Running at the Bulls: An Oral History of the 1997-98 Pacers (Part 2)
Editor's Note: In anticipation of Sunday's episode of "The Last Dance," which will feature the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals between the Pacers and the Chicago Bulls, Mark Montieth spoke to many of the 1997-98 Pacers about that season and the series with the Bulls. This section chronicles the seven-game series with Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Read Part 1 »
Eliminating New York sent the Pacers into the Eastern Conference Finals against Chicago, which had won the two previous championships and three in a row from 1991-93. The two teams had split their four regular season games, each team winning once on the other's home court. The Bulls had started slowly while Scottie Pippen held out, but finished strong to win 62 games, four more than the Pacers. Chicago appeared to be in the final phase of its 1990s dynasty, on the verge of breaking up. The Pacers felt confident they derail their last title run.
Austin Croshere, forward: I wasn't on the playoff roster because I broke the fifth metatarsal in my left foot in a three-on-three drill during early pre-game warmups. I already had a stress fracture. But as a rookie you might tell them that your foot hurts, but you don't want to be the guy who says you can't go. So, on a benign cut, that bone broke.
I remember Mark West being really excited because that meant he would be active for the playoffs. I was like, "Gee, thanks, Mark!" I played no role on the team anyway, so it wasn't going to matter.
Rick Carlisle, assistant coach: I thought Larry Bird did as great a job as a coach can do, coming in to coach a veteran team that the majority of people thought had run its course. A lot of people look at that team and say it surpassed expectations, but in that locker room, for all of us, we thought we were the better team.
PHOTO GALLERY: Looking Back at the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals »
Fred Hoiberg, guard: We did have a lot of confidence going into that series. Obviously, it's a whole different animal in the playoffs, you're going against one of the greatest dynasties of all time. But Larry had instilled a lot of confidence in that team.
There wasn't any lack of confidence.
Travis Best, guard: We were of the mindset everything was setting itself up for us to knock off the dynasty. It was our turn. Indiana had been knocking on the door for a few years, so I just remember thinking this was our time.
Mark Jackson and the Pacers weren't lacking confidence heading into the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. (Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images)
Chicago won the first two games in the series at the United Center, each by six points. The Pacers came back to win Game 3 at Market Square Arena behind Reggie Miller's 28 points. He sprained his ankle in the third quarter and had to go to the locker room for treatment but scored 13 points in the final 4:11 to lead a 107-105 victory.
It was one of his classic playoff moments but was overshadowed two days later in Game 4. Running up from the baseline, Miller bumped into Michael Jordan, turned left, caught Derrick McKey's inbound pass and in one motion swung to his left and hit a 3-pointer with 0.7 seconds left that turned out to be the difference in a 96-94 victory.
While MSA went berserk and Miller ran to the other end of the court and jumped up and down on his sprained ankle, the national television cameras caught Bird standing in front of the bench with no expression, aware of the remaining time on the clock. Austin Croshere, equally bald as his healthier teammates, could be seen jumping up and down in the second row of the bench.
Croshere: I don't even have a memory of it. The only reason I know about it is because of the video. The video has become the memory for me. I've told my kids, I'm going to be in one of these episodes (of "The Last Dance"). I'm sure they'll pan to that.
Mark Jackson, guard: To see Reggie come off open and have the opportunity to take and make a shot was special. To see it drawn up and executed was a thing of beauty. And to hear that arena go absolutely nuts was special.
Dan Burke, video coordinator: We had that set with several options. You still see that set. I call it Y. Rick (Carlisle) had that already, and Larry liked the spread part of it.
Antonio Davis, forward: Big players make big shots. He made a big shot.
It's clear as day there was a little push. Was it a shove? It was a good no-call to me. Like Jordan in the Finals against Bryon Russell (later in the playoffs). It was a good no-call.
Mark Pope, forward: I have to go do these speaking things and one of my favorite topics is when Reggie hits that shot. The camera zooms in on coach Bird and he's stone-faced.
He had this ability to refuse to indulge in the emotion of the moment. All of us want to indulge in that moment and lose our minds. He was the only person in that building who was looking at 0.7 seconds on the clock. He was thinking, we've got a game to win.
People were screaming, ripping off their clothes, running around, and spilling drinks on one another, but that's when a leader should be at his very best. When everybody else has indulged in the moment, he stayed with the task at hand to lead our group.
In his first season as a head coach, Larry Bird nearly guided the Pacers to the NBA Finals. (Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images)
Two factors at the end of that game often get overlooked, both involving Derrick McKey.
His perfectly timed and placed inbound pass over Scottie Pippen enabled Miller to hit the shot without interrupting his motion. Then he defended Jordan on the Bulls' last possession, forcing a miss. McKey always made inbound passes in clutch moments. He, for example, also made the pass leading to Rik Smits' game-winning shot in Game 4 of the 1995 playoff series against Orlando.
After Miller's shot, Jordan barely missed an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer with McKey trailing him with a distracting hand in his face.
McKey had torn his Achilles tendon at the end of the previous season and did not play in a game this season until Dec. 23. He then suffered what was reported as a strained quad muscle in his right knee in Game 2 of the second-round series against New York, one that forced him to sit out Game 4 after attempting to play in Game 3. But the injury was worse than that.
Derrick McKey, forward: We didn't know what it was. I didn't get an MRI, it just felt like really bad tendinitis. In the playoffs you don't practice that much anyway, so I got treated between games and did the best I could to get ready. By the end of each game the pain had come back and was getting worse, but I could made it work.
I was on one leg trying to guard Scottie and Michael. I could defend going one way better than the other. The way I could defend better was to their strong (right) hands.
I had surgery right after the season was over with. I had the same surgery (Victor) Oladipo had. Mine didn't tear off the bone like Oladipo, but it was shredded. My tendon was shredded. When they did the surgery, they cut it off and reattached it.
Best: I know he played hurt all year. For him to give us what he had was impressive. He was such a diverse player in what he brought; he was a glue piece for us.
Antonio Davis: To me, Derrick was as valuable as Reggie. In my book, a lot of this stuff wouldn't happen without him. He was a coach's dream. He could do so many different things.
There were so many times Derrick would say stuff to me in practice and I would automatically do it from that point on. The way I posted up, the way I defended...little things. He was so talented and knew about every aspect of the game.
He was playing on a torn quad. I was like, "Man, you're crazy." That was Derrick.
Derrick McKey played hurt in the 1998 playoffs. (Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images)
Croshere: He was always in my corner, pulling me aside, telling me things about people I was guarding.
Jackson: Timely suggestions. He didn't say a lot, but he had nuggets all through that season and would tell you what he saw.
Donnie Walsh, general manager: He was a very underrated player. He was a pro's pro, that's what he was.
McKey: I (threw inbound passes) a lot in Seattle, too. I was used to it.
I just made sure where my (outlet) guy was I could throw it to if I got in any trouble with the first option. Someone like Dale (Davis) or Antonio who was athletic enough to get the ball if I needed to throw it in the air.
When Reggie came off, I saw him become open. Scottie was on me so I had to wait a little bit so I could see under his hand and get Reggie that pass in rhythm. Sometimes you have to give him a ball fake or a look-off. That might give me a little window I need to make the pass. Give it to him in rhythm and in the slot where he can go right into the shot.
If Reggie can get us to that point, then it's my job to go out and play defense and not put it on him defensively. He guarded Michael a lot anyway, but at the end of the game they put the closer in. I'm not a Mariano Rivera guy, though, I'm more of a Lee Smith guy.
Reggie Miller's game-winning 3-pointer over Michael Jordan in Game 4 remains one of the most celebrated shots in franchise history. (Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images)
A brief skirmish between Miller and Bulls guard Ron Harper in front of the Bulls' bench late in Game 4 led to backup forward Jalen Rose being suspended for Game 5 in Chicago because he ran off the bench. The Pacers were never in that one, losing 106-87. Bird said the team "quit on me."
But when the series resumed in Game 6 back in Indianapolis, the Pacers responded with a 92-89 victory. Best — playing the entire fourth quarter — beat Steve Kerr to hit a runner high off the backboard with 33.3 seconds left to give the Pacers a two-point lead. After Jordan hit two foul shots to tie the game, Best got a step on Jordan, drew a foul, and hit two foul shots with 8.5 seconds left. They proved to be the game-winning points once Jordan slipped while trying to drive on McKey from the left wing on the Bulls' final possession.
Best: I just remember being out there and thinking, I've got to be aggressive. I've got to look for the shot when it's there and I can't wait for anybody else to get it done. You have to try to make it happen. I was feeling pretty good, the fourth quarter came and I was able to knock down some threes and there were a lot of pressure situations late in the game where if you can't get the ball to Reggie you have to make something happen.
Walsh: Travis was a guy Chicago didn't know what to do with. They didn't have the quickness to deal with him. I remember one game Michael took himself out and they put Kerr in the game. On the first play Travis faked out Kerr completely and drew a foul and Jordan looked at him and started laughing. Like, I know what you're going through.
He was a little guy but he was built like a football player. You've got to be like that to go in there.
Burke: He came up at the biggest times, every year I was around him. Another glue guy. Just a good soul. We had a lot of that.
And so it was off to Chicago for Game 7. The Pacers had not won there in three games in the series and had been beaten badly in Game 5 but still managed to convince themselves they would win the game as they headed to the United Center. Bird had them get taped and dressed at the hotel. There was a practical element to that, assuring they would have ample pregame time if traffic delayed their arrival at the arena. But the players took it as a statement: "We're coming to play."
Jalen Rose, forward: Chicago is one of the places you actually get a police escort, so you don't have to worry as much about being late. They know the importance of these games, so they made sure we got to the arena.
I really believe that was a high school, AAU manipulation thing Larry had for the team. As a youngster I used to sleep in my uniform, sleep with the ball, the night before a game because I wanted to be ready to play. It was that kind of mindset.
Jackson: We laughed (about dressing at the hotel). We were like a high school team, like, This is going to win us the game. We're ready to play as soon as we step off the bus. We looked at it like, "This is genius."
Burke: We had a police escort, with sirens. You felt the intensity on the bus. There are always rides that are quiet, and that one was quiet. There was something thick in the air on that bus ride. That's what they worked for that whole year, to win that game.
McKey: We were confident. You get to that point there's not any more secrets. There's not going to be anything new. We had beat them three games and they beat us three games. We split during the regular season, too. We were thinking, "Why not?" I think we played like it. We knew and they knew it. They may not admit it, but we had 'em. A play here and there, like in any game.
Pope: I feel like I remember this so clearly. Coach talked to us about his first Finals experience when he played for Boston and what a magical experience that was. And as he did on rare occasions he was incredibly emotional talking about it.
The journey is so long, right? But there you are one game away from dethroning the most dominate teams of the last 50 years. I just remember walking out of the locker room having this emotional moment, thinking, "If we're not ready to go play this game, man, we'll never be ready, ever."
It was one of those moments I felt Coach Bird just let us see inside his very rare self and what made him this kind of ultimate competitor. And it was freaking awesome.
The Pacers' confidence became visible to all when the game started, as they took a 20-8 lead in the first quarter. They led 27-19 after the first quarter, but the Bulls came back to take a three-point lead at halftime and led by as many as eight points late in the third quarter.
The Pacers regrouped, however. Rose hit consecutive shots to force at tie at 69 and then Smits' three-point play with 8:54 left in the game gave them a 72-69 lead midway through the period. The Pacers still were holding a three-point lead when Smits and Jordan lined up for a jump ball with 6:39 left at the Bulls' end of the court. Smits was unable to control the tip to a teammate and Pippen grabbed it. Jordan missed a shot, but Pippen grabbed the offensive rebound, which led to Kerr's 3-pointer that tied the game.
Antonio Davis hit a short jumper on their next possession to give the Pacers their final lead. The Bulls scored the next six points to take control, but the Pacers were still within two points with less than two minutes remaining. They failed to score the rest of the way, however, and lost 88-83.
Bird later blamed himself for not calling timeout before the jump ball to get his players lined up better, but there were plenty of other issues. The Pacers shot 48 percent from the field while the Bulls shot just 38 percent, but the Pacers were outrebounded 50-34 and gave up 22 offensive rebounds. That allowed the Bulls 20 more shot attempts, negating the shooting percentages. The Pacers also hit just 23-of-37 free throws. Dale Davis hit just 3-of-10, which inspired him to work with a shooting coach over the summer and make a dramatic improvement the following season.
Rose: (The jump ball) ain't why we lost. We lost because they had Michael Jordan. When you're on the losing team of course you feel like, "I could have done more."
Jackson: That's Larry taking one for the team. I've seen guys lined up right and wrong and win or lose jump balls. We just got a bad bunce. We lost the game. You can always go to 50 things and say, This is why we won or lost.
Rik Smits, center: I'll have to look at that jump ball again. But we were getting our butts kicked on the glass.
Jackson: If they jump 10 times, Rik wins nine.
McKey: Hustle plays. A lot of little stuff. You've got to play defense and you've got to rebound to win.
Smits: The frickin referees took over. They started calling fouls. It was like we were getting screwed. The usual.
Chris Mullin, forward: Larry always said you want Game 7 on your home court. That was something he always emphasized.
Carlisle: It was a very special group. We were very close, but it was the home court deal. We played a strong game and they outlasted us in the end. That's where it really gives you an edge in a Game 7, at the end of a close game.
Hoiberg: After the game, Larry told everybody to leave the locker room. He just wanted the players and staff in there. It was somber. We felt we had a golden opportunity and we let it slip away.
There were a lot of tears in that locker room. I remember Jerry Krause coming in and trying to congratulate us, but nobody wanted to hear it. It was a nice gesture. But it was a tough locker room
Rose: Rose: I remember being one of the first people to leave the locker room because the media wasn't coming to talk to me. I'm mad that we lost like everybody else. I had made (two) shots to tie the game. I remember somebody being at the free throw line and thinking, "Larry's about to let me close!" He took me out (with 7:13) left and I'm thinking, "He's going to give me a quick blow, he's putting Derrick in there for some defense. Cool." I'm sitting there on the edge of my seat, watching the clock, watching the clock, waiting to go back in. But I didn't get back in.
I get on the bus and Larry's sitting there with a cold one. He's looking at me like Mean Joe Greene looking at that little kid (sympathetically, in the commercial). I could tell he felt bad. Right away I think, "All good, Legend. We'll be back next year. No problem."
You think that's going to happen more often.
The information wasn't what it is now. If we knew how intimately they were disrespecting their general manager, that they represented a high level of dysfunction but were able to overcome that...I didn't realize they were smoking cigars on airplanes and all that. I'm watching that documentary thinking, "We should have beat them."
Life went on, of course. The Pacers reached the Finals two years later, where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. It could be argued the 1998 playoff team was superior to that one and would have had a better chance to win the championship over Utah as Chicago did, but that can be debated either way.
What matters now is that each of the Pacers from the 1997-98 team are alive and well and leading happy lives, a further reflection of the maturity they showed during their playing careers.
Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, Jalen Rose, and Austin Croshere have broadcasting careers.
Fred Hoiberg is the head coach at Nebraska and Mark Pope is the head coach at Brigham Young.
Chris Mullin, formerly the head coach at St. John's, is back living in the Bay Area and working again for his original NBA team, the Golden State Warriors.
Antonio Davis has moved back to his hometown, Oakland, and runs a transportation and logistics company with his brother.
Mark West is the Vice President of Player Relations for the Phoenix Suns.
Rik Smits, Dale Davis, Derrick McKey, and Travis Best are retired and living in Arizona, Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Springfield, Mass. respectively, although Smits has begun to live part of the year in Indianapolis again.
"The world moves on," Walsh said. "I look at these kids and they're doing stuff you can't believe."
Just as they almost did 22 years ago.
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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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