We sat down with the original members of the virtual San Antonio Spurs team that delivered one of the most memorable performances in NBA Jam history. What follows is a first-hand account of their extraordinary struggle.
On a cold wintry night in late November, the electricity of the crowd at the Palace of Auburn Hills was palpable.
The 1993 San Antonio Spurs suited up to face their arch-rivals: the unstoppable juggernaut known as the 1993 Detroit Pistons. The two teams had squared off many times in the past, but this night was different. This night—though the Spurs knew they had amassed many statistical victories—was the night the Spurs felt they would truly win.
The power of shove
“You’re gonna hit them hard, and you’re gonna hit them fast,” head coach John Lucas remarked to his locker room of four elite superstars. “Do not give them an inch. I don’t want to see footprints on our side of the court. Only the blood and ass-sweat of our enemies will suffice.”
The players knew they were in for a physical game. To play a physical game, you need players with power, something the Spurs had in spades. “The Admiral” David Robinson had a power rating of 8 while his wingman Dennis “The Menace” Rodman boasted a commanding 9. How did the competition stack up? The Pistons’ forward Terry “Sugar” Mills was a meager 6 on power, while guard Joe “Rat-faced little puke” Dumars barely held his shorts up with a 3. What Dumars lacked in power, however, he made up for in sheer audacity.
The first quarter was always the most crucial. Over the course of the game the Spurs would systematically break down and process the Pistons like so many slabs of beef, but here in the first the cattle were free range, alive and kicking.
“The key was pushing,” explained Lucas. “Pushing and swiping. As long as you’ve got a sliver of turbo your first instinct is knocking that sumbitch down whether or not he’s carrying the ball. But especially if he’s carrying the ball. When the only infraction you can get called on is goaltending, you got nothing else to lose.”
Changing it up
Lucas had played his starters full steam in the first half, but now he had a decision to make. The Pistons put up a bit of a fight, and the Spurs needed some new blood.
“David was clean (uninjured), and I needed a power player on at all times. I also needed my dirtiest, crookedest, pushingest motherfucker fresh as a daisy in the fourth, so the choice was clear. Dennis was sitting out the third.”
That left Lucas with Robinson in Position 1 and a bench player for Position 2.
“Chuck Person was my man for the third quarter. The only blight on his profile was a 0 Pass rating. Passing? Basketball ain’t about passing. Plus I got a man on fire. Stats don’t count for shit when the flames are poppin’.”
Meanwhile in the Detroit locker room, head coach Don Chaney also had a difficult decision to make. Mills in position 1 and Dumars in Position 2, or Dumars in 1 and Mills in 2? The Detroit bench was non-existent. Whatever injuries their starters sustained would be carried over into the second half. Some would say it wasn’t fair. Others—who knew better—would accept that there were no more than two ballers in Detroit dope enough to represent the Pistons in the Jam.
Making it count
“It wasn’t all about the pushing,” explained Rodman. “It’s a means to an end, the end being possession which leads to the points. It’s not like we liked pushing. Well, we did, we liked it a lot. But officially, it was to get the points.”
Preventing the opposition from scoring was one thing; preventing the opposition from preventing you from scoring was another.
“People expect a lot of dunking, but it’s a risky move,” said Robinson, the biggest man on the court that night. “I don’t know my own power; sometimes I’ll flush down a simple one-handed jam, sometimes I’ll do flaming somersaults twenty feet above the rim. Even I don’t know what’s coming next. More hangtime means more time for the blockers to get into position. That’s where the offensive pushing comes in. It’s truly a beautiful sight to see the runway clear when the Admiral comes in for landing.”
Things went smoothly throughout the 3rd quarter, and Person did his job keeping Dumars grounded before Rodman returned.
The Spurs felt confident going into the 4th when the unthinkable happened. Mills picked up a loose ball with Rodman closing in. Planted, he threw ‘bows to knock Rodman off his feet, then bulleted a pass to Dumars who was left completely unchecked. A layup later and the San Antonio bench gasped in horror.
The Pistons had scored two points.
The nail in the coffin
Devastated, Robinson and Rodman were frozen in their tracks. But they knew they had no time to mourn. They had to close out the game. The job wasn’t over.
“It shouldn’t have bothered us as much as it did, but when those points rang up, it was like a knife ran straight through all our hearts,” said Lucas. “Fortunately, our minds were in the right place, and we were so close to our goal we could almost taste it. That was all the motivation we needed to carry on.”
Bolstered by their new resolve, the Spurs stepped it up and made the run that made history. Basket after basket, dunk after dunk, shove after shove, they lit up the Pistons like a mall during Christmas. It didn’t end with a triumphant slam, nor a prayer from downtown, but with a short range jumper completely unassuming in any other context.
The buzzer blared and the crowd was floored. Few supporters with courtside seats reveled with cyclic motions, but most in the stands were bewildered and stunned, as if reduced to cardboard-like cutouts. The scoreboard spoke for itself.
The Spurs had broken the 500-point barrier for the first time in NBA Jam history. They came home to San Antonio as heroes.
Dumars and Mills remained in the intensive care unit in Detroit. They still have not fully recovered to this day.
“A wise man once asked, ‘Is it the shoes’?” reminisced Rodman. “I told him the shoes can only take you under the hoop. Faith will take you over it.”