MOMENTS, MEMORIES and MADNESS with STEVE CAMERON: It was ‘The Last Dance’ for another great NBA team as well
STEVE C. WILSON/Associated Press file John Stockton of the Utah Jazz goes up against the defense of the Chicago Bulls' Steve Kerr (25) and Brian Williams (18) in Game 4 of the 1997 NBA Finals in Salt Lake City.
MARK J. TERRILL/Associated Press file Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls passes to a teammate in Game 1 of the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City.
There’s your answer before you even ask.
No, I am not watching “The Last Dance,” because I know the ending.
I was perturbed by it at the time, and now with this barely disguised “Ode to Michael Jordan” captivating sports fans all over again, I realize that the events of the 1997-98 playoffs are still annoying.
I remain perturbed — even more than two decades later.
Here’s a spoiler for folks who are watching every episode of “The Last Dance”…
Jordan will personally win Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz, wrapping up the series at a stunned Delta Center and giving the Bulls that last championship.
AS YOU’LL see, Michael does it by committing a blatant offensive foul and hitting the winning shot in an 88-87 victory that I don’t believe should have happened.
Yes, I was a sports editor and columnist in Utah at that time, so I needed to be objective and slightly biased at the same time.
Not easy, but…
My readers were almost entirely Jazz fans, so I had to write stories and recaps through their eyes while still being honest about things.
Having said that, I can tell you that Jordan was magnificent — especially in the waning moments of Game 6 — and he was the reason that game came down to a final shot.
But Jordan hit that open jumper to win it after clearly putting his hand on the hip of defender Bryon Russell and shoving him to the floor.
I’m sorry, it was a clear offensive foul — even if officials let Michael get away with almost anything simply because, well…
He was Michael Jordan.
FOR WHAT it’s worth, I still have my media credential for Game 6. It’s in a plastic sleeve that hangs on a lanyard.
Behind THAT credential in the plastic is my credential for Game 7 in Salt Lake City, which I had fully expected to need.
Before I give you the details and take all the suspense from the ending of “The Last Dance,” let me say that in 3½ years of covering the Jazz, that night of Game 6 was the ONLY time — right to this moment — I’ve ever seen John Stockton angry in public.
Everyone in this part of the world knows about Stockton’s stoicism on the court — he had (and has) the demeanor of an assassin — and that carried over to meetings with the media.
Oh, John was pleasant enough when approached after games. If you could wait long enough to talk to him — after he’d hid in the trainer’s room endlessly — he would politely answer questions.
And say basically nothing.
AFTER ONE season, John had a minor wrist surgery.
Everyone and his dog knew it was going to happen since Coach Jerry Sloan had mentioned it — but Stock said nothing about it.
A month or two later, I bumped into Stockton at a minor league baseball game. It was noticeable immediately that his lower arm and wrist had been shaved for the surgical procedure.
We exchanged pleasant greetings, and I said: “How did the wrist thing go? All well?”
Stockton replied: “What wrist thing?”
That was John Stockton is a nutshell, a man who believed that his job was to win basketball games for the Jazz, and that ANYTHING he might say could somehow give opponents the tiniest of edges.
So, Stock basically said nothing — while still talking and being friendly to the public and the media.
But after that Game 6 in 1998…
When John was ushered into the media conference area for his mandatory appearance, he was visibly angry.
Only teammates had ever seen THAT John Stockton, and it was almost scary.
TRUE TO form, John never quite said that the officials had stolen the game — nope, he’d never do that — but for once, he talked around the outcome and some critical plays in a way that made it obvious he thought the Jazz had been screwed.
And the anger never left his face.
For the record, there had been other key moments in the game besides Jordan shoving Russell to the floor to create an open jumper with 5.2 seconds remaining.
There were two controversial 24-second calls — one allowing a Chicago basket that probably shouldn’t have counted, and another waving off a Jazz hoop that appeared clearly to have been released before the shot clock buzzer.
By the way, I was sitting in the second row from the floor, so all of these critical plays happened right in front of me.
IF I HAD to guess, I’d say Stockton’s controlled fury once the game was over came down to the entire series of events, and maybe even a feeling that in the officials’ minds, the Bulls were untouchable and…
Maybe the whole country wanted them to win.
I know this: If you put John Stockton on a lie detector machine, he would say that Jazz absolutely earned a win in Game 6 — and had it taken from them.
Karl Malone didn’t even try to disguise the feeling.
“They wouldn’t have called Mike for an offensive foul if he’d pulled a gun and shot Bryon on that last play,” Malone said.
“He’s Michael Jordan.”
Frankly, I was in a bit of shock while these post-game interviews were going on, because I’d believed all along that the Jazz were in control and we were going to see a Game 7.
UTAH WAS up by three points with just over 30 seconds left.
The Bulls had the ball, and rather than go for a 3-point shot, the call was for Jordan to streak straight to the hoop for an easy lay-up.
But now Utah had the ball with a one-point lead, and everyone expected the Bulls to foul.
Since Stockton and fellow guard Jeff Hornacek were almost automatic free-throw shooters, everything looked good.
Except that Jordan made a miraculous play.
The Jazz often ran a play that involved a hand-off to Hornacek along the baseline.
Jordan guessed the set-up, jumped the play — maybe he ripped or slapped somebody’s arm, maybe it was close.
Either way, Michael stole the ball.
That set up his final shot, when he dipped his shoulder to the right and made Russell lean just enough, then pushed him to the floor.
Left completely alone, MJ knocked in the winning jumper.
I was in kind of a shock, much like everyone else in the Delta Center. The crowd had been booing the officials at times all night, and then it really started.
IF YOU’RE a fan of “The Last Dance,” you can judge that play for yourself.
Maybe you love Jordan and decide it doesn’t matter.
Maybe you think that’s just another physical NBA play.
Maybe they have an angle that makes Michael look innocent of a blatant foul.
Trust me, he wasn’t.
Bryon Russell was no Michael Jordan, but he was a good defender and he was owed a chance to contest that final shot.
What really bothers me about this whole thing — and why I can’t watch it — is that it was ALSO the “Last Dance” for the that great Jazz team.
Stockton and Malone never came that close to a title again.
They wound up losing to the Bulls in the last two NBA finals in which they competed.
In 1996-97, there was no doubt Chicago was the better team.
The following year, however…
Stock and Karl and their teammates deserved that title in 1998.
Or at least a fair chance to compete for it.
And I have no desire to watch that ripped away all over again.
Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.
Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball, once per month during the offseason.