My standout memory of Michael Jordan does have Byron Russell prominently involved — but it’s not the moment you’re thinking of.
We’re going back to Game 7 of the ’96 Western Conference Finals, Jazz versus my Sonics. This was our year. Stockton and Malone weren’t willfully passing the Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside torch to Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp; Glove and Reign Man were TAKING it. The city had gone all-in for this squad. Three calendars after he’d recorded it for the ’93 Sonics, Sir Mix-a-Lot‘s “Not In Our House!” was back on the radio. The grunge crowd had their Sonics track by the Presidents of the United States of America, and a local station re-mixed Alanis Morrissette‘s “Ironic” to match the Sonics. (“It’s gonna be the Sonics / Don’t cha think?”)
The last play of Game 7 was Byron Russell bricking a three at the buzzer, sending Seattle to the Finals and a matchup with the 72-win Bulls. So I’m running around the house acting foolish while announcer Kevin Calabro screams to be heard over the crowd and partner Marques Johnson sings, “Chi-caaah-go! Chi-caaah-go!” That’s when I remember stopping my celebration. Chicago. Oh shit. We have to play the Bulls. We have to play Jordan.
It didn’t last long. I shook it off and resumed my dance, but that one sobering moment encapsulated the Jordan experience for me. Even at 14, I knew the scenario: Going up against Jordan in a high-stakes situation was like beginning a boxing match by giving the other guy a free shot at the opening bell. Maybe he didn’t knock you out right away, but you’re already starting out in the negative. Your guard is constantly up (even more so than necessary) for the rest of the fight, and while you’d never admit it, there’s a little intimidation and a nagging sense of inevitability in your heart.
Soon after, Sports Illustrated dropped the cover: “Mission: Impossible,” asking how Payton, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year who should’ve finished higher than 6th in MVP voting, could possibly handle the task of guarding Jordan. Now as far as I was concerned back then, GP could’ve stopped Godzilla from crushing Tokyo without a double-team. But Jordan was another kind of beast.
And being as honest and unbiased as I can be, Payton did a good job. Although Mike took home Finals MVP again, I don’t remember him outright KILLING the Sonics. It says here he averaged 27.3 points for the series on 41% shooting; that Payton held him to 9-of-22 from the field in Game 2, then 6-19 in Game 4, then 5-19 in the decisive Game 6. My enduring memories of that series are of Kemp sitting on Dennis Rodman‘s head after a reverse dunk, Nate McMillan draining backbreaking threes when Seattle’s back was against the wall in Games 4 and 5, Ron Harper being a better player than I’d previously thought at the time, and the Bulls’ celebrating after Game 6, with Jordan rushing to the locker room to mourn his dad on Father’s Day.
Jordan eviscerating the Sonics isn’t part of that montage — maybe I blacked it out — yet I’ll never forget that sinking feeling I had beforehand, right after realizing Jordan was coming. Some years and some perspective later, I’m OK with knowing I wasn’t the only one.
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