Part VII: 'The Shot' propels Jordan's Bulls deeper into the postseason, page 2
In 1988-89, as Michael Jordan and the Bulls came off a 50-win season and a second round playoff appearance, the pressure was growing to become a so-called final four team.
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Bulls forward Brad Sellers, in a symbolic gesture for team unity, suggested everyone switch to black sneakers, which the Bulls have done for every playoff since. But it wasn’t about the shoes. Cavs coach Lenny Wilkens made a fatal miscalculation when point guard Price was unable to play Game 1. He started shooting guard Harper at point guard, essentially putting everyone out of position, and the Bulls won Game 1 in Cleveland 95-88 as Jordan had 31 points and 11 assists.
I was one of three traveling beat writers then, along with Lacy Banks of the Sun-Times and Kent McDill of the Daily Herald. We all had picked the Cavs to win the series, Lacy in three, Kent in four, and me in five. I believed in the power of Jordan. But not against these odds and 6-0. Jordan walked by Lacy at the end of Game 1 and spat: “Sweep, my butt.”
The guy never forgot the slightest slight.
The Cavs recovered to win Game 2 despite Jordan’s 30 points and 10 assists. The Bulls returned home to win Game 3 as Jordan had 44 points, 10 assists and five steals. And it looked like Jordan would be right. The Bulls had a lead at the end of Game 4 and all Jordan had to do was make free throws. He missed two, Daugherty made two at the end of regulation, and the Cavs won Game 4 in Chicago in overtime to send the series back to Cleveland for Game 5. Jordan was disconsolate in the locker room afterward and at home. James was there and Michael told his dad, “This won’t ever happen again.” Jordan had scored 50 points in the game and made 22 free throws, but it wasn’t quite enough.
Game 5 was one of the classic games of Jordan’s career. Before the game, Lacy, Kent and I were in our courtside seats near the Bulls bench. Jordan walked by and stopped, like he often did. His pregame routine included a dusting of chalk in front of Bulls broadcaster Johnny “Red” Kerr. He stopped at Lacy and said, “We took care of you.” Then he pointed at Kent and said, “We took care of you.” And then he pointed at me and said, “Today, we take care of you.”
Game 5 of the first round playoff series between the Bulls and Cavs saw Jordan take and hit the shot we see repeatedly in Jordan highlights, the stunning game-winner over Ehlo for the 101-100 victory.
In other words, the predictions of Cavs in three and four were taken care of, and the Cavs weren’t winning in five, as I had predicted. It was a fabulous back-and-forth classic, with Pippen hitting big threes down the stretch, and then the Cavs and Craig Ehlo running a classic out of bounds pick-and-roll to get a layup with just over three seconds left for a one-point lead. Ehlo was three seconds from being a hero. It looked like Cleveland’s game. Cavs GM Wayne Embry was standing in his usual spot in the runway off the arena floor. “Too much time left,” he muttered to himself.
Sellers took the ball out, the seven-footer to be able to see over the defense. The Cavs initially doubled, but Jordan slipped away. Sellers was waiting for that, but the referee was counting those five seconds. “I was counting in my head,” Sellers recalled. “I was letting it go at four.”
Jordan shook free just at that moment and Sellers delivered the pass and Jordan took and hit the shot we see repeatedly in Jordan highlights, the stunning game-winner over Ehlo for the 101-100 victory. It’s known just as, “The Shot.”
“I never saw the shot go in,” Jordan would say later. “But I knew from the (stunned) silence.”
Jordan leaped into the air and pumped his fists, and the Bulls were headed for New York for the conference semifinals.
Jordan was too much for the open court, run-and-gun Rick Pitino Knicks as Michael opened with 34 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in a Bulls overtime win. After the Knicks evened it in Game 2, Jordan had 40 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists in Game 3 and 47 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in Game 4 as the Bulls took a 3-1 lead.
That was a little motivator as it turned out. Jordan had suffered a groin strain in Game 3 and was getting treatment at home while watching the TV news and watched as Knicks coach Pitino suggested Jordan may have been faking a bit for dramatics given he scored 40 points. As usual, little Ricky talked too much. Take that with 47 points.
The Knicks got Game 5, but the Bulls won it back home in Game 6 as Jordan had 40 points, 10 assists and four blocks.
The closer was a classic in the Stadium when Trent Tucker was fouled making a three-pointer with six seconds left and the four point play tied the score. Jordan took the inbounds pass, was fouled and made two free throws for the win as Jordan scored eight of the Bulls last 10, including six on free throws.
It was on to Detroit for the renewal of the best rivalry in the game and against the highly favored Pistons, who won 63 games that season, 16 more than the Bulls. Jordan sat at his locker before Game 1 and predicted a Bulls win. Just in case his teammates didn’t believe, he went out and had 32 points and 11 rebounds in the 94-88 Bulls win to steal home court advantage. The Bulls lost Game 2, but returned home to win Game 3 as Jordan had 46 points, including the game-winning jumper with seconds left after the Bulls rallied back from 14 behind with eight minutes left.
Game 3 gave a hint of all things possible with Jordan. Jordan suckered Bill Laimbeer into an offensive foul with the score tied with 28 seconds left and then beat Dennis Rodman with Isiah Thomas double-teaming with an eight-foot game winning bank with three seconds left.
Could it be one of the great upsets of all time?
The Pistons clamped down on Jordan with swarms of defenders and he was five of 15-for-23 points in the Game 4 loss and four-of-eight for 18 points in the Game 5 loss. Jordan had 32 points and 13 assists in Game 6 back in Chicago. But it wasn’t nearly enough, as Laimbeer sent Pippen to the hospital in the first minute of the game with a blow to the head and the Bulls lost in six games. The Bulls did cut it to two in the fourth quarter, but Isiah got one with 17 points in the fourth quarter as the Pistons pulled away and went on to their first-ever NBA championship.
But it seemed a successful season for the Bulls. Though the Bulls had won fewer regular season games, they had their most impressive post season since 1975 with a trip to the conference finals, the so-called final four. They seemed to be on the way with an enthusiastic coach, a developing team and the best player in the game.
Though Jordan was beginning to fume about what he felt was his teammates’ failure to stand up enough to Detroit’s physical tactics, the team seemed well fortified for the future with three upcoming first round draft picks from prior deals, including a valued lottery pick. But the shocker came in early July, when managing partner Reinsdorf fired the popular Collins and replaced him with assistant Phil Jackson.
There always was much speculation that Jordan initiated the firing, which wasn’t true. He was informed beforehand by the owner, and Jordan was said to be in disbelief and told the owner he didn’t have the courage to make that move after the strong finish the team had. But Reinsdorf and Krause truly believed the team had peaked under Collins and needed a new kind of direction. Jordan wasn’t immediately on board and actually was wary about Jackson, who often had told him during the past two seasons he was scoring too much.
Jackson had told Jordan that only once in the history of the NBA—Kareem Abdul Jabbar in 1971—had a team won a championship while having the leading scorer. Jackson thought he knew how to get it done. He was about to get his chance.
Jordan married Juanita Vanoy just before the season opened in Las Vegas with his old crew from North Carolina, Fred Whitfield the attorney, Fred Kearns the undertaker, and Adolph Shiver, his old high school buddy, as witnesses. Great things were on the horizon for Jordan and the Bulls and we all would be the witnesses.