The Title Match

1998 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5: Indiana Pacers vs. Chicago Bulls

Regardless of the outcome, memories never fade when there is a Game 7 in the Conference Finals.

I was running back and forth in my Grandmother’s house on a Sunday night and I was on pins and needles. It was May 31st of 1998, and two of the most important championships a 15-year-old boy could imagine were at stake at the same time. One was the Eastern Conference Championship between the Chicago Bulls, my favorite sports team ever, and the Indiana Pacers. The other one was the WWF Championship between Steve Austin and Vince McMahon’s bevy of hired goons, specifically Dude Love at the Over the Edge pay-per-view. It was not just epic, it was doubly epic. I was fucking pumped.

The reason I watched both programs there at the time was because my Grandma’s TV was somehow able to catch pay-per-view television on a purposely mangled image (although you could still make out people and facial expressions) at times and crystal clear audio. I did this for years at my home two houses away, but the room was taken that night. So to Grandmother’s house I went, with two grand scale programs on two TV’s in two different rooms, while I bounced around like I was on adderall. Looking back fondly, I will always be thankful that my Grandma (who passed away during Hurricane Katrina) simply laughed while she played cards and let me act like a moron for three hours. It was one of the million beautiful things my Grandma granted me before she left. The Bulls game started earlier, but with the insistence of NBC to lengthen the game as long as possible with commercial delays (and with good reason: the game garnered an historic 20.7 rating; the fourth highest in league history at the time), the game ended long after sunset in my parts.

There was even more at stake than just the title, though: Michael Jordan was likely to retire from the Bulls when the postseason was over. The game went back and forth with leads traded until Jordan went cold shooting in the fourth quarter. Rik Smits made free throw after free throw and in the raging climax of one of the most hard fought, blue collar seven-game series you will ever see… the Pacers had a three-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Bulls couldn’t get a basket, and Jordan’s career and the Bulls’ last title run were on the line. How could Larry Bird’s band of bald role players strip us of basketball’s greatest gift at such a pivotal moment? Bob Costas’ voice had even more trepidation and finality than it usually did. I was nervous. To call it riveting is putting it mildly.

Meanwhile, Steve Austin had just been crowned the WWF Champion and face of the emerging mainstream popularity of pro wrestling two months earlier at WrestleMania. He had to defend his title against Mick Foley, who turned heel on Austin as Dude Love, a burned-out hippie with new front teeth and a willingness to co-opt his services for the greedy and anti-Austin corporate owner of the WWF. And every piece was put into place for the Dude to take down the Rattlesnake at McMahon’s eager wish. Vince made himself the referee, and his meandering cronies Pat Patterson and Gerald Brisco were given token roles at ringside as insurance policies. Austin’s title reign was being unfairly sabotaged, and I was pissed. When the Pacers got that lead on the Bulls and all seemed hopeless for a second, I had never been angrier in my entire life as a fan of…. well, anything! The Bulls’ legacy was about to go down in flames and the Austin Era was about to end before it really began. I said to myself the same thing Jim Ross said at the announce table, “Somebody has got to stop this! The title is on the line, for God’s sake!”

Scottie Pippen stopped it first. He got an offensive rebound on a Jordan miss, and found a wide open Steve Kerr against the scattered Indiana defense. Kerr made the three, and the game was tied at 77. Kerr then drew an offensive foul on Travis Best by flopping (Yes, flopping existed in the NBA in the ‘90’s) on a forearm shiver. Pippen gets another offensive board, and pulls up to hit a jumper and take the lead. The Pacers commit another sloppy turnover and Michael smells blood. He goes to the rack and draws a hard collision on Derrick McKey, knocking McKey and Antonio Davis into each other like Abbott and Costello after the whistle was blown. Smits, who had owned Bulls center Luc Longley throughout the series, misses a hook and Longley hits a baseline jumper on the other end. The Bulls were up four with three minutes left. I am fist pumping the wall right now and my Grandma thinks I am on that stuff all the young kids take. McKey travels to give the ball back to the Bulls. The unflappable Reggie Miller airballs a three. Pippen then finishes what he started with an incredible shot, plus fouling Antonio Davis out. Even Michael hugs Scottie after that one. Indiana’s hard-working composure the entire series had fallen apart. Game 7 cracked them. The Bulls won the game 88-83 and clinched the series. The band would play on for the Bulls’ last dance together as the Eastern Conference Champions.

As the once-jovial fans emptied their seats in the United Center, everyone was on their feet screaming like dogs to meat at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, only 92 miles north along Lake Michigan. Austin had just hit his finishing move on Dude Love, and he was down for the three-count. But Mr. McMahon smugly refused to count the pinfall. The entire crowd was flipping the bird at the boss for screwing his champion. I know I was cursing him to hell just like JR did. Then, the shenanigans went buck-wild. Vince accidentally takes a chair shot from Dude, knocking him out cold. Like Antonio Davis and Derrick McKey tumbling to the floor in Game 7, Patterson and Brisco attempted to interfere and The Undertaker, a surprise enforcer for Austin, chokeslammed them both wildly through the announce tables. Austin hit the Stunner on Dude again, and counts McMahon’s arm down himself for the three-count. Jim Ross is beside himself. The fans are beside themselves. I am beside myself. I have now gone from damning my fandom to indulging in it like a psychopath. I gave my Grandma a big kiss and went home a happy kid. The summer of Michael’s Bulls and the Austin Era was alive and well as the Bulls went on to win their last NBA Championship against the Jazz and Austin fought off Vince’s hired guns for the rest of the summer atop the WWF.

It has been almost exactly 15 years since that day came, and fans of both pro basketball and pro wrestling still talk about that night with exhalation and rich memories. The Austin/Dude Love match is beloved by critics as both McMahon’s and writer Vince Russo’s masterpiece, the quintessential match of the Attitude Era that made the WWF a media juggernaut once again. Some people attack it for its lack of scientific quality and a lot of illogical steps taken from moment to moment, but the defense is always the same: It’s not about the moves, stupid, it’s about the drama. WWF used that template for their matches for many years, mostly to rousing success and high ratings. The Bulls/Pacers game is in the same boat. I rewatched the game a year ago and as I squinted my eyes on the YouTube screen and simply watched the players move around regardless of who was playing, I realized that the game was….. pretty fucking bad. The Pacers gave up 22 offensive rebounds and there were 78 free-throw attempts in the game. Michael, Scottie, and Reggie were a combined 22 for 56 from the field. There were more personal fouls than Amanda Bynes’ Twitter account; six guys either finished with five fouls or fouled out. That dramatic fourth quarter I just described was 19-18 in favor of the Bulls, a rockfight to say the least. But I keep remembering that Over the Edge match and saying the same thing about the Bulls’ hard fought game and their entire run that year, for that matter: It’s not about how well the plan is executed, it’s about how great the big moments feel and the dying will to win. And why did it feel bigger than anything else? Game 7, of course. The title is up for grabs.

Network executives love an elimination game because they know that those games get the highest ratings of any game in a given series (Game 7 of the 2010 Finals between the Lakers and Celtics got a whopping 28.7 million viewers, the highest viewership for an NBA game since Michael retired). Most postseason series end in either five or six games, and it usually comes down to a strategy of who takes which win first in what building, leading to a more predictable map of logic as to who the victor will be. When a series goes seven games, the six-game journey is still very important, but you can tear the playbooks up and flush them down the toilet in the final game. Tonight is the night, and it’s do or die. I don’t think Doc Rivers was too worried about what worked in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year when LeBron James hit a long three-pointer to put the Celtics away in Game 7. Obviously, in the WWE, the writers can write a Hollywood ending or pull the rug out from under you and keep the fans coming back for more, knowing that the payoff is around the corner. The NBA’s version can be more ruthless to fans because you just don’t know what is going to happen. Players rise to the occasion and are remembered forever in their cities like 76er Andrew Toney was after his incredible game against the Celtics in 1982. Or they fall short and get their fingers broken when the window of opportunity closes and the city grumbles through it forever like when the Sacramento Kings melted down in overtime against the Lakers in 2002.

I saw those hanging heads on NBATV two years ago when they interviewed the reunited members of the Dallas Mavericks in the late 1980s: Sam Perkins, Derek Harper, Mark Aguirre, and Rolando Blackman. They were a terrific all-around team that fell short in seven games in the 1988 Western Conference Finals against the Lakers. There were jokes and laughs and many memories to confess. Then someone mentions Game 7, where they lost to the Lakers for the conference title 117-102, and the room goes silent. The first one to talk about the game was Blackman, but Aguirre cannot even raise his head to speak about it. Sam Perkins just shakes his head with his eyes closed the whole time. Aguirre won two titles in Detroit, but that loss hurts him more than winning any championship rewarded him. This is 25 years later! Not only can Game 7 boost your spirits in those boring moments years later when you’re racking your brain, it can humble the shit out of you, too.

Now, not all Game 7s are created equal, but if there is one steady contestant in those games throughout history, it is the team that fell on that fateful day in May of 1998: the Indiana Pacers. They have played in three Game 7s in the conference finals since 1994, and lost them all. They just barely got thwarted by the Knicks in ‘94, then got blown out by the Magic in ‘95, and the most recent one was against the Bulls. Fifteen years since that painful, head-hanging loss, they are back and they want another chance to right that wrong. In place of Reggie and Smits and the Davis boys are current All-Stars Paul George, Roy Hibbert and David West. Both teams had elite defenses and put their hard hats on before they tip it off, but they were also victims of a Game 5 shellacking when the series was tied 2-2 (The Bulls beat the Pacers by 19 in Chicago in ’98 and the Heat beat them by 11 in Miami last Thursday). Even the imbalance of star power recalls the ’98 series: Miami has the Big Three (or so they still call themselves) and every pundit in the world watching their every move, while the Pacers are that slow, steady train that chugs through the wobbly tracks as best it can but never seems to make it to the station in time. And not unlike the Bulls/Pacers series, where Pippen only averaged 15.5 PPG in the first six games and Rodman was mired in foul trouble, LeBron’s All-Star sidekicks have also been missing in action, averaging less than 30 points per game combined. Jordan averaged over 30 points in that series against the Pacers in 1998while LeBron has averaged 28.5 this year.  Pippen fought off his bad games and pulled through in that final quarter to win it for the Bulls. Can Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh do the same thing?

That’s the beauty of Game 7. The only sure thing is that nothing is for sure. And even after a decade and a half has passed and Michael Jordan and Steve Austin have been long retired, as I watch Paul George battle LeBron James on Monday night for the Eastern Conference title, I will still have Jim Ross’ howling words in my brain:  “The title’s on the line, for God’s sakes!” Yes it, is, JR. Yes, it is.