Sunk History: Before Michael Jordan was the G.O.A.T., he put it all on the line and won big with 'The Shot'

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with the NBA’s future still so uncertain, we look again to the past, polishing up our Dunk History series — with a twist. If you are in need of a momentary distraction from the state of an increasingly isolated world, remember with us some of the most electrifying baskets and improbable buckets in the game’s history, from buzzer-beaters to circus shots. This is Sunk History.

Today, we start off with “The Shot,” a gravity-defying, series-ending stunner that reignited the seemingly mythical but very real status of Clutch Michael Jordan, now setting the NBA afire.

[Dunk History, collected: Our series on the most scintillating slams of yesteryear]

There was a time when the hoop world wondered if Michael Jordan could win an NBA championship, just as there was for LeBron James two decades later and there is now for Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Where hot takes had James shying from the moment and Antetokounmpo’s inability to shoot limiting his playoff ceiling, Jordan was a one-man show whose teammates cowered in his spotlight. He owned the league’s highest-ever playoff scoring average through his first four seasons (35.9 points per game), but his 50-win 1988 Chicago Bulls followed three straight first-round exits with a second-round trouncing at the hands of the future two-time champion Detroit Pistons in his first Most Valuable Player campaign.

Jordan entered the 1989 postseason an underdog sixth seed against a balanced Cleveland Cavaliers team Magic Johnson predicted would be “the team of the ’90s.” His Bulls were an inconsistent bunch that lost eight of their final 10 regular-season games, including a Game 82 loss to a Cavs team resting three starters. That defeat gifted Cleveland a 6-0 season series sweep of its Central Division rivals.

Bulls legend Michael Jordan made "The Shot" over Cleveland's Craig Ehlo as time expired on their 1989 first-round playoff series. (Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Yet, Jordan staked his reputation to Chicago’s best-of-five first-round rematch with the Cavs, predicting a four-game Bulls win over a team with the league’s second-best record and just four home losses all season. He nearly pulled it off, only to miss a potential game-sealing free throw in the final minute of Game 4 and eventually losing in overtime. That opened the door for Cleveland fans to call into question Jordan’s clutch ability just seven years removed from his NCAA title-winning jumper at North Carolina.

“I thought we could beat this team,” he’d tell the Chicago Tribune’s Sam Smith, “but when we lost [Game 4] after I missed that free throw and last shot, it was the lowest I’ve ever felt in basketball. Like when I was cut from my high school team. I was disappointed in myself, and there were tears in my eyes.”

So it was with three seconds remaining in the decisive Game 5 that everyone in a Richfield Coliseum crowd that had spent the night heckling Jordan knew his name would be called down 99-98. Jordan had already made a tough go-ahead jumper over the outstretched arms of former Tar Heels teammate Brad Daugherty three seconds earlier, only to see Cleveland’s Craig Ehlo sneak backdoor for a quick answer.

Ehlo later told legendary New York Times scribe Harvey Araton and thus the world what he told Jordan coming out of the timeout: “‘Mr. Jordan, I can’t let you score.’ I thought I might get into his head a little.”

Little did Ehlo know Jordan had just whispered to Bulls teammate Craig Hodges, “I'm going to make it,” according to Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum, who chronicled the next few seconds for a cover story.

Michael Jordan appeared on a record 50 Sports Illustrated covers. This is the eighth. (Carl Skalak/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

With Cavs coach Lenny Wilkens electing not to defend Brad Sellers on the inbounds pass, Cleveland sandwiched Jordan with Larry Nance and Ehlo. The G.O.A.T. in the making shed Nance to get the ball, found midcourt, rose from 18 feet, paused midair to let the chasing Ehlo fly by and fired home the winner.

“I don’t see how he stayed in the air that long,” said Daugherty, a UNC recruit when Jordan’s jumper beat Georgetown in the 1982 title game, according to Smith. “It’s the most outstanding shot I’ve ever seen.”

“I never saw it go in, but I knew right away from the crowd reaction — silence — that it was good,” Jordan told McCallum, reveling in vindication from the boos and mockery he had heard from Cavaliers fans for 48 hours. “Then I did something maybe I shouldn’t have. I really celebrated and shouted, ‘It’s over!’ I really felt justice was served.”

Jordan yelled, “Go home!” too, he told Smith, calling it “the biggest shot I’ve hit in the NBA.”

“I was crushed after I missed that free throw in Game 4,” added Jordan, whose winner punctuated his 44-point effort. “Then I came here and got booed in the introductions. And the crowd hand-waved me when I was at the foul line. I heard them tell me it was time to set up my tee times for the summer. I felt I had something to prove.”

Imagine that — a time when Michael Jordan had anything to prove to Cleveland. He beat the New York Knicks in the next round, before losing the first of two straight Eastern Conference finals to Detroit. The rest is history that will live forever — six Finals and six rings — but “The Shot” was an impetus for it all.

Millions of times that right-to-left double-clutch jumper has been recreated absent the pressure in driveways around the world, and I might account for half of them. It is the single-most fun shot to imitate for those of us who cannot try to replicate much of what NBA players ever do. In my head, I have conflated this series-winner with the 1993 one he made to sweep the Cavaliers en route to a third straight NBA title.

That’s the thing about being a kid falling in love with the game, or at least one in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before hot takes shaped how we view a player’s greatness. This was the moment Jordan became iconic to me. I had no preconceived notions about his ball-hogging or whatever the critics said. He made the shot every young basketball player dreams of, and I loved him for it. I wanted to be him because of it.

Jordan’s leaping fist-pump celebration, the one with a devastated Ehlo collapsing behind him, has become as synonymous with the moment as “The Shot” itself. It certainly was in my recreations of it.

It was not on the CBS broadcast. The celebration has made its way into highlight packages ever since, spliced between “The Shot” and Bulls coach Doug Collins losing his mind. This is surely how I consumed it and why I have confused it in my mind with another from four years later. You see, Jordan ended up doing this stuff so often over the next nine years that all the highlights strung together into his legend.

There was a time, though, when the legend was not scripted. Older now, I sympathize with Ehlo, whose own legacy was rewritten when Jordan erased the go-ahead layup that gave him 24 points off the bench on a bum ankle. In telling his side to Araton in 2015, Ehlo called the two minutes before “The Shot” the best of his career. Even his defense on that play was on point, but for the make. As he came to accept, “The greatest player made a great play. But what do we tell our kids — do your best? I did my best.”

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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