With just under 10 seconds to go in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls found themselves a heartbeat away from a legendary shot.
That’s right: Steve Kerr was about to crash the offensive glass for a put-back that’d go down in NBA history.
“I just remember I had inside position for the rebound on [John] Stockton,” said Kerr — then a sharpshooting guard for the Bulls, now the head coach of the Golden State Warriors — during a scrum with reporters at shootaround before Game 4 of the 2018 NBA Finals in Cleveland. “I beat him baseline and I was going to get the tip, to tip it in.”
When you think about Kerr’s game, tenacious offensive rebounding doesn’t exactly leap to the front of your mind; this is probably because the 6-foot-3 guard grabbed a total of 186 of his teammates’ misses in a 15-year, 910-game NBA career. And yet, with the ball in the air and the season on the line, it was all hands on deck, and the man who’d sunk the Utah Jazz in Chicago one year earlier was preparing to do it again in Salt Lake City.
“It would’ve been my first tip-in of the year,” Kerr said with a smirk. “But I was there.”
As it turned out, Kerr’s services wouldn’t be necessary. Michael Jordan saw to that.
After John Stockton drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing to give Utah an 86-83 lead with 41.9 seconds to go in the fourth quarter, Bulls coach Phil Jackson called a 20-second timeout. For one thing, he wanted to get Kerr in the game, to put an additional shooter on the floor; for another, he wanted to give Jordan a brief respite after Chicago’s centerpiece had played 43 minutes, including all but two minutes of the second half, while serving as the Bulls’ lone consistent generator of offense on a night when Scottie Pippen was locked up by back pain.
At age 35, with 43,360 NBA minutes on his legs, the fate of a franchise on his back, and the dire possibility of a Game 7 on the road with a limited Pippen nipping at his heels, the Bulls needed Jordan to make magic one more time. There wasn’t a single person watching anywhere in the world who doubted his capacity to conjure it.
“It wasn’t just that having Michael Jordan on your side was luxury enough as a Bulls fan,” Kelly Dwyer wrote for this site five years ago. “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.”
And so, as he had for most of the previous decade and a half — we’ll always have Birmingham — Jordan went to work.
Out of the timeout, Jackson called an isolation for Jordan, who wasted no time attacking Jazz guard Bryon Russell from the right wing, freezing him with a brief hesitation before bursting past him for a twisting layup that he finished over the outstretched arm of center Antoine “Big Dog” Carr. It was a perfectly executed two-for-one, taking just over four seconds of game time to cut the deficit to one and ensure that Chicago would get another offensive possession, even if the Jazz used the full 24-second shot clock.
On the ensuing trip, the Jazz looked to set up the play that had been their bread-and-butter in Game 6. No, not the fabled John Stockton-Karl Malone pick-and-roll; instead, legendary Jazz coach Jerry Sloan had been rolling with a steady diet of Malone post-ups on the left block, letting “The Mailman” cook Chicago’s overmatched big men to the tune of 31 points on 11-for-19 shooting with seven assists. One possession earlier, it was Malone’s post-up that drew the Bulls’ double-team that left Stockton open for the go-ahead three. This time, though, Jordan saw an opportunity to bring help from the baseline and pounced before Malone even knew he was there.
“We’ve been trying to double-team [Malone],” Jordan said after the game. “And [Jazz guard Jeff] Hornacek was trying to, I guess, pick Karl Malone, and he never really cleared, which gave me an opportunity to go back. Karl never saw me coming, and I was able to knock the ball away.”
Jordan came up with the loose ball with just over 20 seconds to go, presenting Jazz fans with the most frightening sight the NBA had to offer in 1998 — Michael Jordan, with a live dribble and a chance, coming into the frontcourt needing only one basket to beat you.
All eyes were on Jordan as he prepared to make his move against Russell. One year earlier, in a similar situation, Stockton swooped in to double-team Jordan, and Kerr, the man he left, became a Finals legend. This time, Utah played it straight up, with Russell having sole responsibility for getting a stop on arguably the greatest scorer of all time.
“Once you get in the moment, you know when you’re there,” Jordan said after the game. “Things start to move slowly. You start to see the court very well. You start reading what the defense is trying to do. And I saw that. I saw that moment.”
He saw it, and then he met it. Entire civilizations rose and fell in the spaces between the words of Bob Costas’ call for NBC: “Jordan. Open. Chicago with the lead.”
Russell stepped up to close out Jordan’s air space and get right in his hip pocket; in doing so, he gave Jordan a path for a right-hand drive to the middle of the floor, and put himself in danger of falling off-balance. “I made my initial drive, and he bit on it, and I stopped, pulled up and I had an easy jump shot,” Jordan said.
Whether Russell had some help in falling off balance — namely, from the left hand of His Airness — has remained a matter of debate for the last two decades. (And even, oddly enough, a matter for the courts.) Wherever you fall on the matter, Russell fell to his left, while Jordan crossed back to his. He was wide open, from 17 feet out.
“I had a great look, and it went in,” Jordan said.
There were still 5.8 seconds to go, giving the Jazz a chance to answer. But Stockton’s last-gasp try at a game-winning 3 came up empty, sealing an 87-86 Bulls victory, giving Chicago its second three-peat in eight years, and giving Jordan his sixth NBA championship.
“I think it’s the best performance ever by Michael Jordan at a critical moment in a critical series,” said a cigar-puffing Jackson after the game, as Mike Wise wrote for the New York Times. “No one has ever done it better.”
Heading into that postseason, with Jordan’s contract about to expire after the season, questions swirled around whether or not this would be Jordan’s last run with the Bulls, and his last run in the NBA period. To end it like this — with 45 points in 44 minutes (he’s still the oldest player ever to go for 40 in a Finals game) capped by an iconic game- and championship-winning shot for his sixth NBA Finals MVP trophy — was almost too perfect for words.
“I think it was a very defining moment of what my career was in Chicago,” Jordan told longtime friend and broadcaster Ahmad Rashad during an interview on the occasion of Jordan’s 50th birthday back in 2013. “It goes back to the actual beginning. My career actually began on a shot to win a championship in 1982. The essence of who Michael Jordan became, and who Michael Jordan was, ended with that shot in 1998.”
We know now that it didn’t wind up being Jordan’s last shot. After three years away from the game during which he’d become the part-owner and president of basketball operations of the Washington Wizards, Jordan announced in September 2001 that he planned to return to the court wearing the Wizards’ red, white and blue. He was still productive at age 37 and 38 for the Wizards, still an All-Star capable of averaging 20 a night with the occasional bursts of brilliance, but Washington finished 37-45 in both of his seasons in D.C. before he retired for a third time in the summer of 2003. After Game 6 in Utah, he never again returned to the postseason, never again performed on the game’s grandest stage.
For a competitor as famously tenacious as Jordan, that probably still rankles him. For the rest of us, though, it’s allowed the memory of that last shot in Salt Lake City — the crossover, the stepback, the follow-through — to remain in amber, untouched and unblemished as one of the greatest final postseason acts ever, written by one of the sport’s unparalleled masters.
“That’s one of the great memories for me, in my career,” Kerr said last week. “[…] An incredible sequence, and just how lucky I felt to be part of history. Michael Jordan’s final game with the Bulls, final championship. Pretty cool.”
Even if it meant not getting any credit for hustling into rebounding position.
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