Episode 9 of The Last Dance begins with the 1998 Chicago Bulls’ quest to beat the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals, but in order to provide some context to that series, things jump back to the previous year’s Finals, which pitted the two sides against one another. Chicago, of course, would go on to win that series in six games, marking championship number two in their second three-peat.
Michael Jordan had plenty of motivation in that series, primarily Karl Malone winning the league’s MVP Award for the 1996-97 campaign. But before that happened, the seeds for Jordan to go off in the series were planted back in 1995, while Jordan was still playing baseball.
Utah was in Chicago to take on the Bulls, and Jordan decided to pay a visit to Malone and John Stockton. While he was there, we learned, young Jazz forward Bryon Russell decided to get chirpy with Jordan.
“Pssh, OK, Bryon Russell?” Jordan recalled. “When I was playing baseball, Utah was in town to play the Bulls. They were practicing at the facility, I go over to say hi to John and Karl, and this kid Bryon Russell comes up to me and says, ‘Man why you quittin? Why you quittin? You know I could guard your ass, I couldn’t wait, you had to quit.’ I said, ‘Karl, you need to talk to this dude, man.’ ‘Nah, he’s just a young rookie.’ But from that point on he’s been on my list.”
Russell could have done a better job checking Jordan, as the Bulls star went for 32.3 points, seven assists, and six steals a game in the series. Jordan, it turns out, knew exactly how to react Russell.
“I knew how he played,” Jordan said. “He played on the front of his toes. Give him a head and shoulder fake and go one way, he can’t stop it.”
While Russell battled, Jordan just knew what to do and was able to execute to perfection.