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How Phil Jackson's common sense changed the NBA's timekeeping rules

Phil Jackson isn't just the Zen Master. He's also the Master of Common Sense.
Chicago Bulls head coach Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson

We know Phil Jackson as the Zen master who engineered the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers dynasties. But there’s this little-known fact that Jackson helped change the NBA’s timekeeping rules.

The Trent Tucker Rule

In a game between the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks on Martin Luther King Jr. day in 1990, Trent Tucker hit a 3-pointer with 0.1 seconds left to beat Michael Jordan and crew, 109-106. The shot counted, and the Knicks ran off with the entire Madison Square Garden crowd cheering on.

Jackson, who was in his first year as head coach of the Bulls, shared his thoughts on Tucker’s seemingly miraculous shot. He believes that the shot shouldn’t have counted. In fact, he even expected the Knicks were going for a lob, not a jumper. Jackson said it is physically impossible to shoot a jump shot with 0.1 left.

I don’t see how you can get a shot off in a tenth of a second,” Jackson said. “The only way is to volleyball it or punch it. Everyone knows that. It’s logic. I’ve been here a long time. That’s all I want to say. It was a great game,” Jackson said, per the Chicago Tribune via CSTB.

You don’t assign anyone (to Tucker),” said Jackson. “We know you can’t get a shot off in a tenth of a second. We were looking for a lob to the basket or a tap.

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A closer look at the play confirms this. Bill Cartwright was getting extra physical with Patrick Ewing in the paint. He even raised his arms up to interrupt a possible lob. Scottie Pippen tried to contest Tucker’s shot perhaps out of instinct.

The Knicks were on the same page with Jackson’s train of thought initially. Tucker revealed that the primary target for the final play was All-Star Patrick Ewing. But seeing no clear passing lane, Tucker ran toward the ball, got the pass, and tossed the ball up.

The play was designed to throw into the basket for Patrick. I went along the baseline and kept coming toward Mark,” said Tucker. “When he couldn’t get the ball to Pat, he saw me and I had just enough time to get off a prayer.

Jackson and the Bulls filed a protest which cost them $1,500. But the NBA did not overturn the decision. As explained by then NBA Commissioner David Stern, per the New York Times:

The question before me is not whether Trent Tucker received Mark Jackson’s pass and released his shot within one-tenth of a second. Plainly, he did not. The question presented by Chicago’s protest, rather, is whether the referees’ failure to disallow Tucker’s shot constitutes a sufficient basis for overturning the result of the game. The NBA has consistently denied protest based on errors in judgment by the game official,” Stern said.

Derek Fisher

While Jackson failed in his protest, the NBA later revisited his suggestion. The NBA established a rule that states that a player could get a shot off with 0.3 seconds left. Inside of 0.3 seconds, only tip-in or lob would be allowed.

In a strange turn of events, Jackson’s common sense and determination to protest would benefit him later on. In Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs, Derek Fisher would hit the game-winner perimeter shot with 0.4 seconds left. They went on to win the series and move on to the NBA Finals.

Jackson has never forgotten that night in New York. Every time MLK day, he doesn’t just reminisce on the late Martin Luther King’s impact. He also remembers the day he influenced an NBA rule change for the better.

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