Michael Jordan Was Motivated to Beat Jazz in ’97 Finals Because Karl Malone Won MVP: ‘That Fueled the Fire in Me’

Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls took on Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals. The Bulls were playing in their fifth Finals, while the Jazz were making their Finals debut.

There were many motivating factors for Jordan heading into the ’97 Finals. Not only was MJ trying to win his fifth title in seven years, but he also wanted to prove to the NBA voters that they made a mistake picking Malone as the 1996-97 MVP.

Michael Jordan was upset Karl Malone won 1996-97 MVP

In Episode 9 of ESPN’s The Last Dance docuseries, Jordan said he was motivated to beat the Jazz in the ’97 Finals since Malone won the 1996-97 regular-season MVP over him. Malone received 63 first-place votes, while Jordan got 52.

“I’m not saying he wasn’t deserving of it,” Jordan said. “All I’m saying is that fueled the fire in me. I said, ‘Okay, you think he’s the MVP. Okay, fine. No problem.'”

Malone averaged 27.4 points and 9.9 rebounds in 1996-97 while leading the Jazz to 64 wins. Meanwhile, Jordan put up 29.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. He won his ninth scoring title and guided the Bulls to 69 wins.

The Bulls had homecourt advantage in the ’97 Finals. Jordan not only hit a game-winning buzzer-beater in Game 1 at the United Center, but he also got his “MVP” revenge on Malone.

Michael Jordan outplayed Karl Malone

Jordan averaged 32.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 6.0 assists in the ’97 Finals. The Bulls legend outplayed Malone, who averaged 23.8 points and 10.3 rebounds and shot 44.3% from the field.

Chicago defeated Utah in six games to capture its fifth championship. Jordan won his fifth Finals MVP and prevented Malone from reaching the promised land. His Airness somehow played in Game 5 despite being sick after eating pizza in his Utah hotel room the night before. The Hall of Famer was so weak that if he had to do it all over again, Jordan would actually sit out the “Flu Game.”

“Let’s just say, if I had to go through it again, I’d miss it,” Jordan told SLAM Magazine in 1997. “That’s how sick I was. And I jeopardized my health, more so than I should have. And true, we won a Championship—I think that was the deciding game. But hindsight tells me I must have been a fool, and I don’t think I’d do it again if I had to.”

After coming up short against Jordan and the Bulls in ’97, Malone was determined to get past Superman in the 1998 Finals. This time, it was Jordan who won the regular-season MVP over Malone. The Jazz icon received 20 first-place votes compared to Jordan’s 92.

Behind Malone, the Jazz won Game 1 at home to hand Jordan only his second Game 1 loss in the Finals. However, just like the previous year, Chicago had Utah’s number.

The Bulls won again

There’s a reason Malone opted not to participate in The Last Dance docuseries. He’s probably still bitter about losing back-to-back Finals to Jordan and couldn’t gather himself to talk about it again. Although the Mailman averaged 25.0 points and 10.5 rebounds in the ’98 Finals, his costly turnover in Game 6 turned out to be arguably the biggest “lost ball” sequence in NBA history.

Malone got stripped by Jordan with 18.0 seconds left in regulation in Game 6. The Bulls were down one, and Jordan knew exactly what play the Jazz were going to run.

“I knew they were gonna run their patented play though Karl Malone,” Jordan said in Episode 10 of The Last Dance. “They ran that play a couple times prior, and Dennis [Rodman] and Malone had been fighting all game, and Karl just totally forgot that I was on the weak side.”

After stealing the ball from Malone, Jordan hit a jumper to give the Bulls a one-point lead with 5.0 seconds remaining. On their final possession, the Jazz missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, and Chicago won its sixth title in eight years.

Jordan and Malone were teammates on the 1992 Dream Team and won the gold medal together. That’s the only time the two basketball legends shared the same locker room. Although Malone was 13-11 against Jordan in the regular season, the latter got the last laugh when it mattered most.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference

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