May 7th marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most famous plays in NBA history.
It was the 5th and deciding game of the ’89 playoffs’ opening round. Late in the 4th quarter, the Chicago Bulls trailed the Cleveland Cavaliers by a point.
The game clock read :03.
Michael Jordan situated at the near elbow made his way towards the far court. After fighting off Larry Nance’s relentless defense, Jordan would gather the inbounds pass and reverse field.
The game clock hit :02.
Jordan, now hounded by Craig Ehlo, was just above the free throw line.
The game clock hit :01.
Jordan elevated for what seemed like an eternity.
With Ehlo’s hand in his face, Jordan subtly double clutched and released his shot.
The game clock hit :00.
The ball descended from its apex, grazed the back rim and rattled in.
Basket good, Bulls win the game and the series.
The play is forever known by its simple two word monicker, “The Shot.”
The aftermath was a gamut of emotions in the often zero-sum game of sports.
Jordan who unleashed a victorious jump, pump and triple-pump was soon engulfed by jubilant teammates.
Craig Ehlo, who moments earlier scored a go-ahead layup, slumped to floor, despondent.
The once boisterous Cleveland crowd was reduced to, as the great Jim Durham described, a ‘stunned silence.’
It was the culmination of a riveting playoff game that saw nine lead changes in the final three minutes. 30 years later, “The Shot” leaves a lot for discussion, both for case studies and connoisseurs alike.
Was “The Shot” Michael Jordan’s signature moment? That’s debatable.
His game winner in the ’98 Finals to clinch the Bulls 6th title… his mid-air hand switch in the ’91 Finals… perhaps his shoulder shrug in the ’92 Finals… all of these should be in the conversation.
Was “The Shot” Michael Jordan’s most significant moment? That’s indisputable.
Until then, Jordan had secured professional accolades but still didn’t realize professional triumph.
“The Shot” didn’t immediately deliver a coveted title, but it elevated the Bulls to a plateau in which they would legitimately compete for them.
“The Shot” altered history but also presents historical truths.
To support this position one simply has to engage in a game of ‘What if…’
What if Michael Jordan missed “The Shot?”
What if Nance had deterred Jordan for a tad longer on the inbounds pass?
What if Ehlo, who had a hand in Jordan’s face, had gotten just a mere piece?
What if the ball, instead of rattling in, rattled out?
There exists today a fealty to Jordan’s invincibility – this is particularly among a generation that wasn’t of age. The ‘what if’ exercise helps dispel that fallacy.
In ’85, Michael Jordan took the NBA by storm, winning Rookie of the Year honors. But the Bulls lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round of the playoffs.
In ’86, Jordan had put up 63 points at Boston Garden. But the Bulls were swept in that opening-round series. The Celtics once again swept the Bulls the following post-season.
Jordan’s Bulls wouldn’t enjoy a winning campaign and wouldn’t win a playoff series until his 4th season.
In ’88 there was some optimism. A 50-win Bulls team finally tasted playoff success following an opening round victory against those same Cavs. The team’s nucleus comprised Jordan and rookies Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant.
Conversely, there was the close of the ’89 regular season.
The Bulls limped towards the finish line, losing 8 of their final 10 regular season games, including a loss to the Cavs. In fact, Chicago went 0-6 against Cleveland that campaign.
This time around, the 6th-seeded Bulls were underdogs to Lenny Wilkens’ still talented, now seasoned and undoubtedly vengeful squad. All three Bulls beat writers picked the Cavs, one even predicting a sweep.
What if the ’89 Bulls team, one that already took a step backwards, lost game 5?
What would have been the tone heading into the following season and the future?
Were Pippen and Grant actually key pieces to a championship team?
How much more unpopular would the Charles Oakley – Bill Cartwright trade have been?
The Bulls were already enduring one scourge, the Detroit Pistons. Would the Cavs be another one?
If you think that’s mind-boggling, let’s play the ‘What if’ game with regards to the legacy of arguably the greatest player in NBA history.
At the outset of the ’89 playoffs, the Bulls actually came out strong, taking a surprising 2-1 series lead. They’d have a chance to wrap things up at raucous Chicago Stadium in Game 4 (back then, the opening round was a best of 5). And that’s when things again regressed down the stretch.
Jordan, despite putting up 50 points, missed 2 key free throws in the final minute of regulation, missed the potential game winner at the end of regulation, missed his only FG attempt in overtime, and eventually fouled out. The Bulls fell 108-105.
What if, along with the burden of Game 4 failures, Jordan had missed another buzzer beater in the elimination game? What if Jordan would have suffered his fourth opening-round defeat in his fifth season?
LeBron James at this juncture in his career had already made an NBA Finals. Jordan had yet to make it to Memorial Day.
Would Jordan, unlike his notable contemporaries, Bird and Magic, forever be considered a great individual talent incapable of leading a team to greater heights?
Point A to Point B to Dynasty
Michael Jordan’s magical moment led to an equally magical playoff run for the ’89 Bulls. But it didn’t yield immediate riches.
That same postseason, the Bulls would eventually lose a hard-fought Eastern Conference Finals (ECF) to the Pistons in six. The Bulls would suffer a similar fate the following season, losing the ECF to Detroit in seven – the Bulls third straight season postseason loss to “The Bad Boys.”
The fourth time was a charm as the Bulls swept the Pistons in the ’91 ECF.
Jordan suffered the same anguish in overcoming the “The Bad Boys” as he did during his first four postseasons. But one thing was certain: By the end of the ’89 ECF, it was the Pistons – and only the Pistons – that stood in the way of the Bulls’ ultimate goal.
Not the Cavs… not anymore.
Not Charles Barkley’s Sixers, who the Bulls would eliminate in both the ’90 and ’91 playoffs.
Not Dominque Wilkins and his Hawks.
And certainly not the Bulls’ next arch enemy after the Pistons.
“We’re Going To New York, Baby”
Jordan uttered this exact phrase to CBS’s James Brown moments after “The Shot.”
That playoff run was the genesis of another great rivalry, the Bulls and the Knicks. After “The Shot,” Chicago would pull off another upset, beating New York in six games.
Starting in ’89, the Jordan-led Bulls won all five of their playoff matchups (the Bulls only postseason blemish against the Knicks came during Jordan’s ’94 hiatus).
Unlike what the Bulls did to the Pistons, the Knicks were never able to vanquish their nemesis.
It would also be erroneous to claim “The Shot” sent the Cleveland franchise into the abyss.
In ’92, the Cavs (with several key figures from ’89) would win 57 games and advance to the ECF. In ’93 they’d secure 54 wins and another playoff spot. But both of those postseasons ended with losses to a Bulls organization in the midst of their first three-peat.
“The Shot” was a gateway to a dynasty, but by no means was the franchise free of strife. However, the ’89 dramatics against the Cavs instilled prolonged fortification.
Doug Collins would be fired after the ’89 season, replaced by Phil Jackson. It was shocking and controversial. But, in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter.
During the ’91 Finals, Jordan missing the tying bucket at the end of a Game 1 loss to the Lakers didn’t matter.
Falling down 0-2 to the Knicks in the ’93 ECF didn’t matter.
During the ’98 Finals, facing a 3-point deficit in front of a hostile Utah crowd with under 40 seconds to go… it didn’t matter.
Let us revisit the key point of this case study:
The cornerstone of Michael Jordan’s legacy – one of sport’s most exalted players, the key player in one of sport’s greatest dynasties, one of the globe’s most famous athletes – was established 30 years ago in the suburbs of Cleveland as the result of 17-foot jumper that won an opening round playoff series.
The cynics may just dismiss this as conjecture. Maybe so, but it’s plausible conjecture.
If the case study approach is not appealing then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the connoisseur’s approach.
“The Shot” was an exquisite play by an extraordinary player… and it was Michael Jordan’s finest redemption story.