By: S. Davis
June 14, 1998. Summer in Brooklyn, New York City. It was on. There were some inconsistencies with my high school credits that would push my graduation date out later than it should’ve been. I wouldn’t be going to college just yet and I was bothered. Whatever. I had great friends and a summer ahead of me that would be full of parties, chilling with my friends, and of course…girls. I had a group of friends around me that are still in my life 20 years later.
Wait! Is that correct? Has it been twenty years? My God. It was June 14, 1998 and only that evening mattered to me. Game six of the NBA Finals had my Chicago Bulls – still my favorite basketball team – going into Salt Lake City to attempt to close out the Utah Jazz. I wasn’t nervous but the Jazz competed hard enough to let the world know they wouldn’t go quietly. John Stockton and Karl Malone ultimately didn’t lift the trophy but they pushed the Bulls to the brink. The Bulls survived the Eastern Conference Finals with the Indiana Pacers, barely, in seven games and were a wounded team. The Pacers joined the 1992 New York Knicks as the only two teams to push Michael Jordan’s Bulls to a seventh game. I had potato chips and Sprite – and a feeling that the Bulls would finish the series.
We all know the final sequence: Jordan steals the ball from Malone while lurking from behind along the baseline, eschews calling a timeout to isolate Bryon Russell one-on-one to set up the game-clinching jumper which was followed by a three-pointer from Stockton that looked good from my living room. It was fantastic!
I remember Bob Costas declaring, “That may have been, who knows what will unfold in the next several months, but that may have been the last shot that Michael Jordan will ever take in the NBA.” The Bulls clinched their sixth title in eight seasons and I didn’t care that my summer didn’t kick off the way I expected it to. The chips were half eaten but the Sprite never tasted as refreshing as it did that night. I didn’t scream or carry the blanket of relief I did after the Bulls outlasted the Pacers in the prior series; I just remember my house being silent. All my cousins were just as reserved as I was. We watched the man…do it again. The poise was remarkable. As someone who closely followed the Bulls’ front office, notably Jerry Krause and his management style, I knew the team would be stripped for parts. I knew it was over. But on that night I shared one of the best moments of my life caring about sports with millions of others.
The fact that it’s the 20-year anniversary makes me feel ancient. Honestly that play sticks out so vividly that I had to take a breath and realize that a significant chunk of time has passed since it happened.
I thought of this Jordan moment a few days ago when a piece published on ESPN had the 2017 Golden State Warriors favored over the 1996 Bulls according to Vegas bookmakers by anywhere between -8 and -2. OK. I get that it’s difficult to compare eras but it’s odd how so many people think the 72 win Bulls team – that finished their season with an NBA Championship by the way – couldn’t adapt to play in the open basketball the Warriors currently reign over.
Is it a faster pace of play now? Yes. Are the Warriors a spectacular shooting team? Even a true hater can’t deny that. They put runs together that are shocking…in a matter of possessions. The thing that’s often overlooked is who draws the defensive assignment on the greatest player ever in an era where you can’t play physical defense anymore? Nowadays people complain about how much James Harden gets to the foul line. Unleash Jordan on this NBA.
As for the three-point shooting, the Bulls are capable in their own right of adapting as any team would be forced to in going against the Warriors. The Warriors employ several players with the ability to make plays for their teammates, just as the Bulls do with Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Ron Harper and Toni Kukoc. I feel the length of the Bulls on the perimeter would hinder the Warriors on the offensive end. It wouldn’t take options away but it would make it difficult to get the clean looks they get at the basket. How would Steve Kerr coach against the younger version of himself? Would the Earth implode during this basketball game? Ha!
The equalizer would be how would the Warriors defend Jordan? Klay Thompson would obviously draw the assignment initially but once he picks up two quick fouls and hits the bench a little of the spacing the Warriors feed on goes with him. Andre Iguodala would then find himself under siege and plagued with fouls as well. I just love the idea of the Death Lineup facing off against Jordan, Pippen, Harper, Rodman and Kukoc. I played the game in NBA 2K18 and won with the Bulls 128-120. In a Finals series I would take the Bulls 4-2, but hey Jordan is my favorite player ever, the best ever, and led the best team of all time. It’s starting to seem like Jordan is becoming underrated.
At one point winning titles was important and now it seems like it isn’t because Jordan’s undefeated Finals record is now being picked apart by those who are clamoring to proclaim LeBron James as a better player. I like James and I think he’s on par with Jordan but I don’t feel any player is better than MJ. Everyone needs to calm down; recency bias is strong in terms of this debate.
Additionally, comparing James directly to Jordan and questioning if he’s knocked MJ off the top of the mountain directly implies that he’s already surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird and Tim Duncan. Personally I don’t think he has. As a Jordan supporter, I’m not sure he’s surpassed Abdul-Jabbar or Russell – and he’s my favorite athlete ever. Simply, if we’re just dumbing it down to rings – above all else – the entire list is Russell and no other basketball player is even worthy of mention.
How come it’s so easy for the talking heads and the columnists desperate for clicks? This is the hot -take era in the media but it’s tiresome. Jordan vs. LeBron. I think it’s unfair especially when people on both sides rip the accomplishment of the other to uphold their guy. If you want to argue for Jordan, PER is in his favor as the number one rated player, ever, in player efficiency rating. James is right behind him, all-time at the second spot. James has the edge as it pertains to win-shares at fourth with Jordan at number five. (Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain and Malone round out the top three.) Jordan is 6-0 in the Finals while James is 3-6. At the end of the day they’re all just numbers. Fight fair in the debate people – although there’s no reason for one. Jordan is the best ever, to me, while James is making a rightful claim to his seat at the table along with Abdul-Jabbar, Russell and Magic.
Twenty years ago I watched my favorite player secure a sixth title. I feel that – in my time – he’s the best the game will ever see. I remember wanting to eat a pile of wings and rejoice after it all sunk in. I remember my sadness knowing that the Bulls were headed for a monumental explosion due to ego. I remember thinking about all the girls I was going to meet on the beach. That was two decades ago.
The time does fly by.