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1998 Finals: Ahmad Talks with MJ

The clock shows 6.6 as Jordan releases the jumper that defeated Utah 87-86 in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals and clinched Chicago's sixth championship.

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NBA Inside Stuff's Ahmad Rashad sat down with Michael Jordan before Game 5 of the 1998 Finals. The Bulls led the series, 3-1, and were getting ready to take on the Utah Jazz in Chicago that night. Ultimately, the Bulls would lose that game to a determined Jazz team, 86-82, and the series would return to Utah. There, Chicago would win the sixth and deciding game for their sixth championship of the '90s, 87-86, on a last-second shot from MJ himself. It would turn out to be the final, perfect shot of his NBA career.

AR: Having that grueling series with Indiana, your confidence as a team really didn't wane going into Utah … where a lot of people thought a tough time with Indiana meant that you'd never get by Utah.

MJ: Well, I correlate it with what happened in 1989, I think, when Cleveland beat us five games in the regular season … we never even came close, and then we had to face them in the playoffs. And their confidence -- or their over-confidence -- was our biggest positive, our biggest strength, going into that series.

Utah beat us home and away. But the thing we got out of it … first, we didn't have Scottie in one of those games, and another in Utah we were up so many points in the first quarter that we could only, you know, lose it instead of win it, which is what happened.

So our confidence never swayed at all. We felt we had the opportunities to beat Utah, we just never took advantage of it. Now, going into this Finals series, where they were expected to dominate us because of the many games and minutes that I played, and that Scottie played, and so on … I thought things were still in our favor. We had a rhythm, we were gaining momentum and improving as we moved deeper into the playoffs. And, sure, we went to a seven-game series with Indiana, but I think that was a plus instead of a minus.

"It will come to me and I'll think about all the things that have been done, and all the decisions that have been made, and it will tell me, 'Hey, this is the time to say, 'I'm done.' I'm sure there's going to be some disappointment, but I think this time is better than the first time, because people who've watched me, and liked the way I've played, will have some pre-warning, some preparation."

AR: It's interesting now, having been around those earlier championship teams, where it was more like you having to bring everybody around … bring everybody up. Now, it's "we" — you and Scottie — you guys have both gotten to the point with you have the experience, and you're definitely the team leaders. But it's got to be easier on the group to have two leaders to follow.

MJ: Well, we have three, in that sense, in terms of Phil (Jackson), myself and Scottie. And I think we cover all bases. If I miss a step, they can cover my steps, if Phil misses a step, we both can cover it … making sure everybody is aware of the situation. That is a plus that people don't truly understand to be a factor in these circumstances. That was something that I was counting on, coming into this.

You know, it's not the physical advantages and disadvantages … Utah, I'm pretty sure they've got a stronger bench, more athletic players … but the mental toughness, and the mental adjustments that you have to go through during the course of a seven-game series was something that was being overlooked about us. I think that was a key component of our victory in that Pacers series.

AR: One of the great things in athletics is that every now and then, you are able to establish relationships with people that you would never establish anywhere else. And they become very close-knit, very strong, very important to you, not only on the court, but off the court. And you've developed this with the two people you just mentioned: Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson. What has that been like?

MJ: Well, it's been a long road … but a long, prosperous road. Sure, there's been some bumps along the way, but you have so much respect for the people who have gone into the trenches with you, who have come from the bottom with you to the top. A lot of these guys that I'm playing with now never experienced when Chicago Stadium only had 6,500 people in it … and to some degree, Scottie and even Phil haven't experienced that. When I first started, that was the scenario.

When they came, there was pretty much 11,000 season-ticket holders, and we evolved from that point forward. And we've been through the roads of disappointments with Detroit, and the injuries here and there, and yet we've compiled an unbelievable record, and unbelievable success in the month of June. That builds camaraderie between friends and players and coaches to the point that to rebuild, or to start over, or to have that with someone else … you basically have to go through the same processes. You can't skip steps to earn that type of respect. You have to go through all the disappointments that a relationship has to go through. It's almost like a marriage. You learn certain tendencies about each other that you don't want to irritate each other, you only want to compliment each other, and that's the thing that we've gone through.

And (Assistant Coach) Tex Winter — I can't leave Tex out, he's certainly included in that scenario too — I think that's something that's very genuine and will be remembered no matter where this whole scenario ends up. And that's the beauty of it all.

AR: As you cherish championships, you also cherish these relationships.

MJ: I do. You have to. And even though we may never cross paths as often in the future, you have so many memories and so many educational experiences between the four of us, you're going to utilize it for your kids or situations on other teams or with other players … there's been a lot of education going on between the four of us, you can't help but pass it along. It's all good.

AR: As I look back to you going through all these championships, you are as happy, as comfortable as I've ever seen you in a playoff situation, in a championship-run situation. What's the reason for that?

MJ: I'm enjoying the moment. Enjoying the moment when you really view this as "the moment." In the past, I probably hadn't viewed it as closely as "a moment" as I probably should have. But now, with the end of the tunnel in view, every step I take towards it … I understand, I evaluate that step, I enjoy that step … and no one knows how far the end of that tunnel is away, but …

You are still trying to be the most complete basketball player you can be. I'm getting to my peak, my limit. Physically, I think I am at my limit. Mentally, there's a lot of empty space that I don't know that much about, but I keep forcing myself to learn more about the game. And I do learn more.

Michael Jordan

Jordan earned his sixth Finals MVP award for his performance in the 1998 Finals against the Utah Jazz.

Is my mind getting cluttered, getting full? Probably so. As you get to the end of your career, you maximize … your brain, your education starts to get maxed out while you're playing. I'm pretty sure that once I get away from the game, and I see other players, and I see the eras starting to change, I'll learn more about the game from that perspective. But I am getting to a point where I'm maxing out my education about the game of basketball. And when you get to that point, it's a necessity to pass it to other people … to your teammates, to other up-and-coming stars …

Where Dr. J was when I came into the game … I feel like I'm looking in a mirror, and the face has changed from Dr. J to me, in some respects, and I'm passing it on to other people. And that's an amazing thing.

AR: You talk about the change, you talk about "passing it on." What kind of timetable to you have on your decision?

MJ: It's not really … I don't want to put a timetable on it. I think that it will hit me. It will come to me and I'll think about all the things that have been done, and all the decisions that have been made, and it will tell me, "Hey, this is the time to say, 'I'm done.'" I'm sure there's going to be some disappointment, but I think this time is better than the first time, because people who've watched me, and liked the way I've played, will have some pre-warning, some preparation. Sometimes in death, you don't get a chance to make those kinds of preparations. This time, I'm pretty sure some people have made some preparations. I'm not correlating it to death, you know, but more like it's the end of something.

AR: So, Phil has worn off on you in this way, which I think is wonderful: that Zen philosophy of "enjoying the moment." That's the only thing that you are dealing with now.

MJ: (laughs) Yes, that's the theme of Zen Buddhism, and I think we have all taken some of that with us in some respects. Not all of it … I mean, Phil is way out there, and we're somewhere closer to Earth, a little bit, but certain things you take, and you can evaluate, and associate it with you, personally. 'Living in the moment' is something that I will continue to always understand and associate with my life.

AR: When this series started, there were two things always said about the Bulls: that they were old, and that they were tired. Which obviously had nothing to do with what was going to happen …

MJ: (smiles) Well, that's true! We are old, and sure, we're tired … it's been a long season. But mentally, we have a vision, we have a 'finish' that we have to attain. And sometimes you have to do it when you are old and when you are tired. And I think it's a test of your will to succeed when you have to deal with some of these negatives that are part of the game.

Yeah, we're old … we're probably the oldest team in the league. That means that we are the most experienced too. We know what to expect and how to get around some of the potholes. Sure, we're tired. Some of us have been playing heavy minutes for a long period of time. We had to overcome some injury problems, we've played extra games here and there in the playoffs … but that's more experience. So there's some positive ways of looking at those two negative things that people have been throwing at us, and I'm pretty sure by the end of this playoffs, you'll see that the old and tired people were very young and strong mentally.

AR: And I think the young and the rested are home watching the series on television.

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