(The most famous shot in NBA history. Photo by Fernando Medina, Getty Images)
Since Michael Jordan came back from retirement in 1995, there was the impending sense that at any minute the Bulls dynasty could come to an end. After Chicago's championships in 1996 and 1997, people started asking: will Jordan be back? Will Scottie be back? Will Dennis be back? Will Phil be back? And in succession, each person seemed to stick for one more year at a time. But in 1998, it became clear that the era was coming to a close. Bulls general manager Jerry Krause vowed that Phil Jackson would not be returning as the team's coach, and Jordan, in the final year of his contract, vowed that he would never play for anyone but Phil Jackson.
With Krause steadfast in his decision, the 1997-98 season was considered the farewell tour of not only the greatest basketball team of all time but the greatest basketball player of all time. Jordan's popularity was so immense that the Bulls sold out all 82 games they played that year, even filling games in Vancouver and Toronto to capacity.
That season, Chicago finished with a 62-20 record, the best in the Eastern Conference. While it wasn't as good as their 72 and 69-win seasons in '96 and '97, it was an extremely impressive mark considering Scottie Pippen, Luc Longley and Steve Kerr missed a combined 100 games. Jordan led the league in scoring with 28.7 per game and was named the MVP for the fifth time of his career.
But as the postseason came towards an end, it appeared appropriate that this was supposedly the Bulls' last hurrah. In their conference finals series against the Indiana Pacers, it took the full seven games for them to advance to the NBA Finals. And in the finals, they couldn't put it away when they had the chance in Game 5. A road victory by the Jazz made it a 3-2 series with the next two games to be played in Utah. For the first time in a while, the Bulls not only looked beatable but looked like a defeat wasn't out of the realm of possibility.
Needing a road victory in Game 6 to clinch their sixth title in franchise history, the Bulls appeared to be down to their last breaths. Scottie Pippen was hampered by a bad back and played in just 26 minutes and scored only eight points; Steve Kerr was so hounded defensively that he didn't even get a shot off; only Toni Kukoc, who scored 15 points on 7-14 shooting, scored in double-figures besides Jordan. Even Michael, at 35 years old, appeared more exhausted than ever.
With 41.9 seconds left in regulation, John Stockton hit a wide-open three to give the Jazz an 86-83 lead.
It looked like the series was heading to a Game 7 -- the first the Bulls would've played in the NBA Finals. But Jordan, using what little energy he had left, carried his team over the final 41.9 seconds. Out of the timeout, Jordan blew past Jazz small forward Bryon Russell and laid it in with 37.1 seconds left. Then on Utah's next possession, Jordan sneaked up behind Karl Malone and stole the ball, putting the Bulls within a basket of claiming the lead.
"When I got the ball, I looked up and saw 18.5 seconds left," Jordan recalled. "And I felt like we couldn't call a timeout; it gives the defense an opportunity to set up. It was a do-or-die situation. I let the time tick to where I had the court right where I wanted it."
(Russell guarding Jordan prior to the final shot. Photo by Scott Winterton, Getty Images)
With nine seconds left, Jordan made his move. With Russell again guarding him, he took a step inside the three-point line and gave the Jazz forward a soft push. Bryon was knocked to the foul line as Jordan raised up for his 35th shot of the game. Russell couldn't recover in time, and with the largest NBA audience of all time watching at home, Jordan calmly sank the winning bucket with 5.2 seconds left. It was 45th point of the game and his 16th point of the quarter.
"John Stockton was on the right side with Steve Kerr, and he couldn't gamble," Jordan said, "and as Russell reached, he gave me a clear lane. I made my initial drive, he bit, and I stopped, pulled up, great look."
After drilling the go-ahead bucket that put the Bulls up 87-86, Jordan stuck with the pose of his shot release for a second, like a home run hitter admiring a right field blast.
On Utah's final possession, John Stockton had a decent look from the top of the three-point line. He raised up and fired over Ron Harper, but his shot rattled in and out. The Bulls players ran out onto the floor and celebrated their second three-peat in eight seasons; to nobody's surprise, Jordan was named the series MVP for the sixth time in his career.
"Last year, in the fifth game here, I didn't think he could top that," said Phil Jackson, referencing Jordan's performance after coming down with the flu. "I think he topped that. I think it's the best performance ever by Michael Jordan at a critical moment in a critical series. No one has ever done it better."
"Michael has probably got another five years left before we see a decline in him" Pippen said. "There's other things that he knows that is waiting in his game that he can always pull out. Right now, we're seeing him probably at the top of his game."
"Let's face it," Steve Kerr said. "We all hopped on Michael's back. He just carried us. It was his game tonight. That guy was ridiculous. He is so good it's scary."
Immediately after the game, the talk arose as to whether this was the last of the Bulls or not. Although no one gave a definitive answer, it was obvious that the players felt the era had come to a close.
"Unless something absolutely unusual happens, I don't expect to see us back here," Jackson said. "And what a great run it's been."
Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf vowed to pay the $80 million it would cost to keep everyone together. "We hope this is not the end of this run," he said. "I don't want to be the person who breaks up the Chicago Bulls as long as they're winning championships."
But Krause's feuds ran deep, and the schism between the guys on the floor and the guys upstairs became apparent. Neither Phil, Scottie, or Jordan was on speaking arrangement with Krause, and when Phil announced that he wasn't coming back to the Bulls, the domino effect came into play. Not long after that, Michael Jordan announced his retirement, saying that he was "99.9%" sure that it was final.
With the announcement of his retirement, Jordan solidified what was the greatest athletic career in American sports history. From his game-winning shot in the championship game in college, from his early years in Chicago where he struggled to get past the Pistons, to finally getting past Detroit and winning three titles, to the lows of his father dying and his sabbatical in minor league baseball, to returning to the league, to initially losing to the Magic, to winning to 72, and winning another title, and going out on top on a game-winning shot -- no one had ever produced a more storybook career full of memorable moments. There was The Shot, The Double-Nickle Game, The Flu Game, the 63-point game against the Celtics, The Con Game against the Knicks, The Shrug against the Blazers, The Layup against the Lakers, and finally The Last Shot against Utah.
It was fitting that Jordan saved his best for last. Considering the circumstances, there was no question that M.J.'s winner over Russell was not only the greatest moment in his career, but the greatest moment in NBA history. With a Nielsen rating of 22.3 and a total viewership of 72 million viewers, Bulls-Jazz Game 6 was -- and still is -- the most-watched NBA game of all time. At that moment, Michael Jordan was the most famous man on the planet, and the Bulls were the most famous team. For his part, Bryon Russell became the consummate victim of a last-second shots in the NBA -- even surpassing Jordan's first victim: Craig Ehlo. And while some to this day question if Jordan's push-off is the biggest no-call the league had ever seen, few believe that it should have been called.
"I've had referees come up to me and say they would've made that call, but who was going to call a push-off at that time on the greatest player to ever play the game?" Russell said in 2004. "But that night, it just felt like they weren't going to let us win."
(An alternate view. Photo by Scott Cunningham, Getty Images)
Without Jordan and Jackson in place, the Chicago Bulls' collapse was fast and swift. Scottie Pippen was traded to the Houston Rockets; Steve Kerr was traded to the San Antonio Spurs; Luc Longley was dealt to the Phoenix Suns; Jason Caffey was traded to the Warriors; Jud Buechler signed with Detroit; Dennis Rodman signed with the Lakers; and Scott Burrell signed with the Nets. By the time the next season began, only Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc, Dickey Simpkins, Bill Wennington, and Randy Brown were left from the championship teams. Chicago fell off the map and became one of the worst teams in the NBA over the next eight years.
Jerry Krause resigned as Chicago's GM in 2003. Although he had brought in every Bulls player on the '96 through '98 championship teams that wasn't Michael Jordan, his legacy was forever ruined by breaking up the Chicago Bulls. Whether the Bulls would've won it or not in 1999 is up for debate; the San Antonio Spurs were a great team that year. However, Krause never gave it a chance to play out. He was convinced that he, as the architect of the championship teams, could make it happened with and without Jordan and Pippen and Jackson. He learned the hard way that he was wrong.
Success was hard to come by for the players on the old Bulls team. Phil Jackson came out retirement a year later and coached the Los Angeles Lakers, where he led them to back-to-back-to-back NBA titles. Steve Kerr won two additional championships in 1999 and 2003 -- sandwiching the years the Lakers won it all. Scottie Pippen had brief success with the Portand Trail Blazers in 2000. But the Blazers couldn't get past the Lakers and lost in Game 7 in a contest they had led all the way.
Just two weeks after the 1998 finals, the NBA announced that it was locking out its players until a new collective bargaining agreement could be worked out. The 1998-99 season did not begin until February, canceling events such as the All-Star Game and the Slam Dunk Contest. The NBA took a huge dip in the ratings after Jordan's retirement. They were initially helped by the rise of Phil Jackson's Lakers team that was charismatic and star-powered. But no one could match the presence of Michael Jordan, and the league was forced to search for the "Next Jordan" for years to come.
In 2001, Michael Jordan came out of retirement and played a pair of seasons with the Washington Wizards. While Jordan's arrival was an economic godsend for local businesses, he did nothing that could possibly rival what he did as a member of the Chicago Bulls. And with his comeback, Jordan replaced his lasting image against the Jazz -- bar none, the greatest end of a career in sports -- with an otherwise irrelevant one in the final game of the 2003 regular season.