“Ruthian,” I jotted in my notebook when Michael Jordan stole the ball, and almost immediately recognized how unsatisfactory that adjective was. When Jordan unretired and led the Bulls to the second round of the playoffs a mere three years ago, I speculated that he could still have his greatest feats ahead of him and cited Babe Ruth, whose most famous exploits–his 60 homers in 1927 at the age of 32 and his supposed “called shot” in the World Series against the Cubs five years later–both came after his 1925 bellyache/stomach virus/syphilis attack, after many had written him off as over-the-hill, a has-been. And look at what Jordan has achieved since his comeback at age 32: a return to MVP form two years ago, both in the 72-win regular season and in the National Basketball Association finals; a game-winning shot in game one of the finals a year ago and a courageous performance while ill in game five that perhaps will become his most legendary feat; and, most important, two championships and a shot at a third, which would make six in all.
Then came the first Bulls game of the ’98 NBA playoffs, in which Jordan looked awful–aged and vulnerable–from the opening tip, eventually connecting on only 11 of 27 shots against the New Jersey Nets and committing three turnovers (a charitable count on the part of the official scorer). With a chance to put the Bulls ahead in the final minute of regulation, he missed the second of two free throws to leave the score knotted at 89. Yet with the game tied at 91 and under a minute left in overtime–and only moments after he had, first, committed a turnover and, second, come off a Dennis Rodman screen and missed an open shot to give the Nets the ball back–he stepped in front of Kerry Kittles and, when Kittles was slow to react, tried for a steal. It was an all-or-nothing move that, if unsuccessful, would have allowed Kittles to penetrate and almost certainly find an open man for an easy basket.
“I was trying to force him left,” Jordan said afterward. “I figured that was his weakest hand, and I beat him to the position and he never really brought the ball back in. He exposed it and I went for it and I just saw clear sailing after that.”
It wasn’t clear quite all the way. Jordan broke into the open court on the dribble, but Kendall Gill–the south suburban product who had dueled his former hero almost all night long–closed on him at the hoop. Jordan went up with the ball clutched out front in that trademark pose of his, fought off the Gill foul, and jammed it, crashing into the cushions of the basket stanchion. He converted the free throw for a three-point play that put the Bulls up 94-91 with 43 seconds to go. (To repeat, “Ruthian,” I wrote.) Thanks to Scottie Pippen–as ever, playing Lou Gehrig to Jordan’s Ruth–stuffing Gill on a short hook shot moments later, the Bulls had all the points they’d need in claiming a 96-93 victory.
So began what coach Phil Jackson has called “the last dance,” almost certainly the final playoff run involving the Bulls’ nucleus of Jordan, Jackson, and Pippen, quite possibly the last involving Jordan at all. During the rough last few weeks of the season, he certainly had the look of someone who could readily ponder retirement. Perhaps it wasn’t age but an injury to the index finger on his shooting hand that hindered his play, but if so, no injury had slowed him to such an extent over such an extended period since the broken foot he suffered in his sophomore NBA season.
How fitting, then, that the last dance should start with yet another in a seemingly endless series of Jordan moments. It’s a pity that the adjective “Jordanian” already has other connotations, while “Jordanesque” is unacceptable on the sheer circusy sound of it, because Jordan has surpassed “Ruthian.” He may not yet be the legendary figure Ruth was off the field (then again, he may be), but his sporting exploits are beyond even Ruth’s. Jordan has simply had more great moments–more by a wide margin. Part of that is due to the essential difference in their chosen sports. Baseball is largely a game of chance, of opportunities either missed or exploited. A Ruth has to come to bat, for instance, with an opportunity to put a game and a bitter World Series away–he can’t just be sent up to the plate when the moment is right, the way Jackson can draw a play for Jordan. Yet the other team knows Jordan’s to get the ball in a potentially great moment, which in turn helps create other signatures such as his dishes to John Paxson in the clinching game in 1991 and to Steve Kerr last year. Which doesn’t begin to take into account how Jordan can seize a moment that doesn’t even belong to him and quite simply capture a victory that otherwise wouldn’t have been. Ruth must have had game-winning moments on defense, but they’re not what he’s remembered for. Here’s why I think this moment at the end of the first Nets game ranks with Jordan’s best: rarely had he looked weaker; rarely had he seized victory single-handed from less likely circumstances.
Look at the string of Jordan moments, going back to his game-winning shot in the 1982 college basketball championship. “Ruthian” doesn’t begin to describe it.
How vulnerable did the Bulls look after they’d eked out victories at the United Center in the first two games of their best-of-five series with the Nets? Very, and yet not as much as one might have thought judging from the scores alone (96-91 in game two). There were times Jordan looked very old indeed, as he failed to make half his shots from the floor in the second game as well and missed a few more free throws. Yet he led the way with a game-high 32 points in the second game on top of his 39 in the first, and he twice sank the dagger in the closing minutes of game two, first driving the lane to reinstate a double-digit lead at 89-78, then hitting an open jumper to make it 91-82 with under a minute to go. What’s more, the Nets proved to be an able opponent. True, they came in beat up, with point guard Sam Cassell suffering from a leg injury, rebounding ace Jayson Williams from a broken thumb, and hotshot rookie Keith Van Horn from stomach flu, and without the talent of even the Washington Bullets of a year ago (that team included Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, and Rod Strickland). But they had better coaching than those Bullets in the person of John Calipari, and that made the difference, especially in the early moments of the first game–when Calipari’s unpredictable substitutions kept Jackson befuddled–and in the closing minutes of the second game, when the Nets’ clock management and persistent fouls made a close game of what was a runaway. These two games were a reminder that the Bulls rarely look good in the playoffs; they just win and win ugly by making the other team look uglier.
The Nets looked playoff-ready in their first postseason action in four years, while the experienced Bulls had to shake the rust of a week off in the first game. But the Bulls’ quality soon showed. Pippen and Dickey Simpkins worked a lovely give-and-go-and-give-back in the second quarter, Pippen inbounding the ball under the Bulls’ basket to Simpkins, taking it back, circling around the Simpkins screen to the free-throw circle, and then swinging the ball back to Simpkins, who drove the baseline unmolested for a pile driver two-handed dunk and a 46-39 lead. Yet the Nets kept it tight at the half, 52-48, and weathered the Bulls’ push in the third quarter to retake the lead in the fourth. Beauty seemed just out of reach for the Bulls. Pippen, double-teamed with his back to the basket, dished a blind over-the-shoulder pass to Rodman under the hoop, but the ball was knocked out of bounds. Toni Kukoc, trying to save a ball going out of bounds under the Bulls’ basket, hurled it behind his back to Rodman under the hoop, but beyond his reach. The Nets, meanwhile, were swamping the Bulls under the boards. Luc Longley was still recovering from a bone bruise in his knee, and it looked as if Williams, with 21 rebounds, and Chris Gatling, with 24 points, would make Bulls general manager Jerry Krause wish he had never traded Jason Caffey. But despite some staggering moments down the stretch, the Jordan was mighty and did prevail.
The Bulls looked much better in the second game, controlling the boards from the get-go and getting inspired play off the bench from Kerr and Bill Wennington. Yet straining for beauty again got them into trouble. The Bulls controlled the play throughout the first half, taking a 52-38 lead. The Nets came out hard in the second half, and the Bulls responded in kind. In fact, for a while they pretty much mopped the floor with the Nets, Jordan completing a three-point play for a 72-52 lead. Kittles, however, hit a desperation three-point shot caroming off the glass to trigger a seven-point New Jersey run, and the Bulls found they couldn’t rein in the horses once they were running full out. The Nets kept the pace frantic, but Kerr hit a critical three-pointer to make it 81-71, and in the end Jordan made just enough shots–from the field and at the line–to carry the Bulls home.
His ability is clearly beginning to flicker, especially at the free-throw line, where he has been quite shaky of late. Whether it’s the finger injury, end-of-the-season weariness, or sheer age that is slowing him down is irrelevant. Jordan has never seemed so fallible–so mortal. And this is what makes Jordan and the Bulls more compelling than ever. Out of weakness Jordan again summoned a moment of strength at the end of that first game. Can he summon enough of those moments to win another championship? Can Jackson marshal his team’s dwindling resources? Can the team retain its focus in the midst of “the last dance”? Those questions, my friends, are the heart of the drama. To that, for those quick to worry or judge, I add only this warning, from Sophocles at the end of another great career: “For I come here as one endowed with grace / By those who are over Nature; and I bring / Advantage to this race, as you may learn / More fully when some lord of yours is here. / Meanwhile be careful to be just.”