As anniversaries go, June 20 marked a pretty grim one in the minds and hearts of Phoenix sports fans.
On that date in 1993, a reserve guard from Notre Dame took a pass from a player who was inexplicably double-teamed and hit a three-pointer from the left wing with 3.9 seconds left. John Paxson was the unlikely hero for the Chicago Bulls as they beat the Phoenix Suns 99-98 in that Game 6 and celebrated their third straight NBA title on Phoenix soil.
For a relatively new sports city, Phoenix has had its share of ‘ouch’ moments. Here’s my list of the top five most painful moments in Phoenix sports history.
5. Todd Pratt’s walk-off homer (October 9, 1999 – Shea Stadium – Flushing, NY) – The Arizona Diamondbacks did the unthinkable — they won 100 games and clinched a division title in their second year of existence. In Game 4 of the NLDS against the Mets, the D-backs led 3-2 in the 8th inning. A win would send the series back to Phoenix for a deciding Game 5, but it wasn’t to be.
New York scratched out a run when Roger Cedeno’s sac fly scored Edgardo Alfonzo to tie the game at 3-3. The game would go into the 10th inning, and manager Buck Showalter brought out closer Matt Mantei for a second inning of work. Yes, it was the first time Mantei had worked more than an inning in a game since joining the Diamondbacks in a mid-season trade with the Florida Marlins, and it didn’t turn out so well. Mantei got Robin Ventura to fly out to right to lead off the inning, and faced light-hitting catcher Todd Pratt with one out. Pratt lifted a fly ball to deep center field. Arizona’s Steve Finley had a beat on it, but ran out of room and mistimed his jump, allowing the ball to barely clear the fence, giving the Mets the win and sending them to the NLCS to take on the Atlanta Braves.
The Quote: “Honestly, I don’t think it was that big a deal. To be honest with you, it’s just like another game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy I gave my team a chance to go to the NLCS, but I’m one guy in the mix. I could have easily been the goat today.” — Todd Pratt
4. Joe Germaine’s TD pass to David Boston (January 1, 1997 – Rose Bowl – Pasadena, CA) – When ASU quarterback Jake Plummer scored on an 11-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, the Sun Devils were 1:40 away from completing an undefeated season and more importantly, likely claiming their first national championship. Joe Germaine and the Ohio State Buckeyes had different ideas. Germaine, who grew up in Mesa and played his prep ball at Mountain View High, led the Bucks on a 65-yard drive which ended on a five-yard touchdown pass to David Boston with just :19 left.
Ohio State converted two third downs on the drive and got help from blatant pass interference penalties on ASU’s Jason Simmons and Marcus Soward.
ASU hasn’t been back to the Rose Bowl since.
The Quote: “This is tough to take. You go from thinking you’ve got it to having hardly any time left to come back.” — Jake Plummer
3. Mario Elie’s “Kiss of Death” (May 20, 1995 – America West Arena – Phoenix, AZ) – For the second straight season, the Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets locked up in an epic Western Conference Semifinals series. In both cases, the Suns jumped out to a 2-0 series lead and both series went to Game 7. The difference in 1995 was that the Suns had the home-court advantage in the deciding game. Kevin Johnson, who had 46 points, 10 assists and made 21 straight free throws, missed his 22nd with just :21 left in the game, leaving the score tied 110-110.
After a timeout, the Suns trapped near mid-court and left Mario Elie, who had made just one basket in the game, wide open for a corner three. He hit it with 7.1 seconds left, and blew a kiss in celebration. The Rockets went on to win their second straight title and Elie’s shot closed a three-year championship window for the Suns. The next season, they went 41-41, fired head coach Paul Westphal and were ousted in the first round of the playoffs.
The Quote: “”I’ve hit bigger shots. Nah, just kidding.” — Mario Elie
2. Ben Roethlisberger’s TD pass to Santonio Holmes (February 1, 2009 – Raymond James Stadium – Tampa, FL) – The impossible nearly happened. The Arizona Cardinals, a team labeled by Cris Collinsworth of NBC as the worst team to ever qualify for the NFL Playoffs, were 2:37 away from winning the Super Bowl. Kurt Warner hooked up with Larry Fitzgerald on a short pass over the middle and the Pro Bowl wide receiver outran three Pittsburgh Steelers on his way to a 64-yard touchdown which gave the Cards a 23-20 lead.
The celebration would be short-lived. The Steelers would take over on their own 22-yard line. Two plays later Ben Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes on a 13-yard completion on third and six — a harbinger of things to come. With about a minute to play, Roethlisberger found Holmes again. Defensive back Aaron Francisco fell down, and Holmes broke it for 40 yards down to the Arizona six-yard line. Two plays later, Roethlisberger pinpointed a pass in the corner of the end zone to Holmes over three Cardinal defenders. Holmes, at least according to the officials, got both feet down with :35 left for one of the most dramatic touchdowns in Super Bowl history. And for Cardinal fans, the most painful.
The Quote: “I knew it was a touchdown 100 percent. My feet never left the ground. All I did was stood up on my toes and extended my hands.” — Santonio Holmes
1. John Paxson kills the Suns in Game 6 (June 20, 1993 – America West Arena – Phoenix, AZ) – I was planning where we were going to watch Game 7. I was that confident. Even though the Chicago Bulls had the greatest player in the world playing at a super-human level, there was no way the Suns’ magical 1992-93 season could end in anything less than a championship. Could it?
The Suns led 98-96 with just over 14 seconds remaining. A win would mean they’d host Game 7 in Phoenix — and no team had won a Game 7 on the road since the 1978 Seattle Supersonics. So damn right I was confident.
I was even more confident when Jordan gave the ball up to Scottie Pippen near mid-court with nine seconds left and I nearly lit up a victory cigar when Pippen found Horace Grant, who hadn’t scored a field goal in two games, on the left baseline. But in a move I’ll never understand, Danny Ainge (who was kind of floating aimlessly on the entire defensive possession) left Paxson, a dead-eye shooter, all alone on the wing to double-team Grant. Oops.
Paxson drained the three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left, ending the Suns’ quest for a first NBA championship.
The Quote: “That`s instinct, you catch and you shoot. I`ve done it hundreds of thousands of times in my driveway. It`s what I`ve practiced.” — John Paxson
Honorable mention: Suns lose 1969 Lew Alcindor coin flip to Milwaukee Bucks, Illinois’ 15-point comeback in final four minutes against Arizona in 2005 Elite 8, Coyotes losing Game 7 to Blues 1-0 in 1999