The Best Finals Ever
By Jack McCallum
June 10, 2013
In 1993, the Bulls and the Suns met in a championship showdown that had everything: Michael at his peak, Sir Charles at his most boisterous, a triple-overtime classic and a title-clinching jumper. Twenty years later, the principals recall the series
It matched the most incandescent of personalities (Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley), proceeded along the most improbable of paths (triple-overtime game, visiting teams won five of six) and had the most unlikely of denouements—a dramatic, clutch basket that was not made by Jordan.
Twenty years ago the Bulls and Suns met in a roller-coaster series decided when John Paxson's three-pointer settled into the basket at the brand-new America West Arena in Phoenix, giving Chicago a stunning 99--98 win in Game 6. At the time it meant that the Bulls were the first team to threepeat since the Celtics won eight consecutive titles from 1959 to 1966. What we didn't know was that Jordan would soon walk away from the game for a year and a half, that he would return to Chicago and lead the Bulls to another threepeat before the decade ended and that the series would mark the best chance Barkley—and the Suns—would have for winning a championship. Turns out there were lots of other things we didn't know either, until we talked to several of the principals.
Barkley arrives from Philadelphia in a June 1992 trade and everything changes.
CHARLES BARKLEY (Suns forward): [U.S. coach] Chuck Daly had told me in the summer [during the Olympics in Barcelona] that I was the second-best player in the world. "Who's better than me?" I said. O.K., I knew the answer. But I really believed, at that time, I was better than Michael. That changed during this series.
JERRY COLANGELO (Suns owner): We were opening a new arena, we had a new coach in Paul Westphal, we had a great team and we were sold out of everything in advance, so when Charles came I said, "You don't have to sell a ticket or do anything like that. You just have to win. All we're missing is a banner."
BARKLEY: I shoulda got out of Philly three years earlier. I told Cotton [Fitzsimmons, the Suns coach turned exec who orchestrated the deal], "I'll get us to the Finals, and I think I can beat Michael Jordan."
KEVIN JOHNSON (Suns point guard): I was disappointed when I first heard about the trade because I loved playing with Horny. [Shooting guard Jeff Hornacek was sent to the 76ers.] But I understood it. Getting Charles elevated our ability to go all the way. He was virtually unstoppable without a double team, but it was more the change in attitude, confidence, moxie and toughness that he brought.
DANNY AINGE (Suns sixth man, who had signed before the season as a free agent): The only reason I came to Phoenix was Charles. I love him, and I knew I would love playing with him. He is not a perfect player, but he is one of the most talented guys I ever played with or against. And there were similarities to being in Boston. Charles was like Kevin McHale. He made it fun to come to work.
PAUL WESTPHAL (Suns coach): Sure, you rolled your eyes sometimes at the stuff Charles did, but in that year he was in the best shape of his life, he felt he had something to prove and he was absolutely straight with me every single day. Karl Malone was just dominating the West, and Charles gets to Phoenix and says, "Tell Karl there's a new sheriff in town." That has a positive effect on your team.
By contrast, the Bulls battle fatigue—the strain of defending two titles and accommodating Dream Teamers Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
SCOTT WILLIAMS (Bulls backup big man): In training camp Phil [Jackson] didn't want to burn those guys out, but a couple of guys took offense at them getting star status.
HORACE GRANT (Bulls power forward): I'll admit that Phil and I had a few confrontations because I had to be at every single practice working my ass off, and I had been through the championship wars with Michael and Scottie. B.J. [Armstrong, Chicago's point guard], Pax and the rest of us really had to step up when Michael and Scottie were resting. But in hindsight I see what Phil was trying to do. It probably made us a better team at the end.
TIM HALLAM (Bulls director of public relations, then and now): Everything was a pain in the ass for Michael that season. He had pretty much accomplished everything, so what more could you ask him to do? He had so many people pulling on him, asking me, "I just need five minutes with him." Well, you're one of 200 people who want five minutes, so do the math.
SAM SMITH (Bulls beat writer for the Chicago Tribune and author of The Jordan Rules): I don't remember Michael smiling much that season.
PHIL JACKSON (Bulls coach): We lost a game to the Knicks [89--84 to end the regular season], and frankly I was concerned. I expressed that and I'll never forget what Michael said: "Don't worry. We'll get it together for the playoffs." I kept that promise and used it later.
Behind MVP Barkley, the Suns go a league-best 62--20, but life with Charles has its challenges.
BARKLEY: The Bulls came in early and hammered us. [Jordan had 40 points in a 128--111 win.] I said we have to stop reading our press clippings.
WESTPHAL: We're playing the Charlotte Hornets in an early season game. Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson have Charles boxed. But he goes up from behind them—he's not even 6'5"—soars above them, separates from them and gets the rebound. I turned to [assistant] Lionel Hollins and said, "That right there is why we put up with his crap." Charles did stuff that made your jaw drop.
DAN MAJERLE (Suns shooting guard): My whole persona was to play hard every day in practice, but that wasn't Charles's philosophy. What we came to understand, though, was that he was perfect for our team. He opened up everything on the offensive end.
WESTPHAL: Next to Shaq, Charles may have been the worst player in history at defending the pick-and-roll. We're playing Utah early in the season, and Charles is in the wrong place one time on the pick-and-roll. Then we change it, and he's in the wrong place again. And I say, "Charles, just tell me what you want to do." And he says. "I'll let the guy come through, then clothesline him. That's what I really want to do." So late in the game they run a pick-and-roll, and Charles steals it from John Stockton to win the game. He says to me, "It's not that I can't play defense, it's just that I don't always want to."
AINGE: K.J. had been the Suns' leader and he was a consummate pro. I understand why he's now the mayor of Sacramento. But when Charles is on your team, there really isn't a need for a lot of other leaders. The thing was, we were all O.K. with that. Charles was the attention-getter, but so many times he just put the team on his back.
WESTPHAL: Charles would get you the 20-point lead, but sometimes it was only safe if you got him out of the game. If you kept him in, pretty soon your lead might be gone because he didn't always concentrate.
During a bruising Eastern Conference final against the Knicks there are reports that Jordan's gambling is hurting the team. Still, the second-seeded Bulls oust No. 1 New York in six games.
JACKSON: A story in The New York Times tried to turn Michael into the villain for gambling between games in Atlantic City. It didn't work.
GRANT: I had to soak almost my entire body in ice after every game of that Knicks series. [Anthony] Mason, [Charles] Oakley and Patrick [Ewing]? Are you kidding me? That was rough.
JOHN PAXSON (Bulls point guard): If there was ever a time we could've succumbed to the fatigue, it would've been in that series against the Knicks, especially when we lost the first two in New York. But when we got back to Chicago Stadium, we got reenergized, got our legs back.
Phoenix has its own postseason drama, losing the first two games at home in a best-of-five first-rounder to the eighth-seeded Lakers before winning three in a row
BARKLEY: We're in the locker room totally depressed after the second loss, and the press comes running in, right to my locker. Oh, s---, what did I do now? I thought. And they told me what Coach Westphal had said: That we were going to go to L.A., win Games 3 and 4, then win Game 5 at home and everyone would be talking about what a great series it was.
JOHNSON: When a guy expresses that kind of confidence in you, shows that kind of audacity, I knew we would do everything to make him a prophet.
WESTPHAL: Hey, I said it because I believed it. And we made it happen.
The Suns are slight favorites going into the Finals, even with Jordan at the top of his game. Before Game 1 he has to address the gambling story as well his losses on the golf course.
JORDAN (from 1993, appearing on NBC in a pair of dark shades that made him look like, well, a gambler): It was a means of relaxing with my family [though his family was not around when he gambled in Atlantic City] and my friends, and it got me ready to play the game.... A lot of people say, well, maybe you shouldn't have done it at that particular time .... Well, no one knows what's a good or a bad scenario unless you're the person going through it. I felt that it was good that I get away. It just so happens that it was Atlantic City and people took that further than what they should've. I didn't let it affect what my main objective was, and that is to go out there and show loyalty to my teammates.
WILLIAMS: Within the team Michael's gambling was absolutely not a factor. Nobody ever said anything about it. And as it turned out, it just pissed him off, which is what you don't want to do with Michael Jordan.
BARKLEY (jokingly): They used to ask me about Michael and his golfing. And I used to say, "I'm not sure Michael is such a good golfer judging by the numbers they've throwing out there about his losses."
As the city revels in Suns fever, Phoenix drops the opener 100--92. Johnson is particularly bad, with 11 points, two assists and five turnovers.
JORDAN (to reporters in 1993): We maintained our poise. That's part of the maturity of our team, especially on the road. We don't lose our composure, and we do the right things down the stretch.
BARKLEY: We came out very nervous, and that surprised us. Maybe it was their experience and our inexperience.
JOHNSON: No matter what anyone says about being ready, nothing will prepare you for the pressure of the Finals when you've never been there before. You're accustomed to 10 cameras, and now there are 200. I would advise any team that feels it can win a championship to go watch a Finals together before they get there.
BARKLEY: They did a great job of taking it out of my hands. [Barkley had 21 points on 25 shots.] It was a nightmare trying to pass out of that double team. They talk about Dennis Rodman being a great defender? Hell, I was covered by Horace Grant, 6'10" with long arms, and I'd see Scottie, 6' 8" with long arms, coming, and I'd say, Oh, s---. And then the window was even smaller because that damn Michael was always lurking. If you didn't throw a perfect pass out of the double team, that sumbitch would get it.
JACKSON: We had two units that worked well together. The first unit pressed with B.J. on the ball and [Bill] Cartwright was a great anchor as defensive center. The second unit would use a full-court trap defense with a mobile center in Stacey King or Scott Williams.
WESTPHAL: After K.J. played poorly, people were trying to get Charles to go off on him. He wouldn't do it. That was a good sign for us.
Barkley shakes loose for 42 in Game 2, but Jordan scores 10 straight down the stretch, matches Barkley's total, and the Bulls win 111--108, making Phoenix the first top seed to lose the first two games of the Finals.
JORDAN (to reporters in 1993): I asked Phil for three minutes to start the fourth quarter, then a couple minutes off to catch my breath. I felt fresh when I came back and wanted to close it out if I could.
PAXSON: It wasn't just that we had been there before and knew what the Finals were about. It was that we were coming off that Knicks series that was so physical, and because the Suns got up and down the court and played kind of free, we felt almost liberated.
PIPPEN (to reporters in 1993): The experience factor really came into play. We have the ability to maintain a lead and we did that, even when they kept making runs at us.
GRANT: Charles was unbelievable that game. What made Charles so tough was, first of all, his big ass. But two things people forget about him—Charles was an extremely intelligent player and he shot the ball very, very well.
PAXSON: People forget that we were much better on the road. We had so many distractions at home. Plus, Michael, as you know, loved to stick it to visiting crowds. During our three championships seasons we were 4--4 [in the Finals] at home but 8--1 on the road.
Heading to Chicago, Westphal decides he needs a strategic change and also find a way to energize Johnson, who played poorly again in Game 2.
JOHNSON: I was sleeping with a blanket over my head on the flight to Chicago and somewhere over Utah or Kansas, Paul wakes me up and says, "I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the series is not over. The bad news is, you're going to be guarding Jordan." I put the blanket back over my head and on the way out of the plane, I say to Paul, "You won't believe the nightmare I had. You told me I'd be guarding Michael." And he says to me, "That wasn't a dream."
I swear I thought it was. The first thing I did when we got to the hotel in Chicago was go to this church across the street from the Westin on Michigan Avenue. "Lord," I said, "I thought you loved me. But now I've lost my faith."
JORDAN (to reporters in 1993): It's a gimmick. Westphal wants me to be more aggressive offensively, which takes away from everybody else.
JOHNSON: Right before tip-off I'm standing next to Jordan and he says to me, "You're guarding me? I thought you wanted to win Game 3."
The Suns did win Game 3, 129--121 in triple overtime. Jordan had 44 points on 19-of-43 shooting, while Majerle had 28 and made six three-pointers in eight tries. The exhausting classic—which had 18 lead changes and 12 ties—conjured up comparisons with Game 5 of the 1976 Finals in which the Celtics beat the Suns 128--126, also in triple overtime. Westphal was on the losing team in that game.
WESTPHAL: Going through it I had the same feeling. I remember trying to pick up some lessons from [the 1976 game]. There had been a turning point when the Celtics brought Glenn McDonald off the bench, something unexpected, something sudden. [McDonald played 13 minutes, scored eight points and had three assists.] I kept thinking that was something I should do. But I didn't. [Indeed, K.J. played 62 of 63 minutes, Majerle went 59 and Barkley played 53.]
MAJERLE: It was the most incredible game ever, just a magical night. Chicago Stadium was one of those places you always remembered anyway, coming up to the court from the basement, the crowd right on top of you, both teams fighting for their lives, making big shot after big shot.
JORDAN (to reporters in 1993): I can't say the best game I ever played in was a game I lost. I guess [Barkley] would say that.
BARKLEY: It was the greatest basketball game I ever played in.
PIPPEN (to reporters in 1993): We came here and did exactly what we didn't want to do, and that's relax.
Stung by the unexpected defeat, Jordan puts up 55 points (the second-highest total in Finals history) in a 111--105 victory. Still, Phoenix is only down two with 30 seconds left, but Johnson turns the ball over. Barkley becomes the 13th player to have a triple double in the Finals.
WESTPHAL: Our theory was that you couldn't give Michael the same look, so sometimes we doubled him, sometimes not, tried to mix it up. But he was ridiculous in that game, as he often was.
AINGE: When you play against Michael, you might think you have something figured out, but you really don't. It's like with Ted Williams. You get him out one day, so the scouting report says throw him high and tight, and the next day he hits high and tight out of the ballpark.
SMITH: Michael loved kicking Majerle's ass in particular. That's because [Bulls general manager] Jerry Krause used to talk about how great a defender Majerle was. You know how that kind of thing went over with Michael.
WILLIAMS: I loved that game. To this day I tell everybody that the North Carolina Tar Heels combined for 57.
During Game 4, Colangelo, a Chicago native, throws down with a Bulls fan.
COLANGELO: This fan swore at my 80-year-old mother. He told her to shut up and sit down. I asked him to apologize and he wouldn't. He gave me the finger after the game, and I got in a punch before security stepped in. I had a Chicago moment.
Facing elimination in Game 5, the Suns set out to "save the city."
BARKLEY: We're sitting around watching TV all day, and the mayor of Chicago is on there talking about riots and boarding up the city and how everybody's going to burn everything down if the Bulls win because that's how they celebrate in Chicago. So I tell everybody, "We got to win to save the city."
WESTPHAL: I wrote SAVE THE CITY on the board before the game. Charles stole the line from me.
BARKLEY: I don't know, I still think it was me.
JOHNSON (laughing): I don't remember. But it wouldn't be the first time Charles stole someone's line.
There is no doubt who the star of Phoenix's 108--98 win in Game 5 is—rookie forward Richard Dumas, who had 25 points and was 12 of 14 from the field. He would play only two more seasons before drug problems would end his NBA career.
AINGE: We were on a winning streak in the middle of the season when Coach Westphal decides that Richard should start in place of Cedric [Ceballos]. It was a gutsy move, and not everybody was on board with that because Cedric was a big part of our team and Richard was a rookie. But Richard was so talented and so much of a better shooter against the double teams we were facing.
BARKLEY: Richard was a very talented guy. But we knew things were going on off the court. The veterans talked to him from time to time, but we were so focused on trying to win, we didn't have time to be a babysitter.
WILLIAMS: I remember that young man going in on Bill Cartwright, and Bill used to knock those young and fearless guys down. But Dumas slammed it right down over the top of him.
DUMAS (from a 2013 story in The Arizona Republic, on whether he watches old videos of himself): It ain't going to change nothing. It's only going to make me even more depressed. I lost interest. I got bored with basketball.
WESTPHAL: I feel bad every time I think of what could've been for Richard Dumas.
JORDAN (postgame): The city expected us to [close out]. We expected ourselves to. We prepared ourselves to win. We all were disappointed. That's life.
With 14.1 seconds left the Suns lead 98--96. Jordan has scored all of the Bulls' nine points in the fourth quarter. After a timeout everyone at America West knows where the play is headed.
SMITH: During the timeout I called the airlines to change my ticket because I figured we were staying in Phoenix. No one on the Bulls even wanted to shoot in that fourth quarter besides Jordan.
JOHNSON: The only thing Paul told us in the timeout was, "Don't leave your man."
AINGE: I'm saying to myself, "No threes. No threes." I remember Westphal saying that we want them to take a long contested two rather than a three.
MAJERLE: No threes! If they make a two, we'll win it in overtime. And there is no way we would've lost a Game 7.
JACKSON: [The play] was simply called "Blind Pig" and breaks down frontline pressure. We liked to have "thrust" in it, which meant going from three-quarter court.
PAXSON: Something that's rarely talked about is that Phil made the decision to take the ball in the backcourt, right in front of our bench, instead of the usual tactic of taking it at half-court. The whole idea of the play was for B.J. and myself to space the floor and get Michael in the backcourt with a running start.
Jordan gets the ball, dribbles and throws it to Pippen, who, guarded by Barkley, is stationed above the top of the key. The idea is for Jordan to get it back on the dead run.
AINGE: Charles goes for the steal and doesn't get it....
BARKLEY: I knew Michael wanted to get it, so I jumped the play. I think if Scottie takes a two and makes it, it's still better than that damn Michael having it.
AINGE: I'm on the wing, but here is Scottie dribbling down the middle, so all of a sudden I'm in no man's land.
Pippen dribbles toward the basket where Suns center Mark West has left Grant to pick him up. Kevin Johnson is face-guarding Jordan to deny him the ball. Ainge is on Paxson.
AINGE: I know Scottie is going to pass it to Horace, and I think I can jump on Horace.
JOHNSON: "Don't leave your man." That's what Paul told us. So, the so-called smartest guy on the team, Danny, leaves his man.
MAJERLE: I don't want to rag on Danny. Instinct takes over. But Horace wasn't playing that great and....
JERRY KRAUSE (Bulls G.M.): I'm kneeling behind the basket, praying that Horace will pass the ball. I didn't want Horace at the free throw line in that situation, and he didn't want to be there either.
GRANT: That had definitely not been one of my best games. [He missed all five of his shots.] I saw Danny coming and I knew he was going to foul me. Oh, man, yes, they would've been tough free throws.
BARKLEY: Horace has a layup and is scared to death to take it. Danny for some reason comes down. "Oh, hell, why is he doing that?"
AINGE: So Horace hot-potatoes the ball out to Paxson at the three-point line....
It is no surprise that sharpshooting Paxson was in the game at that point, but it hadn't been the best of seasons for him.
PAXSON: I had off-season surgery and arthroscopic surgery on the same [left] knee during the year, and there was some question whether I'd be on the playoff roster. I always give credit to Phil for hanging with me.
AINGE: I can picture the whole sequence in my mind now. I couldn't sleep for three months afterward. Paxson gets it in perfect rhythm....
PAXSON: The key was when Charles gambled. The play was supposed to go to the right side for Scottie and Michael, but now it turned to the left, turned into something else.
AINGE: That's probably a 50-to-60 percent shot for John when he gets his feet set.
WILLIAMS: You give Pax his routine, and that shot was like a long free throw for him.
WESTPHAL: The ball seemed like it was in the air for about five minutes, time for all kinds of thoughts and emotions to go through your head. "It's a three-pointer, so kind of low percentage.... Wow, that looks good.... Every kid dreams of doing this.... Man, that looks awfully good...."
PAXSON: I wish I could remember exactly went through my head, but all I know is that it was like a million other jump shots, in my driveway, in college, in the pros.
... and it swishes, giving the Bulls a 99--98 lead with 3.9 seconds on the clock.
JACKSON: The real beauty of it was that all the players touched the ball and Paxson delivered.
BRIAN MCINTYRE (then the NBA's director of public relations): The Bulls had a big lead going into the fourth quarter, and I rolled the dice they would win. So NBC had set up all of their equipment in the Bulls' locker room to film the champagne ceremony. The deal was, they were supposed to get out if Chicago didn't close out, but there wouldn't have been enough time. Pax saved my ass.
The Suns still have time to win, but Johnson's shot in the lane is blocked by Grant.
GRANT: Michael was guarding K.J. and big Oliver [Miller] set a screen on him. K.J. was open and I was forced to help. He got past me, and I lost my balance and stumbled but had the presence to stay on my feet and block his jumper.
PAXSON: Reacting quickly to a play was Horace's strength.
The Bulls are jubilant, the Suns stunned.
JORDAN (to reporters in 1993): Winning this championship was harder than anything I've done before, with all the ups and downs and the mental approach that I've had to take into each game. We never gave up hope, and now that this team has become part of history, it's a very gratifying feeling for me.
HALLAM: We kid Pax [now the Bulls' general manager] to death about it. If we're out with him, we'll always make sure we say, "Hey, it's John Paxson. He hit that three-point shot in 1993." But most everybody knows it anyway.
Six days after Paxson's shot 300,000 fans line 2˝ miles of Phoenix's streets for a parade, celebrating not only what was but also what will surely be for a team on the rise.
AINGE: We were a better team the next year and the year after. But one year Charles gets hurt, the next year Danny Manning, who had really helped us, blows out his knee. It was always something....
BARKLEY: The next season I had taken so many injections in my knee, I wouldn't have been able to play in the Finals anyway.
JOHNSON: On the 20th year after those great Finals, we managed to keep a team in Sacramento, and that's as good as it gets. But honestly? The 1993 Finals still keeps me up at night. The history of the NBA has these teams that come up short, learn their lessons then win it. That was supposed to be us. But we didn't. And being 'one of the best teams never to win a championship?' That's a sorry state to be in.