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Remembering Michael Jordan's (Almost) Last Shot
MJ was a few inches away from a very different Bulls finale.
— A fan’s sign at the United Center, Game 5 of the 1998 NBA Finals
Michael Jordan’s final shot as a Chicago Bull is one of the most famous sequences in the history of sports.
Just saying those words — “Michael Jordan’s final shot” — evokes not just imagery but emotions. We all remember seeing MJ strip the ball from Karl Malone with the Bulls trailing by a point, the clock ticking down on the season, the realization that Phil Jackson would not call timeout, that Michael was going to keep the ball, a chance to wrap all-things-dynastic then and there.
Which he did.
The nudge of Bryon Russell. The cross. The pull-up. The pose.
Bulls 87, Jazz 86. MJ with 45 points.
The Last Shot. It deserves capitalization.
The shot he took two nights prior did not.
Yes, Michael Jordan’s last shot nearly happened at the United Center, though one borne of a prayer, not of strict control. Let’s go back to Game 5, on June 12, 1998, the final home game of the dynasty — and a night when MJ took a potential championship-winning shot away from Toni Kukoc.
The Great Jordan Game That Wasn’t
This is a really interesting moment because perhaps it gives insight into Jordan’s frame of mind around the dynasty run — and gives a tip of the cap to the greater forces at play in sports. No, I am not talking about the NBA and NBC salivating over yet another night of record-setting viewership in the NBA Finals (though that certainly was delivered).
I am talking about the sports gods giving us an ending to Michael Jordan’s Bulls career that felt appropriate to the man himself.
Late in Game 5, Michael was struggling. He shot just 1 of 7 from the floor in the 4th quarter, en route to a solid yet unspectacular 28 points. In 35 career NBA Finals games, MJ led the Bulls in scoring 32 times. The most notable game where he did not lead the team in scoring was the 1991 clincher, in which he had 30 on a beautiful shooting night, just shy of Scottie Pippen’s 32.
The other big one was on this night, in 1998, in which a sizzling Toni Kukoc scored 30 on 11 of 13 from the field, including 4 of 6 from three, and had a chance at a legendary highlight until Jordan interceded.
After losing Game 1 in overtime, the Bulls had ripped off three straight wins, including the epic beatdown of Game 3. Game 5 was a chance to end the series, win another championship in front of the home fans and give Chicago a chance to celebrate the final night of the dynasty at home.
The game didn’t shake out that way, and when we entered the 4th quarter, we trailed by four. For the Bulls, Game 5 was defined by two 4th quarter performances. Kukoc and Jordan led the Bulls with eight points apiece, but while Jordan struggled from the field and scored six of his eight points at the line, Kukoc took just three shots — both three-pointers — and hit two of them, and added two points at the foul line.
In fact, the game seemed to be finished with 10.4 seconds remaining and the Jazz up 82-78. But Kukoc — who had missed a free throw the possession before that would have made it a one-point game — hit a three to cut the Jazz lead to one, 82-81.
Jeff Hornacek then split a pair at the line, and the Bulls had the ball down two with 1.1 seconds remaining, and a chance for a thrilling finish.
The final play would, it seemed, go to Kukoc. But he would not take the final shot.
Toni’s play — and MJ’s interception
If not for The Last Shot, Michael Jordan’s second run with the Bulls might have been best defined by a pair of high-profile assists.
First, there was the game-winning assist to Bill Wennington in his 5th game back from baseball, in which the Knicks doubled MJ because, after all, he had 55 points.
This led to a wonderfully honest post-game quote from Jordan, who described the play thusly:
“I’d be lying if I said I was coming out to pass the ball. I was coming out to score, but then Patrick came over to help and I saw Bill.”
The other assist was his series-winner to Steve Kerr in the 1997 Finals, also at home. This too was an example of MJ making the best possible play: in the huddle before the possession, Kerr and Jordan famously plotted that if a double-team came to MJ, Kerr would be the release valve.
He was, and he delivered. Finals-winning shot for Kerr, Finals-winning assist for Jordan.
Obviously Jordan had the game winner in Game 1 of the ‘97 Finals — the famous turn-and-fist-up celebration (also over Bryon Russell) — and he had various other winners in the second three-peat, along with the super clutch three at the end of the Flu Game.
But he did not have anything on the level of a Finals-winning shot. And if he’d followed the play Phil diagrammed at the end of Game 5 of the ‘98 Finals — and if that play had been successful as drawn — he would not have.
Jordan’s “cute” moment
So what happened in that Game 5 conclusion?
Well, the Bulls had the ball with 1.1 seconds remaining, with Ron Harper inbounding, and Jordan, Kukoc, Kerr and Scott Burrell on the floor, since Pippen had fouled out.
With the 7’2 Greg Ostertag defending the pass, Harper’s visibility and his angles were impeded. Harper tried to make a pass straight down the sideline to Steve Kerr — an odd move, considering Kerr’s strength was not in his ability to catch, elevate over defenders, turn in the air and shoot. He was a catch-and-shoot with feet set kind of a shooter.
John Stockton knocked the ball away, there were 0.3 seconds on the clock, and the officials reset to 0.8.
Next attempt: same personnel, Harper still inbounding. And according to Phil Jackson, the ball was going to Kukoc:
I actually diagrammed the last play of the game for Toni Kukoc, who had shot 11-for-13 from the field. As much as I wanted Michael to have that crowning glory, I figured it was a wonderful time to use him as a decoy. And Michael wasn't bothered by that.
But the Jazz threw Greg Ostertag on Ron Harper when he inbounded, and Harp couldn't see. I might have used Pippen, because he’s taller, but he had fouled out and I had nobody else tall who was used to doing it. So Harper got the ball to Michael.
“And Michael wasn’t bothered by that.”
I do wonder about that.
MJ had immense respect for Toni’s ability to hit the final shot, something he’d talked about as early as 1993, during his retirement and Kukoc’s rookie year. If Kukoc hit the shot, not only would he be the hero, but Michael would have no involvement in what could have been the final play of his Bulls career.
As seen in the replay, the play as designed looks like it would have worked. Karl Malone was defending Kukoc, and Kukoc beat him to his spot. He was open, and MJ pretty clearly darted in front of him to take the pass instead. He then air balled.
Michael had that off-balance three-point shot from the right corner to win it. Not a great shot, but a shot. Afterward, he talked about how much he enjoyed that. It was a Hail Mary shot, and he had a very Zen-like comment about it. He said the moment was "cute." He was the mistress of the moment, and he was fascinated by it. If that had been the winning shot, it would have been like cheating the Devil, or God. For him to go right on to another chapter, another critical game, was remarkable.
I love that idea: that Jordan winning the championship on that shot would have been a cheat. That’s exactly how it felt at the time. I remember being almost relieved that he missed it — we would live to see a more appropriate conclusion.
From a nuts-and-bolts perspective, I would love to know what Jordan and Harper each saw on that play — if Jordan thought that Kukoc was not going to break free, so he broke toward Harper, and if Harper’s view was indeed blocked for the Kukoc pass and he adjusted to Jordan at the last moment.
A world where Toni Kukoc hits the championship winner in the final game of the Bulls dynasty does not have nearly the same mythical feel.
A world where MJ hits the championship winner with an off-balance, last-second, desperation three does not either.
In the end, I’m happy the way it turned out: Game 6 in Utah is one of the all-time great mythological battles, and Michael’s final sequence — the layup, steal, jumper — was a perfect conclusion to his Bulls career.
But my oh my, what might have been.
(Photo at top of page by Jeff Haynes, for Getty Images, found here)
In case you missed it:
The Richard Esquinas interview.
Did you miss my Richard Esquinas interview? This is the San Diego sports executive who wrote the book Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction… My Cry for Help! in 1993, which became a huge controversy for MJ and re-opened the league’s investigation into his gambling.
I tracked down Esquinas in early 2019 and spent 14 months getting him to agree to go on the record — his first interview on the subject since 1993.
Paid subscribers to “A Shot On Ehlo” got to read last week the most comprehensive breakdown anywhere of MJ’s gambling with regards to the Esquinas affair, along with a full Q&A with Esquinas.
Thank you to Ernest Wilkins for running an exclusive excerpt, and an interview.
Upgrade to a paid subscription and read the Esquinas interview! With more exclusive content to come.