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In terms of magic moments, the 1997 Finals between the Bulls and the Jazz was among the most memorable in NBA history.
Chicago’s quest for a fifth title was contested by a Utah team, led by the duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone, that was playing in The Finals for the first time. The result? A spate of incredible plays from the expected heroes (Michael Jordan, Stockton, Malone) and the unexpected (Steve Kerr).
“Give the ball to Michael and get out of the way,” said Chicago’s Brian Williams of the final play of Game 1, a 20-footer by Jordan from the left wing that gave the Bulls a thrilling 84-82 win and enhanced the growing legend of the league’s premier player.
Jordan used a crossover dribble to get free of Bryon Russell and buried a jumper from just inside the three-point circle as the buzzer sounded, leaving Russell to lament Utah’s lost opportunity.
“Jordan got the ball, time was running down and he hit a great shot with my hand in his face,” said Russell. “He did what Michael Jordan is known for — backbreakers. I kept him in front of me, he didn’t get past me. He took a jump shot while I had a hand in his face.”
Jordan’s heroics capped a 31-point performance and marked the first game-winning shot at the buzzer in The Finals since Dennis Johnson gave the Boston Celtics a 107-105 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 in 1985. After Chicago took a 2-0 lead with a 97-85 win, the series moved to the Delta Center, where the Jazz hosted a Finals for the first time in their 23-year history. The Jazz nearly blew the roof off the Delta Center — literally and figuratively. Members of the Bulls were forced to plug their ears during a one-minute pregame fireworks show. When the game began, the Jazz supplied the fireworks in a 104-93 win.
Game 4, a 78-73 Utah victory, might have gone Chicago’s way were it not for Stockton, who had 17 points, 12 assists, made the key steal, and threw a pass that will go down in the annals of Finals history.
The Bulls appeared to have it wrapped up, holding a 73-69 lead — and the ball — with only two minutes to play. As Jordan brought the ball up court, Stockton stripped the ball and drew the foul.
Stockton missed one of two free throws, but Scottie Pippen missed a 3-pointer and Stockton made two more foul shots, cutting the deficit to 73-72 with 1:03 to play. After Jordan, who was 11-for-27 from the field, missed a jumper, Stockton ran down the loose ball and found Malone with an impossible pass over Jordan for the go-ahead basket.
“Out of all the great ones he’s made, I’ll remember this one right here probably for the rest of my career, because it had to be the perfect pass,” said Malone, whose bucket gave the Jazz the lead for good.
Momentum was in Utah’s favor after a pair of wins and word that a flu-ravaged Jordan might not even play in Game 5. When the opening toss went up, though, Jordan was in the lineup, further enhancing his reputation as the game’s brightest star.
Not only did he score 38 points, Jordan buried the tie-breaking 3-pointer with 25 seconds left, as the escaped Salt Lake with a 90-88 win.
“We wanted it real bad,” said Jordan, who shot 13-for-27 from the field in 44 minutes. “I was really tired and very weak. At halftime I told Phil [Jackson] to use me in spurts.”
The Bulls trailed 85-84 when Jordan was fouled with 46 seconds left. After he made the first of two free throws to tie the score, his second shot was short, but the ball was knocked back to him. He brought it back outside the key and passed into Scottie Pippen in the post. Bryon Russell left Jordan to double Pippen, who kicked the ball back to Jordan for a wide-open three-pointer from the left side and an 88-85 lead.
“I almost played myself into passing out,” Jordan said. “I came in and I was almost dehydrated and it was all just to win a basketball game. I couldn’t breathe. My energy level was really low. My mouth was really dry. They started giving me Gatorade and I thought about IV.”
Chicago headed back home one game away from repeating as champions. In what would be the series-clincher, a 90-86 win, it wasn’t Jordan supplying the heroics, it was Steve Kerr.
“When Phil drew up the play at the end,” said Jordan, who had 39 points and 11 rebounds and was named Finals Most Valuable Player for the fifth time. “everybody in the gym, everybody on TV knew was coming to me. I looked at Steve and said, ‘This is your chance,’ because I knew Stockton is going to come over and help and I’m going to come to you. Tonight Steve Kerr earned his wings from my perspective.”
Kerr, a shooting specialist, was giddy with excitement after clinching the title for Chicago. “He [Jordan] said, ‘You be ready, Stockton is going to come off you.’ I said, ‘I’ll be ready, I’ll knock it down. He’s so good that he draws so much attention. And his excellence gave me the chance to hit the game-winning shot in the NBA Finals. What a thrill. I owe him everything.”