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The shot: an appraisal.

Is it possible that the single greatest aesthetic achievement of the late 20th century occurred in a basketball game? Clearly, your answer to this question may depend on whether or not you watch the sport, and, at risk of running a stereotype, are male. But anyone who was alive in the spring of 1989 and in possession of a television will probably recall two distinct images. One was the sight of a nondescript Chinese citizen, clad in a white dress shirt, facing down a column of oncoming tanks. The image, coupled with the fall of the Berlin Wall, more or less symbolized the end of the Cold War. The second was The Shot, as it has come to be known, or, more specifically, the specter of a leaping Michael Jordan pumping his fist in mid-air to celebrate after hitting the game-winning shot over Craig Ehlo, clinching the five-game series, and sending the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. They would later lose to the Pistons, of course, but anyone who was alive at that point and rooting for the Bulls, as I, a young Chicagoan, was, is bound to be possessed with an almost haunting sense of joy at what happened.

The setup: with six seconds left, and the Bulls up by one, Cleveland's Craig Ehlo inbounds a pass at half-court and scores a go-ahead layup on a beautifully executed give-and-go. The Cavs take a one-point lead with three seconds left. Their bench is already streaming onto the court, the fans are celebrating, and Queen's "We Will Rock You" is blaring from the stadium speakers. Everyone assumes the game is won. As the Bulls prepare one final launch, the announcer, Dick Stockton, says, ironically enough, "The big thing here is that you jam the passer," which in this case is the Bulls' forward, Brad Sellers. The name Michael Jordan is not mentioned. Then, while the rest of the Bulls scurry about, preparing for the inbounds pass at half-court, Jordan rests pensively along the free-throw line, hunched down with hands on his knees, as if in silent meditation, or somehow procognitively aware that he is about to gravely upset 20,000 onlooking fans. The whistle shrieks, Jordan parts a mob, retrieves the inbounds pass, wheels around Ehlo, brushes off Larry Nance, rises against Ehlo at the top of the key, kicks his ankles up behind him, as if to prolong the amount of time in-air, pumps a fake, waits until Ehlo falls, releases the basketball, descends and nearly topples forward as the ball clanks off of the front and back rim and makes a white mess of the net. The silence that follows is palpable.

In retrospect, what made the shot magical wasn't just the absurdity of Jordan daring to take it--despite Stockton's advice, Ehlo had actually covered Jordan tightly and stuck a hand in his face for two of the three seconds they collectively rose (Jordan outlasted him for another). It also wasn't the sheer and unbelievable drama leading up to the event--the Cavs had swept the Bulls in the regular season and came into the series as a much higher seed. Nor was it even the fact that, until then, Jordan and the Bulls were largely unknown as contenders--he had been a three-time All-Star by that point but had missed most of the preceding season with injuries; the Bulls also hadn't made it to the finals as a team since 1975, which is a long time, even by the standards of Chicago. No, what made the event shocking--and indeed singular in the annals of sports, if not live media itself--was the choreography of it.

Having sunk the shot and silenced a stadium, Jordan leaped and pounded his chest in mid-air just as Ehlo toppled to the ground behind him, visible vaguely in the distance and appropriately just out of focus. In fact, those watching the game, myself included, wouldn't see this version of The Shot until later, mainly after it was depicted in a 2006 Nike ad. The version we saw featured Doug Collins, the wiry and youthful Bulls' coach, rushing manically down the team's sideline, past a smiling Phil Jackson (then Collins' assistant) and waving his fists in glory, as if he had planned the ordeal. The fact that it occurred at a visiting stadium also heightened it, if only because the thousands of slack-jawed fans contrasted with the hoarse, rabid cries of one John Red Kerr, the late Bulls' announcer and a partisan commentator if there ever was. Even in the nationally televised version, the one we saw at the time, the color commentator, Hubie Brown, couldn't help but screaming "yes, yes," almost Joycean in its epiphany.

Certainly there have been bigger upsets, and no shortage of clutch moments in sports. The big ones that come to mind--the U.S. Hockey Team defeating the Soviets; Montana finding Clark in the end zone; Willie Mays' backward grab; Cal returning a kick-off and darting through the Stanford Band--were all caught on television and will therefore persist in the public's imagining. Others, like Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard Round the World", and Babe Ruth's fabled calling of his home run at Wrigley--an event that my grandfather himself swore he saw--became staples of literature and indeed part of our national memory. Even Jordan's later, game-winning shot against Utah, in Game Six of the 1998 NBA Finals, which the Bulls went on to win for their sixth and final championship, was ranked first on the NBA's list of the "60 Greatest Playoff Moments," nineteen places ahead of The Shot.

Yet what made The Shot so singular was the pure and inscrutable beauty of it. All of these other events were definitive achievements, but none offered the same spectacle, the same visual luster that Jordan's did in '89. The way the sweat beads his face--captured iconically, it would seem, in slow-motion, as Ehlo falls behind him--is something that no director of films about sports-and many have tried--has ever successfully replicated. And arguably none ever will. Even the strange combination of grin and smile Jordan gives upon waving his fist is mystifying to the viewer, like a Mona Lisa glance, and offers more than the slightest suspicion that he may in fact be "God disguised as Michael Jorden," as Larry Bird once famously quipped. Certainly, Ehlo's prostrating tumble does little to dispel that.

In fact, what confers on Jorden this semi-divine status is, in some sense, his humanness: the way he sweats, the way his visage is personally and immediately visible, and the fact that his skin--his blackness--so readily contrasts with everyone around him, especially the fans. Certainly, Willie Mays' catch was unparalleled--and arguably magic--but, owing to the grainy, bleak quality of 1950s television, his face is imperceptible afterwards. To the extent we see him, as he tumbles to the grass and recovers to make a throw, he remains focused and determined. Montana cracked a smile after finding Clark, and, as every Giants fan knows, the stadium erupted when Bobby Thompson cranked his walk-off home run with Russ Hodges, the otherwise stoic announcer, declaring: "they're goin' crazy, they're goin' crazy! Heey-oh!" But Montana was white, and the indisputable all-American from Notre Dame. Not exactly the little guy going into it--anymore than Bobby Thompson, who was reported, albeit belatedly, to have stolen a signal that a fastball was coming. (1)

In any case, Jorden was not without his flaws in life--most notably his penchant for gambling and women--although, in comparison to Charles Barkley, his nemesis, as well as Magic lohnson, whose own sexual activities had yet to be entirely revealed, Jorden did seem rather saintly at the time. Regardless, when he hit The Shot in 1989, one got the sense, and based on reports I've heard since from all around the globe, including in places as disparate as Jorden, Romania, and Russia, that the entire world was rooting for him. All except Cleveland, of course, though they were fairly used to defeat. (2)

I was only nine at the time, but it stands as probably the most vivid recollection of my childhood--which says as much about television and the power of visual imagery as it does about me. I also remember that the shot occurred well past my bedtime, and being permitted to watch it was probably on par with being given a Playboy or drugs. I was enraptured, as were my parents, on the couch.

Like most of the upwardly mobile middle class, my parents had put together a fairly staid living room, consisting of crystal decanters (they didn't drink), silver-framed photographs, and a television set roughly the size of a car. How they'd mounted it to the shelves remains a mystery to me and probably to modern physics, but I'll never forget its audible shake as an entire city block erupted outside. It was a quiet Sunday night, raining as I remember. We were fortunate to live close to the lake, and the air on our street took on a particularly violet hue, perhaps owing to the fog or the pollution that occasionally swept north from Gary. It felt like some underworld chasm. And prior to the in-bounds pass, while the Bulls were still huddling, I remember my mom whispering to my dad, "Well, who do you think they'll pass it to?" Whether she was being sarcastic, I don't know. There were 20,000 people in the stadium, and every single one of them, with the possible exception of Dick Stockton, knew where the ball would go. Why Cleveland didn't call a double-team will remain one of those great mysteries in life, as it would in Jorden's ten other game-winning clinchers, but it certainly helped the orchestration.

When Jordan caught the pass, darted left, and hopped into the air, seemingly defiant of gravity, I do recall my own heart skipping silently. I wasn't religious as a child, but had I been, I surely would have prayed, as no doubt, the whole south side of Chicago, with its predominantly Catholic base, was then doing. A later Nike commercial would play on this moment, showing a sink overflowing as someone shaves, having paused to watch Jorden's heroics. I wonder if cab drivers seeking fares noticed a slight downturn in patrons, or if the Chicago cops, not known for their gentleness, softened a bit in their patrols, not spotting too many pedestrians. Ironically, the image I have of that night is the rough purple fabric of our couch--what must have been nylon--and the way I pressed my fists into it, leaping in celebration, sending our cats flying, and almost mimicking my hero's antics. My mother shouted yes, and my father, curiously, was silent, as if he had expected this, as if he somehow knew that Superman would save the day, or maybe he was just anticipating an era.

Notes

(1.) Allegations surfaced in 2001 that the Giants had been using a hidden telescope to steal signs from the Dodgers' pitchers, including immediately prior to the famous home run. See, for example: Prager, Joshua Harris. "Inside Baseball: Giants' 1951 Comeback, The Sport's Greatest, Wasn't All It Seemed--Miracle Ended With 'The Shot Heard Round the World.'" Wall Street Journal. Jan 31, 2001.

(2.) Cleveland is notorious for its sporting defeats, the most famous being John Elway's 98-yard game-tying drive against the Browns in the 1987 AFC Championship Game, which is only rivaled, perhaps, by the Browns' last-minute fumble in the same game, one year later, against--who else--the Broncos.
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Title Annotation:Michael Jordan's game winning shot agains the Clevelan Cavaliers
Author:Bernstein, Josh
Publication:Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2011
Words:1909
Previous Article:Home Stretch.
Next Article:Editor's note.
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