“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy [ride].”
It was Bette Davis who uttered that famous line in her role as aging stage actress Margo Channing in the film, “All About Eve.”
But she might as well have been talking to Utah Jazz fans, as anyone and everyone who cares about NBA basketball turns his or her attention, vegetated as it now is in the midst of the coronavirus shutdown, to the ongoing saga/documentary, “The Last Dance,” starring Michael Jordan.
The ratings for the first two episodes, chronicling MJ’s final season playing in Chicago, over the 10-part series on ESPN, were sky high, and as time goes by they’ll likely soar higher and higher, straight through to the sad-and-sorry finish. Sad and sorry for the Jazz and their fans.
Spoiler alert: The Jazz lose in dramatic fashion at the end of the 1998 Finals.
If an up-close rehash of that ending is going to rip the scab off a wound that has never quite completely healed, Jazz fans might want to watch something else, something a little more uplifting, something like, I dunno, “Titanic” or “Sophie’s Choice” or “Old Yeller.”
It’s too late, though, if any of them watched the first two installments, which aired back-to-back on Sunday night. What happens in Game 6 of the Finals has been stitched into the fabric of the series, as Jordan already was seen raising up, up, up for that last shot, the ball seen spinning out of his palm, with an exaggerated follow-through that lasted too long, like Arnold Palmer, his club wrapped around his back, looking at the target, admiring a pure 4-iron into the green and directly at the flag. The clip stops short of the Spaulding splashing through the net.
No. That comes later, in case that part is lost on anybody.
That’s the problem for a whole lot of Jazz fans. It’s not lost on anybody.
Everybody. Knows. What. Happens.
And, apparently, 22 years is still too soon for some folks around here.
Who wants to re-live Jordan and his teammates lighting up victory stogies in what was then called the Delta Center, now Vivint Arena, all as John and Karl and Jeff slump off the court, looking for relief in the private hellhole of their locker room?
Well. It’s part of history now, the crowning moment for the greatest player the game has ever seen. And on account of that, it’s worth the scrape of the scab. Not easy, just worthwhile. And all of the run-up to what’s coming at the end — five weeks of it — makes the re-opening of the sore that much more deliberate, that much more painful for the devout fans.
The reasons for the hurt are myriad.
Foremost among them, the Jazz could have won that series, even in the face of Jordan’s brilliance. They had their chances. And still, they let them slip away.
They won Game 1 in overtime, in front of a packed house, a crowd that included Jack Nicholson, Woody Harrelson, and Gary Shandling — that’s right, Hollywood came to Hooterville — witnessing a victory that set the Jazz up for the title they never got. In the immediate postseasons that preceded that Finals, the team that won the first game went on to win the championship something like 87 percent of the time.
Those are great odds, even against the Greatest, and because of that, some dumb columnist predicted in print that Jordan would finish his Bulls career with a loss. Oops.
Then, in Game 2 at home, urged on by the best home crowd in the NBA, the Jazz betrayed themselves and their patrons, falling flat. Their frontline star Karl Malone shot the ball as though he were reaching into the oven for a baked cake, with mitts on, making just 5-of-16 attempts. Worst of all, he took only four shots in the second half, missing every one of them.
Game 3 in Chicago was worse. The Bulls blew the Jazz away, beating them by 42 points as the visitors turned the ball over 26 times, shot a mere 30 percent, and were out-rebounded by 12. It was oooooooogly. How lopsided was it? Benchwarmer Jacque Vaughn entered the game — in the first half.
Game 4 brought another Jazz loss, this one by four points.
Jordan shook his clenched fist in the aftermath, pumping it like a jackhammer, switching his fierce eyes onto their highest beam as he perused the scene and then left it behind, ducking into the bowels of the United Center. I remember it as though it were yesterday. That night, in a defensive sumo wrestle, Jordan scored nearly half the Bulls’ points.
And, thereafter, that’s when the Jazz briefly followed the lead of their coach, Jerry Sloan, digging deep to find the collective warrior within, winning a game they could not win. Everyone in Chicago was prepared to celebrate another championship, 4-1, sending Jordan off into retirement all proper, but the Jazz did what no one outside of themselves expected — they pulled out the grittiest of wins.
All of which set up Game 6 back in Salt Lake, a contest the Jazz were in near-perfect position to win with 42 seconds remaining, leading by three. Even after Jordan scored on a driving layup, the Jazz had both the ball and the lead, up one, and, furthermore, they had found a way to get the ball into Malone’s vice-grip hands in his favored spot on the low block. If he scored, the Jazz would take Game 6, and head into Game 7 on their home floor with a now injured Scottie Pippen almost guaranteed not to play.
All of it spelled a Jazz championship, and a Jordan defeat, his first in an NBA Finals.
You know what happened next. Jordan stole the ball, dribbled down the floor, springing into the air, after giving Bryon Russell a shove, and hitting his signature 19-foot jumper to win by 1. Game. Set. Match.
Jordan had his sixth trophy.
He scored more than half his team’s points that game, 45 in all, in what Phil Jackson described as, “Michael’s greatest performance.”
Jordan himself, in the postgame, paid the Jazz a tremendous compliment, saying: “Of all the championships we’ve won, this was the toughest.”
Even Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf paid the Jazz a tribute: “It’s too bad,” he said, “there can’t be co-champions.”
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” Sloan said, that medicine shoved down the Jazz’s throat by … well, You-Know-Who.
It’s nobody’s secret that Jordan lived for competition. He respected those who dared to put up a challenge to him, and he disdained those who shrank away. The Jazz, at least, put up.
In a conversation all those years ago I had with Sam Smith, an expert on the topic of Jordan, having covered him and written books about him, who is interviewed extensively in the ESPN series, he characterized the man with exactness and expertise.
“It’s almost as though he has a disorder,” Smith said. “You might say Dennis Rodman has a personality disorder. Jordan has a competition disorder. He has to compete. If he wasn’t so successful, it might have become a problem for him. … Of course, that’s what has made him the legendary figure he has become.”
Yeah, Jazz fans know what he became. A problem for … them.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.