SALT LAKE CITY — The final two episodes of ESPN’s hit documentary “The Last Dance” about the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls punctuated what is arguably the greatest dynasty in NBA history, the final championship of Michael Jordan as head coach Phil Jackson departed the Windy City.
It also featured the Bulls’ sixth championship in eight years, and the second-straight NBA Finals win over the Utah Jazz.
And Jordan believes it didn’t have to be the finale, either.
“It was maddening. I felt like we could’ve won seven. I really believe that,” Jordan said. “We may not have. But man, just not to be able to try, that’s something that I can’t accept. For whatever reason, I can’t accept it.”
A possible seventh title aside, it also cemented Jordan’s legacy.
Is he the greatest NBA player to ever play the game? The debate didn’t begin with Jason Hehir’s 10-part documentary series for ESPN Films and Netflix, and it won’t end Sunday night.
But it’s getting harder and harder to argue against it.
“Michael Jordan helped to create a different way in which people thought about the African American athlete,” former U.S. President Barack Obama said. “He became an extraordinary ambassador, not just for basketball, but for the United States overseas. He was part of the United States culture sweeping the globe.
“Michael Jordan and the Bulls changed the culture.”
Here’s a look at the final two parts of the megaclassic from the Worldwide Leader in Sports. It began with the final Eastern Conference finals series against Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers — the only time the Bulls were taken to a Game 7 during the 1997-98 postseason, an incredible stat for all the rivals the Bulls faced.
But that’s not where it really began. The real beginning of the phenomenal ending of “The Last Dance” started a year earlier, with a shot (or Shot, in Utah) and a prayer by John Stockton.
‘John Stockton sends the Utah Jazz to the NBA Finals’
Before the “Last Dance” season of 1997-98, the Bulls had just come off a thrilling victory over the Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals.
It was the first NBA Finals appearance in Utah history, known most memorably for John Stockton’s capital-S Shot over Houston.
But this series was known for the other half of the Stockton-to-Malone power duo of the 1990s.
What was the biggest factor in that series was how documentary producers phrased the question.
“Karl Malone getting MVP,” Jordan said. “I’m not saying he didn’t deserve it. All I’m saying is that fueled the fire in me.”
It was also known for Bryon Russell, the young guard “at the top of the list” to defend Jordan, Stockton said.
The Bulls jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but “it was a different story” after the Jazz took Game 3 in Salt Lake City, recalled ESPN’s J.A. Adande. The outlet pass was Utah’s best friend in Game 4, with Stockton hitting Malone on an iconic sprint down the court, and the series was tied.
The Flu Game
If you lived in Utah in the 1990s, you remember Game 5.
According to Jordan’s handlers, it started with a pizza from the only pizza joint open late the night before.
It wasn’t the flu; it was food poisoning.
“Five guys delivering one pizza,” Jordan's personal trainer Tim Grover said. “They’re all trying to look in. I take the pizza. I pay them. I put this pizza down. I say ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this pizza.'"
Jordan woke up at 2:30 a.m. throwing up. He never recovered before the start of Game 5.
The Jazz got off to a fiery start, taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter. Then Jordan hit “the switch,” tossing aside the flu, food poisoning, or whatever it was.
Delivery pizza. Go figure.— DiGiorno (@DiGiorno) May 18, 2020
“He was in pretty bad shape,” Scottie Pippen said. “But a lot of times, when you’re sick, you’re able to find something deep down inside that isn’t always there. I think it was just one of those games that he wanted to win so badly.”
No shot was bigger than Jordan’s 38th point in his 44th minute of play, a high-arcing 3-pointer with less than 30 seconds left that led to the Bulls’ 90-88 win, and a 3-2 series advantage.
“He showed that no matter how sick he was, he’s still the best player in the world,” Pippen said.
"First of all, I didn’t know he was sick. I thought he played a great game,” Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said after Game 5. “Did everybody else know he was sick?
“I guess I'm the last one to know."
That was the series-winner. It merely set up the seemingly inevitable in Game 6, which came down to a final dagger by Steve Kerr.
That title was made possible by another shot (lower case), when Kerr "earned his wings,” according to Jordan.
Back to ‘98
But the Jazz didn’t go away after losing its first NBA Finals series in franchise history.
The Jazz got better.
Their home-court advantage did, too.
“I don’t remember much about the games and the way they played,” said Jordan’s daughter Jasmine in one scene. “But I remember the fans. They were so loud. The screaming was brutal.”
Utah was virtually unbeatable until that final series. They were on a mission. History would have to wait, if the Jazz had their way. They were more than content to play spoiler to a season Phil Jackson and his team called “the last dance” from the beginning, to play spoiler to Jordan’s first three-peat since un-retiring from basketball.
“I sure didn’t feel an aura against Michael Jordan or the Bulls,” Stockton said. “I don’t know how you could play against someone like that.
“We were there to win.”
Still, the Bulls took Game 2 to force a split of the series in Salt Lake City. That set up a Game 3, in which Chicago held the Jazz to just 54 points — and a celebration so great that it sent Bulls forward Dennis Rodman to Auburn Hills, Michigan for an nWo match with Hulk Hogan.
The Bulls took Game 4 and a 3-1 series lead. Malone put the Jazz on his back to take a Game 5 win. If the Bulls wanted to make history, they’d have to do it on the road, in the top of the mountains.
After just a few seconds of Game 6, they’d have to do it essentially without Pippen, too; the stalwart big man strained his back on a dunk in the first quarter and was purely ineffective the rest of the way.
“I was purely a decoy the whole game,” he said.
Stockton gave Utah a 3-point lead with 41 seconds left in Game 6. Jordan was carrying the Bulls, playing nearly every minute, with his right-hand man on the mend.
And Jordan saved his best for last, with a drive to the rim, a steal out of Malone’s backpocket on the other end, and finally his shot — The Shot — after maybe or maybe-not pushing off Russell with 5.2 seconds remaining.
“Everyone says I pushed off,” Jordan said with an added expletive of denial. “His energy was going that way. He was always going that way.”
New angles seem to verify Jordan’s position. Russell stumbled, and while Jordan can’t be held completely inculpable for his part in the pre-shot contact, many observers would categorize His Airness’ move as “a gentle nudge.”
Even Malone, the ever-competitive Mailman that he was, climbed the Bulls’ bus after clinching the title to congratulate Jordan.
All that was left was the celebration.
“No matter what happens, my heart, my soul and my love,” Jordan said, “will still be in the city of Chicago.”