It’s known as “The Last Shot” but Michael Jordan’s last moment with the Bulls could be more aptly described given his team’s journey and more specifically, Jordan’s fourth-quarter ups and downs in Salt Lake City 20 years ago today.
The pose following his push-off on Bryon Russell and picture-perfect jumper with 5.2 seconds left seemed to signify to all watching that it was a form of “goodbye”, knowing what was coming for the Bulls franchise that summer and beyond.
“Who knows what will unfold in the next months, but that may have been the last shot Michael Jordan will ever take in the NBA,” NBC announcer Bob Costas bellowed as the dull roar of the Delta Center accompanied his call.
Costas said what we were all thinking, whether you were an ardent Jordan lover or even a Jordan hater. The breakup to one of sports’ greatest dynasties, and it was ending fittingly, perhaps perfectly without much blemish.
But even more fittingly than our thoughts about Jordan’s pose was the practicality of it. Jordan’s jumpers had come up woefully short a few times in that fourth quarter. The 35-year old was losing his legs, evidenced by jumpers hitting the front rim instead of the bottom of the net. Memories don’t need to be jogged, but Scottie Pippen was all but useless after his back went out on the game’s first possession—although his presence on the floor had to be a calming influence if nothing else.
Jordan was carrying a load unlike any other in his championship runs, and facing the prospect of a Game 7 on the road without Pippen could’ve very likely led to the first 3-1 comeback in the history of the NBA Finals.
And he hadn’t made a jump shot in several minutes.
Instead, though, Jordan resorted to driving to the rim to draw fouls to keep the Bulls within striking distance. Then when Karl Malone turned his back, Jordan used his guile to swipe the ball from the sweet spot and marched toward further immortality.
Malone, like the rest of us bystanders, could only watch as the inevitable unfolded.
So he had to extend on his form after pushing off Russell to give himself that extra uumph, that extra charge of energy to make sure the jumper reached its goal as opposed to its+ likely destination given his fatigue.
Costas said Jordan was “running on fumes”, something not terribly uncommon given the amount of effort Jordan put forth in his return to Chicago.
The third straight run to the Finals for the second time in the decade.
In 1993, the Bulls had to dig themselves from an 0-2 hole to the surging New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals, gutting out a six-game victory that sent them to the Finals against a Phoenix Suns team with the MVP (Charles Barkley) and homecourt advantage.
In 1998, the Bulls were pushed to seven games by the mature Indiana Pacers and trailed by double digits at home in Game 7. If not for Toni Kukoc’s explosion in the third quarter, the dynasty could’ve ended in May, not June.
And awaiting Jordan in the Finals was a Jazz team intent on learning lessons from 1997, armed with homecourt advantage and a MVP from the season before in Malone.
In both series, the Bulls stole wins early before coming home to snatch 3-1 leads only to give up a championship-clincher in Game 5, having to fly cross-country to face a confident opponent with the last two games in their building ready to make history—Jordan be damned.
Except, that damned Jordan.
No one can argue it was Jordan’s finest statistical series, not with the masterpieces he laid forth in 1991 through 1993. No one can argue it was even Jordan’s most impactful series, not with his stamp on every win of the 1997 series as he had a game-winner in the opener, a near triple-double as an encore, the “flu game” in Game 5 and the winning assist to Steve Kerr in Game 6.
But what 1998 did for Jordan and by proxy the Bulls, was elevate them to a higher plane of perfection through imperfection. Jordan wasn’t the physically dominant player he’d been in the past, and the Bulls had clearly slipped from winning 69 and 72 games the previous two years.
They were vulnerable and the league was catching up to them, rapidly.
A proud champion was weary and wobbly from taking body shots, a three-peat was no longer a mere formality.
Our visions of great champions like Jordan, or Muhammad Ali, are enhanced when we know dominance isn’t assured. Ali was knocked down by Joe Frazier and lost that classic bout in 1971, but his endurance to stay in the fight despite its ending—as well as his victories against Frazier in their trilogy and George Foreman when Ali was well past his prime elevated his stature despite the toll we know it took on him years after.
And similarly, Jordan rose again, and whether we as a collective believe it or not, that’s the standard we’re likely holding the Golden State Warriors to as they go on this historic run.
Adding Kevin Durant certainly tipped the scales in their favor, but it also upped the ante for all the other so-called contenders in the league. Teams haven’t cowered and run to hide as much as they’ve ramped up their efforts to chase the team when owner Joe Lacob boasted his team was “light years ahead” of everyone else in the NBA.
In the time since, we can only hope teams have truly seen the light in their pursuit.
The Warriors are celebrated in plenty of circles but won’t be universally admired until we’ve seen them truly challenged, knocked down and facing seemingly insurmountable odds.
LeBron James stripped away that invincibility in 2016, leading an incredible comeback from a 3-1 deficit before the Warriors added the ultimate cheat code in Durant weeks later.
And although the Houston Rockets took a 3-2 lead in the Conference Finals, there wasn’t as much doubt in the Warriors winning that series as much as it felt like self-made drama and suspense with their bi-polar efforts and moments in the postseason.
Focusing in and playing an inferior opponent led to a six-game romp very few found shocking.
But the NBA moves forward and teams catch up, as they always do. Several marquee free agents can change addresses, including James, as he’s likely to bring a few talented planets with him wherever he goes.
Like it or not, he’s the Sun everything revolves around in the NBA. Individually, he shines brightest, shines longest but it still hasn’t been enough to take down the new version of the Warriors.
One can only hope either he—or someone else, finds a team suitable to do more than make the Warriors sweat. Hopefully there’s a Joe Frazier out there, willing to put a champion on its behind and drag out every ounce of greatness left in it by presenting unsavory odds.
Watching the entertaining but inevitable outcome of the Finals may lead some to believe competitiveness is a thing of the past.
If anything is to be learned and appreciated by the Bulls’ 20-year anniversary of the greatest ending in NBA history, it’s this: It doesn’t take long for a walk in the park to turn to scorched earth.