Really now, how else could it possibly end? How else could Michael Jordan's spine-tingling career conclude other than with him dominating crunch time, scorching the opponent by scoring his team's final eight points to win his sixth NBA championship.
The play would turn out to be Jordan's final shot as a Chicago Bull, 17 feet out at the top of the key, though no one knew it at the time. It would turn out to be one of those larger-than-life moments that defines true greatness and legendary status.
It's June 14, 1998, Salt Lake City, Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
The situation is grim for the Bulls, who have a 3 games to 2 lead in the championship series: Scottie Pippen, Jordan's championship sidekick, is in such agony from a back injury that he is useless; Jordan is receiving virtually no help at all from his other teammates, leaving it up to him to deliver another championship to Chicago; other than Jordan, only Toni Kukoc, with 15 points, has also scored in double figures.
Jordan is clearly tiring, too; he had missed five consecutive shot attempts at one point in the final quarter and had missed 14 of his last 17 shots heading into crunch time. The prospect of a seventh game -- something Jordan and the Bulls have never faced during their championship dynasty -- looks like a possibility after Utah's John Stockton drills a 3-pointer to give the Jazz an 86-83 lead in the final minute..
Yet Jordan takes the inbounds pass, races upcourt, drives right past Bryon Russell and lays the ball in with 37 seconds left. His 42nd and 43rd points of the night slice the deficit 86-85.
The Jazz work the ball to Karl Malone, and as he is about to make his patented power move to the hoop, Jordan sneaks up from behind and strips the ball loose with 18.9 seconds left. "He never saw me coming," MJ would say afterwards.
The move silences the stunned crowd, which was about to explode in celebration had Malone made the shot. As Jordan gains possession after his steal, he refuses to call time out and instead races upcourt with a hard dribble.
As Jordan moves past halfcourt, Russell flies over to pick him up. As the clock winds down to eight seconds, Russell reaches in for an attempted steal. Jordan uses a crossover dribble, faking Russell nearly out of his hightops. Russell slips, freeing Jordan up at the top of the key, 17 feet out.
"It was a do-or-die situation, so I let the time tick to where I felt like I had the court right where I wanted it to be," Jordan would explain. "As soon as Russell reached, he gave me a clear lane. I made my initial drive, and he bit on it. I had a great look at the basket."
Jordan rises from the floor to launch his shot. "When the crowd gets quiet, the moment is there," Jordan would say. "Once you get into the moment, when you know you are there, things start to get quiet, and you start to the read the court very well. When Russell reached, I knew the moment was there."
The ball floats through the air in perfect rotation. The clock winds down to 5.4 ... 5.3 ... 5.2 ... as the ball swishes elegantly through the basket, hitting nothing but net, MJ's 44th and 45th points of the night.
Jordan raises his arms. The Bulls have the lead, 87-86. The Jazz, stunned and frustrated, call time to set up a final play. "You're unbelievable," Bulls guard Ron Harper screams in Jordan's ear as they walk to the sidelines together, arm in arm.
Bulls coach Phil Jackson strategizes, designing a defense to stop Utah, but Jordan is sure the game is over. "I know our defense will stop them," he thinks to himself.
Utah inbounds to Stockton, who is immediately picked up and hounded by Harper. With one second left, Stockton launches a 3-pointer. The ball is altered by Harper's tough, in-the-face defense. The ball hits the front of the rim. Ballgame. Bulls win, securing their third straight NBA crown and sixth in eight seasons.
The celebration, one we have all become too familiar with in June, is on. Naturally, Jordan is named Finals MVP, an award he has captured in each of the Bulls' six championship seasons. He not only scores 45 in the clincher, but in Chicago's last two possessions, with the title on the line, he is the only Bull to even touch the ball. Not one pass is made to another Bull. MJ winds up scoring the Bulls' last eight points, in the final 2:05.
The 45-point performance surpasses, in the minds of many, the countless other memorable moments of his career, even Game 5 of the previous NBA Finals, when, despite being sick with a stomach virus, he scored 38 points to lead the Bulls to victory over Utah.
"I didn't think he could top that performance," Jackson would say afterwards, "but he topped it here tonight. I think this was the best performance ever that we've seen from Michael Jordan to win a game, win in a critical situation and critical game in the series. He's proven it so many times, over and over again. Michael's the guy who always comes through in the clutch. He's a real-life hero."
"Michael Jordan," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan would say, "is the greatest to ever play this game. You saw why tonight."