(Jordan's famous celebration. Photo by Ed Wagner Jr., Chicago Tribune)
May 5, 1989, may have been the day Michael Jordan officially became the greatest basketball player of all time.
On that date, the Chicago Bulls were playing the final game of their best-of-five first round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs, playing at home at Richfield Coliseum, were the favorites to advance to the next round. Not only had they won a franchise-record 57 games that year, ten more than the Bulls, they had beaten Chicago all six times during the regular season.
The Cavaliers were in control for most of Game 5. The Bulls' front court of Horace Grant and Bill Cartwright was in foul trouble all day, while Scottie Pippin had a particularly off day. Chicago hung around thanks to Michael Jordan, who posted his third consecutive 40-point performance, and finally caught up with them halfway into the 4th period.
With six seconds remaining in regulation, Michael Jordan eluded the Cavs' Craig Ehlo and drilled a mid-range floater to put the Bulls up 99-98. That gave him 42 for the game, with 15 coming in the final quarter.
Cleveland coach Lenny Wilkins devised a smart play out of the timeout. Ehlo inbounded the ball to Larry Nance, who waited for Ehlo, who was racing from out of bounds, to get beside him. Like a quarterback handing off to a running back, Nance tossed it to Ehlo, who sprinted to the basket and layed it in, giving the Cavs a 100-99 advantage with 3.2 seconds left.
At that moment, Ehlo was the hero of the contest. Playing on a sprained ankle, Ehlo had put together the best game of his playoff career: 24 points, with 15 coming in the 4th quarter.
Out of the Bulls' timeout, Jordan caught the ball just beyond the three-point arch. Jordan got to the top of the key, 16 feet away, with Craig Ehlo leaping to block his shot from beside him. "His Airness" launched into his shot and somehow hung in mid-air long enough for Ehlo to jump past him; with an unabridged shot at the basket, Jordan hurled the ball at the basket and got nothing but net as the buzzer sounded. As Ehlo crashed to the scorer's table in agony, Jordan exulted in a jumping fistpump before embracing with forward Brad Sellers.
Cleveland's Brad Daugherty, who played with Jordan at North Carolina, was in awe of the game-winner, calling it "unfathomable." ''I don't see how Michael stayed in the air that long. It's the most outstanding shot I've ever seen.''
Chicago coach Doug Collins, when asked what play he had drawn up for the final seconds, responded, "Give the ball to Michael and everyone else get the @!%# out of the way."
"The Shot," as it is simply referred as, produced the most ubiquitous highlight in NBA history. The video of Jordan hanging in mid-air, hitting the shot, and celebrating, mixed with the call of Bulls' radio announcer Jim Durham ("Here's Michael at the foul line, the shot on Ehlo... good! The Bulls win! They win!") has been played over, and over, and over again.
Ehlo's clutch performance was completely obscured by Jordan's shot, which posterized him for all eternity.
"I remember watching the shot go in and watching our fans just get devastated," Ehlo said. "I grew up watching the 'Wide World of Sports.' I remember that skier going down and them saying 'the agony of defeat.' That's exactly how I felt: how jubilant in victory this guy was, and then the agony of defeat that I had."
As commonly replayed as "The Shot" is in commercials and on ESPN, the actual live view of it, as it aired on CBS with Dick Stockton at the mic, is hardly ever shown -- possibly because CBS never broadcasted the famed angle of Jordan's shot. They just replayed the sideline view.
The Bulls would make it all the way to the conference finals before losing to the eventual-champion Detroit Pistons. The Cavs' loss was devastating to Cleveland sports fans; with Ron Harper, Mark Price, Larry Nance, Brad Daugherty, and Craig Ehlo, the Cavaliers were incredibly deep and had posted the second-best record in the NBA. Plus, Cleveland residents were only a few years past "The Drive" and "The Fumble," in which the Cleveland Browns coughed it up at the last second.
Jordan would go on to haunt the Cavaliers again and even posted his career-high against them, while Cleveland only managed to advance to the Finals when they drafted LeBron James, who some considered "the next Jordan."