The problem with basketball is that the games too often come down to not merely one but a series of “last shots”; that, and the professional season lasts too long. The sport nevertheless is enjoying a well-deserved resurgence. Attendance is higher than ever in the National Basketball Association because the games no longer consist of 46 minutes of trudging up and down the court and then two minutes of basketball on the way to a final shot, but rather 46 minutes of one team trying to blow the other out and vice versa, and then two minutes of basketball on the way to a last shot. Still, this overabundance of tension and clutch plays causes the separate games to be lost, as some new splendid contest and last-second basket comes along every week. Basketball will never produce anything on the level of Bill Mazeroski’s home run to end the 1960 World Series or Carlton Fisk’s blast in game six of the 1975 Series, for the simple reason that it’s producing events like that all the time. Already Nick Anderson’s last-second 30-footer to lift Illinois over Indiana at the end of the Big Ten season is diminished, and how was it, exactly, that Michigan beat, who was it, Seton Hall, in the NCAA Tournament final? And Michael Jordan’s next-to-last-second shot to beat the Milwaukee Bucks only a couple of months ago: who remembers that?
Nobody, not even Jordan, probably, because his basket to win the game last Sunday, which sent the Bulls past the Cleveland Cavaliers into the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals, was one of the baskets of the season and, he later stated, the basket of his career. In this, he may be a little overwhelmed by the present. We remember his hoop to win the national championship for North Carolina in 1982, when he was a freshman, and while he says he was just a kid at the time and unable to appreciate the gravity of the occasion (we assume that’s how he was able to make the shot in the first place), we were a few years older than Jordan at the time and recall that game as one of the greatest sporting events of the decade, making his shot last Sunday ever so slightly less important in our eyes.
Still, there’s no denying it was a great shot, preceded by another great shot by Jordan himself only six game seconds before, and if the Bulls manage to advance any further in the play-offs it will grow in importance; but now we’re moving too rapidly from behind our event to ahead of our event, and perhaps it would be best to establish what made Jordan’s shot so great.
We skipped out of the White Sox game last Sunday after attending the ground breaking for the “new” Comiskey Park (surely a name that can’t last, but what are they to call it–“Comiskey Park II,” “Son of Comiskey Park,” “That New Ballyard With the Extra Box Seats So the Owners Can Make More Money”?), and we did so with the full intention of doing a season-ending postmortem on the Bulls. We joined the rest of Western civilization in picking the Cavs in their five-game series. We were surprised but not shocked by the Bulls’ victory in the first game, in Cleveland. The Cavs were without star guard Mark Price in that game, the Bulls were rested and well prepared, and they simply beat them off the ball to win the game. Price was back for the next game, and the Cavs won.
We joined the Bulls for game three by running out to our neighborhood tap, a SportsChannel client. There we saw the Bulls win the game and take the lead in the series, but we also developed our theory on the series: it was that tired old saw, “the Bulls are a better basketball team, but the Cavs have better athletes,” and familiar as that refrain is, it nonetheless appeared to be true.
We joined the Bulls as they opened a 22-point lead, then watched them proceed to blow it as the Cavs closed to within three in the fourth quarter. It was a tremendous game, and watching the Bulls stave off the charging Cavs was like watching a well-coached team of a previous generation somehow brought into the present and cast against a group of today’s superathletes. This was an impression anyone would get from watching the two teams play, and it was emphasized by the Bulls’ lucky all-black sneakers. Bill Cartwright has a very old-generation appearance on the court to begin with. He is not the natural athlete that Brad Daugherty, his Cleveland counterpart, is, and he knows this. In his antiquated black sneakers and trudging, hardworking aspect, he appears in every way to have just stepped out of an old black-and-white highlight film, where he had been playing with John Havlicek. Jordan, too, has classic looks. When he wears black sneakers, his greatness is somehow emphasized–he looks like one of the all-timers, with his characteristic low gait in which his shoes barely seem to leave the floor except when he’s leaping. Cartwright appears to have stepped out of a highlight film, but with Jordan it’s like watching a highlight film from bygone days as it’s being recorded.
Delightful as this fantasy is, it doesn’t win basketball games. How the Bulls won this one a week ago Wednesday–and how they won last Sunday–is still something of a mystery. The Cavs would bring it down and pass it in to Larry Nance or John “Hot Rod” Williams–their two monster forwards–and they would blow past our slight forwards, Horace Grant or Scottie Pippen or Brad Sellers, with Cartwright or Dave Corzine standing helplessly nearby, and then jam the ball through the hoop; anyone watching the game had to wonder why they weren’t capable of doing that every time down the court. (The answer is fine defense the rest of the time by those same players.) Price was having an off night in game three, but he was joined by Ron Harper in the Cleveland backcourt, and he’s a great player too. The Cavs had the edge at every position except one, and they turned up the pace of the game in the second half as the two teams went racing from end to end like hockey players in the Stanley Cup final. (The best thing about the SportsChannel–aside from forcing cheapskates like ourselves out to their local pubs–is that, as a cable channel, it doesn’t have to pressure the league to insert television time-outs into the action, and when two teams get to racing one another to test who has the better athletes, that race can go on for a while.) It was a pace that prohibited note taking, but I paused to cite a terrific scoop layup by Jordan off an errant alley-oop pass, then wrote, as the fourth quarter began: “We’re tired, out-manned, out-athleted–can we hold on?”
Yes, they could, with Grant and Pippen out-muscling and -hustling their Cleveland opponents for an amazing 28 rebounds between them, and with Cartwright–even more amazingly–stripping the ball from Harper on the dribble in the closing moments to send Jordan on the way to a jam that gave the Bulls a seven-point lead they held at the end of the game.
Yet the game had the flavor of autumn in it–that last gasp of a team overextended and about to collapse. Our thinking was that coach Doug Collins (newly and poorly recoiffed with a haircut that makes him look like a second-grader ready for the class picture) was doing a great job preparing the Bulls, from a purely strategic standpoint, and they therefore were playing better as a team, but that the Cavs–with their superior athletic skills–would recover faster, and that skill and not teamwork would tell in the last two games, both of which would be played with only one day’s rest, and the second after a plane trip.
We were quite plainly too anxious to watch Friday’s game, which the Cavs won when Jordan missed a free throw that would have put the Bulls three points up in the closing seconds. The Cavs exploited the opportunity, made the final basket in regulation, and sent the game into overtime. There the Bulls lost–leaving the court one by one with foul trouble as if it were an epidemic–sending them back to Cleveland.
“Hot Rod” Williams started his second straight game in game five, as the Cavs continued to try to exploit their greater size. The Cavs, however, did not try to blow the Bulls out at the beginning. Both teams appeared to be holding something in reserve throughout the first half, as if neither believed it could gain and hold a big lead against the other and was simply biding time until later. Yet the Cavs led after each quarter, and when Nance stripped Brad Sellers on a dunk attempt in the third frame we wrote down that it was the symbol of the series.
For the fourth quarter, we turned off the sound on the television and turned up the radio for the play-by-play by hometown pair Jim Durham and Johnny “Red” Kerr. The Cavs, here, were armed with two players we designated as “Bull-killers”: Craig Ehlo (does he score against anyone else in the league but the Bulls?) and Price, a well-known and historical antagonist who led Georgia Tech over Illinois in a regional final in 1984 or ’85. Here the Cavs came out strong, but twice Horace Grant slipped through their rebounding defenses to tip in stray shots–one of which saved a miserable, tired attempt by Jordan that completely missed the rim. Cartwright, meanwhile, was playing one of his best games of the year, and he took Daugherty down low on one play and went strong to the hoop. Daugherty fell, trying to draw the charge, but the referees slapped him with a foul instead, and the shot went down to tie the score. Cartwright, however, missed the free throw.
As did Jordan–time and again. His weariness was on display at the free-throw line, where he couldn’t pull himself together enough to go through the precise motions required to get the ball up and through the hoop. Once in action, however, he was amazing, a body in motion–even a tired body–tending to stay in motion. He had an outstanding second half.
With three minutes left, Cartwright suddenly left his man open to double-team the ball on defense, and the gamble paid off, as we got the ball and scored to stay tied. Then he gave us the lead at 94-93 with a remarkable acrobatic tip-in–most unlike him. The Cavs came back and scored, but then we took a two-point lead as Jordan, double-teamed, found Pippen open for a three-pointer. Ehlo the Bull-killer came back with a three of his own, however, to put the Cavs up 98-97, and after a couple tense sequences we had the ball with the same score and 19 seconds left.
Jordan took the shot, of course, and of course he made it, with six seconds left, but then the Cavs called a time-out and ran a heart-wrenching play. The Bulls were set up in a solid man-on-man defense, but the Cavs beat it with the oldest play in the book, the give-and-go. Ehlo passed in and ran straight for the hoop, catching a return pass on the way and laying the ball in.
Three seconds left. The Cavs did not guard Pippen, who was passing the ball inbounds, and instead put two men on Jordan. The shot we never grew tired of watching, through the postgame, the late-night news shows, the sports extras; but what was really rewarding, time and again, was watching Jordan get open while being guarded by two men. He cut out, toward center court, then back in, between the two, where Pippen delivered the ball, then a few quick dribbles to the free-throw line and the shot. Ehlo was one of the men on him, and the confrontation was a classic. As the ball went up and toward the hoop he went spinning out of the play, like Darth Vader at the end of Star Wars, and the ball went in.
There’s no doubt a temptation to make too much of this shot. Jordan saved himself and the Bulls after almost costing them game four (almost costing them the game while scoring 50 points, that is), and losing this series would have meant the team would have fallen well short of its achievements of last year. Jordan–who expects excellence of himself and his teammates and who appears to, as such, have a tendency toward disillusionment–might have reacted poorly to early retirement in the play-offs. That’s overdramatizing the situation, however, and besides, the point is now moot. The Bulls have already gone as far as they went last year. They did so against dramatically improved competition, because they themselves are improved. All fans of the Bulls must now grant–as they should have granted all along–that the Bulls have a fine coach, a good center, two rising young forwards, and the best player in the league. But that sounds too much like the postmortem we were expecting to write.
As for the series with the New York Knicks, Cartwright plays well against Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley comes home for a final test of last spring’s trade, and Jordan–well, Jordan will have to provide more last-second shots like the one of last Sunday.