Utah Jazz: Reliving the shot that lives in infamy
The photo shows the ball at its apex and 6.6 seconds on the clock. A sea of faces stare back in anguish, desperately hoping for a clang off the back of the iron. It is the last instant in which the Utah Jazz led an NBA Finals game, a fleeting moment made timeless by photographers seated along the opposite baseline. Knowing that a split second later Michael Jordan's shot will splash through the net and clinch the 1998 NBA Finals, the viewer feels almost compelled to climb into the frame and warn the crowd to look away.
"I've remembered that every day since," said Mark Anderson, one of the faces in that crowd.
Anderson, now an attorney in Salt Lake City, was in his late 20s and stared right at Jordan during the shot. He can be seen in the second row, peering out from the right side of the standard.
With the Finals once again upon us, the image of Jordan's follow-through haunts Jazz fans as deeply as it did that Sunday afternoon 15 years ago. Something greater than just that game and that season was lost. A single shot marked the end of an era for the Utah Jazz and for professional basketball.
The disappointment at least in Utah was overwhelming.
"I don't remember a single sound," Anderson recalled. "It was like everything you were hoping for was just gone in that instant, and frankly I think it was 20,000 people feeling the exact same thing at the exact same time."
The end of an era • Melissa Wink now lives 1,600 miles away in Cincinnati, but she stands immediately to Anderson's right in the photo. Her recollection of the aftermath from Jordan's shot feels eerily similar.
"Although it happened fast, it feels as if it's going very slowly," Wink remembered. "Afterward it was almost utter silence. You really understood what everyone was feeling at the exact same moment."
With John Stockton already 36 and Karl Malone turning 35, Jordan's jumper shut the window of opportunity for the two greatest Jazzmen to deliver Utah a championship.
"You obviously hoped it would continue, but you knew these guys weren't going to live on forever," said Richard Anderson, Mark's father and an ophthalmologist in Salt Lake City, who stands immediately in front of Mark in the photo. "Clearly that was our best shot. Salt Lake certainly deserves an NBA title. We felt like we finally had it that year. And then all of a sudden it's over."
Mark Anderson also sensed that something larger was unfolding.
"That was the year we thought it could actually happen," he said. "And when it didn't, I don't think anybody thought there was a next year. I think everybody thought that we'd taken our best shot and it was gone."
The unfulfilled possibility of becoming the only team to beat Michael Jordan in the Finals left a void for fans like Lydia Melchior, who watched Jordan's shot from the front row. She appears to Malone's right in the photo, partially obscured by the Mailman.
"Michael Jordan was going to retire and it just wasn't going to be the same after that," Melchior said. "It was like a climactic time in basketball. To watch Michael Jordan was amazing. The relationship with the Jazz and the relationship with Karl Malone, it was just a magical time. And you knew that time was gone. It's kind of like graduating high school. In that final moment there is something deep in your heart, way at the back of your mind, that knows that part is over."
The NBA has seen other game-winning shots. Stockton's bomb sent the Jazz to the Finals a year earlier, stunning Houston. But that city recently had celebrated two championships with Hakeem Olajuwon. If ever a single photograph captured the hopes and dreams of a town and its team in its final moment, Jordan's shot was it. Just by being there, the fans opposite Jordan unwittingly became the background in arguably the most famous image in NBA history.
The man behind the misery • That Jordan played the role of executioner surprised no one. When the ball left his hands, dread permeated the building.
"You knew if he got off a shot it probably was going to go in," Richard Anderson said about Jordan's game-winner. "People were yelling, 'Oh no!' I think my wife was yelling as loud as she could."
"I remember saying to myself, 'Please don't go in,' but I knew it was going in," Mark Anderson added.
Melchior's then-future husband, Alan, was a relative newcomer to Jazz basketball in 1998. He began attending games because of Lydia.
"If you really want to continue to date me, you'll get basketball tickets," he remembered Lydia saying.
So he did get tickets good ones. He hunches immediately to Lydia's right in the photo. Despite arriving late to the party, he knew what the Jazz faced in Jordan.
"I was thinking, 'Oh hell, I know he's going to make this shot,' " Alan Melchior recalled. "Having been on the front row all these years, I have still never seen another player in basketball as capable as Michael Jordan."
Paul Maese hasn't seen anything quite like it either. Maese has been working security for the Utah Jazz for more than two decades, watching a lot of players come through EnergySolutions Arena.
He was in the building for Utah's triple-overtime victory over Chicago during the 1992 regular season and the 26-point comeback against the Bulls in February 1998. Maese has seen numerous highs and lows, but Jordan's last shot he stood just behind Jerry Sloan burns particularly hot in his memory.
"It's hard to forget," Maese said. "I told Bryon Russell afterward, 'You had him up until he pushed you.' "
Maese's colleague, Eldon Farnsworth, also worked the 1998 Finals and was in the corner adjacent to the basket where Jordan scored his last two points as a Chicago Bull.
"Probably the thing I remember most is just the deflation of the crowd," Farnsworth recalled. "When that shot was in the air and after it went in, just a big sigh and the letdown that the crowd had."
A frozen moment thawed out • In some ways, that letdown hasn't dissipated for Jazz fans. From 1992 to 1998, Utah reached the conference finals five times in seven years. The Jazz have made it just once in the 15 years since.
"It was a special time, and I don't think we're ever going to see it again," said Geoff Beckstrom, who sat just above the camera's reach during Jordan's infamous shot.
Beckstrom, who now resides in Las Vegas, grew up in Utah with the Stockton-Malone Jazz. He returned home from his LDS mission in Japan just days before the 1997 Finals began. During the playoffs, Beckstrom and his mission companion would knock on doors in college dorms whenever they thought they might catch a glimpse of a live or taped game. Beckstrom still watches the Jazz via NBA League Pass, but his perspective has changed.
"You get married, you get into a career, and there's other things that are more important," Beckstrom said.
Those who saw Jordan hit the game-winning shot in the 1998 Finals will remember him as the best player who ever lived. Stockton and Malone were the erstwhile heroes who almost vanquished him. Someday, fans growing up with the current generation of NBA stars will say the same thing about LeBron James and his challengers.
For the faces in the photo, Jordan, Malone, and their respective teammates are all that exist. They stare at the shot, frozen in a single moment where the Jazz cling to a lead that could force a decisive Game 7. In present day, those fans now wax nostalgic and ponder what might have been. But in the photo, they stay preserved, never growing old or moving on, holding that slim but everlasting hope that Jordan's shot will rim out.
Freelance writer James Seaman is a Utah graduate who lives in Salt Lake City.
Michael Jordan's shot from the top of the key with 6.6 seconds left clinched the Chicago Bulls' Game 6 victory over the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals and the team's sixth NBA championship. Jordan retired for the second time (again temporarily) after the game at Salt Lake City's Delta Center. Neither the Jazz nor the Bulls have been back to the NBA Finals since.
When NBAE photographer Fernando Medina lined his lens up to shoot Michael Jordan taking the championship-clinching shot against the Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals, he knew he had nailed it he just didn't know it would wind up as arguably as the most iconic photo in league history and as the No. 1 sports photo of all time, according to Sports Illustrated.
Medina, sitting along the opposite baseline that night, told NBA.com last November that "there was a high probability that Jordan would take the shot and I wanted to make sure I framed it right and that it was in focus. I was part of NBA Photos' team of photographers covering The Finals. We had discussed how we wanted to cover possible game-winning shots. Since the Bulls were going away from me and the action would happen on the opposite end of the court, I just made sure my mechanics were right."
Medina's favorite part of the photo? "That's easy," he said, "the myriad expressions of the fans in the stands. An NBA team executive I know has a 3 x 5 framed copy in his office. You can spend quite some time lost in all the expressions. I saw none of that when I took the photo. All I concentrated on, at the time, was a wide shot including Jordan, the ball, most/all of the players on the court and the shot clock"