June 14, 1998. Michael Jordan's final Bulls game was the best he ever played.
“I could see every player and I remember exactly where they were as I came up the floor. Steve Kerr was in the corner. … Dennis was curling underneath the post on the left. Scottie was on the bottom post on the right. I could hear sounds but it was like white noise. In that moment I couldn’t distinguish one sound from another.”
— Michael Jordan, recalling The Last Shot, Game 6, 1998 NBA Finals
Their heroes could not save them. Like Cassandra, they saw. Eyes pained. Souls scarred. Their dragon a knight. Their knights without steel. Their hands on their heads, on their cheeks, on their mouths. Their shrieks made no sound. Their prayers found no home. Before the ball reached the rim they knew. Before the ball left his hand they knew.
Michael Jordan had done it again.
He was there, same as them, yet not the same at all. He was making history. They were drowning in it. I had to start this story with that photo. That masterpiece of a picture. That photo is history too, but it’s more than history. It’s the quicksand of fandom. The bad break of the wrong birth.
Two nights earlier, the Jazz had made it out of Chicago. Survived and alive. Now they had two games at home. That’s what you play for over 82 — these two games right here.
And on the first play, a break. You don’t like to say it that way, but after the historic dogfight of 1997 and the historic ass-whipping of Game 3, you take the breaks you can get. This break was Scottie Pippen injuring his back on the game’s first points. A dunk, he landed, and a grimace. He would play only 26 minutes, the fewest he played in his 35 career Finals games. He scored just eight points, only two more than his career Finals low, which had come two days prior in Game 5.
But Pippen had 11 boards and 11 assists that game to go with his six points. This night, he had his career Finals low in rebounds, at three, and just four assists. He was playing hurt, and asked out of the game with just five minutes left in the 1st quarter. Ron Harper was playing sick. Toni Kukoc was playing tired: he missed his pre-game nap while watching soccer. Dennis Rodman was struggling in the Finals, averaging 8.4 rebounds per game with just three in Game 5.
“Are you ready to play 48 minutes?” Phil Jackson asked Jordan before the game began.
The GOAT had one answer.
“Whatever it takes.”
I don’t think any athlete in my life has as many signature moments as Michael Jordan. They started his rookie year and never stopped. Went into hyperdrive his second season. When he scored those 63 points in the playoffs against Boston, Larry Bird famously called him “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
Overshadowed is what Bird said about Jordan three days earlier:
“There is no question that Michael Jordan, healthy, is the best basketball player in the league.”
This was Larry Bird talking, the man who by season’s end would have his third ring, his second Finals MVP and would be the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to win three straight NBA MVP awards. Larry Bird, at the height of his powers, said that this 23-year-old was his, and everyone’s, superior.
Hell, rewind to 1984, before Jordan had played even an NBA preseason game, and no less than Bob Knight called Jordan “the best basketball player that I’ve ever seen play.” In his 13 Bulls seasons, Jordan did everything. He could do everything and he accomplished everything. He made you imagine everything and made you believe in everything. When he retired in 1993, he was merely 15th in NBA history in scoring, with “just” nine seasons under his belt, and was already getting GOAT love.
Five years later, when he set foot on the Delta Center court for Game 6, he had the most Finals MVPs in league history (5), the second most MVPs (5), the most scoring titles (10), the highest scoring average in a Finals series (41.0 in 1993) — so many “Mosts” it’s silly to list them, so I’ll just add one more that’s unofficial yet I feel no harm in saying it:
Most signature moments.
The 63. The Free Throw Line. The Shot. The Layup. The Shrug. The Shot Part II. The Double-Nickel. The Flu Game. There are franchises that don’t have that many The’s.
So I don’t know quite what I expected from Jordan in Game 6 of the ‘98 Finals. I just knew that to win the title, we would have to win this game, because a road Game 7 was too close to the flame. I knew that to win this game, we would need one of Jordan’s all-time greats.
And I knew that a Michael Jordan all-time great was something no one but him could envision.
Michael Jordan’s lowest scoring NBA Finals was 1996, in which he averaged 27.3 points. That was as bad as it got for MJ in the Finals, a series in which he averaged more points than these Finals MVPs:
Kareem in ‘71
Hakeem in ‘94
Havlicek in ‘74
Magic in ‘87
Dirk in ‘11
Moses in ‘83
Kareem in ‘85
LeBron in ‘13
Duncan in ‘03
Bird in ‘86
Willis in ‘70
Worthy in ‘88
So when it came to wondering about an all-time MJ night in Utah, what that might look like was anyone’s guess. I certainly did not know. After all, you don’t want to be greedy. You just want to revel in brilliance.
He started slow. Eight points in the first quarter. But in the second, 15, with a half-court three that rimmed out.
In the third, slow again: six points on 2-6 shooting, the Jazz taking a five-point lead into the final quarter.
It was time.
In his final quarter as a Chicago Bull, Michael Jordan produced. Again. And again. Some from the floor, lots from the line. Dragging his body into the paint. Whistle. Foul shots. Swish swish swish. A perfect eight for eight from the stripe, half of his points that quarter.
And with a minute to go he seemed to have not done enough. John Stockton hit a three to give the Jazz a three-point lead: 86-83.
The final minute of this game would mirror my favorite Bulls game ever: Game 6, 1993 Finals. That one had an MJ layup, a 24-second violation for Phoenix and then the all-hands-on-deck final magic: MJ to BJ to MJ to Scottie to Horace to Paxson for three, sealed with Horace’s block on Kevin Johnson.
That game celebrated the power of the team.
This game revealed the team within the man.
Because after Stockton’s three with 41.9 seconds remaining, the only Bull to touch the ball was Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
A fast layup. A remarkable steal on Karl Malone under the basket. And then, at a time when any other coach would have called timeout, a time when any other player would have been eyeing the sideline awaiting a timeout, Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson knew this moment was different:
JORDAN: “I looked up and saw 18.5 seconds left.”
JACKSON: “At that moment, I think we were of one mind.”
JORDAN: “Crowd gets quiet. The moment starts to become The Moment for me. That’s part of that Zen Buddhism stuff.”
JACKSON: “I was waving for him to go down court. I think he saw me out of the corner of his eye waving off a timeout.”
JORDAN: “I felt like we couldn’t call timeout because it would give the defense an opportunity to set up.”
JACKSON: “The flow was the right thing at the moment, so we didn’t want to stop.”
You know what happened next. With his teammates fanned out, with Stockton unable to double because of Kerr’s series-winner the year before, MJ dribbled the ball down with only Bryon Russell on him. Here’s how Mike told it in “For the Love of the Game”:
“I had no intention of passing the ball under any circumstances. I figured I stole the ball and it was my opportunity to win or lose the game. I would have taken that shot with five people on me.
“Ironically, I have problems going to my right for a stop, pull-up jumper because I have a tendency to come up short. I normally fade a little. But on this shot I didn’t want to fade because all my jump shots had been short. Think about that.
“I consciously extended my hand up and out toward the target because I had been coming up short. It looked like I was posing, but it was a fundamentally sound shot.”
Moments later, Ron Harper’s defense on Stockton gave the Bulls their sixth championship in eight years. Jordan held six fingers skyward. They had done it again. The hardest one. The greatest one. And he had done all he could: 43 minutes, 45 of the team’s 87 points, one of the most iconic shots in NBA history.
“Once it went in, I knew we had been hanging around long enough,” Jordan said later. “That was the game-winning basket.”
Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. That was June 14, 1998, 24 years ago today. Twenty-four years since MJ wore red. Twenty-four years since Scottie gutted it out. Twenty-four years since we silenced those fans. Twenty-four years since we said goodbye.
Michael Jordan gave us everything we could ever want. The good luck of the right birth. He was not the dragon. He was the knight.
What a night.
June 14 is another special date in the history of the dynasty, the date of one of the greatest sports celebrations our city has ever seen: 30 years ago on the nose, Game 6, 1992 Finals, the night the bench was best.
In today’s three-point-heavy NBA, a double-digit comeback is nothing. But on June 14, 1992, when the Bulls entered the 4th quarter down 15, I for one thought we were headed to Game 7.
I’ve written a lot about that game and I will write more. But for now, enjoy the two stories below.
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“For the Love of the Game” by Michael Jordan and Mark Vancil, page 108
In 2012, Sports Illustrated named the picture, by Fernando Medina, as the greatest sports photo ever. Medina told the story of the photo in 2020.