The only remnants of professional basketball in Omaha, Nebraska are the Omaha/Kansas City Kings prior to their relocation to Sacramento in the '80s and the Omaha Racers of the old CBA. That made the gravitational pull of the Bulls irresistible for someone growing up in Omaha in the '90s. Even though I was a mere child during the Bulls dynasty, I still have lasting memories from their historic run. One such memory remains as clear as day almost 20 years later.
The United Center was in a frenzy on June 13, 1997. Only two days earlier, Michael Jordan overcame the flu to lead the Bulls to an iconic Game 5 win. Up 3-2 in the series, the Bulls had a chance to capture their fifth title in front of a raucous crowd.
Chicago had won the first two games of the series, the first of which was thanks to a last second shot from 'His Airness'. However, when the series moved back to Utah, the Jazz won the next two to knot it up at two, which eventually led to the aforementioned "Flu Game." With Game 6 on their home floor and up 3-2, the Bulls couldn't afford to have the series move to a seventh and decisive game.
As the game unfolded, it was far from aesthetically pleasing. Sloppy play by both teams marred much of the first half, with Jordan and Karl Malone struggling to find a rhythm offensively. Although messy, Utah controlled much of the game, even as Jordan took over in the second half. What turned the tide of the game would transpire at the start of the fourth quarter.
The second unit, powered by Scottie Pippen with help from Steve Kerr, led the Bulls back into the game, capturing the lead for the first time since the opening quarter. Both teams would continue to trade punches back and forth throughout the fourth quarter, until the final minute.
A wild attempt from Jordan, followed by a missed reverse layup from Jazz rookie Shandon Anderson (albeit thanks to a missed call on Pippen grabbing the rim), set up Kerr's infamous jumper. As the double team tried to enclose Jordan, he rose up, hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity, splitting the defense only to find Kerr sprinting in from the wing for the game winning shot just below the top of the key.
While that shot has been the mainstay of Game 6, the last five seconds that remained produced one of the most important plays of Scottie Pippen's great career.
Utah Jazz guard Byron Russell took the ball out at halfcourt, in front of the scorer's table, with Toni Kukoc defending. Anderson was just in front of Russell, with Pippen defending a space on the floor much like a free safety. As the play began, Anderson ran towards the opposite sideline, while Malone set a down screen for John Stockton who came up and curled around the arch looking for the ball. Unable to deliver the ball to Stockton, Russell flung a pass (which may or may not have been tipped by Kukoc) across the court for Anderson....
There's so much incredibleness happening in these last few seconds, it's almost hard to put into words. Aside from realizing the ball would be short of Anderson, Pippen's timing is absolutely perfect in that if he is a split second late in getting to the ball, the entire right side of the floor is completely wide open.
Even more spectacular when looking back on that particular sequence was that Pippen had been playing on an injured left toe, one that he suffered during the conference finals against Miami (an injury that would later require surgery and cost him the first half of the 1997-1998 season). To be able to play through that pain is remarkable in itself, but to get into a dead sprint in an instant to intercept the ball at the end of a long series and even longer season is something else altogether.
As he intercepts the ball, he ends up pushing it out in front of him with Russell is in a hurry to recover the fallen pass. With Russell closing in, Pippen dives on the floor in a last second effort. With Kukoc is sprinting down the right side of the floor, Pippen has the presence of mind to push the ball toward the streaking Kukoc, who finishes off the fifth title with an exclamation point.
One play may not fully encompass the significance of a player's career than "The Steal." Pippen was and is, largely renowned for his versatility, extremely high basketball IQ, and for being one of the most dominant defenders in NBA history. And those three areas were on perfect display in the final five seconds. The six championship banners that hang in the rafters of the United Center wouldn't be there had it not been for Pippen, and those final moments of Game 6 were never more apparent.