How ‘The Shot’ sent the Jazz to the ’97 Finals — and sunk Charles Barkley’s career

“Barkley: A Biography” (2022, Hanover Square Press) offers an unfiltered look into the 1997 Western Conference finals and the unique relationship between Barkley, Stockton and Malone

Fresh off losing all of his basketball talent in “Space Jam” to an alien named Pound, Charles Barkley turned to God for answers on the whereabouts of his powers. Kneeling in the church, the desperate star made promises to the Big Man that ranged from unlikely to unreasonable: No more swearing. No more technicals. No more dates with Madonna.

Just as Barkley lost his skills in “Space Jam” he worried he might lose his skills in real-life basketball while playing in Houston.

The expectations were made clear in a poster featuring the Rockets’ new “Big Three” recruits — Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler — standing around the two Larry O’Brien trophies from ’94 and ’95: Title or bust.

Yet Barkley’s window in Houston was limited at best. The Rockets had mortgaged their future for a chance to have three future Hall of Famers between the ages of 34 and 35 make one more run at a title, hopefully challenging Chicago’s championship three-peat.

Houston Rockets forward Charles Barkley fouls Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone during Game 5 of the Western Conference finals series in May 1997. | Gary M. McKellar, Deseret News

“Charles could still do some really good things on the court, but we knew he was definitely on the downward side of his career,” Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. “Our hope in having three superstars was Charles wouldn’t need to take on the full load.”

Aside from Olajuwon, Drexler and swingman Mario Elie, much of the team had been gutted. The new squad was older and top-heavy with big man Kevin Willis and 3-point shooter Brent Price. Barkley was adjusting quickly to his new teammates, ribbing Price and forward Matt Bullard for not being the “tough white guys” that once ruled the league and asking Olajuwon to turn down the volume on one of his bright red suits.

Media going to miss Barkley

But getting old was hell and he talked openly about whether they could get the job done.

“We’re all on the downside now,” he said. “Do we have enough left? That’s the question.”

The Rockets breezed past Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs and edged Seattle in the second. In the conference finals, the Utah Jazz awaited, with John Stockton and the league’s MVP, Karl Malone. Five of the 50 greatest players ever would share the floor for a likely shot at Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Bulls.

Yet there was just one thing on Barkley’s mind that afternoon: “The nightlife in Salt Lake City.”

Houston stars Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, and Hakeem Olajuwon have questions for the referee during an NBA playoff game in 1997. | Gary M. McKellar, Deseret News

The shot fell through the nylon with no time remaining and Barkley raised his arms in the air. Eddie Johnson had already saved Houston from going down 0-3 with a 31-point performance in Game 3. Now, after hitting a game-winning 3 as time expired in Game 4, Barkley caught Johnson and lifted him above his head to the chants of “EDD-IE! EDD-IE! EDD-IE!”

The Rockets had tied the series and were now two games away from the NBA Finals. 

“I’m not sure what surreal means, but I heard it on TV once and it sounded pretty damn smart. So I’d have to say surreal is the word,” Barkley exclaimed.

Barkley’s first playoff matchup with Malone offered a different look for an individual rivalry dating back to before the first Olympic Dream Team, one filled with as much respect as animosity. In an Olympic year when Malone was set to be the breakout star, it was Barkley who seized the role of American ambassador to the game. When Barkley supported Magic Johnson and his HIV diagnosis, Malone threw a fuss over the prospect of competing against him. Shortly after Barkley bellowed, “I am not a role model,” Malone’s essay in “Sports Illustrated” slammed him for not taking on the responsibilities that come with being a superstar.

Being the best 4-man was important to Malone, remembered Antoine Carr, a backup big for the Jazz.

“Once you got on the block, Karl always wanted to tell you how big he was,” Carr said. “I wouldn’t say he was as talented as Charles until then, but Karl turned into a beast in running the floor, and became this brute force.”

Barkley, for his part, took a grounded approach.

“Let’s be realistic,” he said. “This is our last chance, and probably Utah’s. We’re not young teams; we’re losing something every year. We are running out of time.”

Jazz guard John Stockton goes to the floor after a flagrant foul by Houston forward Charles Barkley. | Gary M. McKellar, Deseret News

Usually one to fill a whiteboard with pregame strategies, coach Tomjanovich kept it simple with a few words: Believe in yourselves.

The problem was Utah’s players believed in themselves more for Game 5, inching out a 96–91 victory in Salt Lake City. Malone tore up Barkley in Game 5, outscoring him 29 to 10 and doubling his rebound total, 14 to 7.

The Jazz led 3–2 and were looking to close out the Rockets back in Houston.

Drexler made Game 6 his own, abusing Jeff Hornacek and Bryon Russell for 33 points. Houston was up 10 with less than three minutes left. But little by little, the Jazz clawed back.

A 3-pointer by Russell and Greg Ostertag’s surprising block on Olajuwon led to two free throws for Stockton on the other end. Now up five, anxiety took hold of Rockets fans and not even Turbo, the high-flying mascot, could settle the crowd.

Stockton had a fast-break layup to cap a 12–2 run. Suddenly, the game was tied at 98 with 1:03 to go. 

On the next possession, Olajuwon, in the middle of his worst game of the series, was again blocked by Ostertag. On the recovery, the ball would eventually find Barkley, who tossed up a left-handed prayer over the 7-foot-2 Ostertag with little success. But he wouldn’t be denied a second time, hauling in the offensive rebound and drawing a foul before crashing to the floor in exhaustion. Houston didn’t always embrace Barkley, but they did in that moment, with one fan yelling out, “You the man!” right before he hit the second free throw to put them back up by two.

The lead wouldn’t last as Stockton penetrated for a hanging floater that tied it back up at 100. Drexler clanged a one-handed bank shot off the rim and Malone called timeout with 2.8 seconds left. In the huddle, Utah coach Jerry Sloan drew up a play to set up the hot Stockton. Drexler would take on Stockton and Barkley would stay on Malone.

“It was the best pick I set in my life.” — Karl Malone

Walking onto the court, Barkley could only smile at Carr, his friend who had entered the game for Ostertag.

As Russell was about to inbound the ball at midcourt, Malone set a devastating pick on Drexler that took him out toward the sideline. Stockton was wide open at the top of the key and Barkley was now the closest man to him. In a time before switching became a popular tactic among basketball defenses, the loose switch with Barkley and Drexler was late, leaving the slower forward in no-man’s-land.

“Uh-oh,” remarked NBC’s Bill Walton upon seeing the breakdown in the defense.

Stockton calmly took one dribble before cocking the ball above his right shoulder for a chance at the win. Rushing in with both arms in the air, Barkley turned to watch the ball.

“He knew it was going to go in,” sportswriter Eddie Sefko said.

An exuberant Stockton jumped up and down, showing more emotion in seconds than the 35-year-old had for his entire career. His 13 points in the final three-plus minutes carried him and Malone to their first Finals appearance in a moment that would live on through replays decades later. Depending on who you rooted for, the final play would be known as “The Shot” or “The Pick.”

“I was able to get pretty good meat on him,” Malone said of Drexler. “It was the best pick I set in my life.”

“I was bear-hugged, not picked,” Drexler said. 

On the way out some fans tore up their signs reading “We Believe.”

“I don’t want to say we should have won,” said Malone, “but we should have won.”

In the hallway underneath the arena, Barkley, sweat dripping off his forehead, stood outside the door, bracing his mouth with his wrist. He’d become all too accustomed to playoff disappointment with a team he thought was good enough to win it all.

“It just happened so quickly,” he said afterward.

When John Stockton sent the Utah Jazz to the NBA Finals
How John Stockton's shot became 'The Shot'

Whether anyone in Houston wanted to admit it, Stockton’s shot had “changed the direction of the Rockets for Charles,” said announcer Calvin Murphy. “If Stockton didn’t hit that jump shot, the Rockets win that game and it’s a whole different dynamic,” Murphy said. “But when Stockton did, I said, ‘Aww (expletive), here it comes.’”

The organization had built its future on aging stars and the gamble hadn’t paid off. Throughout the next season, the injury-ridden Barkley and his Rockets were eliminated in the first round by the Lakers’ young duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Scottie Pippen, who’d been traded from Chicago to Houston, called the season “a big challenge” and “very disappointing for me.” Due for one last payday, Barkley was again leaning toward retirement after a series in which he went for 24 points and 14 rebounds a game.

If he were to return, Barkley said the team was a point guard and one more wing away from being competitive at a championship level. Houston signed free agent wing Shandon Anderson away from Utah and pulled off a coup in landing No. 2 overall pick Steve Francis, an electric point guard from Maryland who refused to play for Vancouver, in what was at the time the largest trade in NBA history.

The Lakers, Jazz and Sonics all expressed interest in acquiring Barkley that offseason. Stockton even called him and told him to come to Utah. “He would have made up for a lot of the mistakes elsewhere on the court,” Stockton said. (Take a moment to imagine the amusing what-if of Barkley, and his hobbies of drinking and gambling, playing 41 games a year in Salt Lake City.) It was all flattering to Barkley — and also eye-opening.

He had come to terms with the fact that his window for a championship, the lone accolade that people wouldn’t let him forget about, had closed. Even during the early part of the season, Barkley didn’t shy away from talking about what his life after basketball would look like, and the feelings that went along with it.

“I know when October and training camp and everything comes that I’m going to go through a deep depression,” he said. “So I’m going to get up every morning, take my daughter to school, play golf, try to work out because I got fat potential. I’ve got really good fat potential. I don’t want to be one of them old, fat guys.”

Adapted from “Barkley” © 2022 by Timothy Bella, used with permission by Hanover Square Press. Bella is a staff writer and editor for The Washington Post, focusing on national news.