Malik for the Win

There’s something romantic and tragic about a shot that beats the buzzer. The buzzer beater is without doubt the sexiest thing in basketball (especially now after Dwyane Wade retired.) More so than a killer crossover or even a thunderous alley-oop slam dunk. 

A buzzer beater is a special occurrence. It defies the very concept of time. The clock strikes zero. The buzzer sounds. The game is supposed to be over, but it’s not as long as the ball hangs in the air, floating in space, forcing the game to exist for a moment longer than it’s supposed to. It’s also devastating. A buzzer beater is often a single, decisive moment that determines a winner and a loser. A grand finale with a touch of melancholy. No matter how thrilling the buzzer beater was, no matter what team won, it still almost always means it’s time to go home. 

But all buzzer beaters are not created equal. Some are great while others are merely okay. Several questions must be answered before a buzzer beater can be associated with greatness. 

No. 1: Did it actually beat the buzzer?

No. 2: Did it decide the winners and losers of the game? 

No. 3: What was the level of difficulty of the shot itself?

No. 4: Did the buzzer beater in question win everyone in the arena a free Taco Bell Chalupa?

Today, we’ll be using this logic to determine the greatness of a specific buzzer beater. Malik Sealy’s bank-shot three-pointer for the Minnesota Timberwolves in a home game against the Indiana Pacers on January 17, 2000. 

Question No. 1: Did it actually beat the buzzer?

This question is important because so often a shot nearly beats the buzzer, but actually, often after further and tedious review, it is revealed that the shot was released too late or too early. Too late eradicates the shot entirely. It never even happened. Too early and the shot will count, but tenths of a second will be put back on the clock. Time travel in its cruelest and most anti-climactic form. 

On January 17, 2000, the Timberwolves had the ball after a timeout with 1.7 seconds remaining on the clock. Sam Mitchell inbounded the ball to Sealy who got the shot off with .8 seconds left. The clock expired and the buzzer sounded right before the ball hit the backboard and fell through the net. 

So. Did Malik Sealy actually beat the buzzer? Yes, yes he did. Onward. 

Question No. 2: Did it decide the winners and losers of the game?

The Timberwolves were trailing the Pacers by a score of 100-98 with 1.7 seconds remaining. They could have opted for a shot closer to the basket in an attempt to tie the game and send it to overtime. Game-tying buzzers can be good. They can be very good, but lack the metaphorical life-or-death drama necessary for true greatness.

Mitchell’s pass cannot be overlooked here. He inbounded the ball from just beyond halfcourt and was heavily guarded by Indiana’s Austin Croshere. A six-foot-nine Energizer Bunny type player with a better vertical jump and much longer wingspan than the battery conglomerate’s drum-pounding, pink-fur-having, nonstop bunny rabbit. Sealy started the play under the basket and sprinted through the lane towards the three-point line. A teammate set a pick for him at the top of the key and he cut to the left wing away from Mitchell, but still in three-point territory. The degree of difficulty for the pass couldn’t have been much higher and Mitchell nailed it. 

After receiving the dime from Mitchell, Sealy stood at least a foot behind the three-point line and put up the shot. The Timberwolves trailed by two, Sealy attempted a three, and the buzzer sounded with the ball in the air. If it goes in, the Timberwolves win. If it doesn’t, the Pacers win.

Did Malik Sealy’s shot decide the winners and losers of the game? Yes, yes it did. 

Question No. 3: What was the level of difficulty of the shot itself?

High. Maybe. On a difficulty scale of 1-10 it could have been in the 8-9 range. Sealy had to corral the pass and get a good shot off in one swift motion. Not easy. The pick he ran off of created enough separation from his defender, Jalen Rose, to give Mitchell a window to get Sealy the ball. Rose recovered and managed to get a hand in Sealy’s face without fouling him. 

This would be a good spot to mention that Jalen Rose was also a great defender, only if he had been a great defender. In reality, he wasn’t a very good defender, but as a quick dude, who stood six-foot-eight and could play multiple positions, Rose was often tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best player. If  Rose were an elite defender then we could make the argument the degree of difficulty of the shot was really in the 9-10 range, but considering Kobe Bryant scored 81 points playing against Rose a few years later, maybe the degree of difficulty was really in the 7-8 range. Still, Rose played pretty solid defense here. 

On top of all that, Sealy knocked down the shot off the backboard from a difficult angle at very long range. Three-pointers going in off the backboard are rare and incredibly difficult to do on purpose, but, somehow, insanely easy to pull off by accident. It makes zero sense, but it’s 100% true. You see it all the time in every level of basketball from pickup games to the NBA. Someone puts up an insane shot in desperation that has no business going in and somehow it catches the glass and falls through the net. 

If you call, ‘bank’ before putting up the shot it means you did it on purpose and that you’re a savage with ice water in your veins. If you don’t, it means you’re lucky and you should probably thank the basketball gods for letting your dumb shot go in. 

What was the level of difficulty of the shot itself? We’ll give it a 6. Fine. A fairly difficult shot, but there’s no fucking way Sealy called ‘bank.’ 

Question No. 4: Did the buzzer beater in question win everyone in the arena a free Taco Bell Chalupa?

The moment we’ve all been waiting for. But before we can give a very clear answer to this very simple ‘yes or no’ question, we first need to examine the genesis of the Taco Bell Chalupa itself and its adjacency to NBA basketball. 

Taco Bell released its first iteration of the chalupa in 1999. It was a deep fried pocket of flatbread filled with ground beef and T-Bell’s glorious fixings. But it was more than that. The chalupa was a revolution that united stubborn loyalists on both sides of the crunchy shell/soft shell battle lines. It had all the doughy flexibility of the soft taco with the upright infrastructure of the crunchy. It was a normal taco on steroids. It was more than just a fast food item. It was a significant moment in fast food history. It was an announcement. “This isn’t your parents’ Taco Bell anymore, kids.” 

Shortly after bringing their version of the chalupa into the world, Taco Bell partnered with a number of different NBA franchises to promote it. What followed was the greatest promotion in the history of professional sports: whenever a home team scored 100 points and won, everyone in the arena went home with a coupon for a free Taco Bell Chalupa. 

Scoring 100 points in a game was also a romantic achievement in the late 90s and early 00s of the NBA, years before half the league learned how to shoot threes like Reggie Miller. A certain air of excitement came over the home crowd whenever a team hit the 90-point mark with a comfortable lead and a few minutes of clock to work with. Watching your team win 99-75 was just another win. Watching them win 100-75 was something special. Not even the Northern Lights could compare to the bulbs in the scoreboard lighting up its third digit. 

The Taco Bell Chalupa promotion turned the 100-point mark from novelty into communal celebration. Fans got out of their seats during 20-point blowouts when their team hit 90. Chants of ‘CHA-LU-PA! CHA-LU-PA!’ echoed through the arena, turning the most boring of blowouts into the most furious of finishes. 

For close games, it was no longer just the difference between winning and losing that hung in the balance. The difference between getting chalupas or not getting chalupas always loomed large. The stakes had gotten uncomfortably real. 

In conclusion: Did Malik Sealy’s three-point shot with less than a second to go when the Timberwolves trailed the Pacers by a score of 100-98 beat the buzzer? Yes. Did it decide the winners and losers of the game? Yes. What was the level of difficulty of the shot itself? Difficult enough, you sticklers! Did it win everyone in the arena a free Taco Bell Chalupa? Sure fucking did! Did everyone in the arena chant ‘CHA-LU-PA! CHA-LU-PA!’ all the way home? You bet your ass we did! And that, my friends, is what you call greatness.

***

Malik Sealy’s buzzer beater against the Pacers is often revered as one of the greatest shots in the history of the Minnesota Timberwolves. If you’re familiar with the Minnesota Timberwolves, then you know it doesn’t have a lot of competition. Beyond the chalupas, it won a thrilling game against the best team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. The Timberwolves went on to make the playoffs and won 50 games for the first time in franchise history. Sealy was an essential part of the team’s success, an active member in the community, and beloved by his teammates and fans.  

Today, Malik Sealy’s No. 2 jersey hangs high above the Target Center floor as the only number retired by the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s not hung in remembrance of the joy he created with his game/chalupa-winning buzzer beater against the Pacers, or for any of the other joy-filled moments from his time as a Timberwolves’ fan-favorite. It’s hung in remembrance of his heartbreaking death.

Sealy was on his way home from the 24th birthday party for his teammate and best friend Kevin Garnett 124 days after his buzzer beater. A drunk driver going the wrong way on the highway smashed into Sealy’s SUV and killed him instantly. He was thirty years old. The No. 2 will never be worn by a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves again.

The clip of Sealy’s buzzer beater against the Pacers was the central focus of the video tribute the Timberwolves played before the first game of the following season and is featured in countless memorials to his life on YouTube.

The final moment is a beautiful image. The shot goes up. The ball goes in. The call from legendary broadcaster Kevin Harlan yelling ‘OH HE DID IT! MINNESOTA WINS! MINNESOTA WINS!’ hits the perfect pitch. Malik goes to the floor. He raises his arms and kicks his legs. He closes his eyes and smiles wide, wearing the look of someone who just did something unbelievable and can’t quite believe it yet for themselves. Garnett is the first teammate to jump on top of Sealy and embrace him in wild celebration. The rest of the team follows, tackling him into the courtside seats and hugging him with a vigor that suggests they’ll never let him go.  

Twenty years later, it’s a moment that’s still hard to watch and impossible to look away from. It’s the embodiment of joy and pain. A portrait of both the thrill of victory and the agony of loss.

There’s something romantic and tragic about a shot that beats the buzzer.     


Terry Horstman is currently working on an essay collection about basketball. He started playing as a kid in Minneapolis and grew up to become the all-time lowest scoring player in the history of Minnesota high school hoops. A dubious record, but one that can never be broken. His writing has been published by The Growler, Eater: Twin Cities, USA TODAY Sports Media Group, Unplugg’d and he once Googled the submission guidelines for The New Yorker. He has an MFA from Hamline University and is the founding editor of the Under Review, a lit mag publishing sporty stuff. When not writing he is probably at a dive bar yelling about how awesome something is. He lives in Minneapolis.

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