May 07, 2009
Three seasons after he dropped 63 on the Celtics in a playoff game at Boston Garden, and nearly a decade before he brushed aside Bryon Russell and sank a 20-footer to give the Bulls a sixth NBA championship, Michael Jordan made "The Shot."
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the most important basket — and arguably the most exciting and dramatic one, too — of Jordan's career.
It was a double-clutching, buzzer-beating hanging jumper over the outstretched arm of forward Craig Ehlo that won the deciding game of a playoff series against the Cavaliers and helped plot two very different courses for each franchise.
The Bulls would own the '90s. The Cavs didn't recover until LeBron.
Jordan's personal greatness and his teams' accomplishments seem foregone conclusions now, like all of it was just meant to be.
But Jordan's genius and incomparable legacy came more than naturally. Substance reinforced the hyperbole. Sweat dripped from the trophies.
Hitting the shot on Ehlo was Jordan's first pro success that carried any weight. Without the first, there wouldn't be a second, a third or a sixth. A terrific video compilation chronicles Jordan's top 10 clutch baskets — but gets the order wrong at the top.
His buzzer-beater against the Jazz in Game 1 of the '97 Finals was electric, and the shot in the deciding Game 6 against Russell (right) a season later, his last with the Bulls? Oh-so-memorable, and commonly considered his finest moment.
Not quite. Not even all that close.
Put into context, Jordan's jumper against the Cavs has more than chronology going for it.
In previous games, Jordan had scored more points, and he had made other last-second winners. The Bulls even had won a playoff series already; the season before, they beat the Cavs in another best-of-five.
But in '88-89, after relative improvements in Jordan's first four seasons, the Bulls had stalled, even regressed. They won 10 fewer games than the Cavs during the regular season — one big reason being their 0-6 record against Cleveland, which was stacked with Mark Price, Ron Harper, Larry Nance, Brad Daugherty and Ehlo. The Cavs, at the time, were the NBA's "It" team, and Jordan always relished playing them because coach Lenny Wilkens didn't believe in double-teaming His Airness much (see 69-point game). Jordan took it as a challenge, and an insult.
Then the playoffs started and the Bulls found their stride. They took Game 1 in Cleveland and, with Jordan willing them all the way, applied the pressure down the stretch of Game 5 at Richfield Coliseum. The teams traded punches in the fourth quarter, each possession seeming to top the previous with difficult shot after difficult shot.
Jordan appeared to make the last go-ahead jumper with 6 second to go, but after a timeout Ehlo drove on a gimpy ankle and scored a layup at the other end to put Cleveland up 100-99 with 3 seconds left. The Cavs were wearing down, but not out.
Comments by the CBS broadcast team of Dick Stockton and Hubie Brown enhance the memories.
"You'll see the drama unfold," Stockton says as the Bulls prepared to inbound the ball. He was expecting something great. Precisely what Jordan delivered.
Escaping Ehlo's shadow, Jordan broke open for the inbound pass. After dribbling to the foul line, he jumped — hanging in the air seemingly forever, as he often did — and drifted some to his left. Double-clutching to give himself more space from Ehlo's reach, Jordan released and canned the shot as the buzzer sounded. Stunned silence, Bulls radio announcer Jim Durham said, cloaked the Coliseum crowd.
It never had been, and never would get, better than that.
Jordan leaped again into the air and repeatedly pumped his fist as Ehlo collapsed to the floor in angry disbelief. Bulls coach Doug Collins jumped and screamed like one of his players, blowing past an attempted handshake/hug by assistant Phil Jackson before stepping into a celebratory scrum among the players. Brown, usually not one for outbursts, can be heard shouting "Yes!" after the shot dropped.
Even one of the reporters at the scorer's table — Chicago Sun-Times basketball writer Lacy J. Banks (right) — jumped up, raised his hands and did a dance like a Luvabull cheerleader instead of a dispassionate observer. Banks, who is also a minister, might have thought he just saw something holy happen.
In the postgame interview, James Brown goaded Jordan into gloating a little — not that it took much — because it was Jordan's perception the media picked against him. So, gambler that Jordan is, he picked the Bulls to win in four. It went five, but he took it.
"I opened my mouth a little bit, and I challenged the guys," Jordan said. "Challenged myself."
The Bulls won the next round, too, beating Rick Pitino's New York Knicks in six games. The Pistons stopped the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, and would again the next season, in seven games, with Jackson running the team. Jordan and his supporting cast won their first Larry O'Brien trophy in 1991.
The first step to the first title, and the five that followed, was taken May 7, 1989. Michael, in a split decision, was named Miller Light Player of the Game.
Should the Cavs have used someone other than Ehlo to guard Jordan? How about Ron Harper, or Larry Nance, or both? All three? It was discussed. Eh, it was not coach Wilkens' style.
Injuries, which started to show during the Bulls series, hampered Cleveland the next two seasons. In '92, the Cavs regrouped and reached the Eastern Conference Finals, but the Bulls were waiting.
The Cavs were never good enough, and probably not confident enough, to beat the Bulls. When their talent dried up by the late '90s, they stopped making the playoffs and started to accumulate lottery balls.
It's all good today, of course. Twenty years later.