If the NBA had the power to award a franchise to Satan, Michael Jordan would find a way to steal one from hell.
In a way, that’s what he did Wednesday night.
This to an outsider is basketball purgatory. The Utah Jazz enjoy the Supreme homecourt. This is where Karl Malone’s custom Harley is fired up as part of the between-periods routine because somebody explained Karl wants it that way.
The 19,911 faithful who filed out in stunned silence in the wake of the Chicago Bulls’ 90-88 win made this place louder than KeyArena in Seattle, louder than old Chicago Stadium, louder than Marv Albert screaming not guilty. Jordan wouldn’t be shouted down.
Aside from the spirited Delta Center setting, Jordan came in with what was rumored to be food poisoning and later amended to stomach flu. Now these NBA Finals - memorable for The Steal, The Pass and The Shot - take on another dimension.
The flu bug that got to Jordan on Tuesday night before Game Five tainted his play for one quarter, the first, when the Jazz romped to a 16-point lead and the locals were fired up for the biggest moment in Utah history since the driving of the Golden Spike.
Dropped by what were described as dysentery-like complications, Jordan had missed the shoot-around earlier Wednesday. The Bulls talked about doing it without him, probably knowing that the odds of that were about the same as Dennis Rodman ever having a good hair day.
Jordan, knowing it, too, gutted this one out.
As soon as word of his discomfort reached some of the regulars in the crowded press rooms they nodded and shrugged. So? How many times had they known Jordan to barf and laugh last?
By the time he ran off 17 second-quarter points and delivered enough momentum to make Utah forget how much it hates the Morman-bashing Rodman, the game took on a pre-ordained feeling. The suspicion was that if the dehydrated Jordan, his eyes dropping at half-mast, was going to all this trouble he’d find a way.
He found it in a mistake.
With 46 seconds left and the game tied at 85, the Jazz left him alone at the line. Even the pros, caught up in the heat of the chase, lose sight of the basics. NOBODY boxed out the finest player this game has ever known.
Four seconds after he missed a free throw but found the rebound, Jordan was perfect with a jump shot from 23 feet dead-center perfect, sicker than a dog and the Bulls held service.
They flew back to Chicago for Friday night’s sixth game leading this best-of-7 set three games to two.
Somebody asked Bulls coach Phil Jackson about a parallel - Jordan getting out of bed to win Game 6 and Jackson’s 1970 teammate Willis Reed dragging a wounded knee around in the New York Knicks’ win over Los Angeles.
Jackson in so many delicate words suggested that this might not be that dramatic.
Yet there is no doubt that Jordan reminded us again of what it’s like to be blinded by the light of his game, and vulnerable to the heat.
The one you really have to feel for is John Stockton. Michael Jordan lost a dinner. John Stockton lost a dream.
Thus in his 13th NBA season, after nine all-star games and two Olympic gold medals, the point guard from Spokane remains two games away from a championship.
His first, and only, in the NBA. He may never come this way again, after all he’s done.
The Shot, the 3-pointer with Utah down by 5 in Sunday’s game, was his. The Steal, stripping Jordan with Utah down by 4, again on Sunday, was his.
The Pass, the court-length toss to Karl Malone for the two that put the Jazz up, was his.
This time the pain belonged to him. He was mugged by fellow smurf Steve Kerr, drilled by Scottie Pippen, sacked by a defense that pushed and extended and recovered and adjusted.
The Bulls slid Pippen on Malone at times, freeing trucklike Luc Longley to rotate on the penetrating Stockton, giving him a lot of body to try to see through. Stockton’s brilliant moment - a 23-footer with 3:07 to go that gave the Jazz their last three-point lead - was dulled when he missed from 3-point range at 1:24 and Jordan came back with his Bulls eye, the game-winning 3.
Even then there was the final insult.
Down three, the only shot the Jazz had inside the final second depended on Stockton hitting his first of two free throws and intentionally missing the second. He missed the first and made the second.
So it goes. The rule is extended. Chicago’s four championships in the Jordan Era are about to become five.
At least John Stockton and the Jazz can take this much back to Chicago, and into the summer.
Michael Jordan earned this one.
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