To avoid melting into a smelly puddle because of a stupid heat wave taking over the east coast, I went to my gym last night to use the treadmills. A row of 12 TVs sits in front of the three rows of treadmills in the gym; I avoid watching TV when working out because it’s dizzying. When I took one of the few open treadmills left in the back row, I looked up and realized I’d have to break my no-TV stance that workout.
The TV directly in front of me was tuned to ESPN Classic, broadcasting the second half of Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals, when the Chicago Bulls defeated the Phoenix Suns 99-98 to secure the first three-peat for the Bulls in the ‘90s.
I’ve never seen any part of that game replayed outside of John Paxson’s title-clinching three pointer. Even though I knew the result, I went into watching the game as if it was live, trying to make memories of something that happened 22 years ago because I was too young to remember it the first time around.
The Bulls held a 10 point lead with about seven minutes left in the third quarter when I started my workout. The first thing that stuck out is the magnitudes of improvement that video quality has seen over the last two decades. I didn’t need the highest quality of video to appreciate how sharp the Bulls looked with their red uniform and black shoes combination — the intimidation factor is timeless. (Yes, even with Horace Grant wearing those awesome white goggles.) On the other hand, the basketball/sun/comet hybrid running from left to right across the Suns’ jerseys, like a sash, looked so dated now, even with the gruff Charles Barkley bullying the boards in those colors.
I didn’t think of plugging in my headphones until after I saw the NBA on NBC logo flash from an extended break, so I missed my opportunity to hear that immortal theme song. Thank God for YouTube.
When I started running with the game, it looked like the Bulls were going to run away with the game and the championship. Michael Jordan was hitting every one of those catch and shoot fadeaways and Scottie Pippen was all over the court for defensive duty and offensive rebounds. A young-looking Phil Jackson, with a full head of pepper-colored hair and matching beard, looked untroubled whenever the camera panned to him on the bench.
It looked especially too easy when the Bulls executed the same inside-out attack three times to perfection in the third quarter, which netted three three-pointers nailed by three different shooters. A Bull would penetrate the Suns defense to get in the paint and — instead of shooting — would zip the ball back to a Bull standing behind the arc for an open three. Paxson made the first of the trio with a three from the same spot he’d later hit the game-winner, then B.J. Armstrong got in the act with a three from the baseline, and finally Trent Tucker — a reserve I never heard of until that moment — got the inside-out pass at Paxson’s spot and nailed the three in the closing seconds of the third quarter
The Bulls took an eight point lead into the fourth quarter and just collapsed offensively. The Suns made the paint impenetrable and then took to tearing the Bulls in the paint on the other end of the court. Barkley continued to bully the frontcourt for offensive rebounds and second chance opportunities, Kevin Johnson (who knew he’d be the Mayor of Sacramento decades later?!) found gaps to drive to the net, and the Suns took care of the free throws the Bulls gifted to them through shooting fouls. Despite all the success the Suns were having, Danny Ainge (who knew he’d be the GM of the Celtics decades later?!) and Dan Majerle were pretty quiet in that quarter.
This was rock bottom for the Bulls: the 10 point lead that I saw when I started running evaporated into a four point deficit with under two minutes left in the game. Pippen, Grant, and Cartwright each accumulated five fouls. Worst of all, Jordan was the only Bull to generate any offense up until that point in the fourth quarter — nine points.
Phoenix should have sealed the game at this point, but after establishing that four point lead, the Suns couldn’t buy a basket. They missed all six of subsequent shots they took; they wouldn’t make any more.
Jordan took an inbound pass after cross court to cut the Suns’ lead to 98-96 with about a minute to go. The Bulls defense forced another Suns turnover with just under 15 seconds left in the game and took a timeout for Jackson to draw up a play.
That play? Another inside-out attack, of course.
Jordan inbounded the ball from the Bulls bench, had that teammate pass the ball back immediately to him, then dumped the tossed the ball to an open Pippen standing at at the top of the arc. Pippen drove to the paint, dumped the ball to his left to an open Grant, who one-timed the ball back to Paxson behind the arc.
Swoosh. 99-98 Bulls with three seconds left.
I put my hands up in celebration in the treadmill, didn’t feel like an idiot at all — I knew I looked like one, though — then ended the workout. In one hour, I saw the Bulls win a title for the first time since 1997. The Bulls scored only 12 points that quarter, 75 percent of them by Jordan, but the last 25 percent that Paxson chipped in was just enough help for Jordan. The context behind that Paxson three is incredible and I can’t believe it took me this long to learn the history of that game and championship.
Fitting that a three pointer was the shot that sealed the first three peat.