It was the summer that Austin Ehlo – then a fifth-grader – was a camper at Michael Jordan’s Flight School in Santa Barbara, California, which should have been irony enough given the braided history of the camp’s namesake and Austin’s father.
Then came autograph day, where Jordan sat at a large table, with a buffer of aides playing zone defense against the crush of adoring campers, who would proffer their item for inscription, have it ferried to the His Airness himself and see it returned signed along with a voucher of authenticity.
Austin Ehlo offered up a shoe. An Air Jordan. Irony rising.
Aware that this chip off an old foil was at the camp – the man always read his scouting reports – Jordan looked up and waved him through the barricade. Then he saw Craig Ehlo observing from outside and waved him in, too. And then he spoke to the fifth-grader.
“What’s your dad told you about me?” Jordan asked. “I’m going to tell you the truth about him: He was nasty.”
Irony now at flood stage.
The magic day is May 7 and in the run-up each year there’s bound to be a call to Craig Ehlo’s phone, maybe from the New York Times or Slam Online. On the day in question, it’s no surprise if a Chicago radio station rings in, wanting to revisit the past for the entertainment of its listeners.
“It blows me out of the water sometimes,” Ehlo said. “I can’t imagine that it’s still such a signature moment. It’s insane.
“But don’t get me wrong – I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Now, this notion obviously didn’t occur to Craig Ehlo as he windmilled his right arm at the heavens in frustration and let his despair drop him to the floor on that long-ago Sunday in Cleveland – while, just a few feet away, Michael Jordan furiously pumped his right fist, knocking out imaginary demons.
He had just made The Shot. Thirty years later, it is still The Shot.
That’s how you locate it on Wikipedia and YouTube, though to be fair on the same sites you’ll find the heading slapped on famous March Madness winners by Bryce Drew and Christian Laettner, too.
But Jordan moments on the court – like Tiger moments on the golf course – tend to bury all others.
This one came in the fifth and deciding game of the 1989 NBA first-round playoff series between Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Ehlo’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Only six times has a buzzer-beating shot decided an NBA playoff series. Jordan did it again to the Cavs in 1993, and Damian Lillard’s ridiculous 37-footer to do in Oklahoma City last month made him a two-timer, as well. John Stockton eliminated the Rockets in 1997; Ralph Sampson took out the Lakers in 1985.
But to this point, none has the sustained legacy of Jordan’s jumper, thanks to the image on a loop in our memories: his half-tick suspension in midair as Ehlo sails in front of him, left arm stretched high in a vain attempt to disrupt shooter and shot.
“It was like the ‘E.T.’ moon shot,” Ehlo said. “I just flew across and he waited until I was by.”
In 1989, Michael Jordan was already Michael Jordan – he’d led the NBA in scoring three years running – but the Bulls were not yet the Bulls, their first championship three-peat still years away. In fact, the team that had been anointed as the “team of the ’90s” – by no less an authority than Magic Johnson of the ebbing Lakers dynasty – was Cleveland, built around the 1986 draft haul of Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper and Mark Price and a trade in 1988 for Larry Nance.
And, in between, a somewhat unlikely dab of glue named Craig Ehlo, a few years out of Washington State, signed after being waived by Houston – and coach Lenny Wilkens’ talisman for the next decade.
“He’s one of those guys you just wanted on your team,” said Wilkens, now 81 and living in Seattle. “He was versatile and he laid it all out there. He realized he had to work to be good and so he did, and he never assumed he had it made.”
Surely a necessary mentality when matched against Michael Jordan, as Ehlo so often found himself.
“Michael was going to score,” Wilkens said. “Craig made him work harder than some other guys would, not giving him anything easy.”
“Nothing dirty physical,” Ehlo insisted. “But there was contact. And I grabbed once in a while.”
Except that Jordan still made it look easy.
“He had his 69-point game against us,” Ehlo said. “On one possession, he had the ball on the wing isolated. I cut him off on the baseline and he spun back to the middle and put up one of those fadeaways. I had my hand right in his face. Running back down the court, I said, ‘How did you do that? I took everything away from you.’ ”
A world-class talker, this time Jordan only shrugged.
But the chase always intrigued and motivated Ehlo.
“I remember calling my dad the first time we played Chicago,” he said. “Michael was starting to get all the notoriety then and my dad said, ‘How lucky are you to get to play against someone like that?’ And he was right. If you’re a competitor, you want that challenge.”
The Cavs had swept all six games from the Bulls during the 1989 season, but were missing Price – out with a strained hamstring – for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs. And Chicago’s 95-88 upset in Cleveland was a blood-in-the-water moment for Jordan, the NBA’s most ruthless shark. He then had a chance to close out the series in Game 4, but missed two late free throws to open the door for the Cavs to win in overtime – which only seemed to stoke his fire for Game 5.
“I just remember him saying, ‘We shouldn’t even be here,’ ” Ehlo said.
But there was still more drama before tipoff.
“We’re at practice the day before and it’s not a hard one, but coach wants to keep the intensity up,” Ehlo recalled. “I was Michael on the scout team. I rolled my ankle and it just swelled up. I wore low tops my whole life, but (Gary) Briggs, our trainer, got me a pair of high tops and we taped it up pretty well and took a cortisone shot.
“It bothered me some, but I wasn’t missing Game 5.”
Turned out Ehlo wasn’t missing much in Game 5, either.
With 2 1/2 minutes remaining, he took a kickout pass from Daugherty and drilled a 3-pointer for a 93-92 Cavs lead. Ninety-four seconds later, he made another 3 to put Cleveland ahead again, 98-97.
Jordan missed on a drive the next trip down the floor, but then managed to carve out some space – with the help of an inadvertent elbow to Ehlo’s mouth – for a go-ahead jumper with 6 seconds remaining. Cleveland called time, and Wilkens drew up a surprise: Ehlo inbounding to Nance from the left sideline, then bolting past the Bulls’ Craig Hodges for a return pass and ducking beneath a soaring Jordan for a layup – the last of Ehlo’s team-high 24 points.
That’s right. He made the shot before The Shot.
“The problem was,” Wilkens said, “we left Michael too much time.”
Three seconds. With the NBA’s advance-the-ball-on-a- timeout contrivance – and for a player with Jordan’s savvy and creativity– it’s an eon. Even when everyone in the building knows he’s getting the ball.
Wilkens thought he might delay that inevitability with a double-team.
“During all my years with him, we never took the man off the inbounder,” Ehlo said. “But this time we did. Larry was facing Michael out front, and I was behind him at the free-throw line.”
At the whistle, Jordan rushed at Nance and engaged in a little arm-fencing, deking to his right out of the contact before breaking left to take Brad Sellers’ pass.
“Maybe it was the double-team, but I wasn’t in a good defensive stance,” Ehlo admitted. “When he went to get the pass, I was running instead of sliding, and when I got to him on the wing he was already cutting back and my momentum was carrying me out. I was still chasing when he went up for the shot.
“People will say, ‘You got a hand in his face,’ but I was just running by him. If I could have gone straight up with him …”
Don’t spend too long on the what-ifs.
It’s not as if The Shot was the Bulls’ launching pad. They did reach the conference finals, but still had to apprentice through the back-to-back titles of Detroit’s Bad Boys before ascending to the top. It did help cement their playoff whammy on the Cavs that had started in the 1988 playoffs and would be revisited from 1992 through ’94. So, yes, time ran out on the “team of the ’90s,” and Wilkens eventually resigned after the 1993 season and took a job with Atlanta.
But the Cavs were done in not by The Shot, so much as by The Self-Inflicted Wound.
NBA security had alerted Cavs management early in the 1990 season that Harper was keeping company with people in the drug trade. He denied it and offered to be tested, but owner Gordon Gund demanded general manager Wayne Embry move him. And Embry did – in one of the worst giveaways in NBA history – to the Clippers, along with first-round draft choices in 1990 and 1992.
The return: swingman Reggie Williams, who was such a bust that Cleveland released him before season’s end, and the rights to the sadly overestimated Danny Ferry, who played five years before cracking the starting lineup.
“I was upset,” Wilkens said. “We were a good team and we were going to get better, and Ron was an important part of that. It wasn’t a very good trade and I let them know, but I was overruled.”
In time, Harper would wind up with the Bulls and earn three championship rings with Jordan.
Ehlo, meanwhile, would follow Wilkens to Atlanta and play three seasons there before finishing his 14-year NBA career in Seattle. In retirement, he played in a couple of Jordan’s charity golf tournaments, and once got Jordan to autograph a poster – of Ehlo beating him to the hoop – that got donated to Gonzaga coach Mark Few’s Coaches vs. Cancer event (Ehlo signed a companion poster of Jordan dunking on him).
But he never really retired from his role in The Shot.
Nobody would let him.
When Gatorade used the moment in an ad, they sent Ehlo a $5,000 check. Nike did the same. And as he segued into broadcasting gigs, Ehlo notably worked local telecasts of Gonzaga games, extolling the feats of, among others, Jeremy Pargo, the Zags’ point guard from Chicago – Jordan country – whose needle was even more deadly than his crossover.
“It was like clockwork, every game,” Ehlo said. “As soon as we’d step on the court to do the stand-up during warmups, he and Worm (teammate Andrew Sorenson) would re-enact it. Every detail.”
Ehlo’s zig and Jordan’s zag. The fly by. The leap and the fist pumps. The collapse and despair.
“Really, it was pretty hilarious,” Ehlo admitted.
And maybe ironic, too. After all, Craig Ehlo was the one who made The Shot necessary.
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