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Sports Hills I Would Die On: Michael Jordan Pushed Off Bryon Russell

The most famous shot in NBA history is the center of a murky debate.

His Airness by JM is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sports Hills I Would Die On: Michael Jordan Pushed Off Bryon Russell


Estimated Reading Time: 5 Minutes

It might be the most famous shot in NBA history. But I will always believe that Michael Jordan’s championship-winning jumper in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals should have been waived off for an offensive foul.

The Setup

The Bulls were up in the series three games to two, but trailed Utah 86-85 with 30 seconds left in Game 6. The Jazz had the ball until Jordan, who had 43 points on the night, stripped and stole it from Karl Malone.

Jordan took Bryon Russell one-on-one, stopped at the top of the key as Russell went falling past him, and nailed a jumper to give Chicago a one point lead with under six seconds to play. John Stockton got a decent look at a three to win the game at the buzzer, but Ron Harper got a piece of the shot, and it rimmed out. The Bulls win their sixth championship on the final shot Michael Jordan would take in his legendary career in Chicago.

Here’s two different takes on the final minutes of the game:

The Problem

From the first time I saw this shot, my reaction has always been the same.

Jordan pushed off of Bryon Russell and should have been called for an offensive foul.

As he dribbles to the right, Jordan puts his left hand on Russell’s hip, and then he extends his arm as he stops before pulling up for the shot. Russell goes flying past, more than he would had there not been contact from Jordan.

Let these screenshots tell the story.

The announcers, Bob Costas and former player Isiah Thomas, quickly found ways to analyze the play without even hinting at the possibility of an offensive foul. They said things like, “Bryon Russell slipped” and “Jordan got him with a crossover” to minimize the push-off as they lauded Jordan’s heroic performance.

Isiah finally does admit that Jordan gave him a little push, almost praising Jordan for doing it so that the refs couldn’t see it.

The Bigger Problem

Okay, so the call was borderline. But there’s a bigger problem with what transpired on that play.

There is no chance in hell that the refs ever would have felt comfortable making what I believe is the correct call.

We all know the NBA is a stars league, where, nefarious or not, refs can’t help giving a better whistle to the biggest names. Nobody was bigger than MJ, and this was going to be his moment. No way was Danny Crawford, Hue Hollins, or Dick Bavetta going to be the one to take it away from him.

Don’t believe me? Flip the situation.

The Bulls are up one. Russell has the ball and is being checked by Jordan. Russell makes the exact same crossover, and when Jordan goes down, the whistle blows and the ref emphatically signals in the other direction for an offensive foul. Costas and Thomas are losing their mind, shouting “Michael Jordan draws the charge and the Bulls are on the verge of a championship! What a heads-up play by Jordan!”

You know it would have happened, too.

Speaking of the Refs…

In an interview with Yahoo in 2018, Crawford said that he thinks the call could have gone either way. He blames the fact that it was a transition play for the refs’ possible inability to have seen it correctly, and claims that he thinks if you got ten refs in a room, they would probably go 50-50.

Hue Hollins, who was under the basket on the play, passed away in 2013 without further comment on the play.

Dick Bavetta declined to be interviewed for that article. Seem a little suspicious? Especially when you consider that Bavetta was on the left side of the court and had the best angle for the play. Something tells me he knows it could have gone either way.

Look, I’m pretty ambivalent about Michael Jordan.

I don’t love him or hate him. I didn’t grow up watching the Bulls on national TV just to see Air Jordan play. The Celtics weren’t good enough during his reign for me to really despise him the way I do Lebron.

But Lebron would have gotten that call, just like MJ did. And maybe it’s that fact – that you know those guys can get away with an offensive foul there because of who they are, that makes it less fun to root for them.

Because MJ pushed off on Bryon Russell, and there is not a thing Russell could have done about it. Because no referee in the world would have had the stones to make that call.

And that’s a sports hill I’m willing to die on.

Craig has spent the last ten years as a sports information professional, working for several schools across New England at the Division 3 level. A native of Peabody, Mass., Craig is a life-long Boston sports fan. He is also an avid player of fantasy football and baseball, and commissioner of the AKA Family Fantasy Football League. Like most other Turf team members, Craig has a penchant for theater, spending his high school and college years as a set designer, sound designer and theater shop worker. He became a father shortly before the coronavirus pandemic, and as such, hasn't really left his home since last December.

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