Originally published June 16, 1998.
SALT LAKE CITY — For one shining moment, nothing else mattered.
The uncertainty of the future, bitter conflicts of the past and pain from another grueling marathon season were pushed aside, if only briefly, for a glorious celebration of achievement.
Two days after the disappointment in Chicago, the Bulls took their victory party 1,200 miles west. Smiles and hugs dominated on the formerly hostile Delta Center court, and champagne flowed in the visiting locker room.
That’s six NBA championships in eight years, and to a man the Bulls said this one was the sweetest because nothing came easy right up until the end.
“It was the toughest route, toughest challenge in the six championships that we’ve won,” said Michael Jordan, who added to his already remarkable legend by hitting the game-winning basket in the Bulls’ 87-86 victory in Game 6 and becoming the unanimous Finals MVP choice.
“In some people’s eyes, no one expected us to fulfill this, and that was part of the challenge. In the five before, everyone predicted us in some respects, and it was expected hands down that we would win. Here it wasn’t, and we had to do it against a team that played well all season long, played at home, had a crowd that was energetic and kept them motivated — and we lost our opportunity to do it in Chicago.
“At first, as soon as the game ended in Chicago, there were were some dim feelings and some negative thoughts. (But) as time went past, I think everyone realized that if we wanted that sixth title, we had to go through Utah to get it.”
And they had to do it against longer odds than they envisioned. Scottie Pippen entered the game with an aching back and aggravated the injury at the start of the game. Ron Harper also was a bit under the weather with a stomach virus.
But Pippen and Harper gutted it out, Toni Kukoc (15 points on 7-for-14 shooting) stepped up into the role of offensive sidekick and Jordan (45 points on 15-for-35 shooting) simply hoisted the team on his back.
“He wanted this one so bad,” said Dennis Rodman, who had seven points and eight rebounds off the bench. “We worked hard, and Michael said, ‘Let’s win this and go back home.’ “
If the game happened to be Jordan’s last in the NBA, you couldn’t have written a better storybook ending to a sometimes (by Bulls standards, anyway) nightmarish season.
Jordan, after making the defensive play of the game a few seconds earlier, drilled the game-winner from 18 feet with 5.2 seconds remaining after shaking loose from Utah’s Bryon Russell.
“It was a do-or-die situation, so I let the time tick to where I felt like I had the court right where I wanted it to be. Stockton was on the right side with Steve Kerr. I knew he couldn’t gamble because Steve’s killed them before. As soon as Russell reached, he gave me a clear lane. I made my initial drive, and he bit on it. I had a great look.”
Jordan said he never had a doubt after his shot — which he called “an easy shot” — and had confidence the Bulls would come up with the defensive stop.
“I don’t know if anybody could write a scenario that’s quite as dramatic as that was,” Bulls coach Phil Jackson said.
Even the Jazz, which suffered through the disappointment of being runner-up for a second consecutive year, had to marvel at Jordan.
“I think everybody knows how he should be remembered,” Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said, “as the greatest player that has ever played.”
Jazz forward Karl Malone (31 points, 11 rebounds) had another great game but couldn’t lead his team past Jordan.
“Without a doubt, I’m disappointed,” Malone said. “We fought hard; the guys did a good job. It’s tough, a tough loss for us. I give them credit for it. They won the ballgame.”
But it certainly was a struggle.
Jordan converted two pairs of free throws, the final two with 59.2 seconds left, to tie the score at 83. Stockton, though, hit a clutch three-pointer at the other end with 41.9 seconds to go for an 86-83 Utah lead.
After a timeout, Jordan cut the lead to a point with a drive with 37.1 seconds remaining. The Bulls still needed a defensive stop, and Jordan produced that, too. After Malone got the ball in the post, Jordan snuck up from behind to strip the ball. He recovered the loose ball with about 18 seconds left and headed up the court.
The Bulls didn’t call timeout this time. Jordan set up and worked on an isolation play against Russell.
The Jazz had one final chance, but Stockton’s three-pointer bounced off the rim, and the Bulls’ celebration was on.