Before moving forward, a massive congratulations goes to Reggie Miller for being inducted into the Hall Of Fame this year. As one of the signature players from an era which formed my love for the game of basketball, this honor is long overdue and regardless if his career numbers pale in comparison to whomever's in your top five, he's a Hall Of Famer off sheer legend alone. That legend never truly affected yours truly as a young kid in the '90's. I wasn't a Knicks fan, so seeing him rip their hearts (and sometimes vice versa) was entertaining to watch, but nothing which made it difficult to sleep at night.
Yet, the story I'm about to tell you is how Reggie Miller and the Pacers came this close to ruining my childhood. It's one built around fantasy, disaster, loyalty and greed. It involved myself, Reggie Miller, Michael Jordan and one decision which has forever altered the scope of my life every moment since.
The 1998 NBA playoffs were something of a final lap around the track for M.J. No one could confirm the news, but this year - some 14 years after Michael Jordan first landed in the league - had all the makings of his last chance at securing a sixth ring surpassing Magic Johnson in the process. Jordan's psychotic competitive streak, still very much in alignment with his physical prowess at the time, was all a person needed to realize six meant the world to him; much like it does for a current superstar. Chicago's first two series were cake walks thanks to a 3-0 sweep of John Calipari's New Jersey Nets, and a 4-1 snoozer against the Charlotte Hornets.
So, at this point, I had all the right in the world - at least I thought so - to be overconfident in an easy sweep against the Pacers. Jordan, Pippen and Phil had never let me down. Jordan's responsibility was winning titles while mine was not forgetting my locker combination. We were both masters of our own fates and captains of our souls and legacies. And yes, during the spring of 1998, this made all the sense in the world.
Fast forward to Game 4 when Reggie Miller nails a three pointer leaving 0.4 seconds left on the clock. After witnessing M.J. nearly answer back with an off balance 35-footer, my approach to the series changed. Reggie was hardheaded and, even more petrifying, the Pacers weren't scared of the Bulls. The series was tied heading into Game 5 with basically everything hanging in the balance. The next game saw Chicago win easily, leading us to Game 6; a game which brought forth one of the most important decisions that would eventually go on to alter the course and identity of my sports life thereafter.
The Pacers won Game 6 92-89 meaning the deciding game would be played on Chicago's floor for a trip to the NBA Finals. This wasn't supposed to happen. I saw Jordan play with the flu (or hangover) and emerge victorious. I saw Jordan average 41-9-6 in the 1993 Finals. I saw Jordan and Pippen lead a team to 72 wins in a season. And all of it didn't matter because my childhood innocence now fell squarely in the hands of Reggie Miller; the guy who got under the skin of Knicks fans, not mine. I felt alone. I felt scared. I felt like left was right and right was left. Martin had already gone off the air the previous spring and now you're telling me Jordan, Pippen and Phil would lose a series? You mean to tell me this Pacers squad was, perhaps, the better team? This was asking far too much for my 12-year-old heart to carry.
The evening and night before Game 7 was a different world. Food tasted different. Birds chirping was replaced by ambulance sirens. Gas prices had the audacity to skyrocket to over a dollar! So, I prayed. About what, exactly? I prayed if the Bulls could somehow win the title, I would never again ask for another championship ring. I sacrificed myself, in roundabout way. Was it foolish? Yes, but so was attempting to get a hand job from your girlfriend on the back of the bus during charter bus field trips to D.C.
To this day, I'm not exactly sure how Chicago won Game 7 88-83. While Jordan damn near went for a triple double (28-9-8), he and Pippen shot a combined 15-43 from the field. Any other game where Mike and Scottie shoot 35%, chances are they lose. Looking on the Bulls fate after the game, they even knew they escaped disaster. My own mother - who watched most Bulls games mainly because of her school-girl crush on M.J. - even noted Chicago was lucky to walk out of that game alive. Here's a fact largely forgotten about Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals: Indy went 23-37 from the free throw line. Do the math.
-- The Pacers lost by five.
-- The Pacers missed 14 free throws.
-- The Pacers were devoured on the offensive glass 22-3 causing for a lopsided 26-3 disadvantage points-wise.
-- If the Pacers make six more free throws (or grab something like one offensive rebound a quarter leading to a basket), they win that game. And if that happens, who knows how different history is now? Either Karl Malone or Reggie Miller have a ring. Jordan still goes down as the GOAT, but the bitter taste of losing the last series stays around for eternity. And, even before Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Jerry Krause does what he wanted to do prior to the start 1997-98 season and set C4 to the entire operation, relieve Phil of his duties and start over with the incomparable Tim Floyd as his coach.
I understood the severity of the situation. I made a pact, and I felt damn good about it. It was like I was Snoop Dogg in the "Murder Was The Case" video, only it was nothing like that. The story plays out how we all know it would from there. The Bulls win Game 7 and weeks later capture their sixth title. We get "the shot" in Game 6 while dropping 45 total in one of the more awesome "f*ck-this-we-ain't-losing-this-game" performances in sports history. Jordan retires as the greatest player of all-time. Phil stepped away from basketball for a season and soon began coaching another young, hot-headed duo out West. Scottie moves on to Portland. Rodman becomes even weirder. Everyone went their separate ways.
This brings things back to the present day. No professional sports team or entity I pledge my allegiance to has yet win a title since. The Atlanta Braves? Well, no one's picking them to win the World Series. The Dallas Cowboys? For the record, that was the Devil showing his face when Patrick Crayton dropped that pass in 2007 vs. the Giants. LeBron? This has to be the year. It has to. It's a phenomenon growing in cult fame over the years and a mini-movement that can only be referred to as the "Tins Championship Drought." We closing in on 15 years now, which makes me the Chicago Cubs of pro sports fans (unless, of course, you're a Chicago Cubs and/or Cleveland Browns fan).
I sacrificed my own well-being for instant glory during the 1998 playoffs. I ensured Reggie Miller never got his ring while Jordan played in his sixth Finals, won his sixth ring, for his sixth Finals MVP. And now that I'm paying attention, that's entirely too many sixes in succession. More importantly, I sacrificed my soul for a guy who hasn't met a Steve Harvey suit he didn't like and currently running the Charlotte Bobcats into the ground. You can't make this stuff up.
There's a chance I'm overreacting to all of this, but there's also a puncher's chance I could be on to something. Or it could be the fact I'm typing this at two in the morning and I have to be to work by eight. Regardless, on the eve of the 2012 playoffs, a 26-year-old me finds myself in the same situation as did the 12-year-old who saw nothing but buildings burning, babies sacrificed, and trains wrecked occurring if Jordan lost.
I'm not even sure how much differently my life would be had Reggie Miller destroyed my childhood in May 1998. Then again, I'm not sure how different my life would be had I never handed my sports soul over like it were the title to a car. I just know one thing; I need a championship this June.
@JustinTinsley is stuck halfway between a dream and reality. The plan? To make that dream a reality.