It was stunning. It was beautiful. Arrogant and elegant, all in one.
When Michael Jordan switched hands on the Lakers in Game 2 of the 1991 Finals, he might as well have had a "Genius At Work" sign hanging from his neck. Defying gravity and conventional wisdom in the same instant, the Chicago Bulls' superstar was like young Mozart on the piano keys, something marvelous -- impulsive, creative, explosive -- welling up inside him.
Listening to Jordan actually explain what he did on that play -- my favorite single moment in a lifetime of watching and covering the NBA -- doesn't come close to witnessing it, though, either live or in the thousand-and-a-half times since that most of us have seen it.
"Cliff [Levingston, Bulls forward] threw it back to me, and I saw a clear lane to the basket," Jordan said that night. "So I was going to dunk the ball. I exposed the ball but then I saw long-armed Sam Perkins there and, eh, it was just instinct to change it. I changed it to my left hand and was able to get it off."
There you have it: Jackson Pollack explaining all those squiggles. B.B King telling us what the blues feel like, when all he really needs to do is pick up "Lucille" and show us.
Just instinct. Changed it. Able to get it off. You have to admit, there is a classy simplicity to that description. Sort of like the "Let there be light, and there was light" stuff in The Book of Genesis.
Magic Johnson, whose team was on the receiving end of the moment, did a little better in the afterglow. Said the Lakers' gregarious leader afterward: "When he came down the lane, he just, y'know, went one way, put it in one hand. Floated about five more yards and said, 'Well, I don't know' ... and then he went off the glass. It was his game tonight -- he really took over in the second half. Only thing is, don't matter if you get beat by one or 20, it's still 1-1."
No, it wasn't. That championship series was over. And the Bulls' reign -- six NBA titles in eight years, defining Jordan's career and the decade of the 1990s -- had begun.
Forget the number of points by which Game 2 was decided -- most of us have (for the record, it was Chicago 107, Los Angeles 86 at Chicago Stadium on June 5, 1991). Rather, it was the way the Bulls star almost capriciously transformed a right-handed dunk into a left-handed layup off the glass -- how he did it and why.
The play was very much a part of the pummeling by Chicago that night, Jordan's 12th and 13th consecutive points putting the Bulls up 97-71 with 7:44 to play. So it wasn't entirely gratuitous. Still, there seemed to be a message to it, a statement of Jordan's preeminence relative to the rest of the league. By the time the ball dropped through the rim, Jordan taking it from the right front to a back door on the left, he was still in the air while several Lakers -- courtbound, earthbound -- gawked up at him.
There was a whole lot of gawking going on that night.
"Sometimes the moment creates the moment," said Portland coach Nate McMillan, then a 24-year-old point guard with the Seattle SuperSonics watching on TV from home.
"At that time, Michael was kind of in his prime, as far as starting to win championships and create a dynasty. The Lakers were a very talented team, but it was like Michael was unstoppable."
In what would be the Lakers' last trip to the Finals until Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Bulls' coach (Phil Jackson) converged on southern California, Chicago went into the Forum for Games 3, 4 and 5 and swept them, becoming the first road team to do so in the NBA's 2-3-2 Finals format. Jackson would subsequently find himself bemused by various Shaq and Kobe theatrics, but nothing would top what he saw that night 19 years ago. Crouched near the Bulls bench, Jackson rose, smiled, shook his head as he walked a few steps toward that far end and finally clapped like a fan.
Even Jordan enjoyed the moment, punctuating it with a fist pump in front of the fans on the baseline.
"He was so high," said future All-Star Tracy McGrady, at the time a 12-year-old schoolboy in Florida. "For him to elevate and switch to another hand -- and make it? -- that just caught my eyes, like 'Man, I've never seen anything like that. I don't think anybody else can do that.' "
Former "Showtime" power forward Kurt Rambis was in-between two stints with the Lakers, deep into his playing days as a 33-year-old with Phoenix.
"Not that I was ever able to do this, but the way it looks, it looks like he tried to make an easy shot more difficult," Rambis, now the Wolves' coach, said recently. "But I think you had A.C. Green kind of starting to go up, only he doesn't complete his jump -- he's like, 'OK, I'm not going to go.' But whenever you see something coming out of the corner of your eye, you're already starting to make the adjustment. Once you start making the adjustment, you don't go 'Oh, he didn't jump. I'm going back to Plan A.' "
Philadelphia's Doug Collins coached Jordan for three seasons from 1986-89. "Great players are so creative," he said. "They've got incredible imaginations. They get in the gym and I think they imagine themselves in those situations, thinking about certain shots that they might have to make.
"But really, it was just Michael. I saw a hundred of those. I saw him make shots that you can't believe. I saw him in practice and in games, and plays where you'd look over to your bench and say, 'How in the world did he do that?' "
That moment -- the mid-air switch -- burned itself into my mind for a couple of reasons. First, it was a vindication of sorts for previous Bulls teams that, good as they were, never got close to a championship or even made it to the Finals. For fellows such as Chet Walker, Bob Love, Jerry Sloan and the rest -- and fans of those guys -- this was a little payback for all the times (four, in 1968, '71, '72 and '73) that the Lakers had eliminated Chicago over in the Western Conference's early rounds.
"The tongue is out!" NBC analyst Mike Fratello said over the replay. "Something bad about to happen to the Lakers. It's Michael Jordan taking off ..."
Taking off in every which way. As a champion, as an icon and most of all as an artist determined to challenge himself if the Lakers weren't going to do so sufficiently. It was a moment that seemed discretionary, toying with himself and the game. It was his "obit play" for sure, the one highlight that will get hauled out so many years from now to explain him, define him, to those who weren't around to catch it all live. Quintessentially Jordan.
"Oh boy!" Chicago play-by-play man Jim Durham shouted into his headset that night. "That'll make every highlight here for the next 10 years!"
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.
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