Amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the NBA’s future still so uncertain, we look again to the past, polishing up our Dunk History series — with a twist. If you are in need of a momentary distraction from the state of an increasingly isolated world, remember with us some of the most electrifying baskets and improbable buckets in the game’s history, from buzzer-beaters to circus shots. This is Sunk History.
Today, we revisit Jeff Malone’s behind-the-backboard buzzer-beating miracle.
[Dunk History, collected: Our series on the most scintillating slams of yesteryear]
Moses and Karl may have the NBA market corned on Malone greatness, but neither made a shot as memorable as Jeff Malone’s. Jeff was a 13-year player unrelated to either and a two-time All-Star in his own right.
It was the 30th game of Jeff Malone’s rookie season for the Washington Bullets, and a Detroit Pistons team led by budding stars Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer held a 102-97 lead with the shot clock off. The 5,112 fans in attendance were headed for the Capital Centre exits on Jan. 3, 1984. Remember, this was when teams made fewer than one 3-pointer per game and shot 25 percent from distance on average.
But Bullets guard Ricky Robers made his third triple of the night, matching his total for the first six weeks of the season, to cut the deficit to 102-100 with 11 seconds left. Pistons guard John Long, a career 86.2 percent free-throw shooter, missed both ensuing attempts at the line, and Washington had a heartbeat.
With no timeout in mind, Bullets wing Darren Daye corralled Long’s second miss and tossed a no-look pass headed for the front-row seats at the left corner of Washington’s basket. Malone ran it down, snared the ball just before it reached the baseline, planted both feet in the corner of the floor and let a prayer fly.
“I swear to you, it felt fine leaving my hand," Malone later told reporters.
“I thought, ‘God, if it clears the backboard it could go,’” added Bullets coach Gene Shue.
From the backside of the backboard, it cleared the corner, and it went.
It has to be one of the most unlikely game-winners in the history of the NBA, if not the most unlikely, and here’s the best part: As the rest of the Bullets and their remaining fans erupted, Malone barely flinched.
“That’s just the way I’ve always been,” Malone told reporters. “I’m happy, I really am. I never made a shot like that, and I probably never will again. I’m happy, but I don’t show it. Been like that all my life.”
The shot received a tribute deserving of the moment in the next day’s Washington Post, where a 24-year-old David Remnick — the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Lenin’s Tomb” and longtime editor of The New Yorker — penned one of the most beautifully written game stories you will ever read. Remnick’s lead:
With gossamer wings poking out of a home team warmup jacket, Jeff Malone’s guardian angel appeared on the scene at Capital Centre last night with not a second to spare.
The little time Malone did leave on the clock led to a Laimbeer 25-foot answer on the other end, which actually did find the net, but a moment too late. There would be only one miracle performed that night.
Malone went on to play some 875 more games, submitting back-to-back All-Star campaigns in the heyday of the 1980s NBA and averaging 19 points over a 13-year career. There were shootouts with many of the era’s legends, a dazzling near-upset of those same Pistons in the 1988 playoffs, tenures with both Moses and Karl as teammates, and yes, more game-winners, but no, never a shot like that again.
More Sunk History:
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