On this day in NBA Finals history: Steve Kerr’s 17-foot jumper clinches Bulls’ 1997 title
Facing a double-team, Michael Jordan kicked the ball out to Kerr
Michael Jordan with the game-winning assist — when’s the last time you remember that happening?
How about on June 13, 1997, in Game 6 of the NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz? With 28 seconds remaining and the scored tied at 86, the Bulls called a timeout to discuss how to execute on the potential series-clinching possession.
The entire planet had to figure what was coming next. Similar to Chicago’s 84-82 buzzer-beating win in Game 1, Bulls head coach Phil Jackson’s plan would surely be to “give the ball to Michael and get out of the way,” as Chicago’s Brian Williams said after the series opener. After the Bulls broke the huddle late in Game 6, sideline reporter Ahmad Rashad confirmed the universal inkling. “No surprise. During that timeout, Michael Jordan kept saying over and over, ‘Give it to me. Give it to me.’ So, he will be isolated.”
Jordan, though, had something else in mind. He was prepared to adjust to what Utah’s defense threw at him, and he actually had a little bit more to say in the huddle than what Rashad revealed. He looked to his sharpshooting teammate Steve Kerr to be ready if John Stockton gave him some space.
“When Phil drew up the play at the end, everybody in the gym, everybody on TV knew it was coming to me,” Jordan said later. “I looked at Steve and said, ‘This is your chance,’ because I knew Stockton is going to come over and help and I’m going to come to you.”
Just like he envisioned, when Jordan caught the ball on the left wing and made a move on his defender, Bryon Russell, Stockton leaked over to help. After Jordan pump-faked and stepped through the double-team, he found Kerr, Stockton’s original assignment, wide-open at the top of the key. Kerr corralled the pass and let fly a 17-foot jumper, which swished through the net to give the Bulls an 88-86 lead with five seconds left.
A huge defensive play from Scottie Pippen on Utah’s ensuing inbounds pass led to a dunk from Toni Kukoc with 0.6 seconds left to seal Chicago’s fifth championship with a 90-86 Game 6 win.
It was Kerr’s shot, however, that won the game.
“He said, ‘You be ready. Stockton is going to come off you.’ I said, ‘I’ll be ready, I’ll knock it down,’ ” Kerr said of his moment in the huddle with Jordan. “He’s so good that he draws so much attention, and his excellence gave me the chance to hit the game-winning shot in the NBA Finals. What a thrill. I owe him everything.”
By the time the Bulls returned home for their championship parade in Chicago, Kerr was a little more liberal with the story of how his clutch moment unfolded.
“There’ve been some misconceptions about what actually happened. I wanted to clear it up,” Kerr, who’s now the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, joked 20 years ago. “When we called timeout with 25 seconds to go, we went into the huddle and Phil told Michael, he said, ‘Michael, I want you to take the last shot.’ And Michael said, ‘You know, Phil, I don’t feel real comfortable in these situations, so maybe we ought to go in another direction.’
“Then Scottie came in and said, ‘You know, Phil, Michael said in his commercial that he’s been asked to do this 26 times, and he’s failed. So, why don’t we go to Steve?’ ”
However he likes to remember it, Kerr was truly the hero for the Bulls in Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals.