That was the last time any player from the University of Tennessee even had a chance to do anything meaningful in the NBA Playoffs. And with apologies to the brief stints of Vincent Yarbrough and Marcus Haislip in the league, Houston was our only option for any former Vol to do anything meaningful in the NBA at all the last two decades.
But that all changed today.
C.J. Watson is a fifth year player, a career backup point guard who had decent numbers in that role with Golden State before moving to Chicago last season. His role in the Windy City was clearly defined: backup Derrick Rose, last year's MVP and one of the best players in the league. The Bulls made the Eastern Conference Finals last season, with Watson playing 8.5 minutes and scoring 3.2 points per game in the postseason.
This year the Bulls had the best record in the lockout-shortened regular season, an incredibly impressive feat considering Rose was banged up throughout the year, playing in just 39 of 66 games. Chicago went 18-10 without Rose, and for the year Watson averaged 9.7 points per game and 39.3% from the arc.
The Bulls might've been the favorite in these playoffs. Watson could've earned a ring in that backup role, and we would've celebrated it.
But all that changed today.
Derrick Rose is lost for the season, tearing his ACL in the fourth quarter of Chicago's Game 1 win over Philadelphia. Let's make this clear: though Rose tends to only come up on this blog for his inability to hit free throws in both the epic 1-vs-2 showdown between the Vols and Memphis in 2008, as well as the National Championship Game later that year, none of us want to see anyone get hurt. Chicago fans are rightfully depressed, and this was a huge loss for the game of basketball and these playoffs. All the best to Rose in his recovery and the rest of his career.
But very soon, the story will turn to C.J. Watson.
Magic Johnson is on TV saying that whatever good Watson did in the regular season doesn't matter because it was the regular season. And right now, he's right. But that doesn't mean Watson can't prove him wrong.
Make no mistake, C.J. can play. And make no mistake, this has just become the biggest opportunity of his career, perhaps one he may have never thought he would have (and never would've wanted under these circumstances, I'm sure). But for Tennessee fans who haven't had any reason to care about the NBA Playoffs because no former Vol has played a important role in them in a dozen years? Now it's time to pay attention.
Those who've followed this blog for the long haul know that after the Vols, the team I care most about is the Boston Celtics. And believe me, if Watson gets what now becomes his team as the point guard through the rest of Round One, he'll have his hands full if Rajon Rondo is there waiting in Round Two. But I can't wait to see him try.
Though it comes by unfortunate circumstance, this now becomes Watson's moment. Is he ready? We're about to find out...and for Bruce Pearl, Cuonzo Martin, and Tennessee Basketball, this is our first chance in a very long time to see one of our own make a real difference on the biggest stage.
Go get 'em, C.J.