32 Years Later, Michael Defeating the Cavaliers Still Matters

I kept staring at our copy of the Chicago Tribune on the morning of Sunday, May 7th 1989.

And staring. And staring. And staring.

Maybe the longer I looked at the sports page, the easier I could convince myself that the Bulls could do it.

But the older kids around the block had already told me: It’s not gonna happen.

Not with this Bulls team.

Not with this team that had gone 0-6 versus the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 1988-89 NBA regular season.

Not with this team that finished in fifth place.

Not with this ‘superstar’ who had clanked a big free throw to lose Friday night’s game against the Cavaliers.

The word was the Bulls were done. But the agate still said ‘SERIES TIED 2-2’.

The Cavaliers just seemed better. Heck, they probably were better. For those that remember, the talk prior to the ’89 NBA Playoffs (in the East) wasn’t if the Bulls were ready to make the leap…the conversation was if the Cavs could potentially knock off the Detroit Pistons.

This was the best Cavaliers team of all-time (up to this point). And for my money, the best Cleveland team until LeBron’s return in 2014.

Mark Price, Larry Nance, Brad Daugherty. Each provided an element to their game that the Bulls lineup seemed to lack. Plus, Ron Harper. The new athletic/versatile guard from Miami of Ohio.

And the Bulls? Where were the Bulls? Still struggling for an identity. Over the years, many seem to forget where the Bulls organization was prior to this game.

The Bulls had won exactly FOUR playoff series in their franchise history entering the 1989 NBA Playoffs.

This wasn’t an organization teeming with confidence. They had defeated the Cavaliers in five games during the 1988 NBA Playoffs, but the Cavs made a massive leap between 88 and 89. The Bulls? Well, they seemed to have taken a major step back.

Yet, here they were. In a series where some said they’d lose in three or four game. They were still here.

For a 9-year-old sitting in suburban Chicago, I was trying to hold onto any positivity I could get.

“Michael is still Michael, he can make anything happen.” “They already won in Cleveland in Game 1, they can do it again.”

The older neighborhood kids always had the other side: “They aren’t winning 2 out of 3 in Cleveland.” “Michael’s the greatest, but he won’t win with these guys.”

I kept staring at that agate. ‘SERIES TIED 2-2’.

Game 5 of the 1989 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals was easily the most nerve-wracking sports viewing of my early life.

The teams traded buckets early. The Bulls grabbed an early lead. The Cavs charged back. The Bulls were forced to come back late.

Everybody knows the now-famous sequence of events. With three seconds remaining, Craig Ehlo drove on a give-and-go inbounds play to give the Cavs a 100-99 lead.

Three seconds.

My dad was working on the car outside. In the driveway, he had AM 1000 on the radio call with Jimmy Durham and Red Kerr.

In our living room, my brothers sat silent. We all knew where the ball was going, we just weren’t sure what would happen.

Me? I walked up the stairs during the timeout, hid behind a wall, and began to pray.

I never prayed about sports. I was told specifically in my religious classes to not pray about sports. ‘Only pray about things that matter!’ they said. You know, the usual: sickness, struggles at school, etc.

But this? This was an emergency.

“God, just let Michael hit this one shot. Please. Please? Please just let Michael hit this one shot.”

In our kitchen, there was a small gap between the countertop and the wall. In this gap, you could peek through to watch the TV in the living room. I peered my head between the gap to see if I could catch the final seconds.

Standing next to the TV was too much stress. I needed my own space.

Just as the ball came inbounds, I head a loud ‘Yes!’ from the driveway.

Jordan raised. Jordan shot. Jordan scored.

I ran downstairs to my brothers where we all started jumping on each other. My dad ran in from the driveway to give us high fives.

The miracle had been answered.

The Bulls had won. And more importantly, we were going to get pizza.

The next morning, I watched as many highlights of the moment as I could; replaying where I was, what was said, how the unthinkable had become the possible.

I opened up to the agate where it read, ‘BULLS WIN SERIES 3-2’.

I kept starting at it. So beautiful.

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