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20 years later, Utah Jazz's 1998 NBA Finals team still haunted by Jordan’s ‘Last Shot’

SALT LAKE CITY — Get ready. It’s coming.

The blogs, social media and sports shows will be flooded today with endless clips of a legendary performance that happened in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 14, 1998.

From Instagram to Facebook to Twitter, what’s simply known as the “The Last Shot” will be everywhere online. Just watch.

Two decades ago, arguably the most memorable shot of basketball’s greatest player broke many hearts at the Delta Center during Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.

Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan ended all hopes of a Utah Jazz championship with a clutch 17-foot jumper at the top of the key over Bryon Russellin the waning seconds.

Whether or not it was a push-off from Jordan that led into the iconic shot has been widely debated in the past 20 years, but the moment remains etched in basketball history as Jordan’s final field goal in a Bulls uniform.

“I knew what his hotspots were. I knew that’s where he wanted to go,” Russell described. “I was 6-7, he’s 6-6. He’s 215 and I was like 220 (pounds). So I’m like ‘he’s not going to beat me’ so he done something that not even the world has seen. He gave me that extra little push so he could get to his sweet spot.

Michael Jordan's winning shot during Game 6 of the NBA Finals at the Delta Center, June 14, 1998.
Micheal Jordan's winning shot during Game 6 of the NBA Finals at the Delta Center, June 14, 1998.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

“He knew what he was going to do and I knew he was trying to get there and I was trying to make sure I got him cut off,” he added. “I was a step ahead of him but he kind of felt like ‘here, let me give you this extra push Russ’ and then he hit the shot but I knew he wanted to get to that sweet spot.”

But what the casual fan won’t realize is how impressive that Jazz run was over that two-year span. With Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone picking-and-rolling to perfection, Utah reached the NBA Finals in back-to-back seasons with two consecutive 60-plus-win teams. Coach Jerry Sloan also conducted masterfully from the sidelines with a host of others such as Russell fulfilling their roles in sync as the franchise gained respect around the league as a legitimate title contender.

“That was my last year in the league. They were phenomenal,” recalled former Houston Rockets star Clyde Drexler. “Jerry Sloan was a great coach and the legacy they left has been incredible. It was a pleasure to compete against those guys for many, many years. Well, they were just very talented. No substitute for talent.”

From the start of training camp on Oct. 3, 1997 in Boise, Idaho, Jazz players could feel a different vibe around the 1997-98 team. There was more continuity with more experience among the group.

In 1996-97, the organization finally got over the hump with the franchise’s best record (64-18) before falling to Jordan and the Bulls 4-2 in the 1997 Finals.

Guys wanted revenge.

“We got over the hump the year before to get to The Finals so I think it was a matter of what’s your next step, it’s winning it and we knew that we had to play well but we had a team that was together,” said Jazz sharpshooter Jeff Hornacek. “We all knew what we were going to do, we felt very confident late in games that we were going to get good shots and have guys that could make plays. So we were very confident going into that season.

“We were veteran guys, we were all 35, we were old compared to what was out there but the experience and it didn’t really matter how teams guarded us, everybody knew all our plays we just knew all the adjustments and so it was relatively easy to play.”

Even with that confidence, the squad was forced to adapt without Stockton — one of the league’s most durable players — as he missed the opening 18 games. Stockton underwent an hour-long arthroscopic surgery on his left knee from Jazz orthopedist Dr. Lyle Mason at Bountiful's Lakeview Hospital, according to Deseret News reports.

In his absence, the team started 11-7 but would end the year on a 51-13 run to post a 62-20 record and earn home-court advantage for the postseason. From Feb. 26 to March 15, Utah went on an 11-game win streak before having it snapped by the Charlotte Hornets on March 18, 1998, 111-85.

Utah won its first-round playoff matchup against Houston 3-2 with Drexler, beat the San Antonio Spurs 4-2 in round two and swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals before the highly anticipated Finals rematch against the Bulls.

“That whole year, we had big winning streaks and we put on a show that year,” Russell said. “It wasn’t just the Finals, we all knew what to expect so the expectations was high for the Jazz and we got right back there easy.”

The Jazz took Game 1, 88-85, in overtime before losing the next three to the Bulls then winning Game 5 and ultimately losing the championship series capped by Jordan’s “Last Shot” in Game 6. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr was a member of that Bulls team and often uses those experiences to motivate his current championship team.

“We know his history,” Warriors guard Steph Curry said of Kerr. “I know it’s kind of crazy that, that much time has gone by but he does a good job of reminding us on his own so we don’t have to do it.”

Obviously, Jordan broke a lot of hearts in Utah 20 years ago, but Kerr will never forget those Jazz-Bulls rivalries. Competing in the Delta Center — now Vivint Arena — was no easy task in that era. But Jordan simply did what Jordan did and that’s to deliver in the clutch.

“What I always admired about Utah and what I still admire about them is the continuity of the franchise,” Kerr said. “Just the extended excellence, the fact that Stockton and Malone and Jerry Sloan were all here for 17-plus years.

“I always admire that in professional sports when franchises were above the fray,” he continued. “They don’t fall prey to emotion and maybe adversity. It’s so easy to just fire the coach and trade a player if you don’t make the playoffs or lose in the first round and they were as good as anybody at just staying the course, being rock solid and for four or five years they were one of the best teams in the league but like everybody else, they couldn’t get past Jordan and that was the story of that era. I played on the Cleveland teams in the late '80s and early '90s, couldn’t get past Jordan. Knicks couldn’t get past him, Orlando, that’s just what Michael did.”