*This article was originally published on May 7, 2017.
This was how I wrote it that day 28 years ago on a sunny afternoon—at least for the Bulls—in Richfield, a rural village about 30 miles south of Cleveland known essentially for the coliseum where the Cleveland Cavaliers played.
It was the game that was the starters’ pistol shot that began the Bulls race toward six NBA championships in eight seasons in the 1990s.
“There were more famous shots, ones that started wars and revolutions. This one Sunday by Michael Jordan merely ended a game. But, oh, what a game!
“It will linger in the memory longer than the 101-100 final score that sent the Bulls into the best-of-seven second round playoff series against the New York Knicks starting Tuesday in New York.
“The Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers exchanged leads nine times in the last three minutes of a game that couldn’t have been approved by the American Medical Association. It was decided when Jordan hit a pulse pounding, “I-don’t-believe-it 15 foot jumper from just outside the foul line at the final buzzer.
“Jordan’s winner, giving him 44 points, came three seconds after Cleveland had gone up by one.
“’This is probably the biggest shot I’ve hit in the NBA, mainly because I put my credibility on the line,’” said Jordan, who had predicted a Bulls advance in four games and then failed on two last minute chances to do just that Friday night.
“’I thought we could beat this team, but when we lost Friday after I missed the free throw and last shot it was the lowest I ever felt in basketball. Like when I was cut from my high school team. I was disappointed in myself and there were tears in my eyes.’
“But Sunday after 57 regular season victories and the home court edge in this series, it was the young Cavaliers who were crying.
“’I just can’t believe he made that shot,’” said Brad Daugherty, shaking his head in a deathly quiet Cleveland locker room. ’We did everything right. I just can’t believe it.’”
Well, not quite everything. It was a spectacular finish with a Jordan pullup from the right side giving the Bulls a one-point lead with six seconds left. Then the Bulls blew the Cavs inbounds play when Craig Ehlo inbounded to Larry Nance. Brad Sellers failed to switch and Bill Cartwright stayed back to seal Brad Daugherty as Ehlo took the handoff for the layup and lead with three seconds left. And then Nance with his back to the inbounder lost Jordan in what was supposed to be a double team to deny Jordan. Sellers got the ball in at the last tick and Jordan made “the Shot.”
I remember looking at Cavs general manager Wayne Embry, inching back in the corridor that led back to the locker rooms. I asked him later what was he doing. He said, “I knew we gave him too much time.”
My personal favorite moment from one of the most amazing last minutes of play ever was Jordan stopping in front of the writers, myself, Kent McDill and Lacy Banks, sitting next to the Bulls bench before the game. We had much better seats then. Jordan taunted us all about how we’d all picked the Cavs to win the series. After all, they were 6-0 against the Bulls that season. Magic Johnson that season called the Cavs the East’s Team of the 90s. Jordan said the Bulls would take care of all our predictions that afternoon.
Like Jordan said, he was devastated about that Game 4 overtime loss Friday night in Chicago Stadium. He’d scored 50 points with his teammates basically throwing the ball back to him like it was on fire. But he missed two of four free throws and a jumper at the end of regulation for the win. Daugherty then made two clutch free throws in overtime for the winner.
Same old Bulls. Yes, even with Jordan.
That was, believe it or not, the prevailing attitude in Chicago back then. Like having Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus for the Bears or Ernie Banks and Billy Williams for the Cubs; Chicago teams aren’t winning anything. Here was another famous individual. But it was a team game.
The Chicago Tribune was a good example. I was the beat writer covering the team that season. Bernie Linciciome, one of our columnists, liked basketball. And he loved Jordan. So he came to a lot of games. But rarely did the newspaper ever send anyone else to write about the Bulls. After that Game 4, Bernie’s column was on the front page of the sports section. My game story was on page eight. The sports section was led by a Blackhawks story and then two on the Kentucky Derby and one each on the Cubs and White Sox. It was hardly bias; the community wasn’t that interested back then.
The story did get to the lead in the sports section after the win, though.
Jordan was despondent after his Game 4 failures at the end, though, typically, defiant.
“We weren’t supposed to win in Cleveland (Game 1),” he said. “We just have to do it again.”
Jordan never ran away from responsibility and spent more time post game from that Game 4 talking than everyone on the team combined. “We’re the kind of team that thrives when no one expects us to do anything,” he said.
“Even the greatest golfers miss a putt once in a while,” he said.
Yes, we heard a lot of golf comparisons back then, also. This was looking like a quadruple bogey.
The series had taken a turn to the off the court stuff.
The Cavs were the team on the rise. They were on the way to a 60-win season when a Rick Mahorn cheap shot back in February knocked out Cavs star point guard Mark Price with a concussion. The Cavs were the Pistons’ chief rival then. Detroit thought little, actually, of the Bulls. The NBA, believe it or not, was still celebrating Detroit’s dirty play. The hit was so egregious the NBA took the then unprecedented step of a $5,000 fine. Though it was Price with a groin injury in missing Game 1 that set back the Cavs. Coach Lenny Wilkens probably erred in making Ron Harper the point guard and the Cavs offense broke down. A limited Price returned after that, and it seemed Jordan’s late game misses had enabled the Cavs to right themselves for Game 5 back home.
The Cavs’ great, young team was a classic build-in-the-draft strategy with Daugherty, Harper, Price and John “Hot Rod” Williams from the 1986 draft and then a trade for Nance. The Bulls were slightly ahead having Jordan. They defeated the Cavs in five games in the 1988 playoff first round. The Game 5 win in 1988 was when coach Doug Collins gave Scottie Pippen his first career start over Sellers. The Bulls that season had traded Charles Oakley not only to add Bill Cartwright, but to open a spot for Horace Grant to start alongside Pippen.
The Bulls would be the undoing of perhaps the greatest run that never happened. The Bulls with Jordan knocked the Cavs out of the playoffs in 1988, 1989, 1992, 1993. And then again in 1994 when Jordan was playing baseball. The Bulls and the shot went down with all that other Cleveland curse stuff like the fumble, drive, Rocky Colavito. LeBron finally put an end to it.
But that series was the turning point for the Bulls.
In the last game of the regular season, 5-0 against the Bulls that season, the Cavs rested their starters. Yes, sometimes it happened then, but usually the last game of the season. The Bulls needed momentum so they played their regulars. Led by rarely used Randolph Keys, the Cavs won. Really, what chance did this Bulls team have after finishing with three fewer wins than the previous season?
Then came the Game 1 win as Jordan was amazing in those statement games. The Bulls won Game 1 in the next round in overtime to lead to the upset of the Knicks and then Game 1 in the conference finals in Detroit before the Pistons recovered on the way to their first of two straight titles.
The Cavs won Game 2, but then back in Chicago, David Letterman was on the road with his TV show and how do you go to Chicago and not have Michael Jordan? After the Bulls went ahead 2-1 with Jordan scoring 44 points, Jordan went on with Letterman at the Chicago Theater. Jordan, by the way, averaged 39.8 points, 8.2 assists and 5.8 rebounds in that series in stats you never hear about.
Jordan came out introduced by Letterman as “Just possibly the greatest basketball player today.” He was wearing a bright blue sport coat over a white t-shirt and gray slacks. Kids in the audience screamed when Jordan said he was 26. The kids got it then. Letterman introduced Ernie Banks in the audience and Jordan went on to tell the story of cutting off part of his big toe when he was five years old chopping wood against parents’ orders. Jordan also quipped about everyone in his family being under six foot tall, but the milkman being 6-7. He quickly said his father was back stage and they joke about that all the time. Jordan already was talking title and said the Bulls had a chance, though slim as he put his fingers about two inches apart. Letterman tried to get Jordan to talk about playing the Knicks in the next round, but Jordan said if they won. It would become an issue in the series as the Cavs were kind of goaded into saying they were upset about Jordan going on TV like that in the middle of the series with arrogance about looking to the next round already.
Though anger was a tough emotion to believe with that Cavs group. It fit together like perfect gears, but without much anger. Maybe too nice?
Then Jordan went out and messed up the end of Game 4.
So predictably he was buoyant for Game 5. Similarly when the Bulls lost the Game 5 back in Chicago in the 1993 Finals in the old 2-3-2 format, Jordan jauntily met the team with a cigar in his mouth going to Game 6 in Phoenix saying, “Good morning NBA champions.”
I remember flying in that Sunday morning with my friend Mike Imrem from the Herald. Jerry Reinsdorf was on our flight, not in first class, as I recall, and we gave him a ride to the arena in our rental car. Things were much more informal in those days. Though Reinsdorf did get a ride back with the team on their chartered flight that day. The team flew commercial in the regular season back then, but charter in the playoffs.
And then the Shot. Collins with his curly hair flying was jumping and leaping across the court. Jordan went on the CBS broadcast and joked how it wasn’t a free throw. Like he famously said, he succeeded because he failed so often. It was one of the great days in Chicago sports history because it effectively began the greatest sports era Chicago has known, the shot heard ‘round the Loop, East Garfield Park, Back of the Yards, Lawndale, Streeterville, Uptown, Sauganash, Hyde Park, West Pullman, Wrightwood, Albany Park, around the basketball world.