Why Michael Jordan's last shot in 1998 made everything that followed irrelevant

Michael Jordan missed his last shot. Good luck finding the footage somewhere — on YouTube or anywhere else — because an excavation crew would have difficulty tracking down that missed layup with 8 minutes, 13 seconds left in the third quarter of his final game with the Washington Wizards.

That shot has been buried, never to be discussed, right along with the final two years of Jordan’s illustrious career with the Wizards — a period that, through the lens of rational perspective, isn’t nearly the disaster some would have you believe. It’s just held to the unattainable standard Jordan set from his time with the Chicago Bulls, which means it just doesn’t compare.

For that reason, Jordan’s last shot with the Bulls in 1998 will always be remembered by his fans and most ardent mythologizers. The setting, the controversy, the backyard dream of it all will forever make Jordan’s pull-up over Bryon Russell the perfect ending to a career that has him regarded as the best to ever lace them up. Doesn’t matter that he came back three years later and took 2,851 more shots. Doesn’t matter that he was the only guard in NBA history to average at least 20 points after turning 38. Doesn’t matter that he became the oldest player to ever score 51 points in the NBA, or that he scored 45 the next game, or that his 96-point total came with the assistance of just one 3-pointer. Doesn’t matter that Jordan was actually generating some MVP buzz — this is not a joke — before a knee injury robbed him of the last quarter of his first season with the Wizards.

Twenty years ago, Michael Jordan hit one of the greatest shots in NBA history. (AP)
Twenty years ago, Michael Jordan hit one of the greatest shots in NBA history. (AP)

Jordan’s shot to secure the Bulls’ second three-peat and sixth championship in eight seasons was so exemplary that it made everything that followed irrelevant. This was Roy Hobbs homering into the lights in “The Natural,” Jimmy Chitwood pulling up at the end of “Hoosiers” and Billy Hoyle catching that lob from Sidney Deane at the end of “White Men Can’t Jump.” Except, this wasn’t some fantasy, scripted movie ending. This was Jordan, authoring his own legend in real time, posing afterward to make sure the perfect ending to a legendary career was captured perfectly for perpetuity.

Shoving aside Russell added a few layers of intrigue, because there will always be a debate over whether the shot should’ve been allowed and it only added to Jordan’s mystique of having mind control over officials. But the shove also represented the struggle Jordan had to endure that season in Chicago. Jordan was 35, losing his legs and won his fifth MVP off sheer will and an errant jumper. Scottie Pippen was injured and missed nearly half the season. The Bulls had been pushed to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers — the first time Jordan had to play all seven games of a series since the 1992 conference semifinals against the New York Knicks. And by the time he reached the Finals, Pippen wasn’t able to provide much more than decoy services.

The Jazz had home-court advantage after sweeping the season series and were looking to become the first team to come back from a 3-1 deficit after Jordan — believe it or not — missed a game-winner at the end of Game 5. Chicago had to win Game 6, especially with Pippen laboring and possibly unavailable for a Game 7, so Jordan needed to be a superhero. And he was. That shove cleared the way for that 20-foot jumper and wiped away all of the drama that preceded it. Jordan not only won the title, but ended the Bulls dynasty the way every child fantasizes. The shot cast such an immense shadow over the league that the next generation of stars — heck, even an aging, wobbly kneed Jordan — couldn’t escape the comparisons to that version of the man responsible for hitting it.

Walking away from the game while worshipped as a god would’ve seemed to be the best way to go out, but Jordan didn’t want it to end there. The Bulls broke up without his consent. Jordan had that itch three years later, when watching games as a Wizards executive couldn’t satisfy him anymore. He came back for his sake, not for anyone else’s, and the fact that no one really wanted the return made it easier to dismiss.

So, that missed layup in Philadelphia will always go down in the ledger as Jordan’s final shot — the last of 29,034 taken in the regular season and postseason. And two free throws, dropped after then-Wizards coach Doug Collins inserted him for a proper curtain call, will go in the books as his final points. But the last shot in Game 6, in Salt Lake City, is the one to which fans will always cling. Jordan would’ve ruined the storybook ending to his career — if people ever chose to acknowledge the real one.

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