Posted Nov 1 2010 2:54PM
The photo, shot by Fernando Medina from the opposite baseline, hangs on the wall in my office.
When we look back at great moments in NBA history, we usually use video as a reference. But sometimes, a still photograph can capture much more than video. And Medina's shot of Michael Jordan's final points as a Chicago Bull does just that.
The shooting form is perfect. After 44 minutes of playing time in his 103rd game of the season, Jordan got plenty of lift. His body is square, and his left hand guides as his right hand follows through. It's as confident a stroke as you'll ever see.
As always, there's the wristband pulled up his forearm. Black knee sleeve on the calf, with the top folded over to show a stripe of red. Air Jordan XIVs on his feet. The timelessly beautiful red and black road uniform, with the No. 23 in full view.
In front of him is Bryon Russell, unable to recover after slipping to the ground. Whether or not he was pushed there, at this point, he's helpless.
Karl Malone seems to understand what's happening. Jeff Hornacek too.
For some reason, Steve Kerr, who grabbed an offensive rebound every 70 minutes he played that season, is crashing the boards.
There are 6.6 seconds left in the game and the shot clock is off. Jordan was giving the Jazz a chance to answer, but he was also giving his team another chance should the shot not fall.
The faces in the crowd, all in focus, are what will bring you back to the photo day after day and have you stare at it for 10 minutes at a time. There are hundreds of them in the shot, their hearts are sinking as the ball takes flight, and who knows if their team will ever be that close to a championship again.
Some of the faces are blank. Some are angry. The most fascinating are the ones full of despair. The ladies with their hands over their mouths or the couple in the fourth row with their hands over their head, seemingly in synchronization.
There's the row of photographers on the floor, focused on 23, thinking they may be taking the most important shot of their careers.
Indeed they are. It's the biggest shot of Jordan's career too. But the photo captures more than that.
It captures that whole final sequence of Game 6. Down three with 42 seconds left, Jordan first took an inbounds pass and drove around Russell for a quick basket that allowed the Bulls to defend straight up on the other end. Then, instead of following his man to the opposite corner after a cross-screen, he stayed under the basket and stripped Malone in the low post.
At that point, if the Bulls did what they normally did in a final-possession situation, this photo probably wouldn't be hanging on my wall right now.
"The key in that play is that we didn't call a timeout," Kerr told me this week, "so Utah didn't have a chance to talk about what their plan was going to be. All we did was spread the floor. We put him at the top, which is the hardest position to double. Utah made the decision not to run at him, and I bet if they had a timeout, they probably would have discussed it, somebody would have run at him, and one of us would have gotten a shot."
Jordan wasn't afraid to give the ball up in that situation. He gave it up to John Paxson in the first three-peat and he gave it up to Kerr for the series-winning shot a year earlier. But it was only appropriate that in his final moments as a Chicago Bull, the fate of the championship rest in his hands.
Phil Jackson dubbed it "The Last Dance." They all knew that this was the last time they would play together. The dynasty was going to end that week, no matter the result. And though they didn't dominate like they did two years earlier, this was arguably Jordan's greatest playoff performance.
"The fuel tank was running low," Kerr said. "In '96 and '97, there was still so much emotion, fire and fury. That third year, by the end, we were running on fumes. We had injuries. Dennis [Rodman] was kind of falling off the reservation a little bit. Scottie's back was a mess. We were exhausted and Michael basically lifted us up on his shoulders."
Those final 42 seconds - the drive, the steal and the shot, a sequence in which no other Bull touched the ball - encapsulate it all. And in a way, the photo captures all six championships. It represents Jordan's excellence and his dominance over the league in the 90s.
There are thousands of great photos from 64 years of NBA history, but I'm not sure any of them have as many layers.
"Oh my God, that was beautiful," Jackson said as he hugged Jordan in the post-game celebration. "What a finish!"
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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