June 14, 1998, with less than 10 seconds left in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Michael Jordan dribbled to his right toward the middle of the floor against pesky defender Bryon Russell of the Utah Jazz, stopped, and then crossed back for an open 20-footer that gave the Chicago Bulls the lead, 87-86, and eventually the title.
With basketball fans glued to Last Dance, a documentary about Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ last NBA championship, discussions on that game winner will surely come out anew. Actually, they never stopped, as until this day people are still debating whether Jordan pushed off Russell to get free for the dagger or “His Airness” was just being himself, eluding defenders and making big-time shots like that.
Anyways, although Russell was on the unfortunate side of one of the many Jordan “immortalized” moments, he was among the players that CNMI hoops buffs love to see go up against the NBA legend.
“Russell was a very good defender and Utah Jazz was a worthy finals opponent for the Bulls. Majority of their games in the 1998 Finals were close,” said Nelson Samson, organizer of the 16-team One Pacific Promotional Basketball League, which is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Out of the six games in the Bulls-Jazz title showdown, five were decided by no more than 5 points (Game 3 was the only blowout with Bulls winning, 96-54), and Russell, in earlier interview after the finals, claimed most of Jordan baskets were not made against him.
Versus Pistons ‘Bad Boys’
Before becoming his teammate, Jordan used to play against Dennis Rodman, who partnered with Bill Laimbeer in “tormenting” the Bulls main man.
“You know how aggressive and physical Rodman could be when defending and he got into Jordan’s head a few times. He might look dirty when defending but effective most of time. Somewhat similar to Bruce Bowen of the Spurs and both received NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year and All Defensive Team awards,” said Jersh Angeles, a Jordan fan.
Rodman and Laimbeer carried out the “Jordan Rules,” and Isaiah Thomas (he and Joe Dumars also showed no love to Jordan) was the brain behind the plan to play merciless defense against the five-time NBA MVP.
It was that ploy that up to this day Jordan still hates Thomas, Charlie Rivera, a Celtics fans, believes.
“You just can’t imagine how the Pistons ‘Bad Boys’ defended against Jordan that time,” Rivera said.
Against the Pistons, there was no easy basket for Jordan.
“Jordan got too much of Pistons’ unforgiving defense that I think this prompted him to work on strengthening his body,” Rivera added.
Magic, Payton, and Kobe
Jordan came to play in the NBA in 1984—the time where Magic Johnson was taking charge with the Lakers.
“It was a case of the king at that time and the rising star,” Lakers fan James Lee said.
Jordan went on to face Johnson in the NBA Finals only once (1991) with the Bulls winning, 4-1.
Five years after Johnson’s retirement, the Showtime finally found its new star in Kobe Bryant and how the straight-from-high-school rookie would fare against Jordan was among the frequent questions asked.
Bryant did not disappoint.
“Jordan was the king and Kobe was the rising star. It was kind of passing on the torch,” said Lee, who also picked the Gary Payton-Jordan matchup.
“It was in the middle era of Jordan’s career and Gary (Seattle SuperSonics) was perhaps the best defender against Jordan,” the former CNMI National Team member said.
In the 1996 NBA Finals, the Bulls won the first three games against the Sonics. Payton, who was then nursing a calf injury, then took over the challenging job of guarding Jordan and the Sonics went on to win the next two matches. Still, the Bulls won the finals, 4-2, but not after Payton frustrated Jordan.
Starks and Miller
John Starks is another player included on Jordan’s “not so favorite” list.
But if there’s one that can challenge Jordan in a shootout, the New York Knicks gunner must be on the roster.
Jordan and Starks faced off in the 1993 NBA playoffs and got into each other’s nerves on many occasions. Starks outgunned Jordan in 3-point shooting, 12-10, and emerged as the second best scorer for the Knicks (averaging 15.2 per game) behind Patrick Ewing (25.8). Jordan, as expected, led the Bulls with his 32.2 points average and they won the series, 4-2.
“I love watching Jordan matched up with John Starks and Reggie Miller. I love the physical and mental game they brought to the court,” Carl Hocog said.
Of course, who would forget the Miller-Jordan altercation on Oct. 2, 1993. The incident happened after Miller went for a putback and on his way down, he bumped into Jordan, who then ran after the Pacers shooter. The next thing that happened was like an MMA scene, with Jordan and Miller grappling each other and their teammates and the referees trying to separate the two. They were eventually pacified, but not after Jordan landed a punch on Miller that resulted into a one-game suspension and $10,000 fine slapped on the NBA great.
With Last Dance divided into a 10-part series and to be shown until next month, more Jordan and Bulls stories will be told, bringing basketball fans, especially the Bulls followers, back to the time Chicago managed to build a dynasty.