This is a semi-fictional account of Obama and Kim Jong Un watching Jordan clinch his sixth NBA title. Locations and job titles and even some quotes are based off reported facts — For example, Kim really did live in Switzerland and idolize Jordan ¹; Obama really did say “I need to close it out like Jordan” to Jay-Z ahead of 2008 elections ².
June 14th, 1998. 8:33pm. Salt Lake City.
Michael Jordan sits alone inside the Delta Center. At least in his head, he is. In real life, he’s surrounded by teammates in red and 19,911 screaming Utah Jazz fans, but inside the head of the most competitive athlete the world has ever known, he’s completely alone.
His most reliable and trusted teammate, Scottie Pippen, is suffering from a back injury that has all but rendered him a decoy. Other teammates, from Ron Harper to Dennis Rodman to Luc Longley, are physically exhausted, playing in their 103rd game of yet another long season — the third consecutive 100+ game season for these Bulls. Toni Kukoc, a sweet-shooting but one-dimensional European forward, had been the only one helping with the offensive load, with 15 points. Jordan has 41.
The Chicago Bulls are in the middle of a timeout, having just fallen behind by three points to the Utah Jazz with 42 seconds to go. Lose this one, and the series will be tied 3-3, with a deciding game 7, in this same arena, in just two days. Jordan sits alone, doing math in his head: 42 seconds left, down three. I must go for the two-for-one.
June 15th, 1998. 4:33am. Bern, Switzerland.
Fifteen-year-old Park Un is to attend school in three hours, but he will not go to sleep. He’s screaming, in fact, waking up the family he’s staying with, several of whom also has work in three hours. No one in the house dare scold the chubby Park Un though, for his true identity is Kim Jong Un, son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Young Kim, normally mild-mannered and eerily quiet, couldn’t help himself with that scream. His beloved Chicago Bulls had just fallen by three points to the Utah Jazz — off a wide open three pointer by John Stockton.
He’s been supporting the Bulls ever since he fell in love with the game of basketball a few years prior, and the game has been his sole source of solace as he spends his days in a foreign country, away from his father, and his army. In five hours, Kim has a test for which he is unprepared, but all he’s thinking about is: 42 seconds left, down three. They must go for the two-for-one.
June 14th, 1998. 9:33pm, Chicago, Illinois.
“The City is Mine”, the second single off up-and-coming rapper Jay-Z’s second album, “In My Lifetime, Vol. 1”, is blasting out two speakers in the South Side apartment of Barack and Michelle Obama, respectively the newly reelected Senator of Illinois and Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago.
“Fuck. Did they figure us out?” Barack asks. “We were up 3-1, and then they beat us clean in game 5, and now they’re up 3 with under a minute. If this goes 7, I don’t know if we can win.”
“Babe, are you going to doubt Michael now, after everything we’ve seen throughout the last decade?” answers Michelle.
She continues: “Remember that night in 86, at Harvard Law School, when all them white boys were sweating because Michael was scoring all over the entire Celtics? How much did Michael end up scoring, you tell me.”
“Hmmm-mmm,” she says, doing the I-told-ya-so headtilt. “At Boston Garden too. What about 93, against Chuck, when he had the deeper squad? What about last year, when Michael had the flu?”
“Babe, you’re right. What was I thinking doubting Mike? He’ll take this. There’s 42 seconds left, down three…”
She finishes his sentence: “Michael must go for the two-for-one.”
June 14th, 1998. 8:35pm. Salt Lake City.
Truth be told, Michael Jordan is tired too. At 36 years-old and on the tail end of back-to-back-to-back 100 game seasons in which he’s carried the bulk of the offensive load, Jordan is physically and mentally drained. Others around the league — the players, coaches, media members — could see it too. To everyone inside and outside, 1998 felt like the last year of Michael Jordan’s basketball life.
He pretends he does’t know if this is his last year, laughing off speculations from media members and queries from Bulls management. But deep down, he knew — he had decided, sometime in the fall of 1997, that this season would be his last. That’s why he wore the original Air Jordans at the 1998 All Star Game. That’s why he went extra hard at this young fella by the name of Kobe Bryant. Michael knew, deep down, this was it. It’s time to pass the torch, but not before kicking ass.
There’s one more to be kicked.
The horn sounds. Players stutter back to the court from both ends. Bulls ball, down 3, 42 seconds left.
Just five seconds after the inbound, he struck. It was classic Michael: a stutter step followed by a quick slice to the hoop for a lay-in. Bulls down one, 37 seconds left. Somewhere in Switzerland, more screams. In Chicago, a “babe, I told you so.”
Back in Salt Lake City: Fuck. Utah coach Jerry Sloan thinks to himself. He got the two-for-one.
John Stockton calmly dribbles the ball upcourt. He and Malone lock eyes, and like Jean Grey, Malone hears Stockton’s thoughts. It’s okay, Karl. Let’s go to our bread and butter.
Malone gets into position in the right block, where he’s had great success the past couple of games.
Jordan sees this: These motherfuckers are going back to the same play? Jordan fakes looking away, pretending to be pre-occupied with Byron Russell.
Stockton passes the ball to Malone in the block. Almost as soon as the catch is made, Jordan ends his possum-play and pounces over from the weak side, slapping the ball loose, and gaining possession.
Twenty seconds. Bulls down one, Jordan with the ball.
“OH MY GODDDDD,” screamed Kim in Switzerland. In Chicago, Barack and Michelle leans forward in their sofa, as “The City Is Mine” hits its chorus: “You belooong to the city, youuu belong to the night, in the river of darkness, he’s a man of the night.”
Inside the Delta Center, 19,911 fans stand in stunned silence, holding their breath.
Bob Costas, doing commentary for NBC, describes the scene: Here comes Chicago, 17 seconds. 17 seconds from Game 7, or championship number six…
Sizing up his man, Jordan yo-yos the ball, and waits. 12…11…10…
With 9 seconds to go, Jordan drives towards the free throw line. Russell keeps up, shadowing Jordan’s every step. But then, Jordan crosses over with his right hand, while shoving Russell with the left. This breaks Jordan free.
7.8 seconds, and Jordan sees daylight.
The crowd, half screaming in horror, half with hand over their mouths.
Jordan rises for the jumper. Swish.
“CHICAGO WITH THE LEAD!!!” screams Costas, broadcasting to the world.
Bulls 87, Jazz 86. 5.2 seconds left.
Complete silence in Utah. Pandemonium inside an apartment in Switzerland. A fistbump in Chicago.
The Bulls go on to make that last defensive stop, and wins championship number six.
The layup-steal-jumper sequence — the two-for-one — immediately climbs to the top of sports lore as the greatest and most clutch final minute in basketball history. Perhaps sports history.
The way Jordan closed out the game struck a chord with millions of people that night, including a certain fat kid in Switzerland and a senator in Chicago.
Barack and Michelle share a kiss. He wraps his arms around her. Both of them are thinking the same thing: It’s our turn to put Chicago on the map.
Kim stares at the TV screen, out of breath. He thinks: The greatest lesson of Michael Jordan is — when you sense weakness, you go for the kill. Never let go of power.
Ten years later, ahead of the 2008 Presidential election, Obama requests Jay-Z to help with his fundraiser for the final leg of his campaign. Obama tells Jay: “I want to close this out like Jordan.”
Five years after that, Kim Jong Un is leader of North Korea, a country that supposedly hates all things American, except the NBA. Especially former Chicago Bulls.
“Hey Dennis, you wouldn’t happen to have Michael’s phone number, right?”
3: My uncanny memory of all things NBA. Booyah.