If the game shakes me or breaks me/ I hope it makes me a better man, take a better stand
Scott Skiles is smiling.
It’s the kind of smile that is genuine and infectious. If the smile happened in 2017, it would have been instantly turned into an inspiring meme, the anti-thesis of the Crying Jordan. But it wasn’t 2017, it was at the early stage of the 1990-1991 NBA season, a peculiar time in the formative years of both Skiles and the Orlando Magic.
The Magic joined the NBA a year before as an expansion team in the Western Conference, which basically meant opposing teams get to tick them off on their game calendars as light duty. Their horrendous win-loss record in their inaugural year was proof: 18 wins and 64 losses, tied for second-worst record in the league.
The Magic’s sophomore year started with the familiar garbage dump stench. Twenty-nine games in, and they had only notched six wins. They dropped nine of their last 10 games to welcome the New Year. (At this point, Shaquille O’Neal was still busy mercilessly dunking on college kids. Dwight Howard was five years old.) The growing pains had sapped the sunshine out of Orlando; an embargo against smiling was in effect.
Skiles, who—at 26—already switched teams more than once, had been facing problems of his own. He was playing his best basketball as the starting point guard of the Magic, yet trade rumors involving his name won’t die down. It would take one Sunday in December, in a crazy game versus the run-and-gun Denver Nuggets, to turn things around.
It was less than 20 seconds left in the game when the O-Rena erupted. The team’s highest scorer, Jerry “Ice” Reynolds, had just swished a contested, ill-advised jumper from the left side of the floor. Skiles, credited with the assist, is grinning ear to ear as he ran back on defense. It was his 30th assist, a new NBA record for most assists in a single game. Finally, Magic fans had something to cheer about. The smiling ban had been lifted.
The cliché is that Skiles played like a man possessed. The assumption is that you’d have to be to reach that insane amount of assists. The reality is that if you watch the highlights closely, you’d find nothing otherworldly with the way Skiles made history. There were no signs of aggression, something you’d find in, say, every Russell Westbrook stat-stuffing expedition. If Westbrook, Titan of Triple Doubles, was a shot of Jagermeister, then Scott Allen Skiles was a creamy cup of latte: smooth and velvety.
But don’t let his Ed Harris in Milk Money swag fool you, Skiles had the court vision of an eagle.
Any breathing person wearing a white, pinstripe jersey that day had a chance of receiving the ball from Skiles. Also, the Nuggets played god-awful defense. The supercut of that December 30, 1990 game—Orlando’s last game of the year—featured a young Skiles, his hair battling for existence, pulling off various iterations of the bullet pass, the testbook bounce pass, the routine chest pass, the alley-oop, the shovel pass, the video game drop pass where he jumps to shoot then almost immediately decides to pass, the risky one-handed crosscourt pass, the hazardous for your health one-handed crosscourt bounce pass, the pass where he falls down but still finds the open man on a perfectly executed pick and roll, and the pass where he looks one way but the ball goes the other way. He did it all that day.
Important to note that he turned the ball over only four times in 44 minutes of action, which meant that his assist-to-turnover ratio was, mathematically, a piece of heaven.
Skiles beat the record of 29 assists, previously set by New Jersey Nets’ Kevin Porter in 1978. Per Basketball Reference, a handful of players came close, but Skiles’ 30 remained untouchable 17 years later. John Stockton’s 28 in ’91 and Jason Kidd’s 25 in ’96 were the only real threats. In the modern-NBA, 24 is the closest number, but it’s highly unlikely that the two players who reached that territory—Rajon Rondo and, wow, Ramon Sessions—would be able to surpass it.
In his postgame interview, Skiles was asked about his thoughts on making history. “I own the record, but I have to give a lot of credit to my teammates for making a lot of shots tonight,” he said. Count that as assist number 31.
What’s great about the legendary moment was that Skiles didn’t obscenely chase it, at least not until the final minutes when the entire arena, hungry for excitement, egged him on and cheered each time he held the ball. He didn’t pass up on open shots and scored if the play required him to. On Orlando’s last offensive possession, up 40 with less than 10 seconds left, Skiles dove on the floor, battled for an offensive rebound, and was fouled as he went up against three defenders. He walked to the line and coolly sank two free throws for points 21 and 22. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf hit a buzzer-beater to end the game, but it didn’t matter. Skiles and his team won by 39 points.
Stay far from timid, only make moves when your heart’s in it/ And live the phrase: “Sky’s the limit.”
Photo from the NBA