On June 7, 1995, Nick Anderson’s NBA career was turned upside down. It was Game 1 of the NBA Finals between his Orlando Magic and the Houston Rockets. The Magic seemingly had the game in the bag with a three-point lead and 8.5 seconds to go with Anderson at the free-throw line. Make one and the game is pretty much over. Instead, it was his career that was pretty much over.
Nick Anderson was the face of the Orlando Magic
Nick Anderson played his college basketball at the University of Illinois where he spent two seasons before declaring for the NBA draft. As a freshman, the guard/small forward shot better than 57 percent from the floor and averaged 15.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. The next season he put up 18 points and 7.9 rebounds per game and then declared for the 1989 NBA draft.
Anderson was a first-round selection, taken with the 11th overall pick by the Orlando Magic. Orlando was an expansion team and Anderson was its first-ever player taken. In his rookie year with the Magic, Anderson played in 81 games, starting nine, and averaged 11.5 points per game.
During the next three seasons, Anderson saw his points-per-average total swell to 19.9. His emergence, combined with the addition of first-round draft picks Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, made the Magic an immediate contender. Anderson spent the first 10 of his 13 seasons in the NBA with the Magic, averaging 15.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.
The downfall of Nick Anderson’s career
The Orlando Magic met the Houston Rockets in the 1995 NBA Finals and had homecourt advantage for the series. The Magic were on the verge of securing a victory in the first game on the series when Robert Horry fouled Nick Anderson with 8.5 seconds remaining and the Magic ahead 110-107. Anderson had two shots. One make gives the Magic a two-possession lead, making it nearly impossible for the Rockets to overcome.
Anderson was short on the first attempt, giving the Rockets some life. He missed his second shot as well, but was able to secure his own rebound and was fouled again. Anderson was back at the line again with two more shots, this time with 7.9 seconds left. His shot hit the back of the rim and came out. His fourth attempt was strong again and the Rockets pulled down the rebounds with 5.6 ticks left.
Kenny Smith was the hero for the Rockets, sending the game into overtime with a clutch 3-pointer. the Rockets outscored the Magic 10-8 in the extra session and went on to win 120-118. The Magic blew a 20-point lead in the game and the visiting Rockets seized the momentum and went on to sweep the Magic in the series 4-0.
Nick Anderson struggled mentally
Mentally, Nick Anderson was never the same – especially from the free-throw line – again. At the time of the four straight misses, Anderson was a 70.4 percent foul shooter during the regular season. Those four missed free throws were the only ones Anderson took during that game. During the 1996-97 season, Anderson shot a dismal 40 percent from the line, making just 38 of 94 attempts.
“I’ve been in that situation several times, but tonight, I just didn’t have it,” Anderson told Susan Slusser of the Orlando Sentinel in 1995. “Why now? I just missed the free throws. I’m going to try to knock ’em down Friday night.” In a 2016 documentary, This Magic Moment, Orlando coach Brian Hill reflected on the missed free throws. “Our guys were kind of broken mentally a little bit by that game. And it was very hard to get them back,” he said.
Many years later, Anderson admitted those missed free throws stayed in his head for quite some time. “I let it get to me mentally,” he said. “I lost that dog in me. The dog was there, but there was no bite.”