“The Last Dance” is airing this week, and every basketball fan in the world will watch it and talk about it with his friends. A lot of people out there are going to try and sound smart with takes on MJ, while not even getting their fact straight. We are here to help you catch them off guard. Lesson 1 - “The Shot.”
Most people will tell you “The Shot” happened in 98 against the Utah Jazz. That would be wrong. While MJ’s jump shot in game 6 is iconic, “The Shot” happened almost a decade earlier and is equally (if not more) important in MJ’s career. Back in 1989, Jordan was still trying to prove he had what it took to lead and win in crucial games. Up until that point, the Bulls had mostly playoff failures and were looking for a signature win.
Their first-round opponents were the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Bulls eliminated them in the first round of the 1988 playoffs, but their regular-season record in 88/89 made the Cavs the favorites going into the series. The Cavaliers swept the regular-season games against the Bulls 6–0, including a 90–84 victory in the final regular-season game, in which they rested their four best players (Ron Harper, Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, and Larry Nance).
Cleveland was the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference, and Chicago was the 6th. The Cavs had a 57–25 regular-season record, tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the second-best record in the league behind the Detroit Pistons. Chicago’s regular-season record that year was 47–35, which placed them fifth.
Chicago media wasn’t kind and supportive of Jordan as we’ve gotten used to. There were a lot of doubters and critics, and MJ fired back saying they would win the series in 4 games (back then first-round series were best of five.) With the series going to Game 5, the pressure on Jordan to back up his words was so much higher. If they lose, the press will have a field trip with him.
Jordan hit a jumper with 6 seconds left to give the Bulls a 99–98 lead. After Cleveland took a timeout, Craig Ehlo inbounded the ball to Larry Nance, who gave the ball back to Ehlo, who scored on a driving layup to provide Cleveland with a 100–99 lead with 3 seconds left. Chicago then called timeout. Ehlo and Nance double-teamed Jordan on the inbounds. Jordan first moved to his right, then cut left to get open and receive the inbounds pass from Brad Sellers.
And from that point, you could only hear Jim Durham’s voice who was the broadcaster for this game; “The inbounds pass comes into Jordan. Here’s Michael at the foul line, the shot on Ehlo... GOOD! Bulls win! They upset the Cleveland Cavaliers! Michael Jordan hits it at the foul line!”
“That was ‘Get the ball to Michael, and everybody get the fu** out of the way!’”
Doug Collins, Chicago Bulls head coach
The Bulls went on to reach the East finals, where the Detroit Pistons eliminated them in six games. The lasting image of the moment is Jordan’s wild, emphatic celebration: a leap into the air as Ehlo fell to the ground in despair a short distance away. That scene is “The Shot.”