I’m upset at Michael Jordan. Not because he always seemed to make big shots to beat the Cavaliers, but because the game-winning basket he made against us in the 1989 playoffs has been in Gatorade commercials. You can see me trying to stop him in the commercial, but I’m not getting any royalties and I know he is.
There were three seconds left on the clock that night. The Bulls had the ball at midcourt, and everyone in the building just knew Jordan was going to get the ball. However, trying to stop him was always a different story.
It seemed like every year we would have a good team, put together a good season, and go against the Chicago Bulls and Jordan … and lose. A lot of people would point their fingers at us because we could never get past Chicago. In reality, no one could. The Bulls won three rings during the first MJ era. We weren’t the only ones who couldn’t beat them.
The fact that we couldn’t beat the Bulls in the playoffs didn’t seem to matter much to the fans in Cleveland.
They believe in the underdog. They’re blue-collar people. Most big cities are corporate places. Cleveland has always been a blue-collar place. The people who live there can really associate with guys who work hard.
And we had a lot of hard-working guys on the team. We were a close-knit team that was fortunate enough to play together for several years. Mark Price, Ron Harper, Brad Daugherty, John “Hot Rod” Williams, Larry Nance — the Cavaliers fans really seemed to take to all of us.
One magazine labeled us “Mayberry RFD,” referring to the old “Andy Griffith Show” that took place in a small town. We had a lot of guys who came from small towns. And actually, we played outside Cleveland in the Richfield Coliseum, so some of us lived in the suburbs outside Cleveland.
Over the years, the players grew very close. We did a lot of Thanksgiving Day dinners, a lot of Christmas dinners, a lot of important things together. And that’s what made us so good. Although we didn’t win a championship, the people in Cleveland really identified with us because we were a close-knit team that won a lot of games.
Of course, you’re only truly satisfied if you win a championship, but the fans still seemed to be very satisfied with us.
And we stayed together. When I was growing up, teams had the same players every year. Of course, free agency changed things. Players kind of chase rings by teaming up with the enemy now. But our coach, Lenny Wilkens, believed in keeping the team together.
When we met the Bulls in the playoffs, people would say it was a matchup of our well-balanced team against a one-man team. But Jordan always had a good supporting cast. Scottie Pippen, Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant — those guys were really good.
THREE SECONDS TOO MANY
When we played the Bulls in the first round of the 1989 Eastern Conference playoffs, the teams seemed very evenly matched. We split the first four games as we went into the fifth and deciding game — the game I’ll never forget.
It was a pretty close game throughout, especially in the fourth quarter. Neither team could pull away. We’d make a shot, they’d come down and make a shot. We’d make a defensive stand, they’d make a defensive stand. It was one lead change after another, after another.
The lead changed hands as the score went through the 90s. Jordan made a jump shot to give the Bulls a 99-98 lead, but we still had six seconds left.
We called timeout and Coach Wilkens called for a play where one of the options was to give the ball to me. I ended up finding a path to the basket and took it. I hit a backdoor layup to give us the lead, 100-99. The Bulls immediately called timeout.
Getting the lead was all well and good, but when I looked up and saw that there were still three seconds on the clock, I said, “Uh-oh!” We knew that was too much time, that they were going to get a good shot off. And we knew it was going to go to Michael.
Trying to stop Jordan was tough. The old defensive rule is to look at the bellybutton, and that will tell you where the player is going. He was amazing with his body control. I just tried to stay in front of him, funnel him in. If I got in trouble, we had great shot-blockers in Nance and Daugherty and Williams. We were a great help-defense team.
I was real happy with the way I played Jordan over the years. When a guy shoots 30 times a game the way he did, and if he’s a 50 percent shooter, his scoring average is going to be up there. There was no real pressure to hold him to 20 points. We wanted to hold him to his average and stop the other guys. But on this play, stopping the other guys wasn’t a concern.
We knew it was going to Michael, so we decided to double-team him off the inbounds play at halfcourt. They inbounded it to Michael on the left wing. We had Nance and myself on him. In retrospect, you say, “Maybe we should have had a quicker guy along with myself guarding him.” Michael faked out Larry on the first juke and got away from him, and that left me by myself with MJ. If we had put a Price or a Harper on Jordan, too, maybe it would have been tougher for Jordan.
But as Jordan drove across the middle, I was still on him pretty good. He stopped and put up a jumper. I had my hands up, reaching, stretching, trying to get a piece of the ball. I actually made him change his shot.
But I was running when I jumped so I just ran past him as he hung in the air. If I could have been straight-up on him as he released it, it could have been a different story. But he seemed to hang there forever and then let the shot go.
It went in and he ran over toward midcourt, pumping his fists. The Bulls had won, 101-100. Eventually that shot became so famous, it’s just referred to as “The Shot.”
Since it’s on commercials and highlight shows all the time, people ask me if I get sick of seeing it.
I say I was just glad to be part of it. As much as I wish we won, it was a great game to be a part of. Now if only Michael would cut me in on those royalties.