Time to Settle Accounts
November 28, 2011: If I haven’t seen it, it’s new to me.
“They’re back!” Ben said in celebration, and they were indeed back: the 2011-2012 NBA season would play after all, a 66-game season that would begin Christmas Day. We high-fived and began jumping in circles in the tea room. I was hosting a post-Thanksgiving weekend party, and Ben was the first to arrive, and my old friend and partner-in-Bulls- joined me for a spirited dance as we imagined Derrick Rose driving and dishing and contorting his body for another gravity-defying layup.
My computer was attached to Justin’s speakers, and I blasted my birthday playlist while playing Game 1 of the ’96 Finals on mute. When that ended, I played Game 6 of that series, and as people arrived they walked through the room to the kitchen and took note of the screen, watched a few plays, mentioned their excitement for the upcoming season, and went upon their way, the ’96 Finals not being too serious even in 1996.
Two hours later I saw that the game was over and I put on the following year’s Game 6.
“Game 6 ’97?” Ric said, confirming. I nodded. “Great!” he said. “I love this one!”
A large group of old Evanston friends had come out, and one by one they spotted the game on the screen. “So the NBA is back?” Ben Alden joked.
“Whadya say?” said Brandon Fox. “Bulls wrapping the title tonight?”
“MJ won’t let this go seven games,” said Ben Alden, chuckling.
Shortly after 1 a.m. the second half began. The Bulls had been sluggish in the first and trailed 44-37. Utah looked confident. Midway through the third I checked in with Ben and Ric, who were watching the game. “Score?”
“Bulls down five,” Ben said, his eyes fixed on the screen.
“We’re coming back,” said Ric.
I checked back at the end of the quarter. “What do we got?” I asked.
“Still five points,” said Brandon who, along with Ben Alden, had joined Ric and Ben. “Minute and a half left in the third.” The Bulls brought the ball up after Shandon Anderson split a pair at the line, and now they worked the offense, Pippen to Kukoc at the arc on the right side and then back to Pippen top of the key. Still on his pivot foot, Scottie exploded to his right, taking two strong dribbles and stopping at the foul line to flip the ball behind him to a curling Jordan. MJ went left, a herky-jerk dribble drawing the defense toward him as he burned to the basket.
Utah’s D collapsed around him. Jordan rose for the layup. Miss. Rebound Jazz. “Oh! Oh! Foul!” shouted Brandon. Utah took off the other way, speeding down the court and finding Bryon Russell free in the corner. Bang! A three. “No!” the tea room shouted. “God damnit,” Ric said, grimacing. “You can’t leave guys open like that.”
MJ split a pair at the line, and Utah’s young point guard Howard Eisley banked an impossible drive to give the Jazz a nine-point lead. The Bulls were sloppy on their next possession, but Jud Buechler chased down an MJ miss, secured the ball, and fired a three, delighting the United Center crowd and leaving us a slap-happy mess.
“What’s going on?” asked Dan and Matt, two more Evanston guys.
“Big three from Buechler,” Ric said. “Heading to the fourth quarter, Bulls down six.”
The mood was focused. A few guys marched into the kitchen to grab some water and then returned. Stockton and Malone were back on the floor. Jordan was resting. Under 11 to go and Steve Kerr knocks in a deep two. “Yes!” shouts the room. Bulls down five, and then the defense tightens, and Pippen rebounds a Utah miss and strolls up the court, and then bang! A pull-up three and the Utah lead is two.
“Alright! Here we go!” Ben shouts. Timeout Jazz with 10:17 to play.
“Is this the one with Jordan’s shot?” Matt asks.
“No, this is the Kerr game,” Ric says.
“Quiet!” Dan shouts at him. “I don’t remember this.”
“Gotta get this lead back,” Ben says, and after a few missed baskets on both sides, Kerr brought the ball up, passed off to Kukoc in the corner, and cut along the baseline to the opposite of the floor. “Come on, come on,” Ben says as Kukoc drives to the middle of the floor. He whips a chest pass to Buechler, open for three, but Buechler sees Kerr equally open to his left, and with space from a devastating Pippen screen, Buechler catches Kukoc’s pass and immediately fires it to Kerr. With Jimi Hendrix on the soundtrack, the ball drops clean through the basket and just like that the Bulls have the lead.
“There we go!” Ric barks. Brandon and Matt high-five, as do Dan and Ben Alden. Ben is bouncing on the balls of his feet, “here we go, here we go,” and now the apartment is blocked from our thoughts and we were there, 14 years ago and two miles away, Bulls up one with championship #5 in their sights.
With under six minutes to go, Utah reclaims the lead, 81-78. Pippen, Kerr, Jordan, Kerr, Kukoc, Rodman, and a beautiful baseline spin move finger roll from Kukoc makes it 81-80. Tribe Called Quest on the soundtrack. “Oh my god, yes! Oh my god!” Shandon Anderson bricks a layup. Bulls coming the other way. Jordan. Jumper. Good! 82-81 Bulls. Missed shots. Rebounds. Loose balls. The screen goes black and we gasp, and Ben uses his pivot foot to swipe the track pad and the picture returns and we exhale. Waiting, waiting, inhale, pass, pass, Jordan backing Russell and spinning baseline. Yes! 84-81 Bulls.
Malone knocks in a jumper. 84-83. The Beach Boys come on – “I know so many people who think they can do it alone…” – and the semi-circle around the computer stares intently at the screen as Jordan drives to the basket, kicks it to Kerr, gets it back and knocks in another jumper. Three-point Bulls lead, Jordan with 39, and as Stockton brings the ball up I quickly exit out of full-screen, pause iTunes, and crank the game sound. “Okay,” I say, “Marv Albert time.”
“De-fense! De-fense!” chants the United Center crowd. Stockton dribbles left with Kerr on him, and then whips a pass underneath to Malone. Jordan doubles, and Malone flips the ball to Hornacek near the basket.
“Oh shit!” Ric says. But Hornacek slips as Pippen and Kukoc crowd him, and from his knees he flips the ball behind his back to Anderson at the top of the key, who then tosses it lightly to Russell. “Hornacek had to save that pass from Malone,” says Marv. “Here’s Russell for three!” The crowd groans. The semi-circle stomps their feet. “An enormous shot by Bryan Russell! He’s five of eight from downtown! He’s tied the game at 86!”
“Damnit!” Ric says.
“Come on Bulls,” Ben says.
Pippen misses a layup that Rodman fails to tap in, and then Malone misses a turnaround with Pippen grabbing the board, and the semi-circle groans and squirms. “We come up on one minute remaining in the fourth quarter,” says Marv. The United Center rises to their feet. Pippen runs the offense, passing left to Jordan who drives the baseline and is dismayed when he misses the layup and no foul is called. “Jordan, unable to hit,” says Marv. “He thought he was fouled.”
“How can you not call that??” Ric shouts.
“Ten on the 24,” Marv says. “Stockton getting the screen.” Stockton bounces a pass down low to Anderson, who takes one dribble and attempts a reverse layup. It misses! Rodman with the rebound! “Yes!” Brandon shouts.
“Watch this,” I say. “Watch this replay,” and the guys watch as the replay shows Pippen grabbing the rim just before Anderson’s shot, the backboard shaking slightly as Anderson’s layup bounces into Rodman’s hands. “Sloan has a stroke right here,” I tell them. “Sloan can’t believe it!” I laugh.
“Anderson should have dunked it,” Ben says.
28 seconds left. Bulls ball. Kerr brings it up. Stockton on him. Jordan to his left, waiting. “Game tied at 86,” Marv says. “Four second differential between the 24 second clock and the game clock.” With Kerr still dribbling, Jordan moves toward the top of the key and then down toward the basket as Pippen darts up and takes a pass from Kerr. “It is Michael Jordan time,” Marv says, and we breathe in and watch Scottie search for Jordan — “Scottie Pippen looking, looking for Michael Jordan” – who breaks toward Pippen and takes a handoff with seven seconds on the shot clock.
“Do it!” Ben Alden shouts. Now at the three point line, Jordan dribbles to his right. Stockton doubles. Jordan goes back to his left. “Checks the clock,” Marv says. “Five on the 24.” The crowd moans. The semi-circle is frozen. Jordan goes left searching for space around Russell. Shot clock at four. Jordan pulls up at the same spot where he hit the game winner in Game 1, but he does not shoot. Instead, he pivots off his right foot and steps between Russell and Stockton. “Here’s Jordan – ” Marv says, trying to keep up as Jordan pivots between the Utah guards and laces a pass to Kerr, who has cut to the foul line. “ – did not have the shot, Kerr does AND HITS!”
“YEEESSSSSS!!!” the semi-circle exclaims. “Steve fucking Kerr!” The ball drops through the net just as the horn sounds signaling a shot clock violation, and with five seconds remaining the Bulls lead by two. Kerr nods confidently, high-fiving Jordan and Rodman and then Randy Brown as the Jazz call timeout.
“See, in my memory, that was the last shot of the game,” Ben Alden says.
“Me too,” Brandon says. “I have no idea what happens now.”
I do, but I don’t say, just grinning instead. The Bulls come out defensively with the same lineup, Kukoc on Russell inbounding the ball, Kerr shadowing Stockton, Rodman with Malone, Jordan on Hornacek near the corner and Pippen following Anderson. Kukoc is leaping in front of Russell, and we are waiting, shoulder-to-shoulder, and Russell’s pass arcs awkwardly over Kukoc’s monstrous arms. “Yes!” I yell, unable to contain my emotions or my foreknowledge of the game’s conclusion. “Yes!” Ric yells as Pippen breaks on the pass, diving to break it up. “Bulls! Bulls!” the semi-circle yells as Pippen bats the ball to a streaking Kukoc who takes one dribble, two steps, and jams the ball home with his left hand.
The Bulls bench spills onto the floor, Steve Kerr leaps into Brian Williams’s arms, the U.C. crowd screams, the semi-circle hoots and high-fives, and though six tenths of a second remain on the clock, the officials wipe the clock clear and the confetti falls and Jordan is standing on the scorers table and we are shouting and cheering and all is right in the world again.
“What a game!” Ben says.
“The Bulls are back,” Ric says.
NEXT: Exchanging glances. (12.06.11)
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