Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
Twenty-five years ago Wednesday, the Chicago Bulls concluded their second three-peat with a Game 6 victory over the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals.
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The dramatic triumph marked the franchise’s sixth championship in eight seasons, placing an exclamation point on one of professional sports greatest dynasties.
As usual, Michael Jordan provided the late-game dramatics, first stripping Jazz All-Star forward Karl Malone at one end with the Bulls down by one point and then sinking the go-ahead jumper over Bryon Russell at the other.
Hall of Fame forward Toni Kukoč joined the Bulls Talk Podcast on the anniversary to, among other topics, provide his memories of that sequence.
“You know what’s their bread and butter. You know it’s going to be that same play. (Jeff) Hornacek curling around. Malone, (John) Stockton get him the ball and they’re going to try to get Malone in the post,” Kukoč said. “And I guess Michael just sensed that if he stays there for a second or two, the ball might arrive. And he can kind of steal or strip it, which is what happened.”
Jordan scored 45 points that night.
“You knew MJ was going to take the ball,” Kukoč said. “He had a tremendous game so he’s going to go 1-on-1. We spread the floor. Steve Kerr was in the game as well as one of the shooters. You just let him play 1-on-1. And he did what he usually was doing.”
Which was to make a game-winning shot---this time, holding the follow-through almost as for a pose, knowing the Bulls’ dynasty might be coming to an end. Which it did that offseason.
Some have said Jordan may have pushed off of Russell to create separation on the game-winning shot.
“Push off?” Kukoč said, incredulously. “In those days, if there was no blood, there was no foul. He explained it the best: ‘You reach, I teach.’ I don’t think he pushed off.”
Kukoč’s role increased that season because Scottie Pippen missed the start of the 1997-98 season following surgery. Kukoč started 52 of his 74 games. And in the Game 6 clincher over Utah, Kukoč logged 42 minutes, scoring 15 points to rank second behind Jordan.
There’s also no sixth Finals appearance without Kukoč’s Game 7 performance in the Eastern Conference finals against an extremely physical and rugged Indiana Pacers squad. Kukoč scored 21 points, including three huge 3-pointers, in a tense 88-83 victory at an ear-splitting atmosphere inside the United Center.
“It was a game that we were not accustomed to playing,” Kukoč said. “We always found a way to beat the teams in five, maybe six games. So it was a new thing for us as well. . . . You could sense that the locker room was quieter than it usually was.”
Kukoč touched on several other topics during his appearance on the Bulls Talk Podcast, including his respect for Utah coach Jerry Sloan and those tough teams the Bulls faced in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals and his thoughts on the current NBA champion Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic. The full episode will be released on Thursday.
And for those people who watched ESPN’s “The Last Dance” and thought everything about the 1997-98 season was all drama and difficulty, Kukoč is here to tell you otherwise.
“The team was awesome,” Kukoč said. “We knew each other to a T by then. There wasn’t anybody new that came into the team. We would always go to breakfast, lunches, dinners together. Enjoy times with Dennis (Rodman) when Dennis would feel gracious enough to get us in his circle.
“We had an awesome time, a great time. Everybody by then knew when somebody was having a hard time during the season. He would always get the support from the rest of the team. MJ was really good about that. He understood that he needed all the guys being ready and giving their 100 percent for the team to succeed.”