Michael Jordan made me hate basketball. That’s not supposed to be the effect of one of the greatest players of all time, not if he plays for your team or you’re a connoisseur of the sport. But for me, a young sports fan in South Florida who sort of understood basketball, I looked at Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and said, “What’s the point?” In those years my Miami Heat were starting to get good, starting to rack up enough wins for a respectable record and a playoff berth, where I knew we would ultimately lose to the Bulls.
The 1995-96 Bulls were the greatest basketball team in history. But for me, they’ll always symbolize something else: The disappointment of knowing there’s no point.
But the Heat did beat those Bulls, once, on a night where Miami almost had to forfeit the game for not having enough players. In a way it was a cruel victory, as if a higher sports power was taunting other NBA fans. Maybe Jordan was beatable?
No, not really. It was a weird night, and the weird night’s MVP was a name you don’t hear much anymore: Rex Chapman. It was a career night for Chapman, but with years of distance and the Steph Curry Renaissance before my eyes, it also feels like a bizarro preview of our new now, when the three-pointer rules all.
“It looks like a small gathering of friends, doesn’t it?” the announcer asks before introducing the Heat’s starting lineup that night. Within hours of the trade deadline, the Heat had made three trades that remade much of the lineup: Kevin Willis and Bimbo Coles to Golden State for Tim Hardaway and Chris Gatling, Kevin Gamble and Billy Owens to Sacramento for Walt Williams and Tyrone Corbin, and Terrence Rencher to Phoenix for Tony Smith.
When the Bulls came to town for a game the next day, the Heat almost didn’t have a full roster. Smith, who had just arrived thanks to red eye from Los Angeles, was starting. He barely had time to check out the playbook, and unofficial Heat historian Ira Winderman wrote that Smith went into the game knowing five sets. (It was the only game he ever started for Miami.) Re-watching this game, what I loved was how clearly these announcers sound like they don’t give a shit, and probably don’t want to be there. One announcer says: “Let’s get this one and go back home, Mike.”
Early on, their feelings are validated when Chapman turns over the ball by stepping out of bounds.
Now excuse me for a moment while I talk about football, specifically the forward pass. Football existed without the play for several decades, and yet today it’s impossible to imagine the game without it. Ask anyone to name their favorite play, and mostly you’ll hear about catches. The Catch. The Immaculate Reception. The Helmet Catch. The Drive (a series of catches). The Music City Miracle is impossible without that one (maybe forward?) pass.
If hope is the true currency of fandom, then there is nothing more hopeful than a ball moving through space. In those handful of seconds, anything can happen—a first down, a 50-yard pass, maybe even a touchdown. In baseball, this is that ball sailing toward the wall, somewhere between being a home run or a pop fly. In basketball, this is the three-pointer. That moment, when the ball leaves the player’s hands and starts that long, slow arc toward the basket.
It feels like forever, and for a moment everyone on the court is powerless, a collection of grown men just staring at the same ball. Sure, two-pointers count. Nothing is taking the place of the dunk contest. But they don’t hang in the air an extra second, they aren’t worth that extra game-changing point, the one extra heart palpitation’s worth of, “Oh my God, is it going to go in?” It’s pure physics and also magic.
For one night, the Heat had that.
The final line for Chapman: 39 points, 12-17 from the field, 9-10 from beyond the three-point line. But this is a blog about basketball. Bring on the GIFs!
From one corner!
From the other corner!
Shaking off Michael Jordan like it ain’t no thang!
There is a moment when it feels like the Bulls will come back. They’re down 101-89 with over four minutes left. The Heat are tired, Keith Askins misses two free throws, and Jason Caffey answers with a two-pointer. It’s a 10-point game. Jordan off the glass makes it eight, and if any team can make up eight points in just a few minutes, it’s this one.
But then comes another Chapman three, from deep.
Yeah, it was one of the three seasons when the NBA explored a shorter three-point line. Yeah, Chapman never again played better than this night. You probably last heard about him for his arrest in a string of thefts from an Apple store (prosecutors declined to bring charges). But watching him and the rest of the Heat slay the Bulls with three-pointers, almost exclusively three-pointers, I kept thinking about the Warriors, and how they toppled the record held by those Bulls.
There are people out there now like I was, angry, bitter, frustrated, wondering what’s the point of a game where you know the outcome? For me, older and with my Heat now owning a few championship rings of their own, this feels different, a final culmination of comeuppance at those Bulls and the endless prattle about The Triangle. The Warriors are revenge.
In retrospect, it was foolish to think that Jordan and co. would be bested by a team just like them. The place of those Bulls in the history book was undone, instead, by a sure shot (perhaps the surest shot in history) from beyond the arc.