Good news: The NBA preseason starts in less than two weeks. Infinitely better news (because preseason basketball is trash): Three weeks thereafter it will end, and the real games will commence. Strip a professional basketball game of its existential win-loss binary, and the only barometer of success that remains is: Did any players get hurt? If the answer is “no” or “just Chris Smith” (actually a very nice person) or “the guy who was signed through training camp whose name I have to Google,” then it was a good preseason game. But even in the void of meaninglessness, preseason games can become imbued with a quality that we can only call magic. It’s rare, but it happens.
These are the five most magical moments in NBA preseason history.
1. Doug Christie rocks Rick Fox’s jawline (2002)
The Kings-Lakers preseason matchup in October 2002 was easily the most hyped preseason game ever. I was living in Santa Cruz, California, at the time, and it was a must-watch, the only time this has been said of a preseason game. It was also, though no one realized it, the fantastically entertaining death rattle of a rivalry that was then among the very best in sports.
The Lakers of Phil Jackson, Kobe, Shaq, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, and Big Shot Bob Horry were an imperious dynastic force that, like gravity, could only be surrendered to.
The Kings of Rick Adelman, Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Doug Christie, and Mike Bibby (shouts to Jason Williams) were the upstart NorCal insurgents, a team of cast-offs each working on their second, third, or fourth shots at redemption.
The game took place less than five months after Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. The rivalry was already uncommonly acrimonious — in June 2000, for example, Phil Jackson played his team a video that likened Rick Adelman’s mustachioed face to Hitler’s and the Kings, in general, to neo-Nazis. The apparent crookedness of Game 6 (Green Party legend Ralph Nader was so disturbed by the game’s officiating that he was moved to write David Stern an open letter) and subsequent Kings collapse in Game 7 burned in the guts of Sacramento and its fans.
Tensions, in other words, were high. Not three minutes into the game, Lakers guard, future Party Down star, and e-sports impresario Rick Fox elbowed Doug Christie, who fell to the court. When Christie objected, Fox mushed him. The exchange, to this point, was a microcosm of the perceived Hollywood-Cowtown power imbalance. The Lakers, already a supremely talented squad, could seemingly step over the line at will, and the refs would look the other way.
Then Doug Christie rocked Fox’s head back on its neckpiece with a cracking Gennady Golovkin–esque uppercut to the chin. It was a righteous punch, powered by years of bad blood. And, if you watch the clip closely — back and to the left, back and to the left — it’s clear that Christie rung Fox’s bell. What a night. You can even see Jackie Christie, swinging away with her handbag, when the scrum moves to the tunnel.
2. Grant Hill and Reggie Evans get ejected for vigorously slapping each other’s asses (2010)
The butt slap is a universal form of athlete congratulations, an attaboy frisson of the fraternal and the paternal. The butt slap after a great play transcends the philosophical distance between punishment and acclaim. It’s a pure moment of shared authentic intimacy — inaccessible save for the spanker and the spankee — in the most public setting possible.
Which makes what happened between Hill and Evans hilarious. The video speaks for itself. Never spank a player in jest. I don’t think I’d ever seen an athlete sarcastically slap an opposing player’s ass. And, it’s likely we’ll never see anything like this again.
3. Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Pini Gershon gets ejected and refuses to leave the court, necessitating the intervention of a rabbi (2009)
Late in the Knicks’ 2009 preseason demolition of Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv, New York forward Al Harrington (already a Knicks legend for his two-game-losing, hanging-on-the-rim technicals, both against the Clippers from the previous season) was whistled for a charge. Harrington felt the call was unfair, and complained. Already upset that his team was getting stomped out, Maccabi coach Pini Gershon became incensed, and complained about Harrington’s behavior in terms that the referees must have found objectionable. Gershon was ejected, but refused to leave the court. The game was delayed for some eight minutes while league officials, Knicks executives, and, eventually, a rabbi mediated the terms of Gershon’s eventual surrender.
4. Shaq demolishes the Greek “Baby Shaq” (2009)
Shaquille O’Neal is the most petty great player ever, and that’s saying something. His long-running penchant for throwing shade at Dwight Howard was fueled by Howard “appropriating” O’Neal’s Superman sobriquet. So, what do you think his reaction would be to some overseas scrub with the temerity to go by “Baby Shaq”?
Six-foot-nine Greek center Sofoklis “Baby Shaq” Schortsanitis has had several cups of coffee with NBA teams after being drafted by the Clippers in second round of the 2003 draft. Unfortunately for Baby Shaq, overweight, undersized, pure back-to-the-basket bruisers were about as in demand as VHS recorders, even in the mid-aughts.
You can tell O’Neal was eager to baptize Schortsanitis because the Big Fella played 21 minutes in a preseason game at age 37. Shaq put 12 Diesel-ish points on poor Baby Shaq, mostly on “I’m old but I can still eat” layups, and held the Greek to four points on 2-for-7 shooting. Baby Shaq was last seen stateside as trade ballast in the deal that sent Thabo Sefolosha to the Hawks in 2014.
5. Charles Oakley fights Charles Barkley (1996)
Are you one of those “rap and basketball were better in the ’90s” people? This — NBA’s version of Godzilla versus Rodan — is for you. The two iconic hardscrabble, leather-ass tough guys have never been shy about telling the world that they hate each other. League lore has it that Oakley slapped Sir Charles during a contentious player’s association meeting in 1999. “We were trying to get a deal done,” Oak said of the slap in 2012. “Things happen. It just happened. There was no playing or plodding. It just happened.”
Did it really happen, though? Who knows. It definitely did in 1996. Later in this game, Patrick Ewing and Kevin Willis were ejected for bickering.
Honorary Mention: Ron Artest discovers San Diego (2009)
Before he emerged from his pupa as Metta World Peace, the player formerly known as Ron Artest was a singularly complex human being. As an NBA rookie with the Bulls, Ron, looking to make some extra cash, applied for a job at Circuit City (RIP). He broke two of Michael Jordan’s ribs during a pickup game. In November 2004, as a member of the Pacers, Artest asked for “as much as a month” off from his playing duties because he was tired from promoting his rap album (My World, on his Tru Warier imprint). That episode was quickly overshadowed when Artest sparked the now infamous Malice at the Palace brawl less than two weeks later (possibly the most lit two weeks in NBA history). In 2008, while still a member of the Rockets, Artest announced his desire to join the Lakers by barging in on Kobe Bryant while Bryant was taking a shower after Game 6 of the Finals.
Artest finally made it to Los Angeles in the summer of 2009. The Lakers met the Nuggets in San Diego the following preseason, and it wasn’t clear that Ron (a) had any idea where, geographically, he was or (b) had actually been aware of San Diego’s existence.
“I didn’t realize how far L.A.’s tentacles, or whatever you want to call them, extend, all the way to San Diego,” he told the Associated Press. “I thought I was going to be getting some Golden State Warrior fans, because I didn’t know where I was at. Most of the fans are Lakers fans, so that’s great.”
It is great!
“I’m learning a lot of different ways of California. Is this Southern California? It never rains in Southern California, huh? I’m turning into a Southern California guy. I’m happy to be a Southern Californian, or whatever you want to call it. I’m also here to say that next year I’ll be trying out for the San Diego Chargers, so I look forward to that. Hopefully, I can play some baseball. Is there a baseball team here?”
Artest, it should be mentioned was wearing a San Diego Padres hat at the time. This was pointed out to him.
“I know I’m wearing the hat,” he said. “I just love the SD. The logo looks great. I didn’t realize there was a baseball team in San Diego.”