This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's July 13, 1998, issue. Subscribe today!
Phil Jackson sat in a quiet corner of a suburban Chicago bookstore looking happy and rested. He had just coached the Bulls to their sixth NBA title in eight years, and in a few days he would tell the world that he was resigning. Then he would depart for a vacation in Turkey with his wife, June, friend and former teammate Bill Bradley and his wife, Ernestine. But first, he would conclude his playoff diary with The Mag.
IN THE LAST THREE YEARS, we have won 205 regular-season games. Somebody told me that's more than any other NBA team has won in three years. But the most important thing is what you do at the end, how far you travel in the playoffs. All we really wanted was our third championship in three years.
We got to the Delta Center for Game 1 of the Finals, and the noise was astonishing. I wore earplugs that an audiologist sent to me last year when we also played Utah in the Finals. She said I should be worried about permanent ear damage, and I am. The noise really is beyond the realm of tolerance. Last year, I'd go back to my room and my ears would ring for hours. They've toned down the motorcycle sounds some, but the introduction is the worst -- the bombs, the flares, the balloons bursting in sequence.
When we lost the game, a heartbreaker, 88-85, I was afraid we might have drained too much from our tank trying to win. But I kept emphasizing to our team that the Jazz weren't playing as well as they did during the year. It was obvious to me. There was a lot of pressure on them, with a lot of it coming from the coaching staff.
Michael was unfazed. He had a piano in his room, and Ahmad Rashad was trying to teach him how to play. Michael's room was right above mine, and I could hear that piano. So on the night between Games 1 and 2, my family came over, and we played this board game called Taboo and yelled for a couple of hours just to get even. Michael just moved the piano to another room.
We stole Game 2 from the Jazz 93-88, forcing Utah into 19 turnovers to our seven. Scottie Pippen played fabulous defense. He had missed two free throws at the end of a game against the Pacers in the previous series, free throws that might have won the game for us, but he had put that behind him. He was now as intense as I had ever seen him.
We started getting peppered with thrown coins on the bench in the second half. I told our trainer, Chip Schaefer, to tell the refs, and the P.A. announcer finally made a pretty weak announcement asking the crowd to stop because a Jazz player might be hit. I was worried because you don't know where you could get hit. I got nailed pretty good in the back after Game 1. But by staying composed, we got a critical win.
I have seen Michael many times get on the bus or come to practice and say, "Fellows, we're going to win tonight." He was calm during this Jazz series and really enjoyed it. All series long, people kept asking us if I could be back next season, if Michael, Scottie and Dennis would be back. But those were unknowable things, and so we did not focus on them. We felt confident and at ease.
In Game 3 in Chicago, we beat the Jazz so badly that they had to be thinking, Are we good enough? No matter what they did, it went wrong.
Karl Malone did not have a great fourth quarter during the entire series, and I think he got tired like everybody else. But I also think he questioned his shooting ability. You have to remember he was not a natural shooter when he came into the league. He was about a 55 percent free throw shooter. He made himself into a good shooter with hard work, but sometimes you doubt yourself under stress, and the insecure weaknesses from years ago can return to haunt you. The whole Jazz team had to be wondering after this 96-54 rout.
Our only distraction was Dennis Rodman. Earlier in the series, he went to Las Vegas to gamble and do whatever he does there, but now that we were at home, I wondered if he would come to Monday practice, which was scheduled for 11 a.m. I wrote on the locker room blackboard, "Will Dennis be late? When will he arrive?"
At 11:45, the phone rang at midcourt. "Do you want to talk to Dennis?" somebody asked, holding out the receiver. "What for? He's not gonna be here," I said. After a while, I came over and took the phone and said, "Dennis, what am I going to tell the press?" And he hung up on me.
That was the night he went to Detroit and wrestled with Hulk Hogan. The press really beat up on the whole team, but we survived because we know Dennis. People say I should be harsh with him, but they are ignorant. If people don't know by now that Dennis is mentally handicapped, what can I say?
I have diagnosed him, and I know he has a real problem with attention. I had 26 hours of graduate study in psychology, and I know what I know. The harder you discipline him, the worse it gets. You just alienate a guy who has alienation problems already. What you have to have is patience. You have to accept him and say, "Give me the best that you've got."
I actually think that Eddie Vedder, the Pearl Jam singer who's always hanging around with Dennis, is helpful for him. He parties with Dennis and stays out late, but he has actually talked Dennis into coming back and playing a lot of times. He relates to Dennis because he's a performer.
At a team meeting earlier in the playoffs, I said that we would get sponge-rubber boppers and have Dennis run through a gantlet of team members so we could symbolically work out our disappointment with him. But Dennis freaked out. He was so concerned about it, I canceled the whole idea. It really bothered him.
Dennis needs to be in a corner to perform. He needs to be the bad boy. People think I was like him as a player, but I was not in any way similar. I was Action Jackson, but I wasn't hyperactive.
Dennis was great in our Game 4 win (86-82), grabbing 14 rebounds and making 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch. All of a sudden, we were up 3-1, and we knew it was just a matter of time. There was no way we would lose three in a row.
Game 5 was the time to cap it all, since it was our last game in Chicago. And who knew where we'd scatter after the Finals? Tickets were going for as much as $6,000 apiece. Celebrities were everywhere. But all of us who drove to the game got stuck in traffic, the worst Friday traffic I've ever seen, and our minds were not focused. Even Michael got to the United Center late. We lost by a point 87-86, with Michael missing that last shot.
I actually diagrammed the last play of the game for Toni Kukoc, who had shot 11-for-13 from the field. As much as I wanted Michael to have that crowning glory, I figured it was a wonderful time to use him as a decoy. And Michael wasn't bothered by that. But the Jazz threw Greg Ostertag on Ron Harper when he inbounded, and Harp couldn't see. I might have used Pippen, because he's taller, but he had fouled out and I had nobody else tall who was used to doing it. So Harper got the ball to Michael.
Michael had that off-balance three-point shot from the right corner to win it. Not a great shot, but a shot. Afterward, he talked about how much he enjoyed that. It was a Hail Mary shot, and he had a very Zen-like comment about it. He said the moment was "cute." He was the mistress of the moment, and he was fascinated by it. If that had been the winning shot, it would have been like cheating the Devil, or God. For him to go right on to another chapter, another critical game, was remarkable.
I talked to Michael in the locker room before Game 6 in Utah. He was the last one to get taped, and Scottie was lying on a table near him getting ice and electric stimulation for his bad back. Scottie had hurt himself taking so many charges from Malone and others. I said, "Mike, do you think you can go 48 tonight?"
He was very quiet, very serious. "I will if I have to," he said.
"I don't know," I said.
"Whatever it takes," he said. "Let's do it tonight."
He wound up playing 44 minutes and getting really tired at the end. With a couple of minutes to play, I called a timeout, and he said, "We're gonna win this one." And I said, "I know." When Michael says that, it's always a good sign.
Scottie was really hurting, so Michael became our offense. I told him to go to the hole because he didn't have enough energy for his jump shot. The Jazz were just smacking him every time he drove, and he was making his free throws. When Stockton made that three to give the Jazz a three-point lead with 41 seconds to play, I called time and told the players we had a two-for-one situation: If we stopped them and scored twice, we'd win.
No matter how confident you are as a coach, you really don't want to go into a seventh game on an opponent's court. We've never played a Game 7 in the Finals, and there was no reason to start now.
Michael hit a layup to make it 86-85. And then he came from the backside and stole the ball from Malone. At that moment, I think we were of one mind. I was waving for him to go downcourt. I think he saw me out of the corner of his eye waving off a timeout. The flow was the right thing at the moment, so we didn't want to stop.
We spread the floor, and Michael waited until Bryon Russell reached for the ball, and then he went up for a jump shot near the free throw line. I was really surprised, because I thought he would take it to the hoop again, because his legs were gone. I didn't know if he could do it, because he was so tired. But Michael always rises to the occasion. He cleared himself, and you can see in the video that he put extra stuff on the shot, and it was perfect.
We hugged at the end. Hard. I knew it was the end of a lot of things. "What an incredible finish," I said to Michael. "What a miraculous story."
Now I'm through. I'm thinking of taking a whole year off, of doing things I've never done. Like wintering in Hawaii, or going to a spiritual retreat out West for a long time, or writing some reflections. I don't know where or when my next stop will be.
I said to Michael that I don't know what better moment there would be for him to retire. His last game was like Babe Ruth hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to win the World Series -- which Babe never did. But it's Michael's decision.
Me? The rumor got started that I was leaving because I needed hip replacement surgery. My right calf is atrophied from a back injury I had with the Knicks, and my hip does hurt. But I will try a full year of yoga before I consider going under the knife.
I grew up in Montana and went to school in North Dakota, and Chicago has always seemed like the capital of the Midwest. I have friends here and my children have friends here, but my kids are grown now. It's been wonderful in Chicago, but I don't think there's anything to hold me here.
I think back on the season past, and I am aware of what a wonderful Last Dance it was. I used that expression "Last Dance" all year because I knew no matter what happened we would never have this entire group together again. The journey was unique, a moment in time that can never be recaptured.
As I said, it's over.