Editor’s note: The following was first published on May 28, 2017.
"I think that was one of the highlights of Utah’s history."
That statement from Jazz owner Gail Miller might sound dramatic, but if you ask local sports fans, the buzzer-beating, game-winning jumper John Stockton made at The Summit in Houston on May 29, 1997, certainly ranks up there among highlights in Utah's history with Brigham Young declaring “This is the right place,” the world agreeing with that sentiment after the 2002 Winter Olympics and Arctic Circle inventing fry sauce.
The Shot, as it's simply called, remains revered in the Beehive State even more than two decades later.
It gave the Jazz an exhilarating and surprising 103-100 Game 6 victory over the Houston Rockets. It clinched the Western Conference Finals for Utah, four games to two, in thrilling fashion. Best of all, Stockton's swish sent the Jazz, a professional sports organization that helped unify and galvanize the community after relocating to Salt Lake City from New Orleans in 1979, to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
"Usually for the last play, everyone goes helter-skelter," Stockton said moments after draining the most cherished basket ever made by a Jazz player. "They go to the wrong spots. They don't do the right thing. But everyone did what they were supposed to."
Twenty-three years later, The Shot still has the power to send shivers down the spines of Jazz fans, players and personnel as they relive the moment when arguably the greatest passer in NBA history assisted his team's championship aspirations with an oh-so-sweet jumper. Stockton and Bryon Russell even humorously re-enacted the play during the team's 20-year reunion in 2017. Videos of The Shot sequel went viral.
“You guys noticed it went in, right?” Stockton said, laughing, after he hit the 3-pointer from about the same spot on the court on the first attempt and leaped in the air with Russell at the team’s practice facility. “Pretty ugly, though.”
Not surprisingly, the NBA's all-time assists leader still likes to dish out praise to everybody but himself.
"We had talent first, starting with The Mailman. Ask the fellas, (Karl Malone) is the guy we all played off. He was the guy nobody could stop. He was the guy," Stockton said. "We had talent. We had other guys who were extraordinarily talented that allowed themselves to fit into roles for the sake of the team, for the sake of each other.
"Jerry (Sloan) had us all committed to each other. He had us committed to defense. He had us committed to things that you don’t hear a lot about today — to relationships, to communicating on the bus and caring about the other guy. Those things, I think, made us special, made us a little bit different maybe."
They were especially special during an unforgettable game that's worth revisiting more than two decades later. Here's a history of the shot, in the words of Jazz players, coaches, staff and members of the media who were covering the game.
It looked like this competitive 1997 Western Conference Finals showdown was headed for a winner-takes-all Game 7 at the Delta Center. The Rockets, playing in front of a loud and proud home crowd, seized a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 6. Houston, a playoff nemesis for Utah in the early 1990s, was even up 10 points with less than three minutes remaining. Then, Stockton went to work. The Hall of Fame point guard, who holds the NBA assists record, scored the final nine points, including a game-tying shot with 22.4 seconds remaining. Clyde Drexler had a chance to put the Rockets up in the final moments, but his one-handed bank-shot attempt bounced hard off the rim and Malone hauled in his 11th rebound of the game. Utah instantly called a timeout to strategize and advance the ball past midcourt. That scenario gave the Jazz 2.8 seconds to attempt to clinch their first trip to the NBA Finals.
“We did what we needed to do to put ourselves back in position to win that game. That’s what Utah Jazz basketball was all about.” — Greg Ostertag
John Stockton: Coach is always saying, 'Never give up, never give up.' We were down … and he convinced us to keep playing.
Greg Ostertag: That was what everybody called Utah Jazz basketball. We were known for execution and defense and setting screens. We did what we needed to do to put ourselves back in position to win that game. That’s what Utah Jazz basketball was all about. It’s hard to not think that you’re still in a game when you’ve got those two guys (Stockton and Malone) on your team — or three guys, if you will, with Jeff (Hornacek), because Jeff’s one of the better shooters to ever play. And then you’ve got probably the best power forward ever to play and then for sure one of the top two guards to ever play.”
Richard Evans (In his 1997 Deseret News story of the game): The comeback started with a 3-pointer by Russell. Jazz center Greg Ostertag then stuffed a shot by Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon, and Stockton made a pair of free throws to cut the lead to five. During an ensuing Rockets timeout, the Houston mascot, Turbo, came out to center court to lead a chant where fans on one side of the arena scream "Houston," which fans on the other side respond to with "Rockets." But the fans just sat there; few even stood up and even fewer were willing to chant.
Jeff Hornacek: I think that's when we knew we could win the game. We knew in the end they would be tight in a close game. We had the luxury of a seventh game, but they didn't.
John Stockton: Somebody showed me the last few minutes and you see the contributions and the things that led into it: Bryon Russell’s 3-point shots, Oster blocking shots all over the place, everybody was contributing. It was so much fun and the shot just culminated the whole deal and got us where we’d all dreamt of being.
Charles Barkley (postgame): You see why John Stockton's one of the five best players I've ever played against. I didn't know he scored the last (nine) points, but that guy is as tough as nails. Obviously, the best player in this series was John Stockton and he finished it off the way a star should finish it off. I've said it many times: He's just awesome. He made all the plays down the stretch. All the plays, all the big shots. Karl Malone deserves MVP, but he would never get MVP without John Stockton. He's the best pure point guard ever. To score (nine) straight points in a crucial situation, that's not easy to do. He made all the shots.
Karl Malone (postgame): They got up by (13) points and we didn't give up. Each guy on this team did something special to give us an opportunity. What an awesome feeling.
Charles Barkley: Tonight they proved how good a team they really are. They're not just a team that can win at home. To come in here and win on the road after being down 13 points late in the fourth quarter, I take my hat off to them. And we didn't play bad. We made some mistakes, but they were awesome. Obviously, I'm disappointed, but I'm going to be a man about it. We lost to a better team. Utah really outplayed us in every game. They proved it in the regular season and they did it again in the playoffs.
John Stockton: I think you just keep playing. You never give up. You see people’s shoulders slump, and that’s it. I don’t think anybody’s shoulders slumped even though we were down big late, and the rest is history.
Rudy Tomjanovich (postgame): When you make a mistake, Stockton and Malone make you pay. I'll have to admit, I'll root for those guys in the Finals.
While Utah remembers The Shot, Houston remembers The Pick (or The Bear Hug or The Tackle or The Illegal Screen). Malone was the NBA MVP that year, but he was used as a decoy and a monstrous road block to help free up Stockton. Thanks to the pick, the Jazz point guard had a ton of open space to work with after Drexler was swallowed up by Malone and Barkley’s help defense came too late to help the scrambling Rockets.
John Stockton: We ran (the play) often, but this was a little bit different. They played it differently. Bryon Russell read my cut perfectly. Karl set a thunderous screen over there, and I had a really good long look at a 3-point shot to win it. The details of what (the play) could have been is left up to us. The setup was the same as we had done 50 times.
Jeff Hornacek: I think it (the play) was pretty much John come off the top and Karl set a good screen. He (The Mailman) hit somebody pretty good, I think. John was able to get the shot.
Michael Wilbon (Washington Post article): You know how he got so open? Karl Malone, all 6 feet 10 and 256 pounds of him, threw his mountain of a body in front of Houston's Clyde Drexler, like a tackle taking out a linebacker. Drexler didn't have a prayer of getting around Malone and Charles Barkley couldn't get to Stockton fast enough on the switch.
Charles Barkley: It just happened so quickly.
Karl Malone: Coach said to set a pick for Stock. I was able to get pretty good meat on him (Drexler), and Stock made a great shot. It was the best pick I set in my life.
Clyde Drexler: I was bear-hugged, not picked.
Jerry Sloan: Great pick.
The Shot (aka The Biggest Play in Utah Jazz history) began with the Jazz in a picket fence formation at the top of the key with 2.8 seconds remaining and the score tied at 100. Just after the referee handed the ball to Bryon Russell out of bounds and blew his whistle, Antoine Carr jetted into the lane, taking Olajuwon with him. Hornacek quickly curled around the perimeter toward the Jazz bench, clearing more space up top. Meanwhile, Malone thoughtfully gave Drexler dancing lessons, taking the big Rocket guard toward midcourt. Barkley hesitated on the switch, and suddenly Stockton was in a dream scenario with the ball in his hands 10 feet outside of the arc with nary a Rocket defender in the same Houston zip code. By the time Barkley responded and ineffectively lunged toward No. 12, Stockton had already taken a dribble, squared up to the basket and elevated for one of the most famous jump shots in NBA history.
Greg Gumbel (NBC play-by-play): Russell will inbound at half court.
Bill Walton (color analyst): Uh-oh.
John Stockton: We ran that play a ton. There are 50 variables to it, depending on how the defense plays, where the pass comes. There’s a lot of things that go into it. I was supposed to curl and try to get the ball fairly early on in the play, try to make a play, try to get into the paint, find a shooter, make a shot, whatever. I just remember as I started to curl it felt like the whole Houston Rocket team was waiting over there for me just to curl right into them. I knew that wasn’t going to work. Then Karl turned around and set a phenomenal pick on Clyde Drexler and then the ball was in my hands.
Greg Gumbel: Stockton. Open. Three. YEAH! John Stockton sends the Utah Jazz to the NBA Finals!
Hot Rod Hundley (Jazz radio play-by-play): Russell. To Stockton. For Three. Stock! Got it! Stock got it! Unbelievable! John Stockton!
Ron Boone (radio analyst): NBA FINALS!
Hot Rod Hundley: John Stockton! It’s over! The Jazz win it! We’re on our way to the world championships!
Jeff Hornacek: I must’ve curled over the top looking for maybe (an opening) at the baseline because when John let the shot go. I had a perfect angle of watching it go up to the basket. I think I was actually in motion running out to John even before it went into the basket. It’s one of those plays you’ll always remember.
John Stockton: Bryon didn’t get paid to pass, but when you think about the timing of the game and how crucial that is, the ball is in my hands and in a blink of an eye he read the same thing I read. The ball was in there and there was a lot of territory. I even had a chance to take a dribble and to size it up. … Guys like me, we don’t have a beautiful jump shot so I wanted to make sure it snapped through straight, right up high.
Bryon Russell: It was a beautiful shot. He got himself open. I gave it to the first available open guy, and it happened to be him.
“As he was dribbling it, I knew the game was over. It’s just a feeling you get. He makes that shot all the time. It was automatic.” — Jeff Hornacek
Jeff Hornacek: As he was dribbling it, I knew the game was over. It's just a feeling you get. He makes that shot all the time. It was automatic.
Antoine Carr: As soon as I saw he was wide open and he took that little dribble, it was money. That was pure cash.
Karl Malone: Stock made a great shot.
John Stockton: You grow up and you’re out there on the court by yourself and you’re always saying, ‘Three, two, one’ like you see in the movies, and that’s kind of how it is. I’d probably shot that shot 100 times in my head, maybe a thousand as a kid. You don’t really think about it at the time. It’s quiet. The opportunity is there. All I could think of was, ‘Follow through, finish the shot.’ That I did. Normally my shot’s a little quirky and weird anyway, but that one followed through and snapped through. It found its mark, so it was a good day.
About Bill Walton’s infamous comment that will forever remain in Jazz lore.
Bill Walton: I have no idea what I said.
Bill Walton: It was ‘Uh-oh’ like watch out for this because you give a great player like John Stockton that kind of opportunity and he’s going to be able to bring it home. It was just one of those moments in my life that I’ll never forget. I was proud to be a part of it, proud to know all those guys and to see a change in history, the course of history being changed right there with that one play, because Utah always played with such spirit, always played with such heart, but they could never get over — and John had his moment. To be such a great fan of John and Karl and Jerry and the whole Utah program, just the whole Utah experience. To see the dreams of a people come true, I mean that’s what I live for and that was John Stockton. He epitomized that and I’ll be able for the rest of my life, I’ll be able to say I was there. I was there when history was made. Wow.
The Uh-Oh Moment helped the Jazz overcome the Western Conference Finals hurdle they’d failed to clear three previous times when they lost to Portland (4-2, 1992), Houston (4-1, 1994) and Seattle (4-3, 1996).
Jeff Hornacek: That was a big deal obviously for the whole state and for us as players; none of us had gotten there. That was back in a time when guys stayed on their own team. It was a battle. It could have been any team that advanced every year. The Bulls were doing it in the East every year, but in the West it seemed to be a different team. We’re lucky to have that opportunity.
John Stockton: We exorcised some demons when we beat Houston down there. Houston had beaten us a number of times in the playoffs, just last-second shots or whatever. Portland, Drexler was on that team, they had beaten us a couple of times in Portland. Charles was in Phoenix, they had (beaten us). We exorcised our own demons and got over a couple of huge, huge hurdles that eluded us before.
Karl Malone: We wanted to win (in Houston). It's more satisfying to win on the road because we haven't won any conference finals on the road and everybody's been talking about that.
“That’s a lot of knocking your head against the wall to try to accomplish something, and yet we did. The West is tough. Great teams. Great records, top to bottom. You didn’t have any nights off in the playoffs.” — John Stockton
Bill Walton: I remember those games — Utah-Houston — were so spectacular. Utah had never been able to break through. It was always Houston and Hakeem was so fantastic and they had Clyde. They had Eddie Johnson, I think, and just a ton of great players. They had won two championships, but Utah just kept coming and never gave up. I’m just a huge fan of Jerry and Karl and John and all the different guys. We’re watching the game and as we’re right there — and the fate of the known world is in the balance — and all of a sudden Houston’s defense collapses and John breaks free. As soon as I saw him getting free I just knew because he’s one of my favorite players ever, John, and he was always so clutch and he just defined class, dignity, professionalism and competitive greatness. The way he was able to come in there and really create a whole world and life for himself, and then he had that golden moment on the road against an incredibly great championship team and then to knock it down. It was such a great moment because I love all things Utah. I’m a huge Hakeem Olajuwon fan. I just love him and for John Stockton to be able to send Hakeem Olajuwon home, I mean, that’s what makes basketball the greatest of all games.
John Stockton: That's a lot of knocking your head against the wall to try to accomplish something, and yet we did. The West is tough. Great teams. Great records, top to bottom. You didn’t have any nights off in the playoffs. We experienced a lot of disappointment, so when we did finally break through I think we all had that sense of relief, that sense of wow, what effort it took to get over that hurdle and how to make the best of that.
The Reaction is almost as fun for Jazz fans to watch as The Shot. Fittingly, Stockton, Malone and Hornacek had a brief victory dance together at midcourt before the rest of the team, including Sloan and faithful assistant Phil Johnson, rushed out to celebrate, jump up and down, hug, scream and soak up the thrill of victory after finally breaking through
Jerry Sloan: I don’t even know what happened after that. I got so excited.
John Stockton: Coach’s knees looked pretty good. You were bouncing up and down on that court, Coach.
Jerry Sloan: That’s all the bouncing I could do. … My leg felt a lot better after you made it.
Gail Miller: It was kind of unbelievable as evidenced by your (Stockton’s) jump when we made it. It was just a fantastic night, a dream come true, actually. We experienced such a high level of emotions at that point. If you weren’t there, it’s hard to describe it, but it was really fun. We watched the transformation of the arena to the big time to watch the NBA take it over and bring in their crews and elevate the event, the experience for everybody who came (for the Finals). It was just magical. It was really fun.
Bryon Russell: Oh man. I was jumping up for joy. If I could’ve I would’ve jumped into Greg Ostertag’s arms. I was just running around like a chicken with my head cut off. It was super duper exciting just to see everybody. I can replay it in my mind, everybody jumping and hugging, and Sloan coming with his arms wide open hugging Karl. It was real nice.
Greg Ostertag: I didn’t actually see the original shot go in. I’d just fouled out. I was sitting on the end of the bench, drying off, whatever. I had my head in a towel or whatever, but Greg Foster and Stephen Howard were standing right in front of me too. I was disappointed I’d fouled out, so I was sitting there and all of a sudden I heard everybody screaming and hollering and it got real quiet so I knew something good had happened, so I just jumped and ran out.
Jazz owners Larry and Gail Miller were in the parking lot of a restaurant in Salt Lake City listening to Hot Rod Hundley’s radio broadcast of Game 6.
“Everybody, I think, remembers where they were at that moment.” — Gail Miller
Gail Miller: It was very, very tense. We were trying to divert ourselves from being so intense with those games. We were on our way to dinner and we had (grandson) Zane with us. We were waiting in the parking lot for the shot when it came. Everybody, I think, remembers where they were at that moment.
Indeed, ask a Jazz fan from that period where they were when that happened, and you’re bound to hear a fun sports memory of a moment that makes the suffering and misery and playoff upsets worth enduring. For about 20,000 Jazz fans, the victory party ended up at the private Million Air terminal at the Salt Lake International Airport where the gathering throng crammed into the area to await the team charter as it arrived from Houston in the middle of the night. Celebration trumped sleep on this jubilant occasion.
Jeff Hornacek: Obviously, when you come back from there and the airport’s packed, just driving through the crowd to see that many people … that’s something else. It had to be pretty late, but they were all out there. The support from the fans here has always been great ever since I can think back when I was a rookie playing against these guys.
Greg Ostertag: I was doing an interview after the game and I said to somebody, ‘With a three-hour flight back, that’s plenty of time for somebody to drive up from St. George or Cedar City.’ And then we got off the plane and there were 20,000 people there at 3 o’clock in the morning. I remember going out through the gate and these three guys go, ‘We’re from St. George!’ and I was like, ‘They really drove up!’ That was one of the cool things for me. Just to get off a plane and see people who have been waiting for a franchise to do something like this since they got here at 3 o’clock in the morning. It takes an hour to get out to the airport because there were so many people there. That was really cool.
Antoine Carr: That’s unreal. First of all, for someone to get out of their bed to come see some basketball players come home is unreal. These people have long days. They have a lot of work to do. They have kids. But yet they still thought enough of us to come out and to cheer us. That’s one of those things. All you can do is tell the people and the Lord upstairs, ‘Thank you.’
John Stockton (on his ongoing relationship with Jazz fans): I’m not sure it’s warranted, but … to this day all of us get treated well by people. They say ‘thank you’ all the time. That’s neat. Maybe we should be the ones saying ‘thank you’ as well, but it’s nice to have the mutual feeling of good about the whole deal.
Jazz fans would rather not remember the intricate details of what happened in the 1997 NBA Finals — or in the even more epic 1998 Finals — but they’ll always be able to bask in the warm, fuzzy feelings that erupted inside of their chests when The Shot snapped the net in Houston.
John Stockton: It’s certainly relief at first and joy. I don't know if you could separate the two at the time, but it's so short-lived. Is it a minute? Is it an hour? Twenty-five minutes? After that game, we're sitting there saying, 'OK, what is next?' And we knew what was next. There was a huge challenge in front of us. Very soon after, we were focused on the next challenge.
Jeff Hornacek: Things fell into place for us. We just couldn’t beat the Bulls.
John Stockton: We’re not the champs, but we’re proud of what we accomplished.
Bill Walton: They’re champions in the game of life.
This article mostly includes recent thoughts from Jazz personnel involved in the '97 playoffs along with quotes from game stories from the Deseret News, Washington Post and The New York Times. Dirk Facer also contributed.