Perhaps the teenager sensed that something big was going to happen later that day. At any rate, moments after Michael Jordan finished his late breakfast on Sunday at a suburban Cleveland hotel, the young man dashed over to claim, of all things, Jordan's fork.
"Look!" he shouted. "Michael Jordan's fork!" The kid waved it at his friends. They stared at the fork, an icon of sorts. "Michael Jordan ate with this fork," said the young man. The teenager then looked around furtively, and said, "I'm taking it." With that, he picked up the fork, stuck it in his pocket and walked out of the restaurant.
Had the utensil turned up at a Richfield Coliseum souvenir stand some seven hours later, even a Cleveland Cavaliers fan might have paid big bucks for it. The fifth and deciding game of Chicago's Eastern Conference first-round series against the Cavs was Michael Jeffrey Jordan's to win in dramatic fashion, and that is precisely the fashion in which he won it.
With Chicago trailing by one point and the clock showing just three seconds, Jordan caught an inbounds pass that everyone knew was headed his way and took a shot that everyone knew he was going to take. Adding to the degree of difficulty was the flying form of a 6'7" defender, Craig Ehlo, who darkened Jordan's horizon from the right side for a split second. No problem. Jordan simply double-clutched on the 18-foot shot and sent it spinning toward the hoop with perfect rotation. It rattled the back of the rim and went in, his 43rd and 44th points of the game, giving the Bulls a 101-100 victory.
"Un-fath-om-able," said Cavs center Brad Daugherty, emphatically. "Simply unfathomable." And this from a man who played with Jordan for two years at North Carolina, where he surely saw many un-fath-om-able things. More amazing still was the fact that Jordan had made another clutch jumper, with six seconds left, a 12-footer over the outstretched hand of 6'10" Larry Nance, which had given the Bulls a momentary 99-98 lead.
"Michael Jordan...superstar," said Nance, trying to analyze the game later. With a few words, a man of few words said it all.
Going into this series, Jordan had the highest playoff scoring average in NBA history (35.9), and his 199 points—he had a record 226 in last season's first-round, five-game victory over Cleveland—raised his average to 36.7. The win sent the Bulls into the second round of the playoffs against New York. The heartbreaking loss, meanwhile, carved another psychic scar into Cleveland's sinking sports self-image. How could the Cavs, a team that tied with the L.A. Lakers for the NBA's second-best record (57-25), lose to a team that had 10 fewer wins, a team they had beaten all six times they met during the season?
The Cavs were a balanced unit, a team of such consistency and emotional stability that their longest losing streak during the season was two games. The Bulls, by contrast, were a volatile, up-and-down bunch, unpredictable, with a tendency, like spectators at a Fourth of July fireworks show, to stand around and watch Jordan's pyrotechnics. The Cavs were nine-deep. The Bulls were sometimes one-deep. What happened?
For one thing, there was the play of Daugherty, which ran the gamut from A (adequate) to B (bad). He averaged 11.0 points a game on .362 shooting from the field, and 9.2 rebounds (compared with his regular-season averages of 18.9 ppg, .538 shooting and 9.2 boards). In the final game, one could sense Daugherty overthinking when he got the ball, reacting instead of acting. His last two shots from close range were duds. Mark Price, the little tugboat that pulls the Cavs along, played a brave series, but the groin injury that kept him out of Game 1 and nearly incapacitated him in Game 3, both Cleveland losses, was too much to overcome in the fourth period on Sunday, when he scored just two of his 23 points. Nance (16 points) was not forceful enough in the half-court offense. He did not demand the ball and take control.
Magic Johnson called the Cavs "the team of the '90s," and they still have one more season to start living up to that billing. But the fact remains that they were beaten. It may have taken an unfathomable shot by a sometimes unfathomable player, yet sometimes it happens that way.