There were 18 seconds left to play, the Bulls were up a point in Orlando against the Magic, and the ball was in Michael Jordan’s hands. Moving low to the ground and in that distinctively fluid, floppy fashion of his, he dribbled past Nick Anderson and across center court. At that moment, however, everyone watching in the stands and on television saw what was about to happen–everyone, that is, except Jordan. It was a trap, a designed play called a “backwash” (in the terminology of basketball analyst and former coach Dick Versace on Channel Five later that night). Anderson let Jordan go by, but then followed in his wake, and at the instant Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway stepped out from his man to halt Jordan, Anderson reached out and swiped at the ball, sending it right into Hardaway’s hands. Hardaway dribbled around Jordan, the Bulls’ Toni Kukoc backpedaled into place between Hardaway and the hoop, and Hardaway delivered a crisp pass to Horace Grant cutting down the far wing for a slam dunk.
Horace Grant, former Bull, signed with the Magic last summer after a series of conflicts with owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause. If there was a pivotal moment in the series–if there was a pivotal moment in any of the six games–Grant was there, sinking an open jump shot, pulling down a necessary rebound, swatting away a layup, or, yes, finishing a fast break with a dunk over the flailing arms of Kukoc.
Up until that point, the first game of the best-of-seven conference semifinals between the Bulls and the Magic had gone according to plan. The Bulls had lulled the Magic into sloppy play after falling eight points behind early in the fourth quarter. They tightened the defense and closed on the lead. Jordan had not played well, but he made a beautiful baseline drive to bring the Bulls within one, and then Kukoc put the Bulls up with a lovely long alley-oop pass to Scottie Pippen for a slam dunk. When the Magic failed to score the Bulls held the ball with 18 seconds to play.
Was it hubris when Jordan–who had finished so many pressure games so well–would not pick up his dribble, not even when double-teamed? Was it because of age–not necessarily diminished hearing that kept Jordan from heeding his teammates’ warnings, but slowed reflexes and diminished reaction time–that he failed to notice the trap? Whatever, it was the worst mistake under pressure in Jordan’s career, before or after his comeback. He had emphasized, time and again, that he was no god returned to earth. But that single mistake achieved what mere words had been unable to: it established Jordan’s mortality, once and for all.
Still, if Jordan is mortal he is no mere mortal, and in the wake of that crushing defeat he came back as only he can, leading the Bulls to a series-tying victory in Orlando with a 38-point performance, making 11 of 13 shots from the field in the second half. Of course, even Jordan needed a little help psyching himself up after game one, so he returned–forevermore, one assumes–to his old number, 23. For a few days, that created the sort of off-court controversy that has frequently followed the Bulls through the playoffs. By the end of the six-game series, however, it was forgotten by everyone but those who had invested in truckloads of number 45 Bulls jerseys.
The defensive key to that game two victory was the Bulls’ renewed synchronicity in their double-teaming scheme. In their first-round playoff triumph over Charlotte, most basketball writers had given the Hornets the edge in individual matchups. Yet the Bulls had confounded Charlotte by switching Jordan onto five-foot-five point guard Muggsy Bogues on defense. This allowed Jordan to follow Bogues’s entry pass to low-post center Alonzo Mourning and poach on the double team. The Hornets never really solved that scheme, as Bogues couldn’t flow to the hoop because of his size and he never shot well enough from outside to make the Bulls pay. Again, against the Magic, most writers gave Orlando the edge in individual matchups, with clear advantages at point guard, with Hardaway, and at center, with Shaquille O’Neal, and a probable advantage at power forward (no one then knew how overwhelming an edge) with Grant. The Bulls once more hoped to overcome ability with tactics, and in game two they were sharp in double-teaming O’Neal, with Pippen coming across the lane and–this was the difference from game one–either Jordan or Kukoc then flowing into place opposite Grant, to pick off or inhibit the pass from O’Neal.
As Jordan put it, under less favorable circumstances after game five, “What we try to do is everybody moves on a string–when one guy moves, the next guy moves, the next guy moves,” etc.
The key sequence in the series, then, came at the start of game three back here in Chicago. In addition to their double-teaming of O’Neal, the Bulls came up with a new wrinkle. B.J. Armstrong was assigned to guard Hardaway, and Hardaway dribbled past him time and again–but that was what the Bulls wanted. Pippen, guarding Grant in his normal location at the top of the key, switched off to take Hardaway whenever he got past Armstrong, creating the matchups the Bulls really wanted, with Armstrong flowing into place opposite Grant. When Hardaway then made the entry pass to O’Neal in the low post, it would be Armstrong who came across the lane to double-team him, with Kukoc flowing into place opposite Grant. The Magic were confounded, and the Bulls quickly went up 20-10. But Magic coach Brian Hill, who did a marvelous job all series at spotting what the Bulls were doing and finding ways to reassert his matchup advantages, simply brought Grant down closer to the hoop, making it nearly impossible for Pippen to switch off when Hardaway beat Armstrong off the dribble. The Magic rallied and tied the Bulls at 46 midway through the second quarter before pulling ahead.
Game three offered the most sustained and beautiful basketball of the series. The first half was a dunkfest, with both teams flying back and forth. At one point Kukoc attempted an alley-oop pass to Jordan–from half court on a fast break. Jordan was fouled on that play but he made the two free throws, and otherwise he was his old 23 self. In the second quarter he dribbled around a screen as O’Neal picked him up on the double team. Jordan then dribbled away from the basket and O’Neal retreated. Jordan then beat his man off the dribble, followed on the heels of O’Neal down the lane, and jammed over O’Neal before he could turn and contest the shot. Jordan had 29 at the half.
In the third quarter, with Jordan performing a little prestidigitation on a reverse lay-in driving through a triple team, the Bulls managed to reclaim the lead. But with the score 86-80 early in the fourth quarter, Kukoc turned the ball over on a three-on-one fast break. The Magic scored on the next possession, and what would have been an eight-point lead was back to four. Coach Phil Jackson was enraged, and the Bulls never really reclaimed the initiative. They had been running the ball up throughout the game, attacking the Magic before they could set up their defense, but now the Bulls just went flat. The Magic were the younger team, and it showed. They outscored the Bulls 17-4 down the stretch to take the lead in the series with a 110-101 victory.
Once Orlando made the adjustment of moving Grant closer to the hoop, the Bulls never found a crisp way to double-team O’Neal. For one thing, Simeon High School alum Nick Anderson, former Georgia Tech star Dennis Scott, and former Boston Celtic Brian Shaw (the unheralded hero of the third game) all kept the Bulls honest with their outside shooting. And in the third game especially, O’Neal went to the hoop before the Bulls could overmatch him with numbers in answer to his seven-foot, 300-pound bulk; he finished with a team-high 28 points. In the interview room afterward, O’Neal said, “My mother told me, Grandma told me–stop waiting for the double team.” He rested his elbows on the table, the better to show off the Superman logo tattooed on his left bicep, and when someone asked if he thought Jordan had looked tired in the fourth quarter, he responded, “I don’t think Michael ever gets tired. I think he’s the real Superman, and I’m just Superboy.” That was typical of the humble confidence the Magic displayed throughout.
In a losing effort, Jordan had finished with 40 after scoring 29 in the first half, so in game four he let his teammates get started. The Magic meanwhile suffered through their worst sequence of the series, at one point turning the ball over on seven straight possessions. Kukoc went off like a rocket. When he left the game late in the first quarter to rest he already had eight points, four assists, three steals, and two rebounds, and the Bulls held a 29-18 lead–all the more impressive in that Jordan had not yet scored. That left him plenty of energy at the finish, and he opened the fourth quarter with a lovely turnaround jumper over Anderson in the lane and then a drive through a double team for a soft-touch lay-in, both of which reestablished double-digit leads. Down the stretch he again drove into a double team, but this time made a cross-court pass to Will Perdue, who swung the ball wide to Kukoc, who hit a three-point field goal–nothing but net–for a 98-91 lead and the game, to even the series at two.
Left open in the Bulls’ double-team scheme, Grant led the Magic with 21 points in that game, but Jackson claimed not to be concerned. “We’re making Horace score and he’s doing it. We’re trying to make him have to handle the ball and do the things in a traffic situation that take all the experience and the poise that he has, and he’s done a great job. He’s hit some shots that are big. And that’s our game plan and we’re going to stick with it.”
Grant again led the Magic in scoring in game five, with 24 points, but this time O’Neal added 23, Dennis Scott 22, and Hardaway 19. Jordan, playing another magnificent game, was high scorer with 39, but among the Bulls only Armstrong and Pippen joined him in double figures, with 18 and 10, and they had to shoot a combined 7 for 18 to get those. Kukoc was a nonfactor, and he looked morose in televised interviews afterward. With Grant leading by example, Orlando remained calm down the stretch and the Magic won the critical fifth game, 103-95.
That led to game six at the United Center a week ago Thursday. The Bulls by this time were clearly the older, more weary team; their double-teaming had been lax in the previous game. And the Magic were determined not to let the Bulls slow the pace. Orlando hit everything in the early going. They had 25 midway through the first quarter–a 200-point pace–and the Bulls had to run to keep up.
Even so, they did, and at one point Jordan came down on a three-on-one fast break, went up far from the hoop, and though his legs had repeatedly failed him on this move ever since his return, this time he got there, jamming the ball to get the Bulls within four at 25-21. The Bulls seemed to respond to this–the crowd certainly did–and when Jordan hit a shot over Anderson in the lane, Chicago moved in front, 32-31. The Bulls went on to claim the first-quarter lead at 36-31. And the second quarter brought another of those vintage Jordan moments as he drove the lane, bounced off O’Neal, and tossed a blind shot up and into the basket. That gave the Bulls the lead again, at 57-55, but it was only temporary. The Magic went on to claim a 63-61 advantage at halftime.
Both teams looked ugly in the third quarter. The thinking was simple for the Bulls: just win tonight and they’d have two days to rest and prepare one last new wrinkle for game seven Sunday in Orlando. Jordan was shuttled in and out, as he tried to preserve some energy while fighting a virus. But Pippen, after scoring 17 in the first half, seemed increasingly tentative as the game went on. Still, the Bulls opened the fourth quarter strong–at least Jordan did. He hit a fadeaway baseline jumper. When the Bulls came down on a fast break and Jud Buechler choked on a short wide-open jumper, Jordan was there for the tip-in to tie the score at 89. Then–was this the key play?–he stole the ball from Grant (toughing it out after tearing ligaments in his hand on a jump ball in the first half) and drove for a dunk, putting the Bulls up 95-92. A few minutes later Pippen found Armstrong forgotten and wide open in the corner, and Armstrong launched a long, high three-point shot that didn’t seem to want to come down until it dropped through the net, putting the Bulls up 102-94 with just over three minutes to go.
The Bulls would not score again this season.
O’Neal made a hook shot down low, then Anderson hit a three. The former Public League star played his best basketball in the games here in Chicago, and two Orlando free throws (and a Jordan air ball) later his teammates cleared out and let him go one-on-one against Kukoc. In spite of pretty good defense, he hit an 18-foot jumper over Kukoc’s outstretched hand to give the Magic the lead, 103-102, with 43 seconds to play.
After a time-out Jordan came down, drew a triple-team at the free-throw line, passed to Luc Longley under the basket–and Longley missed the bunny. An Orlando free throw later, Jordan again drove and again attempted a pass to Longley–a more difficult bounce pass through traffic–and this too went awry. And that was it.
Grant was lifted high by O’Neal, who later called him the team’s most valuable player, and he waved his towel at the Chicago fans. Afterward he took his seat at the podium in the interview room by saying, “I’m gonna enjoy this,” and added, “I was looking for Jerry Krause in the stands. Is he here?” Asked if he was behaving in a tacky manner, making comments like that and allowing his teammates to lift him onto their shoulders, Grant responded, “You talk to Reinsdorf and Krause about tacky moves. Thank you.”
Yet then he settled down to talk about strategy, and he stressed the Magic’s running game. “It forced them to play 94 feet of defense, and I think they got a little fatigued out there.” More important than tactics, however, was Orlando’s calm state of mind–perhaps Grant’s single greatest contribution to the team. “We just kept our poise,” he said. “We didn’t want to show any emotion out there. Because a team like the Chicago Bulls, when they see you rattled, they go in for a kill.”
The Magic had the look of purpose the Bulls had in the days when they swept the defending champion Detroit Pistons on the way to their first championship. That asceticism had long ago departed the Bulls, an emotional bunch at war with one another when they’re not on the court, a point emphasized at the end by their behavior after the game. No member of the team went to the interview room, not even Jackson. He met with reporters in the hallway outside the Bulls locker room, and he blamed his team more than he credited the Magic. “We couldn’t close the door on them,” he said. “It happened three times in this series. They deserve to win it. They made the shots and made the plays at the end.” But when asked if the better team won, he responded, “The younger team won.”
Longley, a generally gentlemanly and eloquent player, was disconsolate. On track to be the team’s starting center, he began the season with a stress fracture of his left leg in training camp, and he never really recovered from the lost time. After his missed layup and the bad pass from Jordan, he had spent the closing moments of the game on the bench with his hands clasped in front of his face. Asked if it was an excruciating end to an excruciating year, he said, “That’s a good way to put it–a difficult year. It’s been a fun year. I try not to dwell on the negatives too much.
“I don’t have a lot to say, guys, really. It’s the end of the season. It’s a bit of a drag. And I’ve got nothing colorful for you.”
The crowd was thick around Jordan in the locker room, and at first he spoke in quiet tones. “I was disappointed I wasn’t able to gel,” he said. “One thing I underestimated is this team had its own identity before I came here.
“Maybe that was the naivete of coming back, but we hadn’t played together….The expectation was that we’d play together like the team that won three championships. You’ve got to realize, that team was together for five or six years. The expectation for this team was the same as for that team. Maybe that was unfair.
“As much as we tried to ignore that, that’s a very integral part of a successful team, knowing what each and every player’s going to do. That’s a big key down the stretch, and probably a big reason why we couldn’t close ball games.”
Yet after acknowledging that it was his own return that, oddly enough, had established both the team’s ambitions and its limitations, he talked on and on, well over an hour after the game had ended. And as he had so many other times after tough defeats, he talked himself into a sort of confidence. “It’s been fun. It’s been an eye-opening experience,” he said. “There’ve been times I’ve played like my old self and there’ve been times I’ve had to learn.
“I’m never going to feel I’ve conquered the game of basketball to the point I don’t make mistakes. If that’s the case, it’s boring for me. I think I can learn from this just like anybody else. I’m looking forward to next year.”
He made it clear he meant not only all 82 games of the regular season but exhibition games and training camp. “I need training camp,” he said with a smile, before adding, “Every year is not going to be a great year. But hopefully every year is going to be a promising year. That’s the fun part of our business.”
Jordan is 32 years old and will still be 32 when he starts the next season. Babe Ruth was 32 when he hit 60 home runs, and while 1927 major-league baseball and 1995 pro basketball are worlds apart in what they demand of an athlete, it is probably worth adding that Ruth was 37 at the time of his legendary called shot in the 1932 World Series against the Cubs. Jordan may never again approach the standards for sustained performance that he set for himself, but one gets the feeling that his career is not yet close to being over.
The crowd of reporters around his locker gradually diminished, but the lights of at least one TV camera burned on, and Jordan kept talking. “I came back with a dream,” he said, “to win. Is that unrealistic? Now, looking at it, maybe, yeah, because we lost. But at the time…”