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  • The future is still uncertain for Michael Jordan.
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  • Game 2: Chicago 93, Utah 88
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  • Karl Malone had more than the ball stolen by Michael Jordan.
  • Bulls fans celebrated Sunday night.

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  • 1998 NBA Finals Section
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  •   Jordan Applies the Finishing Touch

    Michael Wilbon

    By Michael Wilbon
    Washington Post Columnist
    Monday, June 15, 1998; Page B1

    SALT LAKE CITY — If it's the last time, it's also the sweetest. One more time, for the ages, for the highlight videos and the pages of sports history, Michael Jordan carried his team, made the critical defensive play, hit the game-winning shot. My goodness. It's the only ending you can imagine writing for Jordan.

    His running mate, Scottie Pippen, was ailing. Jordan's jump shot had deserted him a couple of weeks ago. He had played more minutes and more games this season than ever. And the Delta Center fans were raging, at incredible decibels, as their Utah Jazz team pushed the Bulls to the brink of the peril of Game 7.

    And that's just what Jordan has thrived on all his career, from his days as a freshman at North Carolina through his early years as an extraordinary soloist, through these six incomparable championship seasons. Even now, at 35 and his physical skills diminished, he loves those moment, craves them.

    So after stripping Karl Malone of the ball at one end with 18.8 seconds to play, Jordan was able to summon one last ounce of energy to shake Bryon Russell and flick a perfect jump shot with 5.2 seconds left that gave the Bulls an 87-86 victory.

    If it's the last shot of Jordan's career, he hit it. If it's the last shot of his career, he won a game with it, a sixth NBA championship with it. He didn't have much help, but he didn't need much, either. If the Bulls were going to lose, it wasn't going to be with the most prolific offensive player in the history of basketball passing off, waiting for others to lead. "I was more competitive than I've ever been because I wanted to win more than I ever did," Jordan said afterward, speaking of this contentious season in general but this game specifically.

    "When I got that [steal], the moment starts to become the moment. Karl never saw me coming, and I was able to knock the ball away. When Russell reached, I took advantage of that moment. I never doubted myself. It was a two-point game, a three-point game, we kept hanging close. When I got the ball, I looked up and saw 18.8 seconds left. I let the time tick until I saw the court the way I wanted it. John Stockton was over on Steve Kerr, so he couldn't gamble and come off. And as soon as Russell reached, I had a clear path. I knew we could hold for 5.2 seconds."

    That's what he saw, in those precious seconds: where his guys were, where their guys were. Like a chessboard.

    It was like a Jordan flashback, all the way back to the late 1980s when it was all Michael, all the time, when he was all the Chicago Bulls had, when he had to score 45 or walk of the floor a loser. Even now, after 14 years, it's the most spectacular theater in sports, the sweetest thing since Ali shuffled. And while it may not be vintage, while he may miss shots he hit in his youth, it was enough to push his Bulls over the top.

    And while we gush over Jordan, I'd be remiss without mentioning Pippen, who could play only 26 minutes because of a wrenched back. When Pippen walked off the floor and to the locker room in great pain with just under five minutes remaining in the first quarter, Pippen worried that he was "letting the team down." And so many of us flashed back to a migraine headache that removed Pippen from Game 7 in Detroit in 1990, and to that playoff game vs. the Knicks in 1994 when Pippen refused to play the final 1.8 seconds and sat on the bench while Toni Kukoc hit the game-winning shot.

    Pippen scored eight points, grabbed three rebounds and handed out four assists — hardly great numbers for him — but the guts he showed in playing with that injured back counted for more than he or the Bulls will ever be able to explain.

    And because of all that, it just made the lights on the stage even brighter for Jordan. "I don't know that anybody could write a script as manic as that one," Phil Jackson said. "They put up a heck of a fight, and it was a fight worth having."

    It's worth having for the Bulls because they've got the single greatest athlete to appear in team sports, at least the greatest since Babe Ruth. Karl Malone played a more efficient game, hitting 11 of 19 shots and finishing with 31 points and 11 rebounds. But the fate that awaited Malone (and Stockton) was the same one that met Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Magic and James Worthy, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller, the Cleveland Cavaliers and everybody who has run up against him since 1990.

    "I think you'd have to say Michael's always a guy who comes through," Jackson said. "He does it again and again in the clutch. He's a real, live hero. . . . Last year in the fifth game here, I didn't think he could top that. I think he topped that tonight. I think it's the best Michael Jordan moment ever, to win a critical game in a critical series."

    Jordan, as calm as he's ever been after a championship victory, said, "Hopefully, I've put enough memories out there in my 14 years."

    And then, of course, the world began to ask for more. Can't they come back?

    Each one — Jordan, Jackson, Pippen — took turns answering.

    Pippen and Jackson weren't optimistic. "We just have to celebrate the moment. Unless something absolutely unusual comes out of left field," Jackson said, "I don't expect us to be back here next year."

    Jordan, who clearly wants to play again, nevertheless said, " . . . I have another life, and I have to get to it at some point in time."

    But we're going to let Stockton have the final word — for now — on this topic, which will be batted about every day until something is ironed out. "It's a nice story," he said. "But he's not quitting. He'll be back, Scottie will be back, Phil Jackson will be back. I'm tired of hearing it. . . . But it works for them."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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