Less than a month ago, a bunch of retired NBA players, some of the best ever to play the sport, were sitting courtside at the league’s all-star game in Los Angeles.
Scottie Pippen, David Robinson and Clyde Drexler – a collective nine NBA championships, 27 all-star game appearances, eight NBA first-team selections and five Olympic gold medals between them – were just kickin’ it, talking about this and that.
But the other guy in this courtside cavalcade of stars never won an MVP award or was voted to play in an All-Star game. He averaged fewer than 10 points per game for his 16-year NBA career.
Yet he was the one that the trio of Hall of Famers fussed over the most.
Because former University of Alabama star Robert “Big Shot Rob” Horry did something over and over that many of the game’s greats rarely did. The 6-10, 240-pound forward hit eight game-winning or victory-clinching shots in the NBA playoffs, when the lights are the brightest, the stage the biggest and the pressure the most intense.
As a result, Horry has seven championship rings – two with the Houston Rockets (1994-95), three with the Los Angeles Lakers (2000-01-02) and two with the San Antonio Spurs (2005, ’07). That’s more title bling won by any player in NBA history not associated with the Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1960s.
"Those three guys (Pippen, Robinson and Drexler) all kept telling me how great I was at closing out games,” the 40-year-old Horry says with a touch of amazement. “To have Hall of Famers praise me was a great feeling, maybe the biggest honor I’ve ever received that wasn’t on paper.
“You know the funny thing is, I hated that name (Big Shot Rob) because I didn’t want to be in that position. I wanted to be so far ahead that I didn’t have to hit the last shot.
“But if it did come down to the last shot, I didn’t mind taking it. Because if you believe in yourself and if your teammates have confidence in you, you shoot the ball believing it will go in. And almost every time in that situation, I knocked it down. In the playoffs, you’ve got to cut the head off the snake.”
When Horry, the pride of Andalusia, Ala., showed up as a skinny freshman on the Alabama campus in the fall of 1988, he didn’t have any big dreams. There weren’t goals running around in his head.
“I never set goals my entire career,” Horry says. “My whole thing was to go out there, play as hard as possible, be a great teammate and do whatever I could to help my team win.
“I always figured if I played hard enough, everything would fall in place for me as an individual.”
In Horry’s four years at Alabama, all as a starter, the Crimson Tide went 98-36, playing in four straight SEC tourneys and winning the first three in that streak. Horry also played in four consecutive NCAA tourneys, with ’Bama twice getting to the Sweet 16 and losing.
Not getting beyond the third round of March Madness is one of Horry’s few career regrets.
“I’ve always thought about that,” Horry recalls. “Look at the teams we had and the talent we had.”
Horry played with seven players who went on to play in the NBA, including three first-round draft choices.
“It seemed like every year in the NCAA tournament we got sent far away to regionals,” Horry says.
“One year, we had to travel to California (the ’90 West Regionals in Oakland) and had to play Loyola-Marymount in its homestate (a 62-60 semifinal loss for the Tide). Another year, we got put in the same bracket as No. 1 seed Arkansas (a 93-70 ’Bama loss in the Southeast Regional semis). My last season (’92), they put us in the Southeast Regional and we had to play North Carolina in the second round (a 64-55 Tide loss).
“It seems like we were always in tough bracket. It’s like we never got respect from the selection committee.”
When Horry’s time was up in Tuscaloosa, he was the 11th player chosen in the ’92 NBA draft, taken by the Rockets. Playing in the NBA was never a lifelong dream, but when he cashed his first pro paycheck full of zeroes, he knew who made him a rich man – Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson.
Horry and Sanderson had a contentious relationship that ran to the edge of the cliff a few times, but never went over the side. Well, at least not for too long.
“All the great players have a little stubbornness in them, that’s what makes them great,” Horry says. “You have to have an attitude, you have to be a little cocky.
“Wimp made me a better player. He was on my butt so much and I was on his butt so much that he made me grow up. He made me realize that the best thing I could do was play hard and be a good role model for my teammates.”
Horry was also held up as a disciplinary example by Sanderson. Just before the start of the ’91 SEC tourney, Sanderson suspended Horry for the first game against Florida. The team was not happy with Sanderson, but he stuck to his guns, as the Tide survived the opener and went on to win the tourney with Horry back on the court for the semifinals and finals.
“The whole team was mad,” Horry recalls. “We had a nice little streak going, we had won two championships in-a-row. We wanted to win three, but Wimp and I were like two big rams on a mountain butting heads with nobody giving in.
“Eventually, we found a oneness.”
In his last two seasons at Alabama, Horry was basically forced to play center, because Sanderson didn’t have anyone else with Horry’s length. Still, Horry was able to pop outside and shoot enough threes (129-of-348 for his career) to show pro scouts he had the goods to play small forward in the pros.
“But still when I got to Houston and started shooting threes, people would ask me, `Did you really play center in college?’,” Horry says with a laugh. “The job of playing center just fell in my lap, which is why when I first got to the NBA, people were surprised at some of the things I could do.
“I wasn’t a center. I was a basketball player. In the pros, I was allowed to use all my skills as a small forward, like I did at Alabama my first two years until I had to play center.”
Horry almost got traded from the Rockets before he even had a chance to win his first two title rings with Houston.
In fact, Horry and Matt Bullard did get traded in February 1994 to the Detroit Pistons for Sean Elliott. But Elliott failed a physical because of kidney problems, and the trade fell through. The Rockets went to win that ’94 NBA title and then repeated in ’95.
“I finally got that ultimate goal,” Horry says. “And then I ended up winning the title seven times. Winning championships is an addiction, it’s almost like a drug. Once you get that first taste, you want it bad.”
It was in game 1 of the ’95 Western Conference finals, the legend of Big Shot Rob was born when he hit a game-winning jumper against the Spurs.
Horry’s reputation of delivering the biggest baskets on the NBA’s most nailbiting stage – the playoffs, especially The Finals – made him a wanted commodity by every title contender. He still holds the record for career three-pointers made (53) in The Finals.
The crème de la crème wanted to trade for (like the Lakers) or sign Horry as a free agent (like the Spurs). He was able to play alongside a mix of future Hall of Famers such as Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in Los Angeles, and Tim Duncan and Tony Parker in San Antonio.
“It seemed like every championship was unique,” Horry says. “You never forget your first one. And my first one with the Lakers was Phil Jackson’s first year as coach. It just went on and on.”
Along the way, his clutch long-range jumper rarely failed him. Here’s a list of playoff daggers he drove deep into the heart of the opposition:
* May 22, 1995, Western Conference Finals, Game 1 Rockets at Spurs: Hits game-winner jumper with 6.5 seconds left for a 94-93 Houston win that sent 35,000 Spurs fans out of the Alamodome crying and cussing.
* June 11, 1995, NBA Finals Game 3, Orlando Magic at Rockets: With the shot clock almost expired, 14 seconds left in the game and Houston clinging to one-point lead, Horry swishes a three-pointer for a four-point lead in an eventual 106-103 win. Houston completes a 4-0 sweep.
* June 10, 2001, NBA Finals, Game 3, Lakers at Philadelphia 76ers: The Lakers had not lost a game in the playoffs until they dropped game one of the finals to the 76ers and a sizzling Allen Iverson. So with the series tied at 1-1 and the Lakers leading by a point with less minute to play, Horry steps up after O’Neal fouls out. Horry fires in a corner three-pointer with 47.1 seconds left, and then adds 4-of-4 free throws in the closing seconds. The Lakers win the championship in five games.
“Losing the first game of the NBA Finals to Philly is the only regret I have as a pro,” Horry says. “It was the one game that kept us from being the first team in history to sweep every round of the playoffs. That was our ultimate goal. We never talked about it, but it was in our hearts and in the back of our minds. Because we knew if we did it, it would never been done again. I don’t think anybody is going to match our record anyway of losing just one game that entire playoffs.”
* April 28, 2002, Western Conference First Round, Game 3, Lakers at Portland Trail Blazers: Lakers down by two points with 10.2 seconds left? No problem. Bryant drives and finds Horry in the corner for a deep three. Ball game!
* May 26, 2002, Western Conference Finals Game 4, Sacramento Kings at Lakers: The Kings lead 99-97 with two seconds left. O’Neal has the ball raked loose by the Kings’ Vlade Divac. The ball rolls straight to Horry, who rises and. . .that’s right, a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer. So instead of the Lakers going back to Sacramento down 1-3, the shot tied the series at 2-2 and allowed the Lakers to defeat the Kings in seven games on their way to a third straight NBA championship.
* June 19, 2005, NBA Finals, Game 5, Spurs at Detroit Pistons: Spurs trail by two points in the game’s final 10 seconds. Horry inbounds to Manu Ginobili, who immediately gets double-teamed leaving Horry open. What were the Pistons thinking? Ginobili flips the ball back to Horry for a game-winning three with 5.9 seconds for a 96–95 victory in overtime and a 3–2 series lead heading into Game 6. Horry scores 21 points combined, in the fourth quarter and overtime.
* April 30, 2007, Western Conference First Round Game 4, Spurs at Denver Nuggets: The Spurs lead by one with 30 seconds left and need some cushion. Ball goes to Horry. Three-pointer is good! Good night Denver and sweet dreams!
It is an absolute stunning resume that no one in NBA history has yet to match. Sure, there are plenty of players who have lists of game-winning shots. . .in regular season games.
But in the playoffs, at money time, when teams are scratching and clawing and pushing and shoving with a championship in sight? No one was better and may not ever be than Horry.
Because Horry had done it over and over, he eventually had just three vacant fingers left for championship rings. He knew there was nothing left to accomplish.
So after the 2007-08 season, with no fanfare, no teary goodbye press conference, no farewell tour of the league, Horry retired from the NBA at age 37.
“I knew I wasn’t going to make an all-star team, and there wasn’t anything left for me to do because I’d won all those championships,” Horry reasons. “Leaving the game forever is always hard, but it wasn’t as hard for me since I won all those championships.
“It’s hard to get up each and every year and be mentally prepared to go out on the 82-game regular season run, and the playoff grind, which is even worse.
“When I retired, I called a friend of mine to write the story. He said, `How do want to be remembered?’ I said I want to be like Shane (the gunslinger character in the classic 1953 movie of the same name). Just ride off in the sunset and you won’t know if I’m dead or alive.”
But Horry is very much alive. The NBA was so impressed throughout Horry’s career with his people skills and engaging personality that they hired him as one of the league’s goodwill ambassadors. He travels the world representing NBA Cares, the league’s community service program.
Just last weekend at the SEC tournament, Horry was at Fanfare doing his ambassador thing. But there was also that little matter of him being named to this year’s Class of SEC Legends.
When he received his award from SEC commissioner Mike Slive at halftime of the Alabama-Georgia quarterfinal game, Horry was almost speechless, which impressed Slive.
“When you look at all the things that he (Horry) has accomplished,” Slive says, “it was great to see he was genuinely humbled.”
Horry was, and the reason is simple.
“When your school calls you and says `Hey, we think you are one of our legends,’ it’s a great honor,” Horry says. “And when you walk in this arena, and your alma mater is playing, it just takes you back to your grassroots, which is always wonderful.”