I think we all knew it was coming. I know no one thought it’d come like that.
Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals was my second live professional basketball game, a ridiculously generous birthday gift from both a family friend and my Phoenix Suns, who were kind enough to make their way to the championship round the same year that my sports fanaticism was ripe for the picking. In retrospect, it’s a miracle that I didn’t end up a bandwagon Bulls fan. My first game was also against Michael Jordan and company; Basketball Reference says Jordan scored 40 on that November night, but all I can remember is being so alarmed by the ease with which he did, well, everything, that I lost my handcrafted sign that I’d smuggled into the third-to-last row of seats in America West Arena on my way out after the game. The idea that my poster board and markers could counteract that seemed silly, even at seven.
When every path offers least resistance, your opponents — and their fans — get very few moments of excitement. Clinging to that two point lead with 14 seconds left was one of those precious fleeting instances, in the way that playing with a downed live wire will make you feel alive for half a second. Once again perched in the crow’s nest high above the action, it was impossible not to feel the sparks flying from the generator clad in red and black, adorned with his 23 Theses on the reformation of your heart into a palpitating mess of terror.
I mean, he’d already done it on the previous possession. With 43 seconds left, Michael Jordan grabbed a rebound off of a Kevin Johnson miss; 5 seconds later, he was at the other rim, trimming a four point Phoenix lead in half. When Chicago got the subsequent stop and prepared to inbound for that fateful John Paxson 3, it seemed inevitable that Jordan would do something. And he did — he took the inbound pass, and he dribbled to halfcourt.
Then, he passed. And he faded to above the three point line, not really part of one the most crucial play in my seven-month old passion. Scottie Pippen drove into the lane, dished to Horace Grant, who found Paxson … and Jordan’s contribution was simply the most emphatic celebration.* The greatest player on the planet in my new favorite thing had, with the game on the line, trusted in his teammates to take him to the promised land.
*Check out the almost proto-modern movement of the ball from the Bulls on the play. Today, the player in Grant’s position would be spaced out further along the baseline, or even in the corner, depending on the set and the personnel. But the path of the ball is almost exactly the same: dribble penetration (by a small forward with guard-like quickness and handles, no less) leads to a collapsed defense and a pass to a sort of basketball pivot table. Grant has the opportunity to take a shot if it’s open or swing it to the next open shooter. Truly, all that’s different is the defense’s inability to station a defender in the lane prior to the drive (given current zone defense rules) and Grant’s spacing.
And it worked, twice! Because even after that Paxson three, the game wasn’t over; Phoenix had the ball with 3.9 seconds remaining. Kevin Johnson inbounded the ball to Oliver Miller, who flipped it back to KJ and set a clearly illegal screen on Jordan as he trailed behind Johnson. That left Horace Grant to contain the dynamic point guard, but Grant overcommitted and, for another electric second, it seemed the Suns might force Game 7, which would be at home again, and they’d shown they could take these Bulls to their limit, take the best that Jordan had to offer and …
But Grant recovered. KJ’s shot ended up going backwards; the man in the goggles had swatted that flicker of hope into the offseason. Jordan once again celebrated more jubilantly than anyone; given all the personal turmoil, it seems clear why he was so happy to get that third ring. Yet all I can remember is imagining that he was just that happy that his teammates had won the game.
It was a perfect first love, replete with loss and lessons. The Suns — my team — had lost on the brightest stage, but not to the best player in the world. They lost to the best team in the world. And that made all the difference.
Image by paloetic via Flickr