Even though it’s been more than 20 years since I saw him make The Shot, I can still see it in my mind’s eye.
A dribble, a deke, a dip of the shoulder, and then he lifted and launched the ball with those impossibly long arms. Arms too big, too lengthy to belong to a man of his height. The ball arced and hit nothing but net.
92-90, Pistons with 0.7 seconds left.
Yes, any time I want to I can picture that sequence in my mind – the play that won the Pistons’ second NBA title. The shot that made Vinnie Johnson a hero in Motown.
As the Portland Trail Blazers found out in that fifth game of the 1990 NBA Finals, Vinnie Johnson’s “Microwave” nickname was well deserved. Once he got heated up, watch out.
Johnson wasn’t always a Piston, but he was always a fearless shooter. The type of shooter who fired shots that caused you to say, “No, no, no, no… yes, yes, yes YES!” You might roll your eyes at his improbable shooting repertoire, but you were thankful that he was on your side.
Johnson always played the game that way – with supreme confidence in his offensive game. As a young baller in Brooklyn, Johnson grew up playing a rough street game that required him to battle for his place on the court and for his shots. Quickly, Johnson realized that if he didn’t miss, he could keep the ball in his hands. His play was heavily influenced by Earl Monroe, who among many other nicknames, was known simply as “Jesus” because he could do no wrong with a basketball in his hands. Vinnie played college ball in Texas for Baylor and lit up the scoreboard to the tune of 24 points per game, which earned him a first round selection by the Seattle Supersonics. The Sonics had won the previous two NBA titles, which meant that Johnson had a tough lineup to crack. A few years later he was dealt to the Pistons in a trade that qualifies as “highway robbery.” By the time he threw on the red-white-and-blue of Detroit, Johnson was accustomed to playong off the bench, and it never bothered his game or his ego.
To see Johnson shoot was to watch a human body do things you didn’t think were possible. Johnson could elevate straight up, of course, but he could also seem to jump sideways and still be going up at the same time. His muscular 6’1 frame was extremely flexible and elastic. And those arms – those amazing arms – gave him a physiological advantage that helped him muscle his way away from defenders while also allowing him to stretch just above their outreached hands to launch his lethal 15-foot jumpers. Many times I witnessed Johnson flying through the air, one leg sticking out awkwardly to the side, his hips tilted toward the hardwood floor, an elbow angled inward and away from the defender, and his eye locked on the net. He would fire a line drive at the rim and nail it. The defense would just shrug, as if to say, “What was that?”
It was Danny Ainge who gave VJ his nickname, the Microwave. It was George Blaha, the famed Detroit announcer with a classic comb-over, who popularized it. Blaha twisted the dagger in the Blazers an instant after Vinnie had stabbed them with it, when he squealed: “92-09, the Microwave scores with 0.7 seconds left in the game!” From 14 feet out, Vinnie Johnson had delivered the Pistons’ second straight title. From 2,300 miles away, Detroit fans knew it was a done deal.
The Microwave had earned a new nickname after The Shot – .007.