At first, I thought the shot was no more astounding than, oh, a dozen or so other astounding shots Michael Jordan has pulled off in his seven seasons in Chicago. On seeing the replay, I granted that, no, this one was right up there–top three or five. Of course, Jordan does this sort of thing so regularly that there is no real ranking of his greatest shots; one sees one and, after one begins breathing again, one says, “Yes, that’s one of the great ones, right up there.”
Yet as it was replayed again and again–and it was the highlight of choice during the week from when it was originally performed until the Bulls won the National Basketball Association title a week ago Wednesday; and the Disney World people have picked it up for their ad, so it’s going to remain the number-one sports replay on television for a while–it took on more and more importance.
Here was Jordan transforming himself before the fan’s very eyes. He went up strong, looking to dunk the ball, then utterly changed his bearing as he changed his grip from right hand to left, stretching himself out horizontal and scooping the ball delicately up, off the backboard, and through the hoop. The shot expressed, in a single moment, the changes Jordan has undergone over the years–especially the recent years–his transformation from an extraordinarily talented basketball player into a champion. Where once he would have driven on straight to the basket, willing to accept the foul if he missed the slam dunk–the same decision almost every player in the league would make–here he was suddenly willing to soften his approach, alter his aim in midair, in order to get off a clean shot, not just take the foul. The season just past saw Jordan give his teammates–his “supporting cast,” he often called them–a previously unheard amount of say in how each game went, in whether the Bulls would win or lose. Coach Phil Jackson used the word “trust” for what developed between Jordan and his teammates and said, “Michael was willing to share some of the spotlight.” Jordan altered his approach to make his game softer, more egalitarian, team-oriented, which is a much more difficult style of play. Michael Jordan made himself, at long last, complete. And when it was all over, Jordan and the Bulls were champions.
The shot wasn’t the turning point in the Los Angeles series–we didn’t then know it, but that point had already been turned–yet it did come in the midst of the run in which the Bulls first proved they were the superior team. After holding a 48-43 halftime lead and padding that to 58-51 early in the third quarter, the Bulls ran off a 39-20 extended spurt, beginning with a pair of Scottie Pippen free throws resulting from a flagrant-foul call that Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy labeled “the big play in the game.” I’d seen the Bulls play at this level around last Thanksgiving and again in January and February, before their slight slump, but this was the NBA final, against the Western Conference champions, the Lakers, and they just ran them off the court. The Lakers never really recovered.
In the second game, the Bulls were simply playing good basketball and expanding their lead until John Paxson wrestled the Lakers’ center Vlade Divac to a jump ball in the third quarter. Divac deflected the toss to Earvin “Magic” Johnson, just as he was supposed to, but Pippen leapt and tipped the ball into the air from behind Johnson, then beat the Lakers’ Terry Teagle to the ball, batting it down the center of the court, then beat Johnson to the ball near the Bulls’ free-throw circle, grabbed it, and jammed it left-handed over Johnson. Jordan, who had picked up two quick fouls early guarding Johnson, returned to action with four fouls, Jackson later explaining, “He wanted back in. I really didn’t want to put him in but he wanted back in. He wanted to be part of it.”
From then on, the second game was a highlight film.
Early in the fourth quarter, Jordan, on the dribble, took the Lakers’ James Worthy one-on-one. He pulled up at 21 feet and swished a shot through the hoop –88-71. Jordan and Pippen then forced a fast-break alley oop to happen. Their timing was slightly off, the pass was slightly errant, but everyone in the stadium could see it coming, and when Pippen pulled it off–jamming it like a father closing a closet door before his mountain of sweaters falls off the top shelf–we all went “OooOoooOOOH!” 93-71. Then, of course, came the shot.
“It was a feed to Cliff” Levingston, Jordan said afterward, “and Cliff threw it back to me. I saw a clear lane to the basket, so I was going to dunk it. But then I saw long-armed Sam Perkins there, and I exposed the ball, and I felt he was going to go up and try to block it, and it was just instinct to change it. I changed it to my left hand and managed to get it off.
“It was one of those creative things. Creativity–you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Or, as Johnson saw it, cracking up the 100-plus members of the media with his humor: “When Michael has it going like that, that’s where all his creativity goes as well. He had his jumper game going and that’s when he’s dangerous, because he gets the feeling of being unstoppable, invincible.
“When he came down the lane he went up, went one way, put it in one hand, throwed it up, about five more yards, said, ‘I don’t know,’ put it in the other hand, and banked it off the glass. He’s that type of guy. He can do the impossible, the unbelievable. It was his game tonight. He really took it over in the second half. He smelled the win.”
The turning point in the series–after the Bulls lost the first game–came eight minutes into the second game, when Jordan committed his second foul guarding Johnson. Jackson then brought in Levingston for Paxson, put Pippen on Johnson, and had Jordan take Divac, the Lakers’ tall, ungainly, European import center. “We anticipated going to that” alignment, Jackson said, “but not quite as early as we had to go to it with Michael in foul trouble.”
Combined with the effective double-team scheme the Bulls’ coaching staff had devised after the first game, Pippen’s tenacious defense of Johnson stifled the Lakers. Los Angeles had burned the Bulls down under the basket in the first game. Now Johnson had to fight like a mountain climber going up a difficult slope just to get the ball across center court, and when he did get the ball in low, the Bulls player defending the ball overplayed to the outside and another Bulls player ran to the baseline, shutting off the drive in either direction. Playing safety, under the basket, usually guarding two Lakers players, was Jordan, threatening to pick off any hasty pass and take it 90 feet for the slam dunk, a threat he carried out more than once. The Lakers solved this defense from time to time in the three games out in Los Angeles, but never with any consistency. Jordan returned to guarding Johnson most of the time, but the option to switch Pippen onto Johnson was always there, and it clearly inhibited the Lakers’ play.
After the second game Los Angeles coach Mike Dunleavy said, “We did what we had to do”–win one in Chicago. “Now we’re going home with the home-court advantage.” Already, however, he looked–and sounded–confounded. “They did a nice job. That’s all I can really say.”
The Lakers got the benefit of most of the calls in all three games in Los Angeles, but the NBA’s notorious “home cooking” didn’t bother the Bulls any more than it had at any other time this season. They believed themselves a good road team, and they were composed right up until they won it all. In a tight third game, Pippen fouled out in the final moments on a very questionable call in which Divac ran over him, put the ball up, and made it, sending him dancing down the lane kissing his fingers. (Divac later clarified that he was not blowing kisses to the fans but was simply thanking his hands for doing such fine work.) With the Lakers two points up and only seconds to play, the Bulls inbounded it to Jordan, who went the length of the court, pulled up just right of the free-throw circle, and popped the shot off the back rim and through the hoop; it couldn’t have been done in a more forthright fashion, especially in light of his game-losing miss in the first game. Jordan then carried the Bulls through the overtime, driving again and again past the wearied Lakers. The Bulls, then, had done what they wanted to: the series would definitely be coming back to Chicago.
Or would it? The fourth game was a rout, controlled by the Bulls from tip to final horn, in every aspect of the game. Johnson tried to rally the Lakers in the third quarter, making a truly magical three-point play in which he was fouled while double-teamed by Jordan and Pippen, but the Bulls weathered the run and coasted home.
I had tickets to games six and seven, and at this point–there’s no denying–I was growing concerned. It was awful to see the Cubs lose three in a row in the playoffs out on the west coast in 1989, ending their season, but if anything could be worse this was it: watching the Bulls win three in a row out there to end their season. This sort of thinking was clearly selfish, however, and by the start of the fifth game I had altered my perspective, softening to the point where I felt either way I couldn’t lose. The Bulls, however, were not going to lose either, barring some Los Angeles miracle. The Lakers were more inspired–they had to be, with starters Worthy and Byron Scott both out with injuries–but the Bulls were just trying to stay close. There was a confident nonchalance to their play; the game had the feel that if the Bulls had a chance to win in the last five minutes, they would.
Pippen carried the Bulls through a slow sequence in the third quarter, getting them into an 80-80 tie going into the final frame. It was tied at 93 with five minutes to go, but the Bulls hadn’t made a shot from the field in three minutes. Then, however, Jordan drove, hit traffic, and pitched back out to Paxson, who sank the shot. The Bulls came down on the break moments later, and a pass again went out wide to Paxson, who hit the shot. He made 10 of the Bulls’ 12 points at one stretch in the final quarter of the season.
He had also made all eight shots he took in the second game–this after scoring just six points in the series opener. As Jordan had said after the second game, “I told John personally, if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down with no bullets in our holsters. You’ve got to keep shooting. You’ve got to get it going. The shots are there for you. You’ve got to make Magic work. You’ve got to make him pay for helping out on the defensive end.”
Anyone who questioned how much or how sincerely Jordan wanted to win the championship–anyone who thought he’d again be satisfied with the league MVP award–was answered by Jordan’s emotional response to winning it all. Clearly in tears before he even left the court, he hid between the shoulders of his teammates on the way out and shied from the television cameras in the locker room. Bob Costas finally tracked him down, finding Jordan sitting between his wife and his parents, with his forehead resting against the championship trophy.
Michael Jordan is one of the great players in NBA history, and at this point he probably is the greatest basketball player on the planet, but going into the playoffs after seven seasons in Chicago his career still lacked a championship. Johnson, his main competitor for the title of greatest player of all time, had won five titles with the Lakers in the 80s. Jordan was looking at a future in which he’d be called a player who was great at the expense of his teammates, or in which, perhaps, like his clearest predecessor as a basketball artist, Julius Erving, he’d win a title after he could no longer say it was really his. This championship made Michael Jordan complete, and I think that’s the release he experienced after the final game.
Jordan can play out the rest of his career simply trying to put new shots in his personal all-time top ten–the fans are ready to accept that now; I know I am. He’ll always have this one, his title, the one he–and Scottie Pippen and John Paxson and Horace Grant and, yes, Bill Cartwright and Cliff Levingston and Craig Hodges and Will Perdue and Scott Williams and B.J. Armstrong–brought home, with a little help from a couple of other guys and some guidance from the coaching staff of Jackson and Tex Winter and John Bach and Jim Cleamons. The best thing about it was that this was a truly great team, which played basketball at its highest level. The qualities that won them the championship–imagination, ingenuity, creativity, courage–were the qualities all of us should draw from; the Bulls were pleasing to watch viscerally, intellectually, and aesthetically.
I watched the seconds tick down, and the city erupted. I remembered a night when the White Sox clinched first place and I went out on the field of Comiskey Park and then drove home up Lake Shore Drive, honking the horn all the way. A week ago Wednesday, after the interviews and the highlight replays and the local news reports were over, I went outside and sat on the stoop and listened to the sounds of cars honking and fireworks exploding and, in that way, I shared my Bulls with the city of Chicago.