The basketball back then certainly wasn’t the most beautiful, but the mere mention of the NBA’s lockout-shortened 1999 season invokes some distinct imagery.
It was the last time, of course, that the New York Knicks reached the NBA Finals. It was likewise the first time that Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs were crowned champions, establishing the platform for four more titles before Duncan retired.
It also became known, regrettably, as the league’s Asterisk Season, christened so not by a know-it-all scribe but by a rather successful coach named Phil Jackson. In possession of merely six of his eventual 11 championship rings at the time, Jackson insisted that the Spurs’ achievement needed one of these affixed — (*) — because the regular season spanned only 50 games.
Twenty years later, whether Jackson was indeed serious or merely trying to tweak the team (and coach) that would emerge as his foremost rivals once he joined Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers, what those Spurs endured serves as a handy history lesson.
It is useful most of all for the Toronto Raptors. The new champions have already faced some asterisk talk of their own because of the crushing injuries suffered by the Golden State Warriors in their championship series.
The 2019 finals, like it or not, will forever be synonymous — for some — with the catastrophic manner in which the mighty Warriors lost Kevin Durant (Achilles) and then Klay Thompson (knee). The good news for Toronto: According to a couple prominent members of that Spurs team, time really does make the asterisk stuff fade.
“Today is actually the anniversary of our first championship,” Avery Johnson, San Antonio’s point guard and lead spokesman in 1999, said during a phone interview Tuesday. “We were just taken back a little bit by Phil’s comments because, even though it was a 50-game season, it wasn’t a shortened playoffs.
“Some of the backhanded comments we heard after that, even from some Hall of Fame players, it was comical. Had they won the championship, I’m pretty sure they would have accepted the full playoff share, they would have had a parade and they would be bragging about winning a championship.”
Johnson added: “The Raptors’ championship is going to be well-respected by people who understand the journey. The joy of the moment, they’re going to remember it for the rest of their lives. Take it from a guy who’s 20 years removed from his first championship; I’ll be having a bottle of Champagne tonight celebrating our championship. It’s such a monumental achievement, you can’t take anything away from it — however you got there.”
Will Perdue, who played under Jackson in Chicago until he was traded to San Antonio in 1995 for Dennis Rodman, believes “people have quite honestly forgotten” about the disclaimer Jackson tried to pin on that Spurs team.
“I actually have some fun with it,” Perdue said. “I always bring it up before people can address it. I’ll use the air quotes and everything and say, ‘Yeah, but according to Phil Jackson, that was the asterisk.’
“I don’t think people remember it that way. People don’t remember that it was an abbreviated season. I think more people remember that it was Tim Duncan’s and David Robinson’s first championship.”
Now a member of the Bulls’ pre- and postgame broadcast team with NBC Sports Chicago, Perdue marvels at the Raptors’ depth and feels “sorry for Toronto if people aren’t looking at the bigger picture.”
“Injuries — that’s part of the equation,” Perdue said. “It’s still a team game. Look at the guys who stepped up for Toronto in that series — Fred VanVleet came off the bench, Serge Ibaka came off the bench. You can have the greatest starting five of all time, but those guys can’t play 48 minutes. It’s physically impossible.
“I played with the best player that’s ever played the game,” Perdue said of his time alongside Michael Jordan, “but until Jerry Krause put a better team around him, he didn’t win a championship, as good as he was.”
What complicates matters in the Raptors’ case is the looming free agency of their superstar Kawhi Leonard, which exposes the new champions to a potentially worse fate than an asterisk: Toronto is at risk of being dismissed as a one-hit wonder if Leonard elects to leave.
Nothing can diminish the seminal postseason Leonard assembled individually. He averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals. He hauled the Raptors out of a deficit in each of the first three rounds of the playoffs just to get them to the finals. He sank the unforgettable walk-off jumper against Philadelphia in Game 7 of the second round that smooched the rim four times before dropping through, then outplayed the league’s freshly minted winner of the Most Valuable Player Award — Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo — in the conference finals.
Most of all, Leonard cemented his status as a dynasty disrupter, halting Golden State’s bid for a three-peat just as he did as a young Spur in 2014 when San Antonio prevented the LeBron James-led Miami Heat from winning a third successive title.
The Raptors’ fragility, though, is suddenly so tangible — even after all of their gambles of the past year (swapping coach Dwane Casey for Nick Nurse, trading for Leonard and then swinging an all-in deal to acquire Marc Gasol) were rewarded.
Toronto’s Danny Green, who, like Leonard, is a free agent, explained that his teammates aren’t lobbying him to stay because they know it isn’t necessary. “I think they know how I feel — I’ve expressed my interest in coming back,” he said.
Yet the reality for Green and every other Raptor is that their broader outlook rides on the whims of a superstar. As the veteran swingman and aspiring broadcaster neatly summarized it, Leonard “can change it drastically or really bring us into life to keep this going.”
Green acknowledged that it’s difficult to be definitive about anything else until Leonard decides whether to stay or go.
“I don’t know,” Green said, insisting that he has no insider intel on Leonard’s plans even though they played together in San Antonio and became Raptors together when the Spurs dispatched them to Canada via trade on July 18, 2018. “He may not know, but I don’t know, either. I’m probably more confused or more up in the air than he is.”
Speaking of the championship run, Green said, “We know we were playing for more than ourselves — we were playing for a whole country.” He described the experience as “very different” compared to the title he and Leonard won with the Spurs in 2014. “In a city and a country that has never experienced something like this, it’s a blessing to be a part of it.”
The basketball romantic in me can’t help but hope that Leonard, though he so rarely shows an ounce of emotion, comes to see it the same way. One more season with Team Canada, before the move back home to Southern California with the Los Angeles Clippers that has been expected from the day he became a Raptor, makes too much sense.