I’d been a scorer at every level I played basketball, from as young as I can remember.
I played four years at Michigan and graduated at the Big 10’s all-time leading scorer. I scored 25.6 ppg in my senior year. And in the 1989 NCAA Tournament, I won Most Outstanding Player honors and broke Bill Bradley’s record for points in the Tournament as our Wolverines won the national championship. Against Seton Hall in the title game, I had 31 points and 11 rebounds.
But starring on the national stage as a collegian isn’t the same as making it in the NBA. I was confident that I could be an impact player in the pros, but until you’re there, performing, scoring, winning games, you don’t know for sure.
To me, the best way to dominate a game is by scoring. The team with the most points wins, right?
The game where I was at my most dangerous, then, was on April 15, 1995, when I tallied a career-high 56 points in a win vs. the Orlando Magic. Though I had higher-scoring seasons after leaving Miami, I never again scored that many points in a game.
The 1994-95 season wasn’t my favorite, to be honest with you. We had a talented team—myself, Kevin Willis, Bimbo Coles, Billy Owens—but we played under our potential. After making the playoffs and finishing better than .500 in 1993-94, we took a big step back in 1994-95 and finished way out of the running at 30-52.
When you’re out of contention, NBA games can provide an even bigger challenge than when you’re in the thick of the playoff hunt. Some players might check out and no longer care; some others might be playing selfishly to pad their own stats. But I looked at it as an opportunity to set a tone for the next season, maybe help the Heat be a spoiler against some teams still in the race, and continue to work on my game as I always tried to do, in good times and in bad.
Well, something was really working right against Orlando that day. The 56 points were more than anyone else scored in a single game that season—even Michael Jordan.
Orlando had the best record in the conference, and there was a natural rivalry between the two teams. We both had only been around for a handful of years, and we both played our games in Florida. To a man, the Heat were hoping to rain on their parade a little bit.
Right away as the Magic took the floor, I could see something in their body language, in their eyes. They’d already put this one in the win column. You’d think with superstars like Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, a team might be able to get away with that, but the minute you let your guard down in the NBA, your opponent will pounce. And eventually, that’s just what we did in this game.
You couldn’t blame Shaq or Penny for Orlando’s loss, though. In fact, the Magic played us hard and led the game pretty much all the way through, until the end. Shaq had 38 points and 16 rebounds, while Penny scored 28 and had 18 assists. They might not have wanted to work so hard that day, but both ended up logging more than 40 minutes. Horace Grant and Nick Anderson also scored more than 20 and played big minutes, so it’s not like Orlando’s big engines weren’t running hot.
This was a nationally-televised game, which gave us some extra incentive as well. I’m sure the schedule-makers figured this was going to be a choice matchup when they paired this game together back months earlier, and we certainly didn’t hold up our end of the bargain in that respect. Orlando had also whipped us badly in the season series so far, winning all three games by an average of 23 points.
There are certain times when a shooter feels like even the longest jumpers are layups. As you lift and release, it’s like the rim has expanded to three feet wide. I was feeling that for this entire game, even though Orlando led us 93-87 through three quarters. But at the end, I raised my game and carried my Heat teammates to the victory, scoring 13 points in about half a quarter.
That’s the part of the game I most like to replay. Khalid Reeves, who would score 20 points and add 14 assists for us, nailed a three with 5:29 left. That tied the score at 101. After that, I took over, making our next nine points no matter who the Magic stuck on me.
The first two points of that stretch, the bucket that put us up 103-101, was also our first lead of the second half. The next one, putting us up 105-103, broke my previous team record of 46 points, set three years earlier against—surprise, surprise—Orlando. The end of the run was my seventh three-pointer, making our lead 110-107 with two and a half minutes to go. That gave me 52 points, and four more free throws in the waning moments pushed my scoring total to 56.
I finished the game having missed only seven shots (20-of-27) and only one of eight three-point tries. I made nine of 10 free throws, too, so for the entire game, I shot .784. You could say I was feeling it.
The one thing everyone agreed on is that they’d never seen anything like it. Our coach, Alvin Gentry, said so, and didn’t deny drawing up every play to go to me as the game wore on. Even an opponent like Grant was talking about my shooting like it was something out of the old “Unsolved Mysteries” TV show.
It’s not as if the Magic played poorly—in fact, they outshot us, .554 to .544. We just pounced at the right time, and did the only thing we could by playing out the string in front of our home crowd—send a message for next season.
I never had the chance to see the effect that our stand against the Magic had in terms of carryover into 1995-96, because I was traded to Charlotte before the start of that season. I had a great time in Miami—it’s where my long career was born—and looking back, I’m happy that I could have created such a memorable moment for every Heat fan in one of my very last games in Miami.