Monday, September 10, 2001
Memories of MJ's first two acts
By Mitch Lawrence Special to ESPN.com
A version of this story originally was published on ESPN.com in January, 1999.
Our list of top Michael Jordan memories:
No. 1: Game 6 of 1998 NBA Finals vs. Utah
To set this up, remember that Jordan had played all but eight minutes in the previous two games, and this was his third game in five nights, with travel. So you had to wonder about his legs, about whether he could defy Father Time again.
Michael Jordan had the world at his fingertips when he soared with the Bulls.
He did so, with typical Jordanesque flair.
And largely without Scottie Pippen, who was hobbled by a bad back. In the final 35 seconds, Jordan came up with three plays for the Hall of Fame archives.
First, he drove through the Jazz for a hoop to cut Utah's lead to one point. Then he came up with a defensive gem, stripping Karl Malone of the ball in the low post.
We all knew what was coming next. It was just a matter of how Jordan would do it. Working against Bryon Russell, his stutter-step move sent the Jazz defender to the floor, allowing Jordan to get an open jumper with 5.2 seconds left.
Hello, title No. 6.
The shot, an instant replay of Jordan's game-winner against Russell in Game 1 of the '97 Finals, capped a 45-point effort. It would have been a great way to go out.
But don't take our word for it that it was Jordan's finest moment.
As Phil Jackson said afterward, "I didn't think he could top that game." Game 5, 1997, Jackson meant. "He topped it. I thought it was the best performance I've seen in a critical situation in a critical game in a series."
No. 2: Game 5 of 1997 NBA Finals vs. Utah
Finally, Jordan met his match in a NBA Finals.
Bad Park City pizza.
Or was it bad food out of the NBC commissary? Whatever he really ate, Jordan was so sick when the Bulls were faced with going down in the series, 3-2 that he had trouble putting on his jersey before the game.
What was called a stomach flu rendered Jordan sick before he walked out of the locker room for the opening tip-off.
Those weren't even his worst moments. Later, he admitted he almost passed out on the Delta Center floor. Dehydrated and exhausted, he still had the wherewithall to go out and score 38 points in 44 minutes in a 90-88 Chicago win. Imagine what he would have done if he had been remotely healthy.
"Michael's legacy continues to grow," Pippen said. "As long as he plays the game, he will amaze us no matter what."
No. 3: Air ball
Great moments No. 1 and 2 might not be possible without this one.
The playoff game Jordan blew.
Yes, it actually happened. It was May 7, 1995. Jordan had retired before the 1994 season to play baseball, but had returned for the final 17 games of 1995.
In the second round of the playoffs, the Bulls came up against the Orlando Magic.
In the final seconds of the opener in the Orlando Arena, Jordan not only had the ball stripped from him, leading to a Magic basket, he also passed up the final potential game-winning shot and threw the ball away in a 94-91 loss.
No one could believe their eyes.
"He didn't look like the old Michael Jordan," remarked Magic guard Nick Anderson. Anderson took a lot of heat for that comment, but it was true.
Deep down, Jordan knew it, too. So after the Bulls were eliminated by the Magic in six games, he rededicated himself to becoming the old Michael Jordan again.
No. 4: Clocked going 55
Nine days after proclaiming, "I'm back," Jordan adds the exclamation point to that statement. No one knows how to play Broadway better, and Jordan proved it again.
In only his fifth game back from his baseball hiatus, Jordan comes into the Garden and lights up Pat Riley's Knicks for 55 points in a 113-111 Bulls win on March 28, 1995.
His game-winning play? It's not a shot, but an assist off a drive in the final seconds as he finds Bill Wennington for a layup.
In New York, they're still talking about that night.
No. 5: Bird sees God
April 20, 1986. Boston Garden. It was M.J.'s second playoff appearance and just his fifth playoff game.
But NBA historians remember it as Jordan's coming out party. Against one of the legendary teams, Jordan scores a playoff-record 63 points and personally takes the Celtics to two overtimes before the Bulls fall, 135-131.
From this moment on, everyone has been put on notice: Jordan is a special player, one of the very few who can take his game to the next level in the playoffs.
"Today," Larry Bird said afterward, "God was disguised as Michael Jordan."
No. 6: Hang time
It's Jordan's signature shot.
It's May 7, 1989, and the Bulls and Cavaliers are tied 2-2 in their opening-round series. Playing on the road, the Bulls need a last-second shot to upset the favored Cavs.
Working against Craig Ehlo, Jordan pulls up for a medium-range jumper at the buzzer.
Bulls win! Bulls win!
From this moment forward, Jordan establishes himself as the best player in history of the game at knocking down buzzer-beaters in the pressure of a playoff series.
No. 7: Slam jam, thank you ma'am
If you're going to rank Air Jordan's all-time moments, you have to include at least one dunk.
That came in the slam-dunk contest at the 1988 All-Star weekend, a k a the Last Great Dunk-off.
The competition in Chicago Stadium came down to the two top dunking showmen in the game, Jordan and Dominique Wilkins.
And, appropriately, it came down to Jordan's final dunk.
Jordan gets a perfect score of 50 to win the contest.
Mitch Lawrence, who covers the NBA for the New York Daily News, writes a regular NBA column for ESPN.com.