Do you recall the exact moment you became a basketball fan? I do. I was sitting in an hotel in Palm Springs with two of the my three younger brothers and my dad, watching the Lakers take on the Sacramento Kings in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
I had watched basketball prior to this, and was somewhat attached to the Lakers, but this was the first time I was completely by every single step of the action. Every fourth quarter punch and counterpunch alternately sending me celebrating or making my stomach churn. I was finally invested.
I also thought I was about to experience heartache. The Lakers were down 99-97 with just seconds remaining, and I was really worried they might lose. I felt the life get sucked out of me when Kobe Bryant’s floater came up short, and felt like I was going to throw up when Shaquille O’Neal missed the putback. It was over.
But then... maybe it wasn’t? A desperate tap-out from Vlade Divac, wanting to keep the ball anywhere but Shaq’s hands, slowly sailed towards the perimeter, taking one bounce and then, somehow, serving as a laser of a pass right into the hands of one Robert Horry. As I would learn later, Horry may have floated at times, but he also had a knack for generally floating to exactly where he needed to be. He calmly collected the ball and shot it in one confident, unfazed motion.
The rest is basketball history, and a moment that will sting Kings fans forever:
My brothers and I went streaming from the hotel room, running around our floor of the hotel screaming in pure elation — it’s a miracle we aren’t banned from the Embassy Suites forever — right as Horry’s teammates did the same from the bench, encircling him as he put his arms behind his back and skipped back down the court, saying with his body language “this is what I do.”
It was pure basketball joy, and Horry seemed like the coolest man on the planet. In terms of temperament in the clutch, it’s possible no one has ever been cooler. There’s a reason he had the nickname “Big Shot Bob,” and why he has more rings (seven) than anyone not on those Boston Celtics teams that played against mostly accountants.
But Horry is more than just one of the most prolific winners the NBA has ever seen. As our own Anthony Irwin is fond of pointing out in his podcasts, Horry was also a man ahead of his time. Beyond just his unparalleled ability for coming through when games mattered most and never shying away from big moments, Horry was also a “stretch four” before that was even a term.
Horry only started 46 of his 100 playoff games, but he was a mainstay in Phil Jackson’s closing lineups, the extra spacing grease that allowed Shaq, the most dominant interior force the NBA has ever seen, just a smidge more space to impose his will, and punishing defenses with clutch shots when they didn’t yield. Horry shot nearly 35% from deep as a power forward during the Lakers’ three-peat, which was especially significant for the time period.
He also shot approximately 97% on clutch shots over that time frame, and while that’s not a real stat, you probably believed it for a second, which speaks to his unimpeachable reputation for coming through when it mattered most.
Horry wasn’t a Lakers lifer, spending just seven years with the team, but it’s not so difficult to argue that their total of 16 championship banners might be significantly lower without him. He didn’t turn Kobe and Shaq into a Big Three, but he was the perfect role player for a team with two superstars, relishing his opportunities but not trying to be more than he was. It’s possible no one will ever win as much as him again.
For all of the above — and for his shot helping give the younger version of me a final push into ravenous basketball fandom that would ultimately become my career path and give me purpose — I’ll always have a special appreciation for Horry’s specific style. I’m sure more than a few of you do, too.