Forget for a moment that he ever played a high-stakes Nassau. Pretend that he went to visit George Bush two years ago at that beautiful 19th hole on Pennsylvania Avenue. Don't ask him to be as glib, as personable, as irrepressible as his good buddy Charles Barkley. Stop expecting him to live up to the Captain America image created by his commercials. Now, consider this: Is Michael Jeffrey Jordan simply the best basketball player in the history of the planet?
No matter what you think of Jordan as a person, as a role model, as a shoe salesman or even as a high-stakes gambler, you know the answer to that question: yes. A resounding yes.
That was proved beyond a doubt on Sunday night when the Chicago Bulls concluded their long and arduous drive to a third straight NBA championship by staggering across the finish line in Phoenix with a thrilling 99-98 victory over the surprisingly resilient Suns in Game 6 of the playoff Finals. In winning an unprecedented third straight Finals MVP award, Jordan loomed over the series from start to finish, just as he had in both of the Bulls' previous title runs. Three-peat? Without Jordan the Bulls don't even peat. His performance in Sunday's clincher was typical—a game-high 33 points, eight rebounds and a team-high seven assists in 44 minutes. The most astonishing thing about the victory was that John Paxson, not Jordan, took—and made—the winning shot, a dead-eye three-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining (box, page 18).
Indeed, as the game drew to its unlikely conclusion, Jordan seemed to be playing, more than ever, as a solo act, a tranquil island in a bubbling sea of confusion and nerves. "I don't know what it was," said Jordan after the game, "but everybody was hyper." Well, maybe it had something to do with the situation. The Bulls, who led the series three to two but were reeling after having lost two of the three previous games, were ahead 87-79 going into the final 12 minutes of Game 6. Then they allowed the Suns to open the period with a 5-0 run, at which point Chicago coach Phil Jackson decided to give Jordan a rest. Shaky would not be the word to describe the Bulls' next two possessions—try tortured—which resulted in a 24-second violation and a frantic miss as the shot clock was about to blare once again.
And so Jordan, Chicago's one-man M*A*S*H unit, quickly checked back in and instructed his teammates that he would take the shots from now on, thank you very much. Over the next eight minutes he was the only Bull to score, and his rebound and ensuing unimpeded coast-to-coast layup drew Chicago to 98-96 with 38.1 seconds remaining.
The Suns had a shot to regain a four-point edge, but Dan Majerle air-balled a short jumper, and the Bulls got the ball back with 14.1 seconds left. After a timeout, a betting man (which number 23 most assuredly is) could have gotten 100-to-1 odds that Jordan would take the final shot. The ball was indeed inbounded to Jordan, but he soon passed to Scottie Pippen in the frontcourt. Jordan then cut past Pippen, hoping for a return pass. But Jordan was too closely covered by Phoenix guard Kevin Johnson, so Pippen spun and charged toward the basket, only to find his path blocked by Sun center Mark West. That forced Pippen to dish the ball to Horace Grant along the left baseline. Considering that he had missed his last nine shots, including an uncontested layup, Grant wisely chucked the ball back to Paxson, who was hovering quietly behind the three-point line "just in case they needed me." Paxson took his two pitty-pat steps, released a shot that "I've taken hundreds of thousands of times" and watched. "It seemed like the ball was in the air for about an hour," said Phoenix coach Paul Westphal. Then it dropped through.
The Suns still had those 3.9 seconds in which to try to win the game, but Grant blocked Johnson's driving juniper to preserve the win and put the Bulls in the history books as only the third team to win three straight titles, the Minneapolis Lakers having done it from 1952 through '54 and the Boston Celtics having won eight straight from '59 through '66.
Jordan, his presence of mind extending even beyond the final buzzer, immediately chased down the historic game ball before joining his celebrating teammates.
To a man the Suns seemed stunned by the final turn of events. It had taken a while, but with two victories, 129-121 in triple overtime in Game 3 and 108-98 in Game 5, at Chicago Stadium, Phoenix had established itself as a team of character and heart. Along the way the Suns made the significant discovery that champions have to play tough and tenacious defense, which they did in Game 5 and for long stretches in Game 6. Indeed, Phoenix should be the preseason favorite for the 1994 title—as long as Barkley doesn't follow through on his postgame musings concerning his possible retirement.
Sir Charles's departure would be a shame because he has clearly surpassed Jordan as the NBA's premier "personality." Before the Suns' Game 5 win, Barkley (registered in Chicago's Westin Hotel under the name of Quinn Buckner) received a call from Walt Disney chairman Michael Eisner, who asked whether, win or lose, Barkley would deliver the company's famous "I'm going to Disney World" message after the series. (He turned him down.) In contrast to the dread with which the Bulls approached their three-peat task, Barkley continually reminded us that a dominating player can actually have fun on the court.