SALT LAKE CITY — Three nights earlier, John Stockton had propelled the Utah Jazz to their first NBA Finals appearance by delivering the game-winning 3-pointer in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets.
The Jazz and their fans were still riding high.
Utah then had the chance to build on that momentum and steal home-court advantage from the Chicago Bulls when Karl Malone, aka the Mailman, stepped to the free-throw line with 9.2 seconds remaining and the opportunity to deliver the Jazz a victory on Sunday, June 1, 1997.
Two missed free throws and a 19-foot jumper from Michael Jordan at the buzzer later, though, Malone and the Jazz fell 84-82 to the Jordan and the Bulls in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals.
As ESPN’s David Fleming explains in a lengthy oral history released Friday morning, six words of trash talk played a role in defining the narrative of the final moments of Game 1 that night.
“The Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays,” Chicago’s Scottie Pippen told Malone before he attempted the first of his two straight missed free throws.
The oral history of this moment is the latest article coinciding with ESPN’s documentary, “The Last Dance,” which chronicles Jordan’s career and particularly focuses on Chicago’s 1997-98 team, the first year the Jazz and Bulls met in back-to-back seasons in the NBA Finals.
The final two episodes of “The Last Dance” air this Sunday.
Detailing the series and the trash talk
Fleming talked to several people who were on hand that night, including former Deseret News columnist Brad Rock, and gathered quotes from players who were involved in the game when Pippen uttered those words and the Bulls edged the Jazz to open the NBA Finals.
Before missing those free throws at a critical moment, Malone was having an extraordinary night. Two weeks after being named the NBA MVP for the 1996-97 season — “I thank Michael for letting me borrow it for one year,” he told The Associated Press — Malone had 23 points and 15 rebounds and had made 3 of 4 from the free-throw line going into the final 10 seconds of the contest.
“It was Karl’s game to take. One free throw and maybe NBA history looks a lot different,” Rock told Fleming.
The ESPN senior writer takes a look back at how Malone’s free-throw shooting wasn’t always a strength for him, how a court burn he suffered on his shooting hand in the previous series against Houston impacted Malone and why the 1997 Jazz squad was “seen as the scrappy small-market team that always got the calls.”
Fleming also details Pippen’s trash talk and the sequence of events surrounding both of Malone’s misses at the free-throw line and its impact.
“So far in the 1997 playoffs, Malone has made 78% of his free throws. And for his career, he turns out to be a 77% free throw shooter on Sundays — highest of any day of the week. But after digesting Pippen’s line, all the kinetic smoothness seems to drain from Malone’s motion,” Fleming wrote.
In typical Malone fashion, he wasn’t about to make excuses for the misses.
“I don’t have any excuses, and I’m not going to use any. I didn’t make the free throws. They felt good. I just didn’t make them. They were big free throws, but it shouldn’t have come down to that,” Malone said in 1997, per Fleming.
The loss cost the Jazz the chance to gain home-court advantage in the series, and Utah fell behind 2-0 in the series with the Bulls’ Game 2 97-85 victory.
Utah tied up the series with back-to-back wins in Salt Lake City in Games 3 (104-93) and 4 (78-73), but Chicago turned the tide in Game 5 by edging the Jazz 90-88 to regain the series lead.
The Bulls then wrapped up the series with another close, 90-86 win over Utah in Game 6 to wrap up the 1997 title.
After Pippen jabbed the Jazz power forward before those late free throw attempts late Game 1, he went 12 of 26 from the free-throw line the rest of the series, Fleming reported.
Malone called Pippen one of his few friends in the league, even with the trash talk. The two were enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame together in 2010.
“That didn’t bother me,” Malone said in 1997 of the trash talk, per Fleming. “Scottie and I are competitors, and I consider him a friend. I can say that because I don’t have a lot of friends in the league.”
Don’t expect the friends to talk about the trash talk, though.
“To this day, Karl is one of my closest friends. He has never said anything to me about the line,” Pippen told Fleming.