For one brief moment, my thoughts and Michael Jordan's were remarkably similar, though he later expressed them much more preciously than I ever would. There were 1.1 seconds to go in game five of the NBA finals at the United Center. The Utah Jazz were leading 83-81, but after a time-out the Bulls had the ball, and everyone knew it would be going to one of two persons: Jordan, who'd had an off shooting night but had made so many game-winning shots throughout his career, or Toni Kukoc, who had kept the Bulls in the game almost single-handedly by making 11 of 13 shots from the field, 4 of 6 from three-point range, for 30 points. Jordan was later asked what he was thinking at that point.
"I have funny thoughts, actually," he said with a smile. "I was just joking with some of the guys...that for a split second, at 1.1 seconds, no one knew what was going to happen. Everybody was anticipating a big shot--on our side, on their side. Everyone thought I could make the shot. And that's the beauty of the game. That's part of the unexpected finishing of an NBA game. And I thought that was cute, just thinking about it."
Jordan had surprised the reporters covering the game by appearing in the interview room after missing that last-second shot not with a dour expression or in a downcast state of mind, but with a relaxed, pleasant, and easy demeanor. And his use of the word "cute" sent this jaded group around the bend. They burst into laughter, and the laughter caused the reporter with the next question to halt as he began it, which gave Jordan the slightest opening to elaborate. Even in defeat, he seized the moment.
"I mean, I was just sitting there thinking about the whole thing," he said. "At 1.1 I know I wanted the ball, but no one knew what was going to happen. Isn't that ironic? That's pretty much the way things have happened for me in my career, and I'm pretty sure everybody was hoping that would end that way--except for Utah people. At 1.1 seconds, everybody was holding their breath--which is kind of cute."
Oddly enough, I had felt that same sense of delighting in the moment as the Bulls called a time-out to set up their final shot. I had moved down from a press seat in the upper levels of the UC to a courtside spot vacated by a New York Times writer no doubt facing a deadline and at that moment slaving away in the relative calm of the media workroom. I looked at the Bulls in their huddle and at the writers typing ferociously all around me and at the fans all but bursting with tension, and I gloried in the moment. One nearby writer turned to another and said, "Don't worry, he makes the shot and we all go home," and I certainly felt the same. But I wasn't sure if Jordan would be taking the last shot or acting as a decoy for Kukoc (which is what coach Phil Jackson later said he had in mind, except that the inbounds play was a muddle, and after a second inbounds pass it was Jordan who hurled up a desperation shot that wasn't close). Not knowing was, as Jordan put it, what made everything so "cute," but what I knew with conviction was that if Jordan or Kukoc didn't make a game-winning shot in this moment Jordan would in the next game or--and this is where Jordan's thoughts and mine diverged, because this last one was really my preference--in the seventh game. As everyone knows by now, Jordan made the game-winning, series-clinching, sixth-championship-sealing shot in game six in Utah, made it at the end of a sequence no less an authority than Jackson called "the best performance ever." Michael Jordan made the game-winning shot after a game-saving steal after a drive and a scoop lay-in through traffic that cut the Utah lead to one point after John Stockton had hit a three that seemed to give the Jazz the series-tying game. As one United Center placard had put it earlier in the series (at the risk of offending sensitive readers on racial grounds): "Babe Ruth is the Michael Jordan of baseball."
I knew the Bulls would win the sixth game or at worst/best the seventh because they had already won the series, had won it when they held on to win the fourth game to go up 3-1, after which, as Jackson acknowledged, everyone on the team knew it was "a matter of time." The fourth game was the one the Jazz really needed if they were to challenge the Bulls, yet they came out looking like whipped dogs after the 42-point thrashing the Bulls had administered in game three. They were clearly just hoping to hang around and maybe get lucky and steal a victory at the end, and if they had maybe it would have been a different series. Yet it wasn't to be, thanks to 34 points by Jordan, 28 by Scottie Pippen--who at that point, with his lone-wolf defense and his reliable if second-fiddle offense, looked likely to end Jordan's string of five NBA finals most valuable player awards--and a 14-rebound, 6-point performance by Dennis Rodman, all of his points coming at the free-throw line, the last four on perfect foul shooting in the final three minutes of the game.
With just more than half of the fourth quarter to go and the Bulls up 68-66, Utah fouled Rodman to go into the penalty; every Jazz foul after that would send the Bulls to the line. But this seemed a mixed blessing with Rodman on the floor--he shoots foul shots the way a teenager takes out the trash. He made one of two, and the Jazz charged back to take the lead, 70-69. With less than three minutes to play and the score tied, Rodman rebounded a Pippen miss and was immediately fouled. "FUCK!" I wrote in my notebook. Rodman's first shot bounced five times on the rim before plopping through the net like a recalcitrant water droplet down a funnel. It was the pivotal point of the series; if that shot had bounced out, everything might have been different. As it was, Rodman made his next three free throws--the last two coming with 44 seconds left to give the Bulls an 81-77 lead--and the Bulls claimed an 86-82 victory. It was over; the only detail in doubt was whether the Bulls would win it here or in Utah.
Rodman, of course, had called the ire of the sports-reporting world down on his head two days before the fourth game by deliberately missing practice and the media interview session in order to take part in a pro wrestling brouhaha in Detroit. The Sun-Times's Jay Mariotti led the lynch party, calling Jackson spineless and saying Rodman had to go, as no title was worth the embarrassment he caused the game (though, to mete out the demerits in proper proportion, NBC play-by-play man Bob Costas chimed in with some similarly simpleminded sentiments on local radio).
I had been thinking a lot about the ultimate meaning of the story of Michael Jordan and the Bulls (thoughts I'm trying to hold on to until the story is finally over), and Rodman figured in. Rodman was a clue to what the Bulls' now six championships mean. That's because Jordan changed the way we think about sports in Chicago. Like Harold Washington only slightly before him, Jordan made a statement in every moment of his public life that it no longer was satisfactory to be a good loser, which is what Chicagoans had so often been up until the 90s. In politics, even more than in sports, good intentions don't mean shit; what's important is to win, preferably with ideals or honor intact.
Utah coach Jerry Sloan, himself a Chicago sports legend, seemed to speak for that old state of mind when he was asked if it would be worth winning if he had to tolerate Rodman. "First of all I wouldn't have him," Sloan said on the day before the fourth game. "That makes the question real simple. Winning has never been real important to me. Would I sacrifice everything for all the other guys on the team? It's never that important. I'd just as soon lose if I have to be put in that situation."
The old-school sports experts felt Rodman had to be put in his place. But Jackson's whole coaching process is about accepting individuals for who they are, yet getting them to meld themselves into a team on the court, a process that has never had much to do with arbitrary discipline. (He succeeded in melding the individualist Jordan into the team long before Rodman arrived in Chicago.) Furthermore, it takes a special person to play with Jordan and the Bulls, a person who can function in a media cyclone, who can ignore possible distractions and focus on team performance in the moment--and Rodman, since arriving here in the fall of 1995, has been that type of player. In fact, he apparently creates turmoil in order to make himself feel more comfortable within it, and that is what makes him an essential part of the Bulls--as a player and, more abstractly, as a clue to the team. The Bulls didn't cave in to Rodman--they didn't make a deal with the devil to win three more championships. Rather, their ability to embrace and incorporate Rodman is the quality that gave them the strength to win three more championships. That is perhaps Jackson's greatest legacy; he didn't make the individuals fit the team but vice versa. No other coach would have won six championships with these players, would have been able to keep things fresh, but the strain was great. He aged at the rate of a two-term president, and earlier this week he called it quits.
Jackson gloried in Rodman's fourth-game triumph as if it were his own--which, in a way, it was. "The much-maligned Dennis Rodman had a wonderful game for us tonight," he said. A makeshift poster displayed prominently in a restaurant reporters had to walk past on their way to the locker rooms stated it even better: "We want Rodman, not Mariotti," it said, adding at the bottom, "How many rings have you won, Jay?" Chicago sports fans, it seemed, would rather not go back to the attitude that preserving some Neanderthal sense of honor was better than winning.
The Jazz played the fifth game the way they should have played the fourth: with an air of desperation. They outshot the Bulls, making more than half of their field-goal attempts for the first time in the series, and, even more important, outrebounded them. Antoine Carr fed off the Bulls' and Pippen's double-teaming scheme to the tune of 12 points, and Karl Malone hit seemingly everything he threw up, finishing with 39 points. Kukoc kept the Bulls in the game, scoring 13 of their first 14 points and finishing with 30, but Pippen--beginning to suffer from back problems that would figure even more prominently in the next game--saw his MVP hopes go down the drain with a 2-of-16 shooting performance. Jordan wasn't much better, making 9 of 26 for 28 points. Yet Jordan still had that final shot to win, and the Bulls didn't seem that worried about returning to Utah. Oh, they said all the right things about their concern at now having to win it on the Jazz's home court, but between the lines it wasn't hard to read their studied contempt. Jackson dismissed Carr's performance by saying, "They finally found someone off the bench who could give them a lift," and waved away the gathering hysteria by adding, "You guys have to remember, this is a two-point win by the Jazz, and you don't throw out the baby with the bath water in that situation. We're fine." Winning in Utah would be difficult, yes, but Jackson and the Bulls felt they had a handle on the Jazz dating back even to their first-game loss, and the Sloan-coached Jazz didn't figure to come up with any new wrinkles any time soon, much less in the one day of travel between the fifth and sixth games.
Or, as Malone put it earlier, "I don't think they're taking us seriously at all." And the Bulls never really did. They had the Jazz outsmarted, and they knew it. It wasn't that the Utah players were stupid; it was that they were set in their ways and therefore dependable in their weakness. "A loss like this can get your attention," Malone had said after the third game. "Our plays work, but we have to run them." Considering that the Jazz had just been beaten 96-54--a time to throw out baby, bath water, and playbook if ever there was one--those were famous last words.
In all the commotion over Rodman early last week, in all the contempt that poured over his self-aggrandizement after he said he'd pay for the funeral of that fellow allegedly dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Texas, lost was this quote, as pithy an explanation for the Bulls' success as there is. Rodman was asked about how the Bulls bench had outplayed the ballyhooed Utah subs. "I think we have the smartest bench in the world," Rodman said. "As far as talent, we are probably at the bottom of the totem pole. But as far as smartness, awareness, knowledge of the game of basketball, we are the smartest 12 guys in the league. No one else in the league can understand why we win so much. If you look at us 1 through 12, you see why we win so much."
So the Bulls had them beat tactically going into the sixth game; all they needed to pull together was their collective psyche. This Jordan seemed to understand when he made such a glib performance in the media room following the fifth game. "When we get on the plane tomorrow, I hope everybody's forgotten about this game," he said. "Sure we blew an opportunity. It's happened to us before. My job as a leader is still to maintain the positive thought process it takes to go into a game, a road game, and come out with a win. Now how I do that I don't know yet. In '93, I got on the plane with a cigar and celebrated a little bit and got everybody else to enjoy themselves a little bit and relax a little bit and play the game. Tomorrow I don't know. I don't know how I'm going to do it, but somehow it's going to happen."
Jordan said in his recent interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the New Yorker that the TV ad of his he liked most was the one in which he talked about how many times he had failed and how those failures had set him up for his greatest exploits. What can one add to what would prove to be the final game of the series except that it was perhaps the greatest display of that phoenixlike quality, not 48 hours after Jordan had missed what would have been the game-winning shot in Chicago? Pippen, who only later acknowledged that his back had limited him in the fifth game, had to leave with spasms in the first half after wrenching it on a dunk. The Jazz led 49-45 at the half and 66-61 after three quarters. No doubt haunted by memories of his seventh-game migraine against the Detroit Pistons eight years earlier, Pippen returned in the second half to give Jordan support and a much-needed rest, hitting a couple of important shots in the lane over the smaller Jeff Hornacek. After each of these, he gamely trotted up the court like an old man in need of a walker and somehow played courageous defense. Rodman, left alone by Malone, hit a big jumper to bring the Bulls within one at 68-67, punctuating the point with a Jordanesque shrug of the shoulders. Kukoc came off a Steve Kerr screen to hit a three and tie the game at 70, and after that the teams battled back and forth until, with the game tied at 83 in the final minute, Malone passed crosscourt out of a double-team to John Stockton, who knocked down a three barely over the hand of the onrushing Ron Harper to make it 86-83 Utah with 41 seconds to go. What happened then was the capping event of the Jordan legend--16 years and who knows how many game-winning shots after his season-ending, championship-winning jumper against Georgetown to give Dean Smith his first title in Jordan's freshman year, at North Carolina. If the parallel between alpha and omega is a little too tidy for reality then maybe that's a cause for optimism that this couldn't possibly be Jordan's last shot. And if it is? Well, it's just too great an ending to be real.
How did it rank? Let's go back to the authority, Jackson. Smoking a cigar, drinking from a plastic cup no doubt filled with some of the champagne that had somehow missed his shirt, he scratched pensively at his ear and said, "Last year, in the fifth game here, I didn't think he could top that, the performance he had in that ball game." That was the famous game in which Jordan carried the Bulls to victory and a 3-2 lead in the series by scoring 45 points while suffering from stomach flu. "But I think he topped it tonight," Jackson said. "I think it's the best performance ever I've seen by Michael in a critical game in a critical situation to win the series."
What did he do? On taking the inbounds pass, he drove immediately around Bryon Russell and through traffic to scoop in a layup that gave the Bulls a two-for-one end-of-quarter possession advantage and closed the Utah lead to one at 86-85. After Malone used Jordan's man, Hornacek, as a screen to get open for a pass at the other end of the floor, Jordan doubled back on Malone and, coming from behind, slapped the ball loose and beat Malone to the floor to pick it up. Then, with the clock ticking down, the Bulls, avoiding a time-out that would have given the Jazz the opportunity to set up the defense, automatically spread the floor to get Jordan one-on-one with Russell at the top of the circle. Jordan cut right--just as he had moments earlier--then stopped abruptly. Russell's feet went out from under him as he tried to reverse himself, and he fell, leaving Jordan wide open. No one ran at him. He stopped, leaped, shot, left his wrist flexed in the air, raised himself up ever so slightly on his toes as he landed--all the body English this shot required--and watched it swish through the hoop.
I have seen that basket dozens of times since then--who hasn't?--and what gets me every time, what brings tears to my eyes, is the way it goes through without even brushing the rim--not just game, series, match, and sixth title, but victory on style points as well.
How impossibly, extravagantly, eternally, appropriately cute.