SAN ANTONIO — All winning sports franchises have iconic plays that endure through the years, crystallizing in the memories of fans with the passage of time.
The late John Havlicek forever will be remembered for sealing the Boston Celtics’ Game 7 win over the Philadelphia 76ers with a steal in the 1965 Eastern Conference finals at Boston Garden.
And who can forget Bart Starr, who died only days ago, burrowing his way into the frozen end zone at Lambeau Field to give the Green Bay Packers a 21-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the 1967 NFL title game or the “Ice Bowl,” as it is known in pro football lore?
The Spurs have won several memorable games with big plays in the waning seconds of games, but none has been more dramatic, and consequential, as the three-pointer forward Sean Elliott nailed to beat the Portland Trail Blazers 86-85 and go up 2-0 in the 1999 Western Conference finals on Memorial Day.
Elliott’s basket with nine seconds left came to be called the “Memorial Day Miracle,” and carried them to their first NBA championship.
The Spurs, who had trailed by 18 points in the third quarter and never led until Elliott hit his unforgettable shot at the Alamodome, went on to sweep Portland and beat the New York Knicks in the Finals, winning the series in five games.
Twenty years after the Memorial Day Miracle, Spurs fans old enough to remember that day can recall vivid details of Elliott’s game-winning shot.
And Elliott? He became a Spurs legend the instant his three-pointer found the bottom of the net.
“His whole life is predicated on that shot,” Popovich said in his best facetious tone when he was asked about the Memorial Day Miracle in his last session with the media after the Spurs’ season ended last month. “It’s like how some people never leave high school.”
Portland led San Antonio 48-34 at the half and went up 52-34 early in the third quarter before the Spurs started to chip away at the deficit. Trailing 67-60 heading into the fourth period, the Silver and Black outscored the Blazers 26-18 in the final quarter.
Still, Portland led 85-83 with 12 seconds left after guard Damon Stoudamire made one of two free throws. The Spurs called timeout immediately to advance the ball to halfcourt.
With a play called to get the ball inside to David Robinson, Mario Elie inbounded to Elliott, who caught the pass near the sideline. With no room to spare, Elliott gathered himself and got on his tiptoes to keep from stepping out of bounds with his heels – and launched his winning shot.
Portland’s Stacey Augmon almost made a steal on the inbounds pass, and Rasheed Wallace came close to getting a hand on Elliott’s shot. But somehow, some way, Elliott was able to arch the ball over Wallace’s outstretched right hand.
And that was the ballgame. The Blazers still had nine seconds left, but they were unable to score another point. Elliott finished with 22 points, hitting 8 of 10 shots and 6 of 7 from beyond the arc.
“We just keep grinding it out,” Elliott said in his postgame interview with NBC’s Ahmad Rashad. “That’s been our trademark the whole year. Even if we get down, we just keep grinding and grinding and grinding away. We knew when we were down by six with a minute or so left, we knew we were going to get some stops.”
That Elliott even played during the Spurs’ march to the title that season was nothing short of a miracle. Unbeknownst to the public, he had a serious kidney condition that required a kidney transplant in August 1999.
Elliott, now the Spurs’ TV analyst, retired after the 2000-01 season, ending a 12-year NBA career that included one season with the Detroit Pistons. His jersey number (32) was retired by the Spurs in March 2005.