In the third episode of "The Last Dance," Michael Jordan colorfully explains what was going through his head after "The Shot," as he jumped and screamed and punched the air while Craig Ehlo crumpled to the floor.
"Get the f--- out of here," Jordan says. "Go f---in' anywhere, but you're out of here. Whoever's not with us, all you f---ers go to hell."
All these years later, it is a thrill to see Jordan take himself back there. On May 7, 1989, he wasn't a champion yet, and each of his fist pumps in Cleveland were fueled by contempt for anyone who didn't believe he'd become one. This was only his second playoff series victory, but both he and Doug Collins, then the coach of the Chicago Bulls, say it propelled the team toward greatness.
"We started to get over the hump of loser's mentality," Jordan says. "We were starting to become a winning franchise. And the sky was the limit."
The ESPN/Netflix documentary, which uses the 1997-98 season as a jumping-off point to tell the larger story of Jordan and the Bulls, spends more than five minutes setting up and covering the three seconds that shook Richfield Coliseum and haunted Ohio for decades. Here's what it does and doesn't tell you about one of the most iconic moments in sports history:
The Bulls were David, not Goliath
The Cleveland Cavaliers were heavy favorites in the series. The Bulls had won 47 games to Cleveland's 55 and the Cavs had won all six of their regular-season meetings.
"In our mind, we got nothing to lose," Jordan says in "The Last Dance."
More context: The last of those matchups was on the last day of the regular season. The Cavs won 90-84 at Chicago Stadium, without the injured Mark Price, Larry Nance and Brad Daugherty.
"We couldn't even beat their subs," Jordan said, via the Chicago Sun-Times, adding that the Bulls will "certainly get swept" if they don't play better in the postseason. The headline of the story read, "Bulls resemble cadavers in sorry loss to Cavaliers."
Chicago entered the playoffs having lost eight of its last 10 games, but stole Game 1 on the road on the strength of 31 points and 11 assists from Jordan. The Bulls had the opportunity to advance in Game 4, but, as mentioned in the documentary, Jordan missed a clutch free throw in the fourth quarter and they lost in overtime.
The doc does not mention that Jordan called that missed free throw "my second worst hurt in basketball," behind not making his varsity team as a sophomore in high school, via the Sun-Times. Nor does it mention that, per the Chicago Tribune, Jesse Jackson "stuck his head into the shower" after the loss and offered words of encouragement to Jordan: Forget about it and concentrate on the next game.
"I had never been cheered up by a presidential candidate before," Jordan said in the game story that ran in the Tribune the morning after "The Shot."
Before Game 5, Jordan approached beatwriters Lacy Banks of the Sun-Times, Kent McDill of the Chicago Herald and Sam Smith of the Tribune, who had picked the Cavs to win the series in 3, 4 and 5 game respectively.
"We took care of you," Jordan told Banks. "We took care of you," he told McDill. Then he looked at Smith. "We take care of you today."
Smith had shared this anecdote previously, but it works perfectly in "The Last Dance" because it sets up Jordan's post-game interview on the court, in which he brings up the people who wrote him off and says he feels vindicated.
It would have also been worth telling viewers that Jordan had publicly predicted Chicago would win the series in four games, adding another layer to his anguish after the missed free throw.
"I was a little bit off in my prediction -- but we won," Jordan said in the Sun-Times' game story from Richfield.
This was the year Jordan played PG
Two-thirds of the way through the 1988-89 season, the Bulls tried something unconventional: They moved the greatest shooting guard in NBA history to point guard. "The Last Dance" doesn't get into it, but fortunately The Ringer's Dan Devine went deep on this just last month. As Devine explains, the rationale wasn't all that different from what we've heard from coaches say about LeBron James, Luka Doncic and James Harden in recent years: Give the brilliant, impossible-to-guard playmaker the ball more often, and your offense should be better.
At first, the switch invigorated the team. Jordan had 18 points and 15 assists in an easy win in his first game at the point, and the Bulls won 11 of their first 14 games with Jordan running the show. His seven-game triple-double streak remains legendary.
After Chicago's late-season nosedive, though, the Sun-Times' Terry Boers wrote a column titled, "Jordan at point seems pointless." (In the column, Boers also argued that Horace Grant should be playing small forward rather than power forward, but that's neither here nor there.)
Jordan averaged 39.8 points, 8.2 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 3.0 steals in the Cavs series. He had a usage rate of 40.5 percent and a true shooting percentage of 59.8 percent, per Basketball-Reference. But when Chicago lost to the Detroit Pistons in the conference finals, largely because the Bad Boys were content to let anyone but Jordan beat them, it was the end of the experiment.
Later, the triangle offense would provide the ideal framework for Jordan to dominate while keeping teammates involved. If Point Jordan had the benefit of modern spacing, though, just imagine the kind of damage he could have done.
The moments before
My favorite part of Episode 3 features then-Cavs guard Ron Harper talking about the timeout before the final play. In the huddle, Harper announced that he'd cover Jordan. Cleveland coach Lenny Wilkens, however, decided to put Ehlo on him.
"And I'm like, 'Yeah, OK, whatever. F--- this bulls---,'" Harper says.
You know what happens next. But "The Last Dance" also shows you what preceded it: Jordan had already hit a clutch jumper, a pull-up over Larry Nance that gave the Bulls a one-point lead with six seconds left. The Cavs had then taken the lead with a layup from Ehlo off a simple but flawlessly executed give-and-go.
This is where Ehlo probably hoped he'd get some shine. That layup gave him 15 points in the fourth quarter and 24 in the game. It was the best playoff performance of his career, even if all anybody would remember was the play that followed.
Instead, the focus in the documentary is on Wilkens' decision to go with Ehlo over Harper. Jordan calls it a mistake, as Harper was "the guy that played me better."
Jordan might be right, but it didn't particularly matter when these teams met in the playoffs the previous season. Harper missed Game 1 of that series, in which Jordan scored 50 against Ehlo. "Michael would never get 50 on me," Harper said, via the Tribune, and then Jordan dropped 55 on him in Game 2.
(Shortly after that, the New York Times ran a feature by Ira Berkow attempting to explain Jordan's aerial exploits. Phil Jackson, then an assistant coach, offered this theory: "Simple. Michael Jordan is from another planet." Ehlo, Wilkens and the head of the Department of Astronautics at the Air Force Academy are also quoted.)
The most unusual decision Wilkens made in the huddle was not going with Ehlo over Harper, but leaving inbounder Brad Sellers uncovered. Wilkens wanted Nance to double-team Jordan because everybody assumed the ball was going to him. These are Ehlo's words, from "The Cleveland Cavaliers: A History of the Wine & Gold" by Vince McKee:
To tell you the truth, we did something that we never did before. Coach Wilkens was one of those coaches that kept someone on the vision of the ball, for some reason he chose to pull Nance off that assignment and called for a double team on Jordan. I think if I had been playing one-on-one with him, I would have played him harder. But because I had the help, I may have slacked off a little bit. When Jordan juked Larry on the first move, I ran over to catch him, and by the time I got there Jordan was already coming back the other way, so I went flying across him like E.T. across the moon and went right by him.
"In retrospect," Ehlo wrote in a 2018 essay on the website Amico Hoops, "you say, "Maybe we should have had a quicker guy along with myself guarding him." The two players he named were Harper and Price.
Ultimately, though, all of this second-guessing is about a possession that was defended well. Ehlo might have flown by Jordan, but his contest would have been good enough against anyone who couldn't stop on dime, rise up for a jumper, hang in the air until the defender is descending and make the most pressure-packed shot of his career.
The more interesting huddle was the other one. From "Michael Jordan: The Life" by Roland Lazenby:
During the time-out, Collins quickly drew up a play for center Dave Corzine to take the last shot, with the logic that it wouldn't be expected. Jordan reacted by angrily whacking the clipboard and telling his coach, "Just give me the f---in' ball!" Collins quickly drew up a new look, with Brad Sellers inbounding. As he walked on the floor, Jordan whispered to teammate Craig Hodges that he was going to make the shot.
Ehlo had words for Jordan, too: "Mr. Jordan, I can't let you score." Five years ago, Ehlo told the New York Times' Harvey Araton that he perhaps should have just called him Michael.
The moments after
Jordan's celebration was unforgettable as "The Shot" itself, and he might've jumped even higher for it. That night, though, he said it was "uncharacteristic of me," via the Tribune. "But they had been on me all day. Yelling 'choke' and telling me to get a tee time."
He also immediately called it "my most memorable shot ever." For almost any other player, this would be a no-brainer, but seven years earlier he had made the game-winning shot in the NCAA national championship game.
Given how then-Bulls executive Jerry Krause is portrayed in "The Last Dance," it's a bit of a surprise that his reaction wasn't featured. Krause's first thought was not even about "The Shot" but the pass that led to it.
"That was the best pass I ever saw in basketball," he said in 2011, per Lazenby. "He got that pass between three guys, really threaded the needle. I ran down on the floor and hugged Brad Sellers."
Krause had drafted Sellers in 1986 despite Jordan urging the team to select Johnny Dawkins, one of many sources of tension between the two.
Also relevant, per a Sports Illustrated feature by Jack McCallum: A year before "The Shot," when a rookie Scottie Pippen helped Jordan's Bulls win their first playoff series with a big game in the first start of his professional career, Krause was in the locker room, yelling, "One-man team, huh? No way! No way this is a one-man team!"
The Cavs series was when the Bulls started wearing black shoes in the playoffs. Back then, nobody was doing that. A couple of months before the postseason, Sellers came up with the idea when Pippen entered the locker room with black shoes.
"So I said let's all try to get some black shoes for the playoffs," Sellers told the Sun-Times. "And everybody thought it was a good idea. We had to have five pairs dyed Wednesday night so we'd all be able to wear black."
According to then-Bulls center Will Perdue, the dye presented some problems.
"The game was over, you'd go to take your shoes off and your socks would be all black, and then you'd get black all over your uniforms," Perdue said on NBC Sports Chicago's Bulls Talk podcast in 2018.
No one would dare say that Jordan's jumper would have missed if he were wearing different shoes, but maybe the shoes had something to do with him being in that position. At least that's what Ehlo thinks.
"It gave them this special mojo," Ehlo said, via McKee. "It's not that Michael needed the extra help, but it seemed to make his teammates play better."