Sometimes, it’s difficult to imagine life as it was 20 years ago. The internet was still a novelty, cell phones were the size of a small condo, and tweeting was associated with a particular Looney Toons character.
Reminiscing on the National Basketball Association in 1993 can also prove to be nostalgic. Unlike today, players entering the draft were much more experienced collegiately. Teams were primarily built through the draft and via trades, as free agency was not as prominent. One could argue, these factors alone contributed to an all-around better product when it came to the basketball that was being played during that time.
And what a time it was!
Following what was an historic 1992, the year of 1993 for professional basketball in the United States had plenty to live up to. The sport celebrated its 100th anniversary in ’92, culminating in a repeat championship for the Chicago Bulls and the assembly of possibly the greatest team in history – the USA men’s basketball team in the XXV Olympiad (better known as the Dream Team). The Dream Team left an indelible imprint on the Barcelona Games that served to expand the game of basketball exponentially. Coming into a new NBA season, fans all over the world had to be excited for what awaited in the year ahead.
November 1992: Where it all started
Technically, this story begins in the latter months of 1992. The NBA began its season that November and it was taken over by a Larger than Life phenomenon by the name of Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal. Better known as Shaq. The 7 foot 1 inch Orlando Magic big man entered the NBA with as much hype and anticipation as any rookie had in recent memory. Reminding fans of Wilt Chamberlain with his size and sheer power, Shaq was expected to become the next great big man in NBA annals. And did he ever deliver. Winning Player of the Week honors in his first week of play in the Association, Shaq was simply unstoppable amassing 23.4 PPG on 56.2% shooting, 13.9 RPG, and 3.5 BPG for the season all while being followed by cameras and media in each city he played.
The 20 year old O’Neal was not only becoming a star on the court, but also a television star in the making. He enjoyed rapping on the side, even teaming up with rap group Fu-Schnickens on a hip-hop joint. He made his big screen debut in the film Blue Chips. He was asked to shoot just about every commercial imaginable and obliged with a smile and charisma that hadn’t been seen since Magic exited the stage. By the end of his spectacular season, he had garnered his first All-Star selection and Rookie of the Year Honors. Not bad for a young man who still could not legally drink until mid-season.
But what most people may remember from Shaquille O’Neal circa 1993, has to be the devastation he left on one hoop in New Jersey that season.
While Shaq was terrorizing backboards and transforming the Orlando Magic into a future title contender, another recent expansion member team was making its mark. The Charlotte Hornets entered the league only four seasons earlier and were primed for their first dabble into postseason play. Their cast of characters included Larry Johnson (aka Grandmama), a miniature (but effective) Mugsy Bougues, and rookie standout Alonzo Mourning. These men sought to help Charlotte become the first of the four recent expansion teams to not only go to the playoffs, but win a series.
Tragedy striking twice
In order to do that, they would have to defeat the veteran Boston Celtics, whose history alone was enough to intimidate the most talented of teams. Boston entered the series as favorites, but the series (and the Celtics’ future) would change drastically in one instance. Early in Game One, Reggie Lewis, Boston’s young promising star, ran down the court during a routine possession change and staggered to the floor as if he just ran out of breath. At the time, no one knew the cause of the sudden fall from Lewis nor his status. Seemingly a player in supreme physical condition, the faithful at the Boston Garden that evening couldn’t fathom the idea of their rising superstar being limited. Lewis would return briefly in that game, but would not been seen again for the remainder of the series after being diagnosed with a cardiac abnormality in the heart. Lewis’ absence served to debilitate the C’s as the younger and hungrier Hornets won three straight, closing the curtain on the series with an Alonzo Mourning 20 footer.
Ball game over. Series over. An era of Celtic brilliance over. With Larry Bird retiring a year earlier, power forward Kevin McHale announcing his retirement after the Charlotte series, and the uncertainty of Lewis’ health, Boston was devoid of any semblance of hope for the first time in its illustrious history.
Unfortunately, on July 27th, 1993 –nearly two months after his fall in the playoffs– Reggie Lewis would collapse while shooting baskets at Brandies University. His heart failed him and the NBA lost another emerging star in the span of weeks.
That June, Drazen Petrovic of the New Jersey Nets would also be taken away too soon as he died in a traffic accident in Germany while driving in a rainstorm. Like Lewis, Petrovic was just beginning to come into his own in 1993. Nicknamed Petro, the Croatian established himself as the Nets’ leader, scoring 22PPG, 45% from 3PT and an overall field goal percentage of 52%- leading all guards in the league. Despite having such an impressive stat-line, Petro found garnering recognition in the NBA hard to come by as he was snubbed for the All-Star Game for a second consecutive season.
In some ways, he felt as if his American star teammates Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman were getting more shine than he was. For those reasons, it was quietly speculated in the months prior to Petrovic’s untimely death that he would consider leaving the Nets and the NBA to play in Greece. Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that the Nets hopes of becoming an Eastern Conference power took a major blow with this passing.
For the NBA, losing Drazen and Reggie in one offseason was incomprehensible. This was a time when the league was beginning to have an infusion of both international talent and homegrown stars. Both of these young men fit the profile and gave hope to fans of both New Jersey and Boston. As for the franchises, each would be left to pick up the pieces and try to continue business as usual.
There’s no coincidence that it would take a significant amount of time before either the Celtics or the Nets became relevant in the NBA again.
Chicago three-peat, and beyond?
Though tragedy and death would dominate the summer of ’93, the Chicago Bulls cemented their place in history, becoming only the third team in NBA history to win three consecutive titles. They ran through stiff competition in the East and proved to be superior to the Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals. Though the Suns had the MVP in Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan would remind everyone why he was widely considered the best in the game. Jordan would end the series averaging a Finals-record 41.0 PPG in six games.
With their supremacy in tact, the Bulls were in great shape to make it a four-peat. Jordan was Superman. Scottie Pippen was Batman. Phil Jackson was the Zen-Man.
Everything was set.
That is until a stunning announcement on the eve of training camp that Jordan would be retiring from basketball. The news reverberated throughout the NBA and the sports world.
Why was the greatest player, arguably in history, walking away from the game he owned?
Many assumed that the recent murder of Jordan’s father, James, left him devastated and that the desire to play was no longer there.
Others had their speculations and conspiracy theories, but MJ would explain the reasoning behind his decision.
“When I lose the sense of motivation and the sense to prove something as a basketball player, it’s time for me to move away from the game of basketball.” – Chicago Tribune, Michael Jordan Statement
Just like that, the league that Mike helped globalize and market was without its main pitchman. Jordan would not fade into the twilight all together as he would spend the better part of the next 18 months attempting to hit curveballs unsuccessfully. And though he would eventually come to his senses and return to his proper stage in 1995, he left the league in the hands of a younger generation that would transition the National Basketball Association into a new era.
By this time, baggy shorts were the norm, and a new breed of player was infiltrating into the NBA. Chris Webber and Penny Hardaway were drafted (and traded for each other) that year as young, brash ballers with versatility to match. The league was changing. Devoid of MJ, the Bulls were brought back down to earth as the Larry O’Brien Trophy was now up for grabs. The Houston Rockets took advantage and snatched two titles in the process.
Before we knew it, Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon was now considered the best player in the game. The Shaq and Penny tandem was as good as advertised as they catapulted themselves into dynastic duo. They also enjoyed the fruits of Jordan’s marketing labor as they would dominate the small and big screen over the next few years (Yes Penny starred in Blue Chips too!) However, those two weren’t the only players to enjoy commercial success as stars and quasi-stars were now asked to pitch just about any product on the market. Something that wasn’t so common before MJ. Today it’s not uncommon to even see a draft prospect with a commercial.
It may seem crazy to solely attribute the events of 1993 with the reshaping of the NBA, but you simply can’t look back at the year without asking these questions.
If there was no Shaq, who would’ve carried on Jordan’s marketability in the NBA?
How good could Reggie Lewis and Drazen Petrovic have been had they lived?
How good would their teams have been in the years to follow?
If MJ didn’t retire, would Chicago have challenged the Celtics’ record of 8 straight titles?
If he didn’t retire, would other players like Hakeem be as revered as they are today?
We will never know the answer, as it’s more barbershop talk than anything, but there’s no disputing the fact that 20 years later, 1993 remains the most impactful year the NBA has ever seen.