His credibility, he said, was at stake. He was the best player in the game, hands down, yet he hadn't won an NBA championship. He'd dominate the highlight reels virtually every night from October to May, rack up scoring titles one after another, and yet others would be drinking the bubbly in June. It ate away at Michael Jordan. Every day.
So when Jordan and Bulls met the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the 1988-89 playoffs, Jordan boldly predicted that he would take down the Cavs. Cleveland was astonished at this level of trash talk, of brashness. Jordan, after all, hadn't won a thing. Hadn't even gotten to the NBA Finals, for goodness sakes. Who was this guy to say he'd take out the Cavs, the team that was 37-4 at home, had the league's second-best record and had beaten Jordan six straight times during the regular season. Who was this guy to say he'd take us down?
The noise in the Coliseum is deafening in this, the fifth and deciding game of the series. Three seconds remain. Time out on the floor. The Cavs lead, 100-99. Guard Craig Ehlo has just put the Cavs in perfect position to shove it all down Jordan's throat with a driving, uncontested, clutch two-handed layup. As Ehlo would say later, "The layup seemed to be the period to end the sentence."
During the timeout, the Cavs know one thing: the ball is going to Jordan, who already has 42 points. Cavs coach Lenny Wilkens decides to double team Jordan with Ehlo and Larry Nance, a move that will allow Brad Sellers to inbound the ball without a man fronting him.
When he realizes he's not going to be fronted by the 6-foot-10, long-armed Nance, who had been checking and harassing Sellers all night long, Sellers is astonished. "Thank goodness," he mumbles to himself. Without Nance's long arms frantically waving in front of his eyeballs, Sellers has clear court vision.
As Sellers attempts to inbound the ball from midcourt, Ehlo and Nance are all over Jordan, who is stationed down low near the basket. Jordan quickly pops out toward the free-throw line. Nance tries to block his way, while Ehlo gets caught flatfooted. "Michael is so exceptionally quick that before I knew it, he was at the foul line," Ehlo would later say.
Ehlo recovers. He catches up with Jordan, who is supposed to get a back screen from Bill Cartwright and then jump out again. Sellers looks for his second option: Scottie Pippen setting a pick to free up Craig Hodges in the corner. But Pippen is motionless as he watches MJ try to shake free from Ehlo and Nance.
Hodges slices hard toward the baseline. Sellers is just about to fling the ball to Hodges, but he pumps and holds onto the ball. Out of the corner of his eye, Sellers sees a blur. It's Jordan, breaking free from Ehlo and Nance. MJ slips into a crease where Sellers has a path to needle through a pass. Quickly, instinctively, Sellers zips the ball to Jordan.
He takes it on the right wing, far from the basket, and dribbles to the top of the key. Ehlo, off balance, nearly swipes it away. He stumbles, slightly, giving Jordan just the edge he requires to get off his shot. From just inside the circle, Jordan goes up and stays up. Ehlo recovers his balance and goes up too. As Ehlo flies toward MJ, at an angle, in an attempt to block the shot, Jordan swings the ball away from him, hangs in the air, and . . .
He lets the ball fly. The ball goes on a line to the basket and rattles home. Jordan leaps into the air and thrusts his fist one, two, three times in the air, a scene that has become etched in the minds of millions.
It has since became known, in both Chicago and Cleveland, as "The Shot." Ehlo would say he had never heard the Coliseum so loud and then so quiet in such a brief period of time. He is still haunted by Jordan's shot, even today, and the ramifications of it are still being felt, in both cities. "The Shot" was the beginning of the Bulls' rise to NBA supremacy. Sure, they had to wait two more seasons and watch the more talented and tougher Detroit Pistons beat them in back-to-back conference finals, first in six games, then in seven, en route to back-to-back NBA titles. But from then on, it was all Chicago. Three straight NBA titles and six in eight years. Cleveland, meanwhile, was never the same: its brilliant 57-win season was its all-time best. It won 15 fewer games the following season season, then finished with only 33 wins the next season. The franchise remains -- at least until LeBron matures -- haunted by "The Shot."