It wasn’t just that having Michael Jordan on your side was luxury enough as a Bulls fan. It was the way you could map out the final seconds of any close contest, with the assurance (even if the shots rimmed out) that a make here, stop there, and make here could turn any three-point deficit in the waning minutes into a win for the red and black. It wasn’t hubris or even misplaced optimism. It was just … Jordan. We had Jordan.
Down three points to Utah with under a minute left in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, the Bulls came out of a timeout with a quick hit Jordan drive and finish that took just a few seconds off of the dwindling clock, forcing a one-possession game and assuring that the Bulls wouldn’t have to foul the Jazz in order to get the ball back. Jordan, who had been “giving a lick and promise” to defense all game according to Bulls assistant Tex Winter (that is to say, “takin’ it easy”) decided not to clear the strong side when the ball was entered to Jazz forward Karl Malone on the next possession. A dangerous gambit in an era of stronger illegal defense rules, Malone’s ability to pass, and Jazz guard (native of suburban Chicago) Jeff Hornacek’s ability to hit daggers from 24 feet away.
Malone never saw what was coming. Jordan stole the ball and headed up court. Buoyed by his coaching staff’s refusal to call timeout, and influenced by the same staff’s earlier insistence that he start following through better on his weary long jumpers, this happened:
There’s nothing left to describe, after this. The image – what one act can do to two sides and so many people – is enough:
— Kelly Dwyer * * * 1. The first championship
Unless you were from the Chicago area, or a Chicago Bulls fan, or some combination of both, it’s hard to overestimate how much Chicago’s Game 5 win over the Los Angeles Lakers counted for.
This wasn’t some 100-game hike from October to June, or the culmination of a two-year turnaround based off a free-agent bonanza, or a recent expansion team getting over the hump with its first great lottery pick prize. No, this was the end of decades of frustration. This was a city that couldn’t even keep an NBA team until the late 1960s, and one that could barely fill its legendary stadium just a decade after.
Toss in Michael Jordan, who for all his teammates’ failings and youth seemed to be playing at a championship level in just his first season, and even a championship level team (despite its second-round ouster) in his fourth. That fourth season was 1987-88, when the organization ignored all calls for ready-made helpers or veteran talent, instead banking on GM Jerry Krause as he went all-in on a pair of rookie projects in Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen. That year was followed by the team’s first meeting and loss at the hands of the Pistons, and the summer that saw the team’s dealing of its second-best player (and Jordan’s best friend to this day) Charles Oakley for a brittle backup center in Bill Cartwright that was known more for missing games than covering lanes.
Along the way, Chicago hired a head coach in Doug Collins whose previous experience was working as a broadcaster for Arizona State games. It then hired Phil Jackson – you remember, that hippie from the Knicks? – who was a few years removed from coaching in the Puerto Rican league for extra scratch after a falling out with his CBA bosses. All the while Jordan was just tossing himself up against that Piston wall. Just waiting for it to crack. Just hoping he could find the seam, that daylight that tended to appear when MJ played against every other team, but just couldn’t come up with when it counted against Detroit.
In 1991 he found it, with help. And finally the extra klieg lights and Finals logo and extra crush of media descended on Chicago, because
they earned home court over Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers. The NBA’s final round wouldn’t start in the famed Boston Garden or Detroit’s sparkly-new Palace of Auburn Hills or the Fabulous Forum. No, it was here. HERE, in Chicago. Which made no sense and all the sense in the world.
And in Game 1, as his two hours’ worth of “can you believe we’re in the Finals?”-destiny suggested, Jordan was set to secure the win with a patented jab-step jumper, and he missed. And they lost. And the homecourt advantage went to the Fabulous Forum. And it just felt like it was happening, all over again. Something everyone had to wait for, again. Fair, but painful.
The Bulls won four straight after that. Two of the games were laughers, and the pivotal Game 3 was decided by a Jordan jumper not unlike the one that rimmed out in Game 1. All the Forum gold that tended to blur the eyes of both opponents and onlookers seemed like just another color.
Watch the videos online. All you see is Chicago’s red.
Just as painstakingly deliberate as it had been taken away from the Bulls in years past as the team slowly inched closer toward that breakthrough, this dominance over Los Angeles was the opposite. It was swift and shocking; if not entirely appropriate. By the time Game 5 rolled around, and Jordan answered Phil Jackson’s “who’s open?” question with “John Paxson,” this was Chicago’s league. Chicago’s game. It would remain that, until Michael left the city.
The buzzer sounded, the team stormed off the court into the locker room and recited "The Lord’s Prayer," as led by Jackson. Someone prematurely popped a bottle of champagne, but nobody dove for the bubbly until the team was done with its moment. And nobody bothered Jordan as he moved to his own corner, his own gold world, to cradle the Lawrence O’Brien trophy, the season-ending token that he’d chased for too damn long.
Like all trophies, it was meaningless but symbolic. A representation of what he and Chicago had been chasing, even if most of us couldn’t pick Lawrence O’Brien out of a Watergate burglary lineup back then. The pride, even as I recall it over two decades later, still sweeps me away. The trophy was Jordan’s, but the moment was shared by all of us. The pain of all those losses and all those near-misses was immediately replaced by a feeling that I genuinely hope each of you experiences at some point in your life, whatever the influence.
Whatever took place before and continues to happen after that moment pales in comparison. Whether he knows it or not, while attempting to do something for himself, Michael Jordan did something for all of us.
— Kelly Dwyer Related Michael Jordan video on Yahoo! Sports: Other popular MJ content on Yahoo! Sports: • How Michael Jordan still earns $80 million a year • Memorable encounters with Michael Jordan that helped build legend • Slideshow: A look at Air Jordans from 1984-2012 • Marcus Jordan wants to be same kind of dad as his famous father