw attempt than the entire Bucks roster got the whole game (overall the Sixers shot 22).
When Glenn Robinson was knocked to the ground while dribbling in the final minute and did not hear a whistle (at this point Big Dog had still not attempted a single free throw yet in the series) he couldn’t take it anymore, and promptly did finally inspire two quick whistles and a cathartic ejection. When Sam Cassell was given two meaningless free throws with just two seconds left in the game (which the Bucks would lose 89-83) the normally mild-mannered Bradley Center crowd erupted in sarcastic serenades of the refereeing crew.
Game 5 back in Philly is when things really got out of hand. Iverson again missed 22 shots (this time making only five) but again the game finished with a double-digit free throw disparity (28-16), and in the second half the Sixers had not one, not two, but three crucial four-point referee-aided possessions.
The Bucks were ahead 51-42 at halftime and 63-55 more than halfway through the 3rd quarter when Iverson kicked his leg out on a three-point attempt and tricked Bennet Salvatore into calling Sam Cassell for his 4th foul of the game. Not content to give the league MVP just the three free throws, Salvatore insisted he take another one by “T”-ing up Sam Cassell.
With two minutes left in the third quarter Big Dog hit a couple of jumpers to put the Bucks ahead 68-63 but then was called for a non-shooting flagrant foul in the low post. Two free throws later the Sixers still had the ball and Ervin Johnson was called for a ticky-tack foul on Mutombo. Two more free throws later and the Bucks were still ahead by one point, but Ray Allen was busy physically restraining Big Dog and Big Ervin from the refs, and George Karl smirked sarcastically from the bench.
Incredibly, despite “this loss of poise” as the league-approved TV announcers kept describing these chaotic scenes, the Bucks managed to build back to an 82-80 lead with just over four minutes to go in the game. Even more incredibly, the refs weren’t done tipping the scales. Tim Thomas made a routine foul to prevent a fast break lay-up, but the refs somehow saw it as flagrant. Before the Bucks had the ball back they were losing 84-82.
Despite those five extra free throws on a technical and two flagrants, the Bucks somehow had the ball down just one for the final possession. Cassell got the ball to Big Dog and with four seconds left he started backing down McKie. He spun around him and with two seconds left he missed an open five-footer. With less than a second left RayRay missed a contested tap-in. Jason Caffey did finally put the ball in the hoop but the buzzer had sounded and the Bucks lost a heartbreaker 89-88.
After the game, Ray Allen, despite being the designated restrainer of his teammates during the game, did not mince any words: “The league, as a marketing machine, the bottom line is about making money,” he said. “It behooves everybody for the league to make more money, and the league knows that Philadelphia is going to make more money with L.A. than we would with L.A. Nine times out of 10, when you have a referee you know there’s no biases. But in the back of everybody’s minds, it’s like Philadelphia and the MVP needs to play in the finals.”
Coach Karl stirred the same pot with post-game comments about award-winners getting all the “respect calls.” The league fined both men and the team a total of $85,000 for those comments. And there were still two more games to play!
Back in Milwaukee for Game 6 the crowd was angry and so was RayRay. He exploded for a playoff record nine three pointers and 41 points as the Bucks cruised to a 110-100 victory. But of course there was a catch.
After six games it was obvious the Bucks were the better team, but the league came up with a final deus ex machina. Unashamedly, the league went back and reviewed the first half tape, and decided that the refs had somehow not whistled the Bucks tightly enough. They upgraded a first quarter flagrant foul call on Scott Williams to a category that suspended him for Game 7.
That’s right, the league retroactively suspended the best big man on one of the teams for a Game 7 just hours before tip-off. The Bucks never had a chance in that game, and the Sixers went on to get blown out by the Lakers in five games.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
The Bucks weren’t the only team to suffer such interference during the David Stern era. The Kings in 2002, the Mavericks in 2006, and the Suns in 2007 all had similarly strong cases in their struggles against teams with more marketable stars. The only thing that stopped this league-encouraged series-fixing was when one of the refs got caught on a separate side hustle.
Tim Donaghy wasn’t trying to change the outcomes – he was just shaving point spreads for cash. But once the FBI had public evidence of referee corruption in 2007, it was hard for any of the shenanigans to continue.
If only the solution was as simple in war and politics!
The year the Bucks lost that series, United States voters may recall, was also the year when democracy began to fall apart. The prior November, Al Gore had won the popular vote and most likely the electoral college, but the Supreme Court intervened to hand the election to George W. Bush on an awkward pretense.
It was hard to realize at the time how consequential that decision would become. It ended up changing a lot more than just an election. Bush had campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” and hardly ever mentioned foreign policy. How could we know that after the September 11 attacks in 2001 the longest war in American history was about to begin?
2001 was a bad year for the NBA and for democracy, but so far the NBA has done a better job of cleaning up its act.
At least the Bucks have the most marketable star in the series this time around.