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Michael Jordan: The Shot
The Final 19 Seconds of the Game
The 1989 playoffs marked the first time that the Chicago Bulls progressed to the conference finals for the the Michael Jordan era, but if not for the late game heroics of ‘His Airness’ in the first round the Bulls may have had to head home before their playoff adventure even got started. The turning point came in a make or break Game 5 against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the old Richfield Coliseum in Cleveland.
In truth the term make or break is an understatement. In the last three minutes of the series deciding game, the Bulls and Cavs exchanged the lead nine times. Jordan sunk a twelve foot jumper from the right side of the key to give the Bulls a 99-98 lead. The clock now displayed just six seconds. The Cavs came right back, executing a precise inbound play, with Craig Ehlo shaking free of Craig Hodges and laying up easily. Back in the bars and homes of Chicago, millions of heads instantly buried into millions of hands, would the Bulls’ season end right here?
In hindsight Craig Ehlo’s layup did actually give the Bulls a slight advantage, in the fact that it only ate up three seconds of the game clock, and as all NBA fans know, a lot can happen in the time it takes that clock to tick three times. For the Bulls, such moments were reserved for their star man, this was Micheal Time. Time and time again in his career, he seemed to look like he had all the time in the world, despite the magnitude of the situation.
The Bulls called a timeout, allowing everybody to catch their breath. Michael used the opportunity to reassure Hodges for allowing the last basket, stating that the last shot was his. This little exchange actually occurred before the Bulls huddled to discuss their options. Once in, Bulls coach Doug Collins outlined his plan A and B. Plan A involved Brad Sellers throwing the ball into play from the mid court, looking for MJ running away from Craig Ehlo on a backscreen from Bill Cartwright. If that didn’t work, then plan B would involve Scottie Pippen setting a pick for Craig Hodges who would shoot a two pointer from the corner.
Brad Sellers wasn’t really a fan favourite in Chicago, but made the historic correct play with split second precision. Jordan failed to get totally free from Ehlo and the intimidating Larry Nance, but drove and squeezed his way to the free throw line from a low position near the basket. Sellers delivered the perfect pass. Surely it was just case of Michael taking a shot or drive to the hoop. But even the great MJ wasn’t totally confident in his abilities, in both the current and previous game, his free throw stats had been rather average by his own high standards. Michael was thinking about a jump shot, while the Cavs and their 20,000 rowdy fans thought the opposite.
Indeed, the Cavs may have prevented MJ from getting any sort of chance, if not for Craig Ehlo swiping at the ball, just as Michael gathered the inbound pass. Ehlo’s attempted strip allowed Michael to take a step away, at the same time he swiped. Driving to the left, he hung for what seemed like an age and released the ball. In an instant the ball landed in the hoop, rippling the net slightly as it went through. The buzzer sounded, the scoreboard registered a 101-100 win for the Chicago Bulls; not only had they won the game but the first round series.
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‘The Shot’ as it is known today was all the more impressive because MJ had actually missed a similar shot at the buzzer in the previous game at the Chicago Stadium two nights before. Michael had also missed two crucial late free throws that would have prevented the overtime period that Cleveland won to force the series decider.
Furthermore, the impressiveness of Michael’s feat was signified by the fact that Cleveland had posted an excellent 37-4 home record during the regular season, sporting the second best record overall in the NBA. The impressive record included an incredible six straight wins over Jordan’s Bulls, before they finally managed to break the losing streak by winning Game 1 of the playoff series. Jordan described it as the biggest shot that he had ever hit in the NBA, and went as far to state that he felt that his credibility was on the line. After his failure to win the series in Chicago two nights earlier, the usually unflappable Jordan found himself close to tears. However, inspiration came at just the right time in the form of civil rights leader and presidential candidate, Jesse Jackson, who was a loyal Bulls fan. He actually approached the superstar while he was lathering up and told him simply to forget what had happened and concentrate on the task in hand.
MJ received further inspiration from the constant reassuring presence of his father, who only left his side on the stroke of game time. Michael was bothered and even a little fearful about missing the two free throws the previous Friday, and consequently struggled at the line in Game 5. More than two decades have passed since that iconic moment. Imagine if ‘The Shot’ had actually missed and MJ had been left to brood over his miss all summer long? Would such a failure have erased his confidence going into the 90s? It’s a difficult question to answer, but the important thing is that the shot went down, and Jordan celebrated in a rather uncharacteristic fashion for him; pumping his fist at the Cleveland crowd, yelling ‘Go home!’ at the top of his voice.
The reason for such remarkable behaviour lay with the fact that MJ had been taunted all series long, for supposedly predicting that the Bulls would win in four games. They taunted his free throws, shooting, and even went as far as uttering the most dreaded word in all of sports, ‘choke’, particularly in Game 5. Ironically MJ buried his series winning shot from the free throw line.
The Shot was probably the most memorable shot of Jordan’s career. He told the media that it was better than his game winner in the 1982 NCAA Championship game, where he buried a last second jumper to give his beloved North Carolina Tar Heels a narrow victory over Georgetown. After this game, fame no longer eluded MJ; this game and the shot set him up perfectly for the coming decade of world fame and glory with Chicago.