It is perhaps fitting that the biggest win in the history of the Toronto Raptors is remembered as much for a missed shot as a made one.
It was 20 years ago today that the expansion Raptors led a 60-7 Chicago Bulls team 109-108 with five seconds to play when the ball was swung to Steve Kerr for a catch-and-shoot three above the arc. Already 3-of-5 from long-range in that game and ultimately a 51.5-percent 3-point shooter that season, Kerr misfired.
“I’m speechless,” Raptors forward Tracy Murray said at the time, per the Los Angeles Times. “It was a huge win. The crowd exploded on that last shot. It was unbelievable. I wasn’t watching the shot, but when I heard the noise, I went, ‘Oh, no, don’t tell me it didn’t go in.’ It was so incredible, I just wanted to lie on the floor.”
The Raptors improved to 18-49, the Bulls fell to 60-8, and history was made: The Raptors had just pulled off one of the biggest upsets ever in the NBA’s regular season.
That Bulls team would famously go on to finish 72-10, the best season of all time. (It’s perhaps fitting, or ironic, that Kerr’s missed jump shot could now be the enabling factor in the Kerr-led Golden State Warriors besting that mark this season. There’s another, less coincidental connection, too – those Warriors lost to the Los Angeles Lakers, which was, by record, the biggest upset ever in the regular season, and in which, probably not unlike Raptors-Bulls, the Warriors took the Lakers lightly after a night in a major metropolis.)
Led by a resurgent Michael Jordan, the Bulls would go on to win the NBA championship, losing just three playoff games on the way. They outscored opponents by 13.4 points per-100 possessions that season, ranking as the league’s top offense and top defense. Jordan averaged a league-high 30.4 points per-game, along with 6.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.2 steals, good for the fourth of his five Most Valuable Player awards.
The Raptors, meanwhile, were in Year One. Led by eventual Rookie of the Year and the team’s first draft pick, Damon Stoudamire, the Raptors performed admirably for an expansion team, managing to stay out of the cellar with a 21-61 record. It was a strange group, as most expansion outfits are, and they had a penchant for playing tighter games than logic may have otherwise suggested. Even against the Bulls, the Raptors had lost by margins of just nine, nine, and three. They were rarely, if ever, a favorite, but it wasn’t presumed that they’d be an easy victory every time out, and that was getting noticed.
“Their work ethic had captured the imagination of a city, and soon-to-be rookie of the year Damon Stoudamire was an ascendant star,” Doug Smith of the Toronto Star wrote, looking back at the game.
Because of how well the Raptors wound up playing that year, FiveThirtyEight suggests that this wasn’t even one of the 40 biggest regular-season upsets in history. Looking at a number like that, though, ignores the reality of the situation. The story arc matters. The Bulls were peaking, winners of seven in a row, and the Raptors were doing what teams do in their inaugural seasons, losing seven in a row, themselves. Jordan was at the absolute height of his game, flanked by Kerr, Scottie Pippen, and Toni Kukoc and coached by Phil Jackson. They were, quite literally, playing better than any team had ever played before.
Combine that, Jordan’s return to the game, and the novelty of an expansion Raptors team playing inside a baseball stadium far too big for basketball sightlines, and the entire affair is recollected like a circus, or something far more regal.
“There was a real fascination with Michael Jordan that didn’t exist the same way there’s a fascination with Steph Curry now,” Steve Simmons, a columnist for The Toronto Star, says. “When Michael Jordan came to Toronto, TV crews followed him around. It was like the king or queen coming to town, the way we cover a royal visit. Everybody was excited about Jordan and wanted to know what he thought of the city and what he thought of the team. Times were so different.”
That entire season was a bit of a circus as far as Jordan was concerned. His brief reprieve (and the obvious excitement for Space Jam) had only made fans grow more fond of him, and it left a sense of urgency to see Jordan in the event he wasn’t long for the league once again. The SkyDome was packed with 36,131 people, and the game was appointment viewing. Then, and probably in retrospect.
“I think it was one of those ‘were you there’ moments,” Simmons says. “I don’t think it had a lingering effect of any kind, but there were 36,000 people there, and I suspect there’s probably 100,000 people to this day who say ‘I was there.'”
And the Raptors pulled it off, a completely improbable victory that came despite 36 points on 14-of-22 shooting from Jordan. Stoudamire continued his push to stardom with a 30-point, 11-assist night that also gave him what was then the rookie record for 3-pointers made in a season. The rookie, then still content in his new home in Toronto but understandably adjusting, was just happy to escape with the victory, one they’d come so close to on other attempts.
“We finally beat them,” Stoudamire said, per the Times. “We came close three times and we finally did it. This is the best because we stayed close for 48 minutes and beat the best team in basketball.”
Jordan drew the Stoudamire assignment most often, both because there wasn’t really anyone else for him to guard and because, in true Jordan fashion, he wanted that game. He wanted all of them, and multiple reporters recall Jordan being furious following the loss and giving the Raptors little-to-no credit, somewhat of a “they didn’t win, we lost” mentality.
But the Raptors did win. Unexpectedly. Remarkably. The Raptors won, against the best regular season team in league history. The Bulls could quickly forget about the game with a championship forthcoming. The Lakers, too, will forget about upsetting the Warriors this year, because their history is rich enough that an upset win in the worst era of the franchise doesn’t really register.
For Toronto, though, this remains it. The biggest moments in Raptors lore are all near misses – Vince Carter’s errant corner jumper against Philadelphia, Chris Childs’ ill-advised premature heave, Kyle Lowry’s blocked attempt at the end of Game 7 against the Nets – and the lone marquee game-winning shots they had until a few weeks ago came in a meaningless game (Morris Peterson’s weird Michael Ruffin-allowed buzzer-beater), or a little too early to be climactic (Alvin Williams’ winner in Game 5 against the Knicks). Kyle Lowry’s game-winner to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 26 may wind up standing out as one of the franchise’s biggest wins – and moments – ever, depending on how this year’s playoffs shake out, but it’s telling that it’s still a regular season victory that could unseat the upset against the Bulls.
Sure, if it doesn’t get bumped from No. 1 atop the franchise’s best wins list, 2015-16 will probably be viewed as a disappointment. That doesn’t meant there’s anything wrong with March 24, 1996, ranking right up there. Not even a year old, the Raptors made history with one of the greatest upsets in NBA history.