Why “The Last Shot” Game Was Michael Jordan’s Most Important Performance Ever

It’s a rare thing, indeed, to remember exact details from something important. Where you were. What you were doing. What was happening. I vividly remember 9/11, from my high school teachers refusing to tell us what happened to watching the news once I got back home. I remember sitting in my living room in the spring of ’97 hearing about Biggie‘s death, a numb fourth grader staring at the television. I can remember my first day of kindergarten, the first time I got put in time out, my first flight… When MJ‘s potential game-winner rattled in and out in Game 4 of the ’98 conference finals. When the Bills got smoked in the ’93 Super Bowl. When the Malice at the Palace erupted. But even 16 years later, Michael Jordan’s “Last Shot” Game in 1998 is the clearest of them all.

We’d just come home from a family vacation in San Diego to learn a tornado had wrecked our small Western Maryland town. Trees uprooted. Plants scattered. Roofs and entire houses destroyed. The storm thankfully forgot about us for the most part, but it was definitely hard to put into context for a 12-year-old finishing up fifth grade.

Did Michael Jordan carry similar feelings during Game 6 of that year’s NBA Finals? Probably not. He’s one of the most poised athletes any of us has ever seen. But I like to imagine so, because as a hardcore fan of Jordan’s Bulls — weren’t we all, to an extent? — my stomach was fluttering like a feather in the wind.

That series was a roller coaster. Going into it, the Bulls had barely survived a strong challenge from Reggie Miller‘s Pacers, coming from behind to win Game 7 on their home floor. Meanwhile, the Jazz had eviscerated the Lakers, a team that sported four All-Stars. Utah had the homecourt advantage. They had the revenge card to play, having lost the year before to Chicago in the Finals. They had the knowledge this might be John Stockton and Karl Malone‘s last chance. After taking Game 1 in ’98, the Jazz even had the confidence, knowing they were 3-0 against the Bulls on the season, beating them in a close game (Game 1 went to overtime), beating them on the road (91-84 at the end of January), and beating them in a comeback (down 26) in early February.

To truly understand how the entire state of Utah felt like they were owed that ’98 title, you need to hear it from a fan.

“Clearly that was our best shot,” a fan named Richard Anderson once said. He was in the building for Game 6. “Salt Lake certainly deserves an NBA title. We felt like we finally had it that year. And then all of a sudden it’s over.”

They had it… until Jordan stole it.

In Game 6, Chicago’s already thin roster faced a surprising turn of events. Through Games 2-4, they had controlled the action, going up 3-1 and looking like locks to close the series at home in Game 5. But then Malone erupted, and Scottie Pippen and Jordan choked, shooting a combined 11-for-42. The Jazz stole the game to make it a series again, going home to play the final two in Salt Lake City’s difficult thin air.

Then in the first quarter of the sixth game, Pippen hurt his back on a dunk, and from that point on he looked, as I once described, like a “calcified old man at the YMCA.” Add in Dennis Rodman‘s rapidly diminishing game, Luc Longley‘s foul trouble, Malone’s ongoing hot streak, and a five-point Utah lead going into the fourth quarter, and the Bulls’ championship run was in dire conditions.

Jordan never admitted he had doubts, but he certainly knew the situation. I could feel it hundreds of miles away; the shrewdest athlete on the planet certainly could’ve felt it in that building. Rocking the sneakers that would go on to become the “Last Shot” Air Jordan XIVs, Jordan took more than half of his team’s shots. He rarely passed (one assist) and he passed on hitting the glass (one rebound). He took 35 shots, slouching more and more as the game wore on.

We all know what happened during the final minute. Jordan overcame it all, scoring on a layup to cut the Utah lead to one, then stripping Malone, then coming down and hitting the greatest shot in league history, not only cementing his legacy but also the XIV’s legacy. Without that sequence, the Jazz win, and with the Bulls so depleted and with Jordan having used the only mojo he had left in Game 6, they probably win it all in Game 7. That changes everything. Does Jerry Krause break the Bulls up after that, knowing their final series together was a colossal collapse? Does Phil Jackson leave? Does Jordan retire? Does “The Last Dance” became a story of missed opportunity, of suffocating expectations, of staying past your welcome? It’s the greatest and most overlooked “what if?” game in NBA history, and also the reason why this game was Jordan’s most important performance ever.

The legacy of the Air Jordan XIV owes everything to June 14, 1998. Ironically, had the Bulls taken care of business and won Game 5, Jordan would’ve celebrated it all in the Air Jordan XIII. He wore the playoff editions that night, before changing back to the not-yet-released XIV for his championship night. Perhaps he knew something we didn’t? Perhaps his genius really was that prominent?

Whereas Jordan’s other clutch performances were definitely important, they were all missing something. The 63 points on Boston was in a playoff game that Chicago lost. The Shot against Cleveland came in the first round, and not a soul in the world thought the Bulls would make the Finals. The Shot II against the Cavs four years later came during a series that was already 3-0, Bulls. Even the Flu Game in ’97 came for a team that was undoubtedly better than its opponent. Game 6 in ’98, however, was different.

The Air Jordan XIV will return again this weekend at Champs Sports, and as it always does, it’ll carry more than just a dope colorway with it.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney