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‘Last Dance’ questions whether Craig Ehlo should have guarded Michael Jordan for famous shot

UPDATED: Sat., May 9, 2020

His property near Hayden Lake is void of a television, so Craig Ehlo hurried home to rural Spokane County to catch live episodes of America’s most in-demand docuseries.

Ehlo, a former Washington State star and retired NBA forward, had an inkling he’d be mentioned in one of the 10 “The Last Dance” installments, but was much more interested in the unaired footage from the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-1998 season, candid interviews and a deep scope of basketball’s most iconic figure and show’s central figure – Michael Jordan.

Unlike most of the 6.1 million viewers who tuned into Episode 3 on April 26, Ehlo inadvertently had a hand in the dynasty’s ascent.

The ex-Cleveland Cavalier was famously on the wrong end of Jordan’s 1989 winning jumper in Game 5 the Eastern Conference playoffs, falling to the floor in frustration after his outstretched arm couldn’t deter one of MJ’s most career-changing buckets.

“The Shot” was a prominent piece of Episode 3 – Episodes 7 and 8 air on Sunday night on ESPN – an account mostly told by Jordan and Ehlo’s Cavaliers teammate, Ron Harper, who went on to later win three NBA titles as a member of the Bulls.

Harper believes he should have guarded Jordan in that situation, not Ehlo, a native Texan who has since become a basketball figure in the Spokane area as a commentator and coach.

“We’re up by one and I said, ‘Coach I got MJ,’ ” Harper said in the documentary. “Coach (Lenny Wilkens) tells me, ‘I’m going to put Ehlo on MJ.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, OK, whatever.’ ”

That elicited a living-room reaction from Ehlo that startled his two dogs, Champ and Moose.

“I didn’t hear him say that!” Ehlo said. “I was on Jordan all of the fourth quarter – and in previous games – so we were doing what we’ve done before.

“It was loud, there are 21,000 fans going bananas while we were in that huddle, but I didn’t hear that. (Harper) may have brushed by Wilkens on the floor and said it, and I wouldn’t have heard it.”

Ehlo was the reason the Richfield Coliseum was abuzz, having made a go-ahead layup with 6 seconds left to give the Cavaliers a 100-99 lead, a margin that would have eliminated the young, rising Bulls if it stood true.

In the Cavaliers’ subsequent timeout, the 6-foot-7 Ehlo and 6-10 Larry Nance were assigned to Jordan – Nance in the front, Ehlo from the back. Jordan had 3 seconds and change to catch an inbounds pass and fire an attempt.

“I got just a little lax because I knew Larry was going to be in front,” Ehlo said. “Larry must have had it in his mind to jump the passing lane (when Jordan got possession), and when Jordan lost Larry, I wasn’t in the right position and he was already in the air.”

Wilkens, 82, now a Seattle resident, recently told Sirius XM’s NBA Radio that he didn’t recall Harper saying he wanted to guard Jordan, and, “If it happened, I don’t remember it.”

“Ehlo was a hell of a defender,” Wilkens said. “I would make that same decision today.”

Jordan thought so, too, apparently.

Ehlo recalled a time when Jordan told his son at a Michael Jordan’s Flight School camp in California, “Your dad played great defense.”

In the documentary, though, Jordan said that having Ehlo guard him was “a mistake” and that Harper would have been the better option.

“I was surprised by that,” Ehlo said, “because I know how much respect Jordan has for (Wilkens).”

Ehlo said he interpreted the “mistake” comment as more of a questioning of Wilkens’ defensive strategy than his ability to defend, and that Jordan and Harper teaming up for a string of championships may have influenced his preference to Harper’s defense, in hindsight.

Harper did not respond to The Spokesman-Review’s request for an interview via Twitter direct message.

A Lubbock, Texas, product who went to the junior college route at Odessa College before signing with George Raveling’s Washington State Cougars in 1981, Ehlo, a third-round NBA draft pick who carved out a 14-year NBA career, still feels fortunate to be part of history – even on the wrong side of it.

“It’s like I say in broadcasting,” Ehlo said. “Sometimes good defense can get beat by better offense.”

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