If there is one area of basketball where Michael Jordan did not have an abundance of experience, it was in a Game 7.
During the course of his NBA career, Jordan only played in a seventh game on three occasions—a road loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals, a successful defense of home turf at Chicago Stadium against the New York Knicks in the ’92 Eastern Semis and a Game 7 triumph against the Indiana Pacers in the ’98 Eastern Conference Finals during The Last Dance season currently being documented by ESPN.
The ’97-’98 Pacers will forever be haunted by that loss. Featuring depth and a balance of veterans and youth, the Pacers were coached by the legendary Larry Bird, led by star guard Reggie Miller and quarterbacked at point guard by Mark Jackson.
A former coach of the Golden State Warriors, Jackson is the lead analyst for the NBA on ABC. He had a stellar 17-year career that spanned multiple generations from ’87-’04, where the constant for the majority of his time in the league was the dominance of Jordan and the Bulls. Jackson holds the rare distinction of playing against Jordan in two of his three Game 7s, as he also ran the point for the Knicks in the ’92 playoffs.
The Pacers were on the brink of eliminating Chicago in the spring of ’98, but fell just shy of cutting the Bulls’ last dance short. Jackson will relive the pain this weekend when he provides his perspective from Game 7 of the Bulls-Pacers for the ESPN+ show Detail, which will be available on ESPN+ beginning this Sunday at 10:30 p.m. ET.
Jackson spoke with Sports Illustrated about the Bulls-Pacers series in ’98 and provided a time capsule of knowledge and insight from the NBA in the Jordan era.
Justin Barrasso: You will be breaking down Game 7 of the Bulls-Pacers series on Detail, which will air this Sunday on ESPN+. That show was written and hosted by the late, great Kobe Bryant. Some things are bigger than basketball, so I’ll step off-track before we get into the series. What did Kobe Bryant mean to you, and what is his legacy in basketball?
Mark Jackson: Kobe meant a tremendous amount to me. As an opponent, he won his first championship with the Lakers against my Pacers team. But as a fan of the game, I looked at him and appreciated everything about him. Not just in terms of his greatness, but how passionate and hard he worked.
Kobe kept improving, not just as a basketball player—as a father, as a husband, as a man. He just continued to get better and wasn’t willing to accept anything less than getting better. Kobe sought incredible knowledge across the board, and was determined to be the best he could possibly be. That’s why so many people embraced him.
I look at my years announcing, and the best player in the game was Kobe Bryant. Whether it’s a trick line I’d throw out there or admiration for what he was doing on the floor, I don’t become the announcer I’ve become without Kobe Bryant. I’m honored to be part of Detail, and I’m privileged to know him.
Barrasso: Following the Pacers’ victory in Game 6 of the ’98 Eastern Conference Finals, Michael Jordan said in his post-game press conference, “We will win Game 7.” Jordan had plenty of reasons to be confident. Chicago was at home, and the last team to win a Game 7 on the road in either the Finals or conference finals were the Philadelphia 76ers in ’82, who beat Larry Bird and the Celtics in Boston. Did Jordan’s statement bother you, or was talk fairly meaningless approaching the game?
Jackson: It doesn’t mean anything. I know people say, ‘How could Jordan say that? That’s disrespectful.’ But what do you want him to say? That they’re going to lose? Or that it’s going to be a good one?
We didn’t pay any attention to it at all. Matter of fact, we felt the exact same way about our chances. We thought we were going to win. We pretty much guaranteed that to ourselves, and the mindset of two great teams should be that you’re going to win. So we didn’t put any stock in it other than he was trying to rally his troops.
Barrasso: Your career spanned 17 seasons and had a number of highlights. You were Rookie of the Year in ’88, an All Star, and the league’s assist leader during the ’96-’97 season. You also played for seven different teams throughout your career, but one constant during the majority of your time in the league was the dominance of Michael Jordan.
But viewers will see in The Last Dance documentary that Chicago had to scratch and claw to get by your Indiana Pacers, even though they won the first two games. When in that series did you and your teammates smell blood?
Jackson: It was nothing against them, but we believed that we were the better basketball team. We believed we had every answer for the problems they presented. That’s not a slight or disrespect, we had ultimate respect for them—Michael’s greatness, Scottie’s greatness, Dennis Rodman’s greatness, their greatness as a team, Phil Jackson’s greatness as a coach—but we thought it was our time. Having our best player in Reggie Miller, a Hall of Famer and superstar, being able to pretty much fight to a standstill against the great Michael Jordan. That’s not saying he’s better than him, but we believed he could fight him to a standstill and we could handle the rest.
Barrasso: No doubt you respected Chicago, but there was also a clear absence of fear.
Jackson: We respected Chicago, but we did not fear them. That’s because we had success against them. Even in their 72-win season, when the Bulls only lost 10 games, we beat them twice. We had tremendous confidence and belief that we could beat them.
Barrasso: The depth and versatility of that Pacers team is incredible—there is veteran leadership with yourself and Chris Mullin, a superstar in Reggie Miller, youth in Jalen Rose and Travis Best, and a criminally underrated front line of Rik Smits, Dale Davis, Antonio Davis and Derrick McKey.
Jackson: You look at Reggie Miller, you say, OK, Michael Jordan gets the edge. Scottie Pippen gets the edge. As great as Dennis Rodman was, we felt we had the Davis boys. We had the edge at the center position. Rik Smits was a big-time scorer and post threat, a jump shooting big guy that could run the pick-and-roll, so we had the edge there.
We were versatile, we were loaded, we were deep. We had great confidence, we had great leadership and we had a coach that believed in us and allowed us to stay true to who we were. I had a college teammate, Bill Wennington, playing for that Bulls team, and later on he told me that was the hardest battle they had during their run. Think about it. It’s a seven-game series and we’re up three on the road with just over six minutes to go.
That’s why I truly don’t believe it’s only championship teams that are great. There’s been some great teams in the history of this league that just ran into better teams.
Barrasso: To me, the complexion of the series changes in Game 4. You’re trailing two games to one, but find a way to win that game after a wild closing stretch that featured two crucial missed free throws by Scottie Pippen, the game-winner by Reggie Miller with 0.7 seconds remaining and a Jordan miss at the buzzer.
Psychologically, did it count for something to have that rare mental edge on Jordan, Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls?
Jackson: It did. We had an incredible bond as teammates, it was like a brotherhood. There were no cliques, there was no jealousy, we wanted to win. It was a total team mindset, and we bought in.
When you look at Reggie Miller and the way he lives his life and conducts himself as a superstar, he was totally selfless. He never had the mindset that he was bigger than the team. That became contagious all throughout our locker room. We just felt it was our time, partially because of our talent and partially because every single guy bought in.
Barrasso: In a display of unity, the entire team even shaved their heads for the playoffs. That wasn’t the most fashionable look for some of the players who’d always had a full head of hair, but it was a great example of team above self.
Jackson: Think about that. We presented the idea to everyone that we were going to shave our heads. Chris Mullin’s sitting there, and he’s already an accomplished guy, at the tail end of his career, and he’s going to be a Hall of Famer. The guy was a gold medalist, an All Star, a Wooden Award winner, and he’s going to shave his head? After looking the way he’d looked his entire life? But he did it, and it wasn’t even a second thought. Same with Rik Smits.
Some of our guys were not beauty pageant winners after they shaved their heads, and they were aware of it, but they could care less. Everybody was involved. We were on a mission and we wanted to show that we were united.
Barrasso: The Larry Bird factor cannot be overlooked or understated. Bird was in his first season as coach, and helped the team to a 19-win improvement from the prior season. What made Bird so effective as a coach? And did his legendary competitive streak bring out the best in everyone?
Jackson: Two things. Bird came in after Larry Brown, who was obviously a Hall of Fame coach and a great mind, but their mentality and approach were totally different. Larry Brown was very demanding, which worked, but it ran its course. Here comes Larry Bird with a calming effect. Larry Bird was a super-duper star, but the thing we loved about him was he came in with no ego. He wasn’t trying to show us how smart he was. He embraced that we were accomplished, that we had leadership, and he trusted us.
Watching Bird before I got into the league as a fan, he was obviously an incredible basketball player and basketball mind. I had the privilege to play against him and witness his greatness first-hand, and then I had the ultimate privilege of playing for him and watching him lead our Indiana Pacer franchise.
All Larry Bird wanted to do was give us a chance to get to the NBA Finals. That was what he preached from day one. And it wasn’t like he wanted to do it for himself. He’d been there. He wanted us to experience it.
Barrasso: Scottie Pippen guarded you throughout the series, which is particularly tough because he was seven inches taller. What made him such a talented defender?
Jackson: Scottie is one of the greatest, if not the greatest perimeter defender the league has ever seen. What made him so effective as a defender, especially in that series? You have to be able to buy in on the game plan. Scottie was willing to sacrifice some of his offense in order to do what he did defensively to be disruptive and take us out of what we did.
The best thing we did was be an efficient offensive team. We ran our sets and we got what we wanted out of our opportunities on the offensive. But Scottie was very disruptive. The ball pressure, he was long with active hands, the constant pressure picking up full court. He was in passing lines, and he understood what we were trying to do. He was on top of his game, and he was a very smart, intelligent basketball player, and he knew how we could hurt their defense.
You could make the case that one thing, Scottie’s defense, won them the series over the long haul. It took us out of a lot of what we were trying to accomplish.
Barrasso: Game 7 wasn’t necessarily a classic but, to me, it was reminiscent of the Celtics-Lakers Game 7 from the 2010 Finals in the sense that it was so tense and tough. You controlled the first quarter, setting the tone with physicality, then trailed following the second and third quarters. Even with some glaring problems—three more missed free throws (14 in total for the game) and a scoreless fourth by Reggie Miller—you were ahead by three with six-and-a-half minutes left to play.
Bird pinned the loss on himself, blaming himself for not calling a timeout right before a jump ball between Smits and Jordan when the Pacers were ahead, 77-74. You’ve done everything in the NBA, including coaching. Can you understand why Bird put the loss on his shoulders?
Jackson: I understand, but I don’t agree. Bird did an incredible job coaching us and leading us. That’s a jump ball that, if it happens 10 times, we win nine of them. It was just an unfortunate play where they got the ball. I don’t know if a timeout helps us.
One thing about Larry Bird was that he trusted his players. That’s the reason we were in that position. He wasn’t a guy jumping up and down, calling timeout every time things went wrong or adversity set in. He believed in us, and we rewarded that trust and that faith by responding. It just so happened that we didn’t control that jump ball, but nothing you can do will convince me that’s because of Larry Bird. It’s because of another all-time great, and his name is Michael Jordan, and a great team in the Bulls.
Barrasso: A breakdown of the game’s stats begins and ends with the Bulls’ victory in rebounding. Chicago had a 50-34 advantage on the glass, and the battle of the offensive boards was even more staggering at 22-4 in favor of the Bulls.
The Bulls shot poorly at 38%, but they compensated by outscoring the Pacers, 24-3, on second-chance points, which was a result of their rebounding. Is it too elementary to say that, in order to win a basketball game at any level, including the highest, you need to be the better rebounding team?
Jackson: When I’m breaking down the game on Detail, I mention that the great Pat Riley once said, ‘No rebounds, no rings.’ He was absolutely correct. We lost the game because of our inability that night to secure the basketball and limit their second-chance opportunities, and we also lost the game when a very good free throw shooting team uncharacteristically had a poor night from the foul line. So missing free throws and missing opportunities to secure the defensive rebound cost us in Game 7.
You look at an entire season to see what wins and loses basketball games, but it’s the most basic things. Free throws and rebounds. That hurt us, and it’s what propelled them to a championship.
Barrasso: We’ll undoubtedly see footage from the celebration in the Bulls’ locker room, but can you describe what it was like in the Pacers’ locker room?
Jackson: We were stunned. Quiet. We felt we were the better team, and we’d felt that at the end of 48 minutes, we’d be the ones jumping up and down in the locker room and start preparing for the NBA Finals.
We were disappointed, but we were proud. There was a lot of love, a lot of encouraging words, and we were motivated about what was lying ahead. It was a mixture of different emotions, but we were proud. We maybe didn’t think of it that night, but we took an all-time great team to a Game 7 and had them on the ropes.
Barrasso: The Pacers advanced to the Finals two seasons later, where you lost to the Los Angeles Lakers. How would Jordan’s Bulls have matched up against Kobe, Shaq and the Lakers?
Jackson: Those two teams are two all-time great teams. There was some all-time great talent. Kobe would get his, Michael would get his, Shaq would certainly get his, Scottie would get his and Dennis Rodman would, too. It’s tough to say. I just look back and appreciate the greatness of both of those teams and what they were able to accomplish.
Barrasso: One guarantee is that Phil Jackson was winning that series.
Jackson: Exactly, right? You know there’d be a lot of triangle action either way.
Barrasso: What else will we learn from your Game 7 breakdown on Detail? And what are you enjoying most from The Last Dance series?
Jackson: I’m honored to have the opportunity to do this, knowing where the birth of it took place with the legendary Kobe Bryant. So to be able to watch him do it, and then sit in the seat and duplicate what he was able to do, that was an honor.
We’ll examine what it takes to win a Game 7 by detailing the little things that may get overlooked. Those smaller points will emphasize why those teams were there in that game and the great things both teams were able to do.
And as a fan of the game, I could sit and watch the entire documentary of The Last Dance in one sitting. I wouldn’t get any sleep, but I wish they’d play it consecutively. It is incredible footage, it’s incredible work and it’s an inside look at the competitiveness of Michael Jordan.
It’s a joy as a fan to watch this. I experienced it as an opponent and a guy that’s been around him quite a bit, but it’s great to get a more detailed look at the thought process and the things they went through. And hearing first-hand from Michael is pretty special. This is a chance to say thank you to Michael for what he’s meant to the game of basketball. You don’t wait until a tragedy like the loss of Kobe’s life to say thank you. That was so sad. This gives us a chance to say thank you to Michael, and appreciate his greatness and what he was able to do.