Photo by John S. Peterson
Nebraska Basketball

All About Mike: Revisiting Some of Michael Jordan's Best Moments

April 19, 2020
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Now we know Fred Hoiberg has been watching Tiger King and Schitt’s Creek on Netflix like the rest of us normal folks. The Husker head coach said on a conference call with media this week he was happy the release date was moved up for ESPN’s highly-anticipated 10-part documentary series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls; he was running out of shows to binge watch while at home under quarantine.

The first and second parts of the doc, each an hour long, drop Sunday night on ESPN. The sports world has been waiting with bated breath for months now. It seems Hoiberg is right there alongside everyone else in his anticipation for the series to begin.

On his call with reporters, Hoiberg was asked about his favorite Jordan memory.

His first game in the NBA, an exhibition game, was against the Bulls in 1995. That was the season Chicago went 72-10, setting an NBA record for wins in a campaign. But, the Pacers beat the Bulls twice that year, the second coming in the second-to-last game of the two teams’ regular seasons. Chicago was trying to tie the 1985 Boston Celtics for best home record in a season (40-1). Jordan’s Bulls sat at 39-1.

Hoiberg played a role in keeping Chicago from matching Boston.

“(Head coach) Larry Brown came to me the night before and told me I was going to play because we had wrapped up our seed,” Hoiberg remembered. “We had the second-best record that year and the Bulls were obviously deadlocked as the one-seed.

“He came to me and said I was going to play. First half he put me in, this was at the height of the popularity of the NBA, NBA on NBC, we’re playing in the United Center and it was just a crazy atmosphere. I walk to the scorer’s table at the exact same time as Michael Jordan. Mark Jackson, our point guard said to me, ‘Do you want me to guard MJ?’ I said, ‘Hell yeah I want you to guard MJ.’ I guarded Steve Kerr.”

The Pacers held a 52-50 lead at the half, and soon after Hoiberg thought he was done for the game. A competitive third quarter sent both teams to the final frame tied at 77. Chicago was fighting for history. Indiana was fighting for some respect. This wasn’t going to be a throwaway game for either despite the playoffs looming so close.

And yet, a rookie Fred Hoiberg gets minutes in the fourth. “I got put back in right at the beginning of the fourth and it was all reserves,” Hoiberg said. With just under two minutes to play, the Pacers opened up a 99-91 lead. “(Bulls coach) Phil Jackson puts his starters back in the game, I look over at our bench thinking Larry Brown might do it (too) but all our starters had ice on their knees.”

So here’s a rookie Hoiberg, closing things out against one of the best teams in NBA history. And he’s got to guard Jordan.

“Jordan hit a 3 right in my face,” Hoiberg remembers.

Jordan’s triple with around 1:45 to play got the Bulls within five. A turnover from Indiana on the ensuing possession got Jordan and the Bulls out in transition, where Jordan found Toni Kukoc for another triple. Two-point game with 1:10 to play.

Brown let his guys play it out, and Indiana got a contested, off-balance shot from the left baseline that bounced off the back iron.

Jordan rebounds, brings it up the floor and goes right at Hoiberg for a pull-up mid-range jumper near the baseline. Tie game.

Still no timeout from Brown. Eddie Johnson forces another shot late in the shot clock that clangs off the rim. Jordan grabs the rebound again.

“Michael Jordan goes up and rebounds the ball and dribbles the ball over half court, and gets everybody out of the way. I’m guarding him,” Hoiberg says. “We ran a double-team at him, he split the double-team and went up and shot it at the left elbow. I went up as high as I possibly could—which wasn’t very high—trying to contest his shot, and the ball went in and out. … That was my first opportunity to guard the greatest ever and I guess I shut him down on the game-winning shot.”

Chicago fouled Johnson on a shot with five-tenths of a second on the game clock, and he hit one of his two free throws to give the Pacers a 100-99 win.

Hoiberg played in Chicago two seasons after Jordan retired. He coached in Chicago. He played against Jordan. And his best memory is a game Jordan lost, and a game that was relatively mundane from His Airness. Jordan had 24 points on 9-of-23 shooting, six assists against three turnovers and four fouls.

It goes to show just how many moments MJ had. Ask 100 players who touched an NBA court in the 90s about a memory of Jordan and you may very well get 100 different answers.

It got me thinking. With the doc about the drop, and the LeBron vs. Jordan debate about to kick into overdrive, what are my favorite MJ moments?

No. 1: The Shrug

If you told me a story about the time your dad’s friend’s brother was in an arcade and saw Michael Jordan post up on a pop-a-shot basket only to spend the next two hours completely greasing 10-year-olds and calling them “b-------” while doing it, I would absolutely believe you. 

There was a badass, no f---’s given vibe with Jordan. The man greenlit this entire documentary on the day of the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 championship parade, meaning he watched LeBron James go Superman on the 72-win Golden State Warriors, watched the Cavs complete a comeback from down 3-1 to win the title, and then decided, “Cool, it’s time to talk about me.” That is badass in a way no one has ever been badass before.

An attitude no better personified than shrugging your shoulders and putting your palms to the sky after scoring your 35th point in the first half of an NBA Finals game. 

Jordan hit six triples in the first half of Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers. He’d posted one season to that point in his career where he’d connected on better than a third of his 3-point attempts. He wasn’t considered a deadeye shooter from beyond the arc. 

Hence the shrug.

“If I don’t know, how in the hell are you supposed to know how to stop it?”

Often imitated, never duplicated, the shrug has become something of a cultural icon. Like Allen Iverson stepping over Ty Lue, some moments just transcend basketball. I’ve seen people doing the Jordan shrug in just about every facet of life, and not just shrugging, but making it a point that we all know they’re doing the Jordan shrug. 

There’s no better moment in my mind. It captured his personality, it signified his status as an icon, and it accurately portrayed what it must have felt like trying to guard a guy with a career 30 points-per-game average across 15 seasons.

No. 2: The Last Shot

Everyone has seen this. My college roommate who didn’t care about basketball had seen this. The greatest shot of a career, at the end of a career. 

The stop. The push-off which, depending on who you talk to, was definitely a push-off or was completely legal. The follow-through. The final stroke penned to the masterpiece that was his career. (We don’t need to talk about the Wizard years.)

The best part of the shot, and the case with a lot of legendary Jordan moments, is that it’s preceded by other moments of individual brillance. Just like with Hoiberg’s memory, Jordan’s last chance at winning the game was set up because Jordan had lasered a 3, set up another 3, then drilled a pull-up from the baseline. 

Against a 60-win Utah Jazz team, gunning for his sixth NBA championship ring and a second three-peat with the Bulls, Jordan got to his iconic moment thanks to a layup amongst the trees and then a display of defensive intelligence and instincts. 

We tend to forget Jordan was a nine-time All-NBA Defense selection. He doesn’t get his shot if he doesn’t get the ball from Karl Malone. 

I have to unrelated comments to add:

  • Analytics will say that’s a bad shot. *Ducks*
  • The irony of a shot to give you 45 points in a game that will serve as the capper to a three-peat that began with you donning the No. 45. Jordan’s aura was made for the silverscreen.

No. 3: Tears for Dad

Fifty-two days after the death of his father, Michael Jordan left basketball. 

“The most positive thing I can take from my father not being here with me today,” he said at a new conference in October of 1993, “is that he saw my last basketball game. And that means a lot.”

Jordan’s baseball career is what it is. But his return to basketball a year later put him on a path toward one of the most emotionally-impactful moments I’ve ever watched. The 1994-95 campaign ended in the second round of the NBA Playoffs, but set the table for the OG 72-win team. (Jordan’s Bulls would beat Curry’s Warriors. I will throw hands with anyone who disagrees.) 

That journey ended with Jordan’s fourth title. 

The Bulls clinched the title on their home court in Game 6 on June 16. Father’s Day.

No. 4: The Leap

Jordan’s 1988 Dunk Contest is one of the greatest dunk contests in NBA History. 

And I’m not talking about that. Dominique Wilkins was robbed by some home cooking. 

The leap I’m talking about is the game-winner reaction I most vividly remember from MJ: against the Cleveland Cavs in Game 5 of the 1989 playoffs. 

I recreated this in the driveway way more than a child should, the double-clutch, then the explosion of emotion—the leaping fist pump, and the three fist pumps that followed. This, to me, is the Jordan moment. 

No. 5: His Goodbye to Kobe

I’ve written about Kobe Bryant in this space before, so I won’t rehash his impact here. That being said, I kept myself from watching Bryant’s celebration of life at Staples Center for a few weeks, until I was more emotionally prepared to handle it. 

The speaker that cut the sharpest was Jordan. Joking about having to look at another “Crying Jordan” meme for years to come was a necessary reprieve from an emotionally vulnerable person we don’t get to see very often. 

“Maybe it surprised people that Kobe and I were very close friends,” he said. “But we were very close friends. Kobe was my dear friend. He was like a little brother. Everyone always wanted to talk about the comparisons between he and I. I just wanted to talk about Kobe.

“You know all of us have brothers and sisters, little brothers, little sisters, who for whatever reason always tend to get in your stuff, your closet, your shoes, everything. It was a nuisance – if I can say that word – but that nuisance turned into love over a period of time. Just because the admiration that they have for you as big brothers or big sisters, the questions in wanting to know every little detail about life that they were about to embark on.

“He used to call me, text me, 11:30, 2:30, 3 o'clock in the morning, talking about post-up moves, footwork, and sometimes, the triangle. At first, it was an aggravation. But then it turned into a certain passion. This kid had passion like you would never know. … He wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be. And as I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be.

“When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died. And as I look in this arena and across the globe, a piece of you died, or else you wouldn't be here. Those are the memories that we have to live with and we learn from. I promise you from this day forward, I will live with the memories of knowing that I had a little brother and I tried to help in every way I could. Please, rest in peace little brother.”

Bonus

Sorry to end on a sad note. Here’s Jordan wrecking folks.

 
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