In the midst of 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 Isaiah Rider’s “Play of the Decade.”
[Dunk History, collected: Our series on the most scintillating slams of yesteryear]
His legacy has gotten lost in the shuffle as we near the two-decade mark since his retirement from a nine-year NBA career, but if you’re a ’90s kid like me, you could never forget Isaiah “J.R.” Rider.
In the days when we still watched college basketball players grow from promising prospects to NBA-ready products, Rider averaged 29 points as a senior for a UNLV Runnin’ Rebels team still banned from tournament play. An awe-inspiring 6-foot-5, 215-pound athlete, Rider went fifth in the 1993 NBA draft behind Chris Webber, Shawn Bradley, Penny Hardaway and Jamal Mashburn — and ahead of Calbert Cheaney and Bobby Hurley — a who’s who from the heydays of the NCAA.
“Going between the legs, that dunk is still here,” Rider told Yahoo Sports of one of the most under-appreciated dunk contest performances in history, acknowledging that others have since taken the art to another level. “People still do that dunk in different variations to win the dunk contest every year, even this year, so I look at it as something like, man, that dunk has lasted almost 30 years. If they really think about it ... that dunk is still a trademark dunk in every dunk contest — high school, college and pro. That dunk goes a long way. And I’m thinking about getting it trademarked, honestly, or even call it the J.R. Rider Dunk, because the East Bay Funk Dunk gets lost sometimes.”
Not by ’90s NBA kids who remember the ups and downs of Rider’s career. Missed practices, controversial arrests and public spats fade under the cloud of an NBA that had yet to master its transition and wellness programs. But the “SportsCenter” highlights we watched narrated by anchors Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Craig Kilborn and Stuart Scott remain seared into our memories.
There was no other way for a teenaged kid from across the country to experience a singular play from a mid-December blowout between two sub-.500 Western Conference teams in Sacramento. There was no League Pass, no YouTube or established NBA blogosphere. There was “SportsCenter”, “Inside Stuff” and the occasional VHS compilation of spectacular plays and embarrassing bloopers.
So it was that Rider gave us a basketball gift to remember — the most unlikely shot in NBA history.
Rider remembers it well, too, for a variety of reasons. “Every time I went to Sac, my family came up,” the Oakland native said in a recent phone conversation, “so there was excitement in the air.”
He was on the left wing when Minnesota Timberwolves teammate Winston Garland misread his break, leaving a pass behind Rider that was headed out of bounds 30 feet from the basket. All Rider could do was hope to salvage the possession, and, well, we’ll let him explain what happened next:
“I used to do that pass when I was younger on a three-on-two fast break, coming down the middle, behind the back, giving it to the person on my right — like a behind-the-back whip,” he says, “so my intention was to get the ball towards the rim, because you’re taught in basketball to not throw it to the other team’s basket, obviously. Throw it towards yours if you’re stuck. So, I was trying to get it towards my rim, get a bounce, hit one of my big guys, but I was aware where the rim was.
“When I did it, in the air, I just remember turning around real quick, because it felt different. It felt pretty good. I don’t know. Not like it was going to go in, but it just felt on target. So, I turned around real quick, just to see the flight of it, and it went in — and it was just crazy. Lucky shot, obviously, but it was all basketball, muscle memory and fundamentals to at least get it towards my basket.”
Credit Timberwolves play-by-play man Chad Hartman with a great call of the practically impossible no-look, behind-the-back heave-turned-swish, immediately dubbing it the “Play of the Decade.”
Rider remembers laughing with Kings guard Mitch Richmond, tapping his friend on the head and saying, “Man, that’s crazy.” (Richmond and Rider went back to 1989, when the former was a Golden State Warriors rookie mentoring the latter as a prep senior at Encinal in Alameda, California.) And he remembers looking up at his family in the Sleep Train Arena stands, “And they were going crazy.”
“That’s the memorable shot,” Rider says of the one-in-a-million shot that won the NBA Play of the Year award at the 1995 ESPYs. “The Play of the Decade. The ESPY. It was a great feeling, man.”
Rider now serves as a youth basketball director for his Sky Riders AAU program and runs his Sky Rider Foundation for underprivileged children in his hometown of Oakland and adopted home of Arizona. His highlights have found a new generation of players who search Rider’s name on YouTube, ask about his famous dunk and even dare him to recreate his miraculous shot.
“I have [tried to make it again], actually,” Rider says. “The kids are like, ‘Man, remember that shot?’ So, I’ve tried it. I can do the pass with ease. I’ve tried to make that from that angle — to no avail.”
Rider’s East Bay Funk Dunk is often imitated, but his Play of the Decade may never be duplicated.
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