Iconic Plays: Michael Jordan’s ‘The Last Shot’

Published November 26, 2021, 2:00 PMJon Carlos Rodriguez

Michael Jordan's game-winner in the 1998 NBA Finals is one of the most legendary shots in league history.

Photos from Getty Images | Artwork by Melvin Rodas

To commemorate the NBA’s 75th anniversary season, NBA.com Philippines is launching Iconic Plays, a series that dives into special moments from the league’s 75-year history. In the first installment, Jon Carlos Rodriguez takes an in-depth look at Michael Jordan’s ‘The Last Shot’.

The Setup

Think of it as your favorite band in the whole world playing their most iconic song for the very last time before going their separate ways. Sure, it’s going to be emotional. Yes, it’s going to be epic. It might leave you with a bittersweet aftertaste as endings tend to do.

Ultimately, it’s going to be a blur, and you’ll have to repeat the moment a million times in your head to fully comprehend it.

That’s exactly how Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz felt like.

That era’s Bulls was one of the best teams ever formed. They had won two championships in a row and seemed destined to make it three—just like they did from ‘91 to ‘93. On their roster was one of the best (if not the best) players to ever hold a basketball, Michael Jordan.

Jordan had stepped away from the game once after his first three-peat and left a big, gaping hole not just in the league, but also in the collective hearts and minds of hoop heads across the world. We’re talking about Michael Jordan here, who—and it doesn’t matter which side of the fence you’re on—was the single most powerful, magnetic force in basketball in the ‘90s.

Name your favorite ‘90s superstar not wearing a Bulls jersey and there’s a 99 percent chance that Jordan either dunked on his dreams of getting a ring or snatched it with his bare hands.

In this particular case, Jordan stole it from Karl Malone.

Malone had the ball on the left block with 22 seconds left in the game, Jazz up a point. Had he scored, he would have put the Jazz in a much better position to force a Game 7.

Utah had run the same play many times before—Malone posts up, reads the defense, then makes his move. But this time, before his brain could even register what he wanted to do with the ball, Jordan snuck from behind and swatted the ball away from his grip. Malone stumbled, and Jordan was about to rock.

In the succeeding 14-plus seconds, it was all MJ, tuning up for the biggest shot of his life.

The Moment

Most Michael Jordan moments are iconic because of how humanly impossible they seem. These are blips in basketball normalcy, an exercise in suspension of disbelief. 

They defy logic, like when a young MJ dropped an unthinkable 63 points against a legendary Boston Celtics team in ‘86. Factoring in the inflation rate of playoff basketball buckets, this equals to approximately 109 points in 2021.

They defy gravity, like each time MJ takes flight, whether it’s double-pumping from the freethrow line or switching hands as some type of weird flex mid-air.

But in his greatest moment of all, Jordan was neither god nor a flying superhero. He was simply Mike.

Mike started his move with eight seconds left. His defender, Bryon Russell, closed in on him on the far left wing and forced him to attack the basket. One strong dribble with his right got him at the top of the key. Then, using his free left hand, Jordan gently swiped Russell off the screen and crossed over to his left. Suddenly, he was as open as he could have hoped to be. 

He went up for a shot—the shot—and the world stopped. The clock said 6.6, the eyes of Jazz fans and everyone else on the court were fixated on the ball, following its trajectory. A couple of Bulls fans from the stands already knew the shot was good. Maybe everyone knew. 

With Jordan’s legacy on the line and a championship at stake, a game-winning basket from No. 23 was the most logical thing to happen. There were no miracles at play for this one—this was simply fate.

As the ball sank through the bottom of the net, Jordan held his follow-through longer than usual. He made sure everyone who was watching felt the gravity of the moment, and he took a beat to let everything sink in. 

The Jazz called a timeout to have a moment to pick their jaws off the floor. Utah’s head coach Jerry Sloan drew one last play to try and win the game, but it was a mere formality. This was Jordan’s moment—one of the most iconic ones in basketball, arguably the greatest of all time.

The Degree of Difficulty

There are only two ways to go about this. Either this was the most difficult shot that Jordan ever took or the easiest. Had he missed, the series goes to a Game 7, where the Bulls’ chances don’t look too good with Scottie Pippen’s health in the balance. The stakes and implications made this shot more complex than it seemed. A routine jump shot to win (or lose)  a championship can carry the weight of the world.

Also factoring in the two Jordan plays that came before this: the quick two to cut the Utah lead to one and then the steal to give the Bulls the chance to win. With all these considered, the difficulty rating shoots up.

On the other hand, this shot was a breeze. It was a shot Jordan had made many times before, in various iterations. This was familiar terrain, one he could have navigated with his eyes closed—or in this case, with thousands of eyes glued onto him. There is no timeline wherein MJ misses this.

The Aftermath

This was the shot that changed the course of careers of many, including Jordan himself.

The Bulls won their third straight championship, but it would be their last taste of sweet success. Jordan retired for the second time not too long after, before coming back as a different version of himself in 2001 (but we’re not here to talk about that).

Pippen was shipped to Houston, Dennis Rodman partied in Los Angeles, and Phil Jackson took a leave of absence from coaching.

The Jazz core went for it a couple of times, but could no longer get to the same level. The new generation—the Tim Duncans and the Kobe Bryants—was about to take over. Game 6, turned out, was their last shot, too. 

Iconic moments are usually measured by how we remember where we were the first time we saw them. But for truly special ones, we remember where we are even when we’ve seen them on multiple occasions, in countless repeats. It has a lasting effect even decades after.

In every rewatch, there’s a question that pops up. Questions like, what if the series went to a Game 7 without Pip? Would MJ have to score 64 points to win his sixth title? If the Bulls lost in that series, would they run it back in ‘99 for revenge? What if Jordan missed that shot? In what form would we have seen Jordan’s last shot?

Yet in every rewatch, Jordan gamely squashes all the doubts and the what-ifs. The Last Shot gives a definitive “we’ll never know.”