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We know the ending, but ‘Game 6: The Movie’ still a thrilling ride

“Game 6: The Movie” isn’t merely a rebroadcast of the 1998 Bulls-Jazz NBA Finals clincher. It’s a bit of a hybrid, as we see every minute of the game in real time, and we hear the calls of play-by-play man Bob Costas and analysts Doug Collins and Isiah Thomas as they were heard that day.

Michael Jordan shoots over the Utah Jazz’s Shandon Anderson in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.
Michael Jordan shoots over the Utah Jazz’s Shandon Anderson in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.
Mark J. Terrill/AP

We know how this movie ends, but it’s still a classic.

My guess is the ratings in Chicago for ESPN’s “Game 6: The Movie” will be at least triple the viewership in, say, Salt Lake City, given how the Game 6 in question was on June 13, 1998, when the Bulls knocked off the Jazz on the road to clinch their sixth championship and dance one last time before the band broke up and the key contributors went their separate ways.

For the last couple of months, the networks and the major cable sports channels have plugged some of the gaping holes in their schedules with replays of everything from the Masters to the 1975 World Series to last year’s NBA Finals to Auburn football when Bo Jackson was a blazing comet piercing SEC defenses. It’s great fun to revisit “real-time” broadcasts of these past contests — but a little jarring to realize and/or remember what sports on TV looked like before the advent of widescreen and high definition in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (The first major sporting event broadcast nationwide in HD was Super Bowl XXXIV on Jan. 30, 2000.) The colors were bright, but the picture was almost muddy; the camerawork was impressive but limited by the technology of the time. The graphics looked like something your 7-year-old could whip up on an app.

“Game 6: The Movie” (which debuted Wednesday on ESPN and is streaming on the ESPN app) is a little different. It isn’t merely a rebroadcast. It’s a bit of a hybrid, as we see every minute of the game in real time, and we hear the calls of play-by-play man Bob Costas and analysts Doug Collins and Isiah Thomas as they were heard that day — but we also view never-before-seen game footage captured by five NBA Entertainment cameras. Often the look and tone is more akin to a fictional sports movie or an episode of “Friday Night Lights” than a standard broadcast. The film boasts behind-the-scenes, docu-style footage, including a handful of great moments inside the Bulls’ huddles as Phil Jackson rallies the troops, as well as some camera angles on the players so close that it feels as if we’re on the floor. (At one point, Michael Jordan gets in Bill Wennington’s face and gives him a death stare we can feel all the way on the sofa.)

Like any memorable sports drama, “Game 6: The Movie” features multiple compelling storylines:

† Scottie Pippen scores the opening basket on a slam dunk, but he aggravates a back injury on the play and spends most of the first half getting treatment. (We see footage of Pippen in the trainer’s room, trying to stretch and recover.) Initial sideline reports say Pippen is out for the game, but he returns to the court after halftime and plays “through clenched teeth,” as Costas puts it. Jackson to Pippen just before the third quarter: “Can you start? Really? All right. Dennis [Rodman], hold up. . . . Get after them defensively, fellas, they’re shooting 60%. [Karl] Malone’s 8-for-11.”

† John Stockton, the Hall of Fame point guard for the Jazz, has back problems of his own and misses half a quarter before he’s able to return.

† With Pippen sidelined in the first half, the Bulls start the second quarter with Jordan on a customary break on the bench and a quintet of Wennington, Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler and Scott Burrell on the floor. All due and earned respect to those guys, but you can imagine how Chicago was holding its collective breath at the time.

† With Pippen extremely limited on both ends of the court, it was up to Jordan to shoulder an even bigger load than he’d already been carrying. At one point in the fourth quarter, Costas marvels at his efforts to grab a loose ball “with whatever gas is left in his tank” and later says, “Even Superman, apparently, gets tired.”

As the Bulls and Jazz trade narrow leads like heavyweight fighters in a championship bout, we return to a Bulls timeout strategy session, with Jackson urging his squad to “deny the corner passes, deny the corner entries.” The only player who talks in those huddles is Buechler. Kidding. It’s Michael. Of course, it’s Michael.

One of the most entertaining moments in “Game 6” occurs when we get close-up footage of Rodman and Malone knocking each other over and getting entangled with one another, as Costas notes, “[Rodman] and Karl Malone, regrettably, are scheduled to wrestle next month in one of those bogus events. Why Malone wants to lower himself to that is anyone’s guess.”

In the end, even with all the cool upgrades and nifty touches, “Game 6: The Movie” is still all about Game 6: The Game. Even though we know the Bulls will prevail, it still seems improbable when Stockton hits a three-pointer with 41.9 seconds left to put the Jazz up 86-83, and it still seems unlikely when Utah has the ball and a one-point lead, but Jordan makes the steal, and Jordan hits the shot, and Stockton’s attempted game-winner JUST misses. . . . And it’s all over.

Jackson and Jordan embrace on the court as the celebration begins. “That was beautiful,” Jackson says. “What a finish!”

Exactly.