The above image is an iconic one in NBA history: Michael Jordan shoving Bryon Russell into obscurity and draining the game-winning shot for ring number six. How many times have you seen this picture? How many times have you watched the shot? How many times did you practice this exact shot outside your house or on the playground as a kid? For me, it was millions of times. This shot was the storybook ending to Michael Jordan’s illustrious career regardless of what he did in Washington. It’s one of the greatest shots, if not the greatest shot, in NBA history. What makes this shot even more incredible to me is the story behind the game. If you’ve never watched Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, it’s available on YouTube here.It isn’t one of Michael’s finest statistical games – he only recorded 1 rebound, 1 assist, and only shot nearly 43% from the field – but to me, it’s one of the defining games of his career. The game starts off well with Pippen recording a dunk, but unfortunately, he injured his back and wasn’t the same the rest of the game. He played only 26 minutes that night and recorded 8 points. In fact, the Bulls only had two players in double figures that game: Jordan and Toni Kukoc, whom recorded 15 points. The reliable Steve Kerr never even took a shot in 24 minutes of action. The Bulls had all of 11 bench points that game. The balanced Utah Jazz were playing in their deafening arena and this series looked like a lock to go to Game 7.
But the greatest player of all-time intervened.
This seems like a good time to point out a few things: 1) Michael Jordan was 35 years old at this time and the 2nd three-peat Bulls were running on fumes. 2) Michael Jordan had played most of the season with a torn ligament in his right index finger 3) Again, Scottie Pippen hurt himself the very first play of the game and actually only played 44 games that year due to injuries and anger towards Jerry Krause. How could this Bulls team overcome these odds and win this game, much less this series, without Scottie Pippen? It had to be impossible right? Somebody forgot to tell Michael Jordan.
Michael Jordan finished with 45 points that night – 23 in the first half, 22 in the second half. Watch the final 3 minutes of the game. Jordan just simply decided to leave it all on the court. He misses a three, produces an incredible steal, and then tries to create something before Rodman gets called for an offensive foul. You’ll see that as a recurring theme throughout the end of this game: Jordan, who had 16 points in the fourth quarter, keeps trying to create something, but it just seems like the tank is empty. To make things worse, he bangs his knee on John Stockton, who tried to draw a charge, and limped out of the timeout. The Bulls dynasty looked over.
Then he steps up and drains both free-throws.
The final 59.2 seconds are a thing of beauty. Stockton nails a three to put the Jazz up 86-83 and it looks like Game 7 is merely a formality. 41.9 seconds left and Jordan takes the inbounds pass, drives past Bryon Russell and hits a difficult layup in the paint. The Bulls are down only 1 with 34 seconds remaining. And here comes a familiar sequence. One in which Phil Jackson told Michael Jordan simply, “Beautiful.” It’s one of the finest sequences in basketball history and if you could put Michael Jordan’s career into one sequence, this is it: Defensive excellence, offensive brilliance, and pure will. Watch as Malone posts up, Jordan cheats off, and then punches the ball right out of his hands and just takes the ball as Karl Malone crumbles to the ground. 19 seconds left and Jordan drives up the court and everyone in the arena knew what was coming. Everyone was standing. Jordan drives, gives Russell a gentle shove that you could see on the subsequent replays, but would be difficult to see from Dick Bavetta’s point of view, and hits the wide open shot holding his form in the iconic photo shown above.
Ultimately, it was the game winning shot and sealed championship number six for the Chicago Bulls. Jordan finished with 45 points. The next closest Bull was Kukoc with 15. Pippen and Harper finished with 8 and then Rodman with 7. Jordan literally dragged this aging Chicago Bulls team, a team on fumes, to championship number six. It is one of the finest performances of Michael Jordan’s storied career and one that often only gets remembered for the final shot. But the game in it’s entirety should be considered iconic. It was the personification of Michael Jordan’s legacy: Excellence, a competitiveness that set him apart from any of his peers and still does today, and that left him standing above the competition.
The more I watch of Michael Jordan and the more I notice the nuances that made him unique, the more I’m certain we will never see another player like Michael Jordan. He was truly one of a kind.