| almanac | nba finals | ncaa final four | chamberlain | jordan
Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz - 1998
By Jeff Ryan
The crush was expected, but no less frightening. Michael Jordan tried to maneuver through the throng of reporters jammed into a corridor of Salt Lake City's Delta Center, a body-on-body experience that made the Jazz's bruising double-teams seem like an herbal massage by comparison. Panic was evident on so many faces--but not on Jordan's. As frightened people shrieked and bulky television cameras came dangerously close to whacking the most famous shaven head on the planet, Jordan just kept on smiling.
Moments earlier he had made three marvelous plays in a 32-second span and lifted the Bulls to an incredibly dramatic -- even by Jordanian standards -- 87-86 win over the Jazz for a third straight NBA title and sixth in eight years. Now we know why Jordan was so surprisingly upbeat after Chicago tossed Game 5 into a United Center dumpster that was supposed to haul away the streamers and confetti. It was as though Jordan could sense what would happen two nights later. His sixth sense isn't for the basket. That's sense 5A. The sixth sense is knowing how to build on his legend.
"He's a real-life hero," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. "I think that was the best performance I've ever seen from Michael Jordan."
Just when it appeared the Jazz had regained the momentum after Game 5, and a zany series might have a chance at becoming a classic, or at least a seven-gamer, the Bulls jammed on the brakes faster than John Stockton with his lane closed off and dug their heels into the floor like Scottie Pippen preparing to draw a charge. Close game. Jordan on the floor having to come up even bigger than usual because a painful back was limiting Pippen. You could smell how this one might end. And sure enough, any hope of Utah's first title in its 24-year history was knocked away like another deflected Jazz pass.
But afterward, the Bulls' collective sigh of relief packed more power than El Nino.
"It's bittersweet in the sense that this is the toughest challenge we had in the six championships," Jordan said. "Some people didn't expect us to fulfill it. That was part of the challenge. I was more competitive this year than I ever was because of the bumps in the road."
It was a rough one, all right. Which is fitting, for throughout the season, whenever there wasn't an obstacle positioned between the Bulls and a three-peat repeat, they created one. A conspiracy theorist would swear the calculating Jordan planned all these minefields -- maybe during those thrice-weekly workouts at his home gym with Pippen and Ron Harper -- to maintain his team's interest and make what could prove to be its farewell tour of this Bulls' nucleus much more impressive.
Because, let's face it, the Greatest Show on Hardwood had lost much of its sexiness. The Bulls were always part-basketball and part-soap opera, but the act was short on new material. Dennis Rodman had run out of ways to reinvent himself. The emotionally fragile Toni Kukoc had become more basketballer than basket case. Jordan hadn't punched anybody in practice in a long time, and the heavier Jackson got into his Zen philosophy for the microphones, the heavier our eyelids got.
So this season, Chicago acted vulnerable. It won only nine of its first 16 games. Before he returned in midseason from foot surgery, Pippen vowed that he had played his last game for Chicago. Distractions? Jackson's rumored replacement, Iowa State coach Tim Floyd was said to already be choosing a staff. The Bulls lost 20 games and, with them, home-court advantage. They went the limit with the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals. Then, before the Utah series, one of the greatest winners in sports history left mouths agape when he uncharacteristically mentioned the possibility of losing.
"You can't win every time," Jordan said. "I can deal with losing. I just don't want to lose."
If we haven't learned by now, whatever Jordan wants, he gets. He averaged 33.5 points for the Finals and, along with Pippen, Harper and Rodman, played hellacious defense.
Though he altered his offensive game -- grounding his aerial attack in favor of an almost unstoppable midrange fadeaway jumper -- as a concession to age, Jordan hasn't changed his defensive mind-set. He was tenacious during the Finals, a remarkable testament to a player who has won every honor there is but still pushes himself to the physical limit as though he's a rookie trying to crack the starting five. And nothing short of heroics was required on defense because the Bulls shot poorly from the floor (37 percent in Game 4 and 38.7 in Game 5).
Before the charges he took from Karl Malone finally caught up to his back last Sunday night, Pippen was playing a defensive series for the ages, doing everything from harassing the bulkier Malone to enveloping the smaller Stockton. Still, the Jazz eked out an 83-81 win in Game 5 in Chicago and showed they could win even when their offense couldn't run its pick-and-roll with precision.
The Chicago Police Department took precautions to prevent any out-of-control celebrating on the night of Game 5, and so did the Jazz. While the cops sealed off the downtown area, Bryon Russell and Shandon Anderson sealed off Jordan's route to the basket. The men in blue let it be known that nobody would be running around with a champagne bottle in his hand in the middle of Rush Street, and the men in purple made it clear that nobody would be partying like that in the Bulls' locker room, either.
The Jazz turned on that extra burst of speed chasing loose balls and crashed the boards with more attitude and altitude than they had in the first four games. Utah was determined to sneak a win out the doors of United Center before the security guards realized it was missing. By the time it dawned on MJ and the fellas what had happened, they'd be hearing their last boarding call for the flight back to Salt Lake City.
Just get it back to Utah. That was the mantra. The Jazz viewed a return home to 19,111 delirious Delta Center diehards as a situation where anything was possible. The Bulls took it as yet another challenge. It's hard to recall an NBA Finals that suffered from multiple personality disorder the way this one did. Sometimes, the series looked like the exclamation point on a Chicago dynasty, and other times it has appeared certain to be a behind-the-back passing of the torch.
The Bulls were in trouble. No, wait, the Jazz were on their deathbed. Say what? Utah woke up and pulled the intravenous tube out of its arm? And now Chicago just put them back in a coma?
The level of play was often so ugly that it was hard to believe Chicago and Utah were the NBA's elite. We were quickly reminded, though, when the Jazz's offense finally ran with its advertised precision or the Bulls' defense displayed a sustained excellence the league had never before seen.
"I knew the Bulls were a great defensive team, but they've exceeded my expectations," said Hall of Fame coach and ESPN analyst Dr. Jack Ramsay. "They're so versatile. I can't think of any team in history that has defended as well as them. All that talk about this possibly being the Bulls' last dance was in the forefront of their minds and you saw it in the defensive intensity."
Said former NBA player and Washington Wizards TV analyst Phil Chenier, "When the Bulls decide to turn up the defense, everyone is on the same page. There are no weak leaks. And the Bulls have more versatile players. Utah didn't have people who can create on the fly like Jordan and Pippen."
No, but it did have the Mailman, the superstar who was supposed to lift Utah, even singlehandedly if nothing else was working. Return to sender. Although Chicago occasionally showed its crow's feet, Malone started the series displaying feet of clay. He finished strongly, scoring 39 and 31 points in the last two games, but averaged only 20 in the first four games, well below his season average of 27 and the 30 points per game he hung on the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
"Malone's problem was that he's a dependent player," says Quinn Buckner, ESPN analyst and former player and coach. "It's hard for a dependent guy to take a team on his shoulders.
"The Bulls also did a good job making John Stockton ineffective. Stockton likes to pass on a dime to Malone on the blocks. The passing angles weren't there, and Karl had to work harder to get in position for the ball."
"Malone should have taken more shots in the series," Ramsay says. "Everybody said he was choking, but he was playing within the team game the Jazz use. It just didn't work."
"This Bulls' championship was impressive," says Hall of Famer and NBC analyst Bill Walton, "because the same intangibles that have separated them from the rest of the league for so many years were now the same factors that described the Jazz: team chemistry, mental toughness, physical defense, versatility, and home-court advantage. The Bulls have had to play a lot of games this decade to win those titles. That's what wears down championship teams. You never know at what point they're going to break down, but the Bulls held up."
Special teams do extraordinary things. In addition to their NBA Finals record-setting 42-point win in Game 3, the Bulls bucked several trends. Among them:
-- Winning a best-of-seven playoff series after dropping the first game. Entering the Finals, that had occurred only 21.5 percent of the time in the NBA.
-- Capturing a best-of-seven series without enjoying home-court advantage. That had been done only 24.7-percent of the time.
-- Avoiding the rematch jinx. The previous five times that teams had matched up in the Finals two years in a row, the loser of the initial meeting gained revenge in the sequel.
"I think that was a plus, not a minus," Jordan said of the grueling series with Indiana. Could we have expected him to think otherwise? Of course it was a plus. Champions don't get softened by combat. They get sharpened. When all seemed lost in the final minute of Game 6, Jordan drove in for a layup to cut the Jazz lead to one, stole a pass to Malone 18 seconds later, then nailed the jump shot he'll forever be remembered for with 5.2 seconds remaining.
As for the Jazz, well, they have bad haircuts, a couple of them wear short shorts that went out of style in the 1980s, their team name makes no sense and their mascot is even more annoying than their pregame fireworks display. But they gave Chicago the fight of their dynasty. The Jazz never imploded following the Game 3 debacle, the most humiliating night anyone has had in Chicago since Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone's vault. And Utah made the Bulls strain themselves and Jordan work particularly hard to create his shots. Before the Bulls could extend their index fingers triumphantly toward the sky, they had had to get their hands very dirty. Their bodies will feel this series for a long time to come.
Some Utah fans tossed coins at the Bulls as they left the court at halftime and at the conclusion of Game 2. Will Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and vice president of basketball operations Jerry Krause now throw bills at them? When the mood struck them during the season, Jordan and Pippen liked to shout at Krause on the team bus, breaking the monotony of another long ride -- and the VP's chops at the same time. Now, they can yell down at him from the throne. And about three million Chicagoans have already chosen sides in these negotiations.
Six rings. Six Finals MVP Awards. And Jordan acknowledges that he has set yet another standard by fighting off all the pesky challengers once more. He says an NBA title won by some other franchise after he is retired will be instantly devalued because "they didn't beat Michael."
From a celebration standpoint, the Bulls' failure to clinch at home, where courtside seats were being scalped for $15,000, was a huge disappointment. Jordan, however, hadn't played anything like the greatest player in the world in Game 5. Even in victory, the perfectionist would have felt a bit unfulfilled. He needed Game 6. He walked through that corridor beaming afterward because if this was indeed his finale, he exited knowing he had been Michael Jordan at the end and had even created what probably will be remembered as his defining moment.
In this most demanding and draining of seasons, when the threats even came from unexpected directions, there was probably another reason the Bulls were meant to win the crown on the road. Clad in red, they could hide the bloodstains.
Jeff Ryan is a writer based in New York.
© 2002 SportingNews.com