15 years ago tonight, the eyes of the sporting world were fixated on Salt Lake City as the much-anticipated 1998 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz tipped-off at the Delta Center.
The hype surrounding the NBA Finals was at an all-time high. For the Bulls (who were seeking their 6th championship in 8 years), the series signified what surely would be the end of the “90’s Bulls” as most everyone had known them – with it apparent Phil Jackson would not be returning and the uncertainty surrounding Michael Jordan’s and Scottie Pippen’s future at an all-time high. Despite a 62-20 regular season record – the Bulls barely survived a 7-game Eastern Conference Final series against the Indiana Pacers and were running on fumes with just 2-days off prior to Game 1 in Utah. Many experts and fans agreed that Chicago’s title run appeared to be in serious jeopardy.
For Jazz fans, they were on cloud 9. Back in the finals for a second-straight season, this time with homecourt advantage, it felt like it was finally their time. They gave the Bulls everything they could handle in the ’97 Finals, and then swept them in the ’97-98 season. An estimated 12,000-15,000 fans who couldn’t get tickets jammed the plaza outside the Delta Center to watch the game on a big-screen outdoors.
The Jazz were coming off a 9-day layoff after a convincing sweep of the 61-21 Los Angeles Lakers. Sure enough, they appeared rusty to begin the series but still managed to keep the Bulls at arms’ length through 3 1/2 quarters thanks to the play of 36-year old John Stockton and a strong bench (that outscored Chicago’s reserves 22-8). Nevertheless, the Bulls mounted a late charge with a 7-0 Jordan/Pippen run to tie the game at 75. Karl Malone, who had missed 16 of his first 22 shots, finally caught fire from the perimeter with two huge jumpshots before the Bulls battled back to force overtime.
In overtime John Stockton took over, scoring 7 of Utah’s 9 points and assisting Malone on the other basket. Scottie Pippen had one final chance to tie but his 3-pointer at the buzzer was off and Utah escaped with an 88-85 overtime victory to take a 1-0 series lead. The Jazz’s win would signify the first time MJ’s Bulls had trailed in an NBA Finals series since losing the opening game to the Lakers during their first title run in 1991.
John Stockton finished the game with 24 points and 8 assists on 9-12 shooting while Karl Malone notched 21 points and 14 rebounds. Michael Jordan led the Bulls with 33 points and Scottie Pippen added 21.
The defeat marked the Bulls’ 4th-consecutive road loss while the Jazz had won 7-straight overall. I can’t speak for other Jazz fans, but personally I was never more confident the Jazz would be champions than I was following Game 1. Then Games 2-6 happened to remind us all of the greatness of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
As painstakingly close as Utah’s losses in Games 2, 4 and 6 were, the Jazz lost to the greatest player to ever play the game and there is no shame in that. The end result can’t take away from the fact that each Jazz finals’ victory was a special win that will always be remembered.