John Stockton Never Felt an Aura About Michael Jordan When He Faced the Bulls in 2 Straight Finals
Utah Jazz legend John Stockton faced Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in back-to-back Finals in 1997 and 1998. The NBA’s all-time leader in assists averaged 12.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists in 12 Finals games against the Bulls while shooting 49.5% from the field and 33.3% from beyond the arc.
Jordan was arguably the most feared player in the NBA during his prime. His killer instinct and elite trash-talking skills helped him gain a mental advantage over his opponents. In fact, former NBA forward Kendall Gill told Chicago sports historian Jack M Silverstein that some players were beaten before their games against the Bulls even started because they were scared to play Jordan.
However, Stockton wasn’t one of those guys.
John Stockton’s surprising observation about facing Michael Jordan in the 1997 and 1998 Finals
In ESPN’s The Last Dance docuseries, John Stockton spoke about facing Jordan and the Bulls in the 1997 and 1998 Finals. The Hall of Famer admitted that while he respected MJ and Co., he wasn’t afraid of them. Stockton explained:
“We had our hands full out West for my entire career. We played great teams, and we were so close so many times. Just couldn’t kind of get over the top, and then we win in kind of a last-second fashion. We had a chance to play and test ourselves against the best, and that means as much to me as anything.
I never said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the Bulls.’ Great team, all the respect that they deserved, they’d get from me, but I sure didn’t feel an aura about Michael Jordan or the Bulls. I don’t know how you would play against somebody with that. We were there to win.”
Stockton almost didn’t participate in The Last Dance docuseries because he didn’t want to be part of a Jordan puff piece. However, director Jason Hehir finally got the 10-time All-Star on the phone after two years of chasing him.
Stockton and Karl Malone were confident they could defeat the Bulls on the NBA’s biggest stage. However, beating Jordan in a seven-game series was easier said than done.
The Chicago Bulls won the 1997 NBA Finals in six games
The Bulls had home-court advantage in the 1997 Finals and won Games 1 and 2 at the United Center. They won Game 2 by 12 points. Some pundits thought the Jazz would be swept.
However, Utah bounced back by winning Games 3 and 4 in Salt Lake City, setting up a pivotal Game 5. Jordan ate pizza in his hotel room the night before Game 5 and got food poisoning. He somehow managed to play and had one of the greatest performances in Finals history, scoring 38 points in 44 minutes. The Bulls won by two points and were one win away from winning championship No. 5.
Game 6 was a close affair as well. The Jazz didn’t go down without a fight, tying the game with 28.0 seconds left in regulation. Jordan told Steve Kerr to be ready for a pass during a timeout since he knew Stockton would double him. His Airness found Kerr wide open right beyond the free-throw line, and the sharpshooter hit a jumper to give the Bulls a two-point advantage.
The Jazz turned the ball over on their final possession, clinching the championship for the Bulls. Stockton and Malone watched Jordan and Scottie Pippen celebrate and used that scene as motivation to come back better in 1997-98.
Unfortunately for the Jazz icons, Jordan had his motivation too.
Michael Jordan wanted his second three-peat
The Jazz had home-court advantage in the 1998 Finals and won Game 1. Jordan only trailed twice in the Finals, with the first time taking place in 1991.
Utah’s good vibes didn’t last long, though. Chicago won Games 2, 3, and 4 and had a chance to clinch the title in Game 5 at home. However, the Jazz won by two, and the series returned to the Delta Center.
June 14, 1998, is an important date in Bulls history. It’s the day Jordan played his final game in a Chicago uniform. The five-time MVP scored 45 points and hit the game-winning jumper over Bryon Russell with under 5.0 seconds remaining. Stockton had a chance to win the game at the buzzer, but he missed a 3-pointer.
Jordan finished his career with six championships and six Finals MVPs. He also never lost in the Finals. Meanwhile, Stockton is one of the greatest players in NBA history never to win a title. The floor general may not have felt an aura about Jordan, but he experienced what it’s like to lose to him.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference