Ask any basketball historian about “The Shot”, and they’ll immediately run a highlight reel in their mind of Michael Jordan pumping his arms feverishly in celebration. Unless of course you’re a native of Cleveland, Ohio, in which case you just sigh. Cleveland fans will never forget the agony as Michael Jordan levitated in the air, moments before that fateful bucket.
It all goes back to a game between two evenly-matched teams. The Cleveland Cavaliers were full of promise and young talent, including Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, Ron Harper, Larry Nance, and John “Hot Rod” Williams. The Cavs recorded a franchise best record of 57-25 during the 88-89’ season, and were ready to take their shot at the NBA title.
It wasn’t going to be easy though, as the Chicago Bulls stood in their way, and had a weapon unlike any other. Michael Jordan, widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time, helped the Bulls dominate the NBA throughout the 90’s. But this wasn’t quite that version of him yet, as his individual accolades hadn’t translated into massive team success.
This was the first round of the 1989 eastern conference playoffs, and it presented a rematch from the previous season- a series that the Bulls won 3-2. Game one was mostly controlled by MJ and the Bulls, as they marched on to a 95-88 win. In game two, the Cavs made defensive adjustments, and won 96-88. The Bulls then won game three, and were in position to win game four- until MJ uncharacteristically missed three crucial free throws in a row to allow the game to slip away.
Game five was set for May 7, 1989, in Richfield, Ohio. It was a tense, minute by minute nail biter, that would clearly come down to one or two big plays at the end. With only six seconds to play, Jordan made a shot to give the Bulls a one-point lead. From there, Craig Ehlo nailed a layup with only two seconds left, to give the Cavs back the one-point lead.
During the tense timeout, Cavs star Ron Harper remembers the debate of who was going to guard MJ, “When we went to the timeout, I said I’ve got M.J.” Cavs coach Wilkens had other ideas however, replying “’No, I’m going to put you on Horace Grant.’ Harper, confused, retorted that “Horace Grant is going to be in the parking lot.”
Wilkens had been given heat for not covering MJ enough, so he decided to put Ehlo on him, with Nance coming in for a double-team. From there, it all happened in slow motion, as MJ caught an inbounds pass, dribbled left toward the foul line extended area, and suspended himself in midair for a jumpshot that seemed to last forever. If you go back and watch the film, you literally see Craig Ehlo fading in and out of the frame, all while Jordan is still in mid-air.
Of course, the shot went it, and the Bulls clamed a 101-100 win, with MJ scoring his 43rd and 44th points of the night. He pumped his fists intensely, as Brad Sellers and the rest of the Bulls mobbed him.
Cavs player Brad Daugherty remembers the feeling all too well. “The news guys came in and were like, ‘How gut-wrenching is this?’ Daugherty said. “I was thinking, ‘This isn’t gut-wrenching.’ We didn’t play well enough to win, and a guy who is a hell of a player made a hell of a play to beat us”.
Daugherty played with MJ for two years during their time at the University of North Carolina, so he knew was Jordan was capable of. But even to him this play was spectacular. ”’Un-fath-om-able, Simply unfathomable”, he emphatically stated after the game.
That shot marked the beginning of a series of daggers that MJ would deliver to the Cavs franchise, and launched his career to previously unachieved heights. The Bulls would lose to the Pistons that year and the next, before finally vanquishing their foes, en route to their first NBA title. The Cavs, on the other hand, toiled in obscurity for another 15 years before some kid named Lebron made them the talk of the league.