The Chicago Bulls came to the 1997 NBA Finals looking to continue building their place in history. Michael Jordan’s teams had won three consecutive championships from 1991-93, then after his two-year hiatus, come back with a vengeance, winning the 1996 NBA Finals to cap off a 72-win season. In 1997, the Bulls won 69 games and blasted through the Eastern Conference playoffs with an 11-2 record.
The Utah Jazz were making their first trip to the Finals, and it was the fulfillment of a career-long quest for the tandem of Karl Malone and John Stockton, two players who had been in Jordan’s 1984 draft class, and built basketball in Salt Lake City. Malone averaged 27 points/10 rebounds per game in 1997 and won the MVP award, while Stockton averaged 12 assists per game, as one of the great playmakers of his generation.
How Jordan didn’t win the MVP is something of a mystery–he averaged 30 ppg and shot 49 percent from the floor. While Scottie Pippen was ever-reliable as a sidekick, 20 ppg and solid defense, the supporting cast was a question mark. Dennis Rodman remained a rebounding force, with 16 boards a night, but was also 35-years-old and constantly kept everyone on edge. The rest of the Chicago team was mostly role players that Jordan was dragging to basketball greatness.
The Finals started on a Sunday in Chicago, and the game was tied 82-82. Malone, whose nickname was the “The Mailman”, had scored 23 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, and was on the free throw line with nine seconds left. Pippen, in a now famous moment walked by him and said “Remember Karl, the mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays.” Malone missed two free throws and Jordan hit a 20-footer on the other end for the last of his 31 points.
Chicago took Game 2 decisively, as Jordan knocked down 38 points and decided to get in on the rebounding, with his 13 boards nearly matching Malone’s 15. As it turned out, the Bulls needed MJ to hit the glass, because Rodman was missing in action in the early games of this series.
The Finals went to Utah, and again there was a lack of rebounding from Chicago. Malone had a 37/10 night in the first Finals game ever played in Salt Lake City, with the Jazz coasting 104-83.
Game 4 was a battle to the end, but the Utah defense forced Jordan into an 11-for-27 shooting night, and with a 74-73 lead, forced one final MJ miss that turned into an easy basket on the other end. Utah won 78-73.
Now the series was tied, and the word got out that Jordan was sick. A bad pizza–now known to have been done on purpose–had left him with food poisoning. Game 5 would become known as “The Flu Game.” Jordan, needing help to get to and from the bench, summoned all his will and scored 38 points. In spite of a poor shooting game from Pippen, and little from the rest of his team, Jordan willed the Bulls to a 90-88 win.
The series went back to Chicago and it was going to be very tough, if not impossible, for Utah to win two straight on the road. They still gave Game 6 everything they had, leading by six after three quarters. Rodman finally resurfaced, getting 16 rebounds and keying a big Chicago advantage, and the game was tied in the closing seconds.
Chicago had the ball in Jordan’s hands for the final possession, but Utah forced him to give it up. Jordan had spotted an open Steve Kerr. The future championship-winning coach with the 2015 Golden State Warriors canned a 17-footer with five seconds to go. The Bulls where champions for the fifth time, each time with Jordan as Finals MVP.