“If ever there has been an athlete at least in recent history able to will himself beyond even his considerable physical talents, it’s been Michael Jordan.” - Bob Costas
Fatigue, injuries, illnesses, and a great team. These were the odds that were stacked against the Chicago Bulls when they traveled to Salt Lake City to take on Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz for game 6 of the NBA Finals. Utah put up a very tough fight all series-long, and the conditions were set for them to force a game 7. Scottie Pippen suffered from back problems and spent much of the game in the locker room, Ron Harper was suffering from the flu, and the Bulls were 4-4 in road games in the playoffs. To those that say Michael Jordan had help in winning all six of his rings: he didn’t have help on June 14, 1998.
The first quarter opened with the two teams going back and forth. Scottie Pippen hit a big hook shot to put Chicago up 12-8 with under 7 minutes to go to force a time out. Later in the quarter, Jordan hit his first shot from three to help the Bulls go on a 9-0 run. Things started to get sloppy for the Bulls, however, and they got called for three illegal defense calls in the quarter. For those of you who may not know what that call is: illegal defense is essentially when you are too far away from your man, but you also have not committed to a double-team on the ball handler. It is by far one of the most ridiculous rules from the 90s NBA, and God bless whoever abolished such a thing.
I digress, on the second illegal defense call by rule the Bulls were charged with a technical foul, but Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan became very animated prior to the call. This forced a double-technical resulting in Michael Jordan and and Jeff Hornacek shooting a free throw a piece. The Bulls took a 9-point lead before it was cut down to 4 thanks to a run made by the Jazz. Antoine Carr came in off the bench and contributed right away, and Jeff Hornacek helped the Jazz take the lead with a big three-pointer. Karl Malone extended the lead before the run was finally ended by Bill Wennington. Jordan and Malone traded blows in the final minute before Jordan missed the last shot of the quarter, with the score Bulls 22, Jazz 25.
In the second quarter, Jordan got some rest on the bench while the Bulls attempted to keep the game under control. Dennis Rodman made a nice pass to Tony Kukoc who hit a shot to make the game 24-28, and right after Howard Eisley hit a three-pointer to beat the shot clock. Wait, correction: it didn’t count? Eisley clearly got the shot off while there was still one second left on the clock, and the referees completely blew what ended up being an important call later in the game. Jerry Sloan stated that the call was horrible, but he can’t get thrown out of the game because he already got a technical earlier. It was quite an unfortunate sequence for the Jazz.
Michael Jordan finally entered the game with about 9 minutes left in the 2nd quarter, and helped cut Utah’s lead down to 1 with a little under 7 minutes left in the half. Neither team could get any separation for the rest of the quarter, but one thing was for sure: Karl Malone was showing why he was one of the best players in the NBA. Luc Longley and Dennis Rodman couldn’t contain The Mailman, just as Bryon Russell didn’t have an answer for Jordan. MJ scored 15 of his 23 first half points in the second quarter, effectively taking the game into his own hands. Alas, it wasn’t enough to take the lead, and the Bulls went into halftime down 45-49.
Scottie Pippen re-entered the game coming out of halftime, but it was clear that he shouldn’t have been out there. He was laboring up and down the court, he was constantly wincing in pain, but it was clear that he wanted to be out there for his team. What he did is something that may never be fully realized in NBA history, but it was that act of determination that showed why that era of the NBA had some of the toughest players ever to play the game.
Getting back to the action, Karl Malone opened the third quarter attacking the rim for a layup. Malone scored 22 points and 4 assists to that particular point, shooting an unreal 9/12 from the field. For the Bulls, Michael Jordan had 23 points and one assist, and made 9 of his 19 attempts from the field. Later in the quarter Rodman and Malone got tangled up, and the two constantly created more contact up until a flagrant foul was called on Rodman. Fun fact: the two were due to wrestle at a World Championship Wrestling PPV event following the series, so it was pretty ironic for the Utah crowd to get a brief preview of what was to come. The referees reviewed the call, and changed it to a common foul, as Rodman didn’t make any contact that warranted a flagrant.
Going into the fourth quarter, things didn’t look great for the Bulls. Down 61-66, Michael Jordan opened the quarter drawing contact to get to the line and make both of his free throws. Shortly after, Jordan hit another shot on Shandon Anderson to bring the Bulls within 3 with 11:10 to go. Dennis Rodman hit a 20-foot jumper to bring it within one, which forced Sloan to put Malone back in the game.
At this point of the game, it is clear that Michael Jordan is exhausted. He had played more minutes during the 1997-98 season than he had in his entire career, not missing a single game during the regular or post-season. It was clear that he was having to conserve his energy on defense so that he would have enough energy to execute on offense, as the rest of the Bulls weren’t contributing enough to help them escape with a win. Jordan managed to hit a jumper from the top of the key with under 7 minutes to go, and the Bulls took the lead 74-73.
The Jazz, however, refused to go away. Karl Malone continued to terrorize the Bulls, and Stockton hit a big three late in the quarter to help the Jazz take the lead. Jordan drove to the hoop shortly after, and brought the game within one. MJ had 43 points for the entire game, accounting for a little more than half of the Bulls’ points.
After getting the ball back with just seconds left on the clock, Michael Jordan hit one of the most famous shots that he’s ever hit in his NBA career.
Following the time out, John Stockton attempted a missed three-pointer and the game was over. The Chicago Bulls won their 6th NBA Championship, completing their second three-peat in ten years. Michael Jordan finished the game with 45 points, one assist, one rebound, and 4 steals. As Bob Costas pointed out, it wasn’t MJ’s best statistical game, but it was enough to win the NBA Finals MVP and put the exclamation point on what was arguably the most historic career in NBA history.
Long live His Airness. Long live the GOAT.