Every kid that plays basketball has done it. Grab the ball, line up a few feet behind half court and start the countdown: 3…2…1…
You take a dribble or two toward the half-court line and as soon as you reach “1” in the countdown, you launch the shot and make the buzzer sound.
In most cases, you miss the shot, run toward the basket to retrieve the rebound – wherever it may have landed depending on how badly you missed – and run back to try it again. Eventually you’ll hit it, right?
When you do finally hit the shot, you imagine how you would celebrate making it in a real game. Now, what if you had a chance to do it on the biggest stage of them all – The Finals?
Seventeen years ago – on Sept. 4, 1999 – New York Liberty guard Teresa Weatherspoon had the opportunity to take that shot, and it became the most famous shot in the history of the WNBA and one of the most memorable in the history of the game.
What follows is an oral history of the play known in WNBA circles simply as The Shot. Included are accounts from the players, coaches, analysts and witnesses that were there at the Compaq Center in Houston, as well as thoughts from players both past and present on the play’s impact as the WNBA celebrates its 20th season.
Part I: The Prelude
In 1999, the WNBA’s third season, the championship was decided with a best-of-three series with an unusual format. Rather than traveling back and forth between the two cities between each game, the series opened with the lower seed hosting the first game and then ended with the higher seed hosting the second and, if necessary, third game.
The Houston Comets were the two-time defending champions and finished the regular season with the league’s top record at 26-6, giving them home-court advantage over the 18-14 New York Liberty.
The Comets took Game 1 in New York, 73-60, and headed back to Houston needing just one more win to maintain their hold as the only team to ever win the WNBA championship. Early on in Game 2, all signs pointed toward a Houston three-peat as they led 17-2 in the game’s first 10 minutes. The Comets would lead by as many as 18 points and held a 37-23 advantage at the half.
Mike Breen (NBC play-by-play announcer): I remember the fact that they were even in that position [to hit a game-winning shot] was shocking because they were down huge in that game. It looked like it was going to be a two-game sweep. They were down by as many as 18 points and you just didn’t come back against the Comets when you trailed by that many. The Comets were such a dominant team, so the fact that they got back into it [was shocking]. I also remember, too, that defensively they were phenomenal. Houston was so good and they had the Big Three of [Cynthia] Cooper and [Sheryl] Swoopes and [Tina] Thompson and it was almost impossible to stop them, but the Liberty defense shut them down to get them back into it to put them in position.
With their season on the line, the Liberty responded in the second half, using a 19-3 run to get back in the game as Crystal Robinson scored 18 of her game-high 21 points after halftime.
After shooting just 30 percent in the first half, the Liberty would make 45 percent of their shots in the second half while holding the Comets to just 23-percent shooting to climb back into the game.
Breen: You still didn’t think they were going to win the game. Quite honestly, we were talking during the timeout — Annie Meyers Drysdale was my color analyst and Eddie Feibischoff was the producer — and we were saying how, “Boy, it’s great that they came back.” The last thing you want to do is broadcast a blowout.
In the final three minutes, the teams traded baskets as the lead swung back and forth with neither team leading by more than four points.
BOX SCORE: New York Liberty 68, Houston Comets 67
Tina Thompson (Comets forward): We ran one of our most popular plays [a high pick and pop with Thompson gathering the ball on the right wing, taking a dribble toward the key, faking toward the middle and spinning the other way for the shot off the glass] and I scored the basket and we go up. So of course there’s a level of excitement that we have by actually going up and in a couple seconds possibly winning another WNBA championship. In that last timeout [with 28.4 to play] along with the offensive strategy, we had discussed what we were going to play defensively. We were actually going to go into our man-to-man press that wastes time, not to steal the ball or whatever.
Kym Hampton (Liberty forward): I think we had just called a timeout and I remember looking at everyone saying, “Don’t let it be your girl, don’t let it be your girl, get a stop, play defense, c’mon everyone!” Then Tina Thompson got the ball, made a move and hit a bank shot. I remember we just looked at each other like, “No, not again, please not again.”
Weatherspoon: Beautiful shot. There was nothing we could do about it. … There were no timeouts — we had to go.
Richie Adubato (Liberty head coach): Basically there was no choice. If we had a timeout and could have advanced the ball and set up a play, we probably would have looked to get [Becky] Hammon or Crystal a shot again or [Vickie] Johnson. You’ve got to give Spoon credit because she had the recognition – although we told them we had no timeouts, obviously she had time to do what she did.
Weatherspoon: 2.4 [seconds] left, and we didn’t call timeout. Kym just slowly takes it out like, “Oh, man, we’re down again. We’re going to lose this thing again.” I just noticed nobody was around me, so I was just screaming, “Kym, throw it! Kym, throw it!” And when she turned around, she threw it to me and Tina came, on my left hand side.
Hampton: I have to admit I was already sulking even before I took the ball out. My heart had just been broken.
What I wanted to do was roll it to her just to keep some time on the clock and at least get it over half court. But Tina Thompson saw that and she kind of came back and was playing Teresa so I had to pass it in to her. I passed it in, she took two or three dribbles and just launched it.
Thompson: Of course in the excitement of it all, my teammates did not actually do the defense that we talked about, so everybody just ran and got back to cover the basket. I think you kind of see it where I’m actually running back and I notice that nobody is up, so I go back to try to kind of get in the way of Teresa and then she launches it. But I wasn’t actually supposed to be there. I was supposed to be in the second line, but I just didn’t want to give her a clear look at the basket.
Adubato: The fact that she recognized it, she had to let that thing go. Weatherspoon is a great defender, playmaker and competitor. And what you have to see in this situation is the way that she recognized the fact that she had to take it. It had to be her shot.