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It’s the iconic image etched in our brains, the frozen-in-time moment we remember alongside the likes of Muhammad Ali loading up his right hand as George Foreman stumbled around in a boxing ring in Zaire over 40 years ago.
Michael Jordan’s extended right hand, giving his last jump shot as a Chicago Bull the extra push it needed with 5.2 seconds left in Salt Lake City in 1998 to clinch his sixth NBA title. It felt historic in the moment, captured perfectly by NBC’s Bob Costas who made note of how symbolic it felt, how poetic it looked.
“Who knows what will unfold in the next several months …” Costas said, “but if that’s the last image of Michael Jordan, how magnificent is it?”
In our fantasy-fueled minds, the moment was romanticized by the belief and subsequent reality that Jordan was possibly saying goodbye with the impending breakup of the Bulls on the way. The practical reality, however, was simple: Jordan needed the extra effort in that moment to make up for a fourth quarter that produced so many jumpers that hit the front rim, a sign his legs were weary.
The physical marvel Jordan came into the league as, the long-limbed athletic freak with big hands, is the one who was admired by the general public. And the imitators have tried to emulate the younger version of Jordan who could treat defenders like middle-schoolers in fantasy camp, getting to the basket at a moment’s notice, rising above and thundering through the giants at the rim with ease.
“The Last Dance” Jordan is the one who’s revered. The 1998 series wasn’t his most efficient, statistically impressive or spectacular. One could make the argument his 1997 showing was the greatest four-game effect on winning a series in Finals history: buzzer-beater in Game 1, 38-13-9 in Game 2, the famed “flu game” in Game 5 and the winning assist to Steve Kerr in Game 6.
Jordan’s 1998 season was his 12th highest in PER, paling in comparison to his other four MVP campaigns and clearly some of his near misses. But it was no doubt he was deserving because of his command of the moment, of every moment.
The Jordan on that day was 35 years old, still the best basketball player on Earth, albeit without the high-flying exploits. The Jordan on that day was dragging a Bulls franchise intent on self-destruction to the finish line on sheer will, with a co-star in Scottie Pippen who could do slightly more than spectate due to an injured back that wouldn’t get better with three days’ rest.
The Jordan on that day knew the years of contending was catching up to his body and even his mind. Back then, the Finals were 2-3-2, and the Bulls were facing the prospect of a Game 7 on the road and possibly blowing a 3-1 series lead with a team on fumes against a Jazz squad growing in confidence — and Jordan would’ve been without any semblance of the Pippen he’d come to depend on through the championship runs or virtually anyone else.
So, as opposed to doing this all over again for 48 minutes on Wednesday night, he took matters into his own hands for the 41.9 seconds left that Sunday evening, being the only Bull to touch the ball from the moment it was inbounded.
After being chided through his early years for not trusting his teammates enough, Jordan had to go with his natural instincts for what many believe is his true final act on the grand stage.
It produced perhaps the greatest clutch sequence in the last 30 years of sports, if not longer. Layup, steal, jumper.
That extended arm on that picture-perfect jumper has turned into a ghost LeBron James is chasing. It feels like a stiff-arm from Jordan to all of LeBron’s athletic contemporaries and even to the one who so brazenly claimed he believed he caught Jordan in 2016 with his improbable championship over the 73-win Golden State Warriors.
But James hasn’t, and depending on who’s judging, it’s not as close as some would like to believe.
Perhaps the opportunity to best Jordan in this mythology hasn’t presented itself. The Ali who bested Foreman in 1974 was not only a decade removed from the brash challenger who took down the formidable Sonny Liston, but was a few years removed from a court-induced exile that took away so many prime years.
Ali was an underdog in Zaire, with so many fearing for his safety against the younger, hard-hitting Foreman. That eighth-round combination, capped off by the right hand he threw and the one he kept in the chamber, is the Ali remembered most through time.
He was 32, which in boxing years felt like 40 back then.
James was nearing 32 when he engineered the comeback against the Warriors but was still so close to his physical prime. The ghost James is chasing is more about the circumstances than the man. It was obvious Jordan was working on guile more than gifts in 1998, the fundamentals carrying him more than otherworldly athleticism, the mind taking advantage of any close opening an opponent produced.
James will be 36 at year’s end, with so few precious opportunities in front of him as his career winds down. The COVID-19 pandemic could very well take away the best of the rest of his chances, with elite players getting better (Giannis Antetokounmpo), healthier (Kevin Durant) and just as bold in challenging James on the floor (Kawhi Leonard).
James still gives reminders of his athletic prowess, but he’s moved into a different phase of his on-court life by moving to point guard. It would be a massive understatement to call him “ground bound,” but the highlights of the kid whose head soared above the rim — literally — in 2010 feels like a different martian than the one we see today, athletically.
Playing armchair GM to help the Lakers obtain Anthony Davis makes it more difficult to produce such a standalone moment like Jordan had that night, which adds to the lore given today’s culture.
Jordan made the best of his circumstances.
James does what he can to create the best circumstances.
But his moments are coming, whenever sports can reasonably resume. Instances where we know he’s not at his physical best, and if he’s a reasonable underdog whether he has something deep in his reservoir to pull from to make up the difference.
It’s why Jordan and Ali are in this strata only they belong to, and why it’s hard for so many to join them.
Phil Jackson dubbing the 1998 season “The Last Dance” seems so appropriate considering in those final moments, it was Jordan boogieing down all by himself.
At some point, James will have to boogie down solo, too.
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