The 10-part ESPN Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance,” was always going to careen toward a triumphant final shot from Jordan and a painful, controversial moment for members of the 1997-98 Utah Jazz, knocked off by the Bulls for the second straight year in those NBA Finals.
And the looming question has always been whether Jordan should have been called for an offensive foul on a push-off on Bryon Russell before he put up the game-winning and series-clinching shot from just behind the foul line in Game 6 in Utah.
There was, unquestionably, contact between Jordan and Russell, after which Jordan got his shot off and made it, with 5 seconds to play. The shot gave Jordan his 44th and 45th points on the day, a remarkable number considering the Bulls only scored 87 as a team. Jordan was 15-for-35 from the field.
So, was it a push-off? One member of that Jazz team, guard Howard Eisley, told me, “People still ask me now whether it was a push-off on Michael Jordan on that last shot. It was … a little.”
Jazz’s Bryon Russell Helped Inspire Michael Jordan Comeback
Here’s the play in question:
Russell was clearly thrown off balance as he played tight defense on Jordan, who received the ball out near the 3-point line. Jordan’s abrupt stop, which came about 18 feet from the basket after he began to drive into the paint, surprised Russell and got him started on his tumble. But Jordan’s left hand makes contact with Russell’s backside and it is not clear whether Jordan gave Russell a nudge that precipitated his fall or whether the fall happened only because of the change in momentum.
In 2018, Russell addressed the topic with the Deseret News.
“He knew what he was going to do and I knew he was trying to get there and I was trying to make sure I got him cut off,” Russell said. “I was a step ahead of him but he kind of felt like, ‘Here, let me give you this extra push Russ,’ and then he hit the shot, but I knew he wanted to get to that sweet spot.”
Russell, who went on to be a teammate of Jordan’s in his comeback in 2002, also got a mention in Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech. Jordan said some trash-talking by Russell was part of his motivation to return to the game after dabbling in baseball in 1994.
“I was in Chicago in 1994 and at this time I had no thoughts of coming back and playing the game of basketball,” Jordan said. “Bryon Russell came over to me and said, ‘Why’d you quit? You know I could guard you.’ When I did come back in 1995 and we played Utah in ’96, I’m at the center circle and Bryon Russell is standing next to me. I said, ‘You remember the [remarks] you made in 1994 about, I think I can guard you, I can shut you down, I would love to play against you? Well, you’re about to get your chance.’”
Jazz Blew Chances Against Jordan’s Bulls
While everyone remembers the shot that Jordan made, Eisley said the Jazz had done much before that to damage their own cause. Utah led by 4 points with 2:30 to play but, in the six possessions to end the game, the Jazz shot 1-for-4 from the field with 2 turnovers.
Everybody knows what happened at the end of the game, but even before that, we had some plays that didn’t go our way. I had a 3-pointer I made but they called it after the 24-second buzzer, and the replay showed it wasn’t; it should have been good. That one bothers me, and they gave Ron Harper a bucket when it did come after the 24-second clock, the replays showed that, too. So that was a five-point swing for them in a close game. And we had the opportunity to win it in that last possession; we had the ball with 30 or so seconds to go. But we had a turnover on our end off a double-team, Michael made the steal, and he came down and made a great shot against Bryon Russell. Things happen.
Of course, if those things had not happened quite that way in Game 6, Eisley can imagine how Game 7 would have gone.
“If we can win Game 6,” he said, smiling, “then we would wind up with Game 7 on our home floor.”