2002 was the apex of NBA Western Conference dominance, and the two best teams that season were easily identifiable. A precursor to the present day wide-open NBA offense, the free-wheeling Sacramento Kings were attempting to knock off a dominant yet dysfunctional dynasty in the Los Angeles Lakers, comprised of arguably two of the ten best players in NBA history.
Tied 2-2 in a best of seven Western Conference finals, while desperately seeking to maintain home court advantage, the Kings needed to win Game 5.
Considering his clutch play and scoring productivity throughout the series, it would come as no surprise that Kings point guard Mike Bibby attempted and converted the most important buzzer-beating shot in franchise history.
It wouldn’t just be the hyper-competitive nature of this series that would live on in NBA infamy.
Playing basketball was always an obsession for Bibby. Every coach from his days at Shea Middle School to Shadow Mountain High School to Lute Olson marveled at his singular focus on improving his basketball skills.
The three time Arizona high school player of the year, Mike Bibby let it be known from his domination of the UA 1996 Red-Blue game that he was something this university and city had never seen before.
In this era of McDonald’s All-American basketball recruits parading to Tucson to play for Sean Miller and the Arizona Wildcats, one UA recruit still stands above the rest when it comes to incoming hype and overall productivity.
Bibby and his customary high dribble compensated for a lack of athleticism and piled up assists by anticipating play development, which combined with innate scoring prowess based off an assortment of elusive moves such as a trademark left to right crossover, allowed him to construct an angle on almost any defender.
Where Miles Simon deservedly received the majority of credit for Arizona’s 1997 national championship run, Bibby orchestrated much of the offense while converting countless crunch time shots and free throws throughout the tournament.
Bibby eventually impacted the Sacramento Kings to nearly the level he did at Arizona.
Declaring for the NBA Draft after the 1997-98 season, it was assumed by many that the Los Angeles Clippers would select Bibby with the first overall pick.
Not surprisingly, the Clippers instead chose Pacific big man Michael Olowokandi.
The Vancouver Grizzlies wasted no time selecting Bibby with the second overall pick.
Where Bibby averaged 15 points and 7 assists spanning three seasons with the franchise, the Grizzlies continued to stink and, eventually dealt the UA legend to the Kings for the talented, but wildly erratic Jason Williams.
Previously highlighted by All-Star power forward Chris Webber and WIlliams, the Kings produced one of the more exciting teams in the league, yet came up short on playoff success, culminating in the 2001 sweep at the hands of the Lakers. Much of the blame rightfully fell on the sporadic play of Jason Williams.
The Williams for Bibby trade brought stark and immediate results for the Kings.
Because of the steady and sometimes spectacular play of Bibby and the All-NBA season out of big man Chris Webber, the Kings won 61 games during the 2001-2002 season and were in the eyes of many the best team in the league, not the two-time defending champion LA Lakers.
The basketball world eagerly anticipated the conference finals clash between these two juggernauts.
And it was this series where Mike Bibby made his professional name.
Similar to his time at the UofA, it wasn't necessarily the 23 point per game series average, but the timing of the shots and his overall command of the game that made him special.
Sure, there was the out of bounds pass-and-shoot buzzer-beating jumper from Bibby to win game 5, but there so many of these moments throughout the series, and in the overtime game 7 loss it was Bibby who scored 29 points.
Unfortunately, we will never affirmatively know if the Kings should have won an NBA championship.
Due to the allegations by disgraced official Tim Donaghy of fixing in order to extend the series to 7 games, league findings of poor officiating and the incredibly contested nature of the games, this series goes down as one of the best yet most controversial series in NBA history.
Game six, especially, was brought into question.
The disparity in late game foul calls (27 fourth quarter Los Angeles Lakers free throw attempts) and the infamous last second non-call on Kobe Bryant elbow to Bibby’s face led long time NBA writer Michael Wilbon at the time to proclaim this the worst officiated game of consequence he had ever witnessed.
The Kings came up short, but Bibby’s star was never brighter.
Not surprisingly, Bibby signed a massive contract that offseason to stay in Sacramento.
Yet for a variety of reasons, mainly a Chris Webber torn ACL in the 2003 NBA playoffs, the Kings never climbed back to previous heights.
Where Webber was breaking down, Bibby was just getting started in his upward individual progression, which culminated in a 19.6 and 21 point per game average during the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons. Outside of one UA player, Bibby’s five to six year run in Sacramento was as good as any Arizona Wildcat NBA alum over a half dozen year stretch.
Yes, Bibby never made an All-Star game, yet he was routinely talked about as one of the best players in the league to never receive that honor, and there was no doubt he was that caliber of player.
Maybe more so than any UA/NBA player ever Bibby’s stats, while very good, don’t tell the entire story of a player who routinely elevated his place to the highest of levels in the most important of occasions.