It was a rainy, stormy Sunday afternoon in New England, much like today – May 31, 1998. Larry Bird was inching closer to leading his hometown Indiana Pacers to their first ever NBA Finals. The critics had vociferously questioned Bird’s ability to successfully coach an NBA team. “The great players don’t make good coaches,” quipped the experts. In Boston, the Celtics had turned to Rick Pitino in favor of Bird to rescue a team that had lost more games in 1997 than any other edition of the legendary franchise.
So Bird went home to Indiana, taking over a veteran Pacers team featuring Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson, with a supporting cast of the Davis “Brothers” (Dale and Antonio), Rik Smits, and Jalen Rose. By May 31st, no one was laughing anymore in Boston or anywhere else around the NBA, as Bird had directed Indiana to the precipice of the Eastern Conference summit, requiring only one more win to advance to the NBA Finals.
But, the final obstacle was the harshest of settings – Chicago’s United Center versus Michael Jordan and the back-to-back defending champion Bulls. Leading up to the Eastern Conference Finals, His Airness had deemed the matchup with Indiana as “a bump in the road” much to the chagrin of his former hardcourt rival, Bird.
Chicago took the first 2 games of the series at home before hitting a fork in the road in Indiana. The Pacers won the third game before the series reached a fever pitch in the fourth contest, when Jordan and Reggie Miller went toe-to-toe in the final moments. With Jordan suffocating Miller near the top of the key, Reggie shoved Michael, no whistle, got free, and hit a three-pointer with time expiring to tie the series.
The two teams split the next two games to set up the epic final stanza in Chicago. NBC faded into the game with Bird’s image hovering behind Jordan’s, potentially signifying Number Twenty-Three’s final great hurdle in his remarkable career.
The Pacers moved the ball efficiently, stifled Jordan on defense, and consistently led throughout the affair. But, then in the fourth quarter, MJ (with 28 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 massive offensive rebounds on the afternoon) fueled a furious Chicago rally that fully incorporated the entire Bulls’ contingency. Toni Kukoc hit 4 straight long-range jumpers (3 of them three-pointers), and Steve Kerr (now the coach of the 2015 Western Conference Champion Golden St. Warriors) nailed a wide open triple to get Da Bulls back in business.
2 of Jordan’s offensive boards in the game came on missed free throws by himself (resulting in a basked he scored) and Scottie Pippen. Michael didn’t have his best performance in this decisive battle, but Bulls/Pacers Game 7 suitably exemplified His Airness’s ultimate will to win. In the fourth quarter, MJ took a jump ball against Rik Smits at which commentator Bob Costas remarked, “Michael can really jump, but Rik Smits is 7’4″ ! ”
Of course, the Bulls won Game 7, by a narrow margin, at home, in front of their raucous ChiTown fanatics. MJ hauled down the last rebound, dribbled out the clock, and steered Chicago to a Finals rematch with Karl Malone, John Stockton, and the Utah Jazz. Michael Jordan, criticized in the 80s for being the entire show in Chicago, had proven once again without a shadow of doubt, that he could make all the players around him better, and champions. Seeing an artist perform at the height of his skills can make 17 years ago can seem like yesterday.