Viewers of “The Last Dance,” the ESPN documentary about the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan’s 1997-98 season, saw Jordan examined from every angle — his childhood, getting cut from his high school basketball varsity team, his time at North Carolina, and his storied career with the Bulls, winning six championships and claiming the title of greatest of all time.
While the documentary focused on the Bulls, of course, the Utah Jazz did make appearances throughout, as they matched up against Chicago in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals.
Those who watched the documentary saw John Stockton make what is referred to in Utah as “The Shot” — Jordan’s game-winner against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1989 NBA playoffs holds that title in the rest of America — against the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference finals to send Utah to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Stockton reluctantly agreed to be interviewed in “The Last Dance” and was featured briefly, where he talked about facing Jordan and the Bulls. His best line of the film came when he described his attitude about facing one of the greatest teams of all time.
“I never said, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is the Bulls,’” Stockton said. “I sure didn’t feel an aura about Michael Jordan or the Bulls. I don’t know how you would play against somebody with that.”
There are some Jazz highlights, showing games that the Jazz won in the Finals, and there is a part about “The Pass,” one of the greatest full-court passes in NBA history, as Stockton hit Karl Malone in stride for a key bucket in the last minute of Game 4 of the 1997 Finals.
The 1996-97 Jazz won 64 games and the 1997-98 Jazz won 62. They were of course led by the duo of Malone, one of the greatest power forwards in history who scored 36,928 to place second on the all-time scoring list — a position which he still holds — and Stockton, who is one of the greatest point guards of all time. Stockton holds the all-time record in steals with 3,265, a record that will never be broken given that the only current player close to him, Chris Paul, is 1,045 behind at 2,220. His all-time assists record will stand the test of time as well — at 15,806, he is still 6,199 ahead of Paul, who ranks seventh.
Stockton was durable on the court, rarely missed a game and played for 19 seasons — and the Jazz never missed the playoffs in his career. He was a 10-time All-Star, made the All-NBA team 11 times, and was named to the All-Defensive team five times. The only thing missing from his storied career was a championship, which he may have accomplished had the Jazz gone up against anyone other than the mythical Jordan in the Finals.
Ben Golliver of The Washington Post argued in a recent column that “The Last Dance” should have done more to explore just how good those Jazz teams and Stockton were.
Yet younger viewers of “The Last Dance” would be forgiven if they came away believing that Jordan’s biggest challenges in 1997 and 1998 were food poisoning and Russell. The relentless force of Stockton to Malone, a combination that sparkled for more than a decade, was undersold for two reasons: Malone was apparently not interviewed, and Jordan did not address Stockton.
Like Jordan, Stockton worked and worked at every step of his career. Like Jordan, he never settled or cut corners. Like Jordan, he mastered a potent offense and memorized opponents’ tendencies on defense. Like Jordan, he had an unforgiving approach that chafed opponents. Like Jordan, he won at a high level for more than a decade. If not for Jordan, he almost certainly would have at least one ring.
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