Now that 10 “Last Dance” episodes are in the books … a few stray thoughts from spring’s Michael Jordan showcase:
Local thoughts, that is.
Let it be known that Jordan’s “Last Dance” documentary had three very interesting ⎯ and, yes, local ⎯ participants in his Chicago Bulls’ farewell. It was all right there in front of us in the series’ final two episodes.
First up was Reggie Miller, sharpshooting guard from the Indiana Pacers, a lethal team that could’ve easily KO’d Jordan’s final Bulls’ season in the 1998 Eastern Conference championship.
Miller was a high-scoring baller from nearby Riverside Poly, who spent time at UCLA before playing his entire career with the Pacers. He was the three-point magician before Steph Curry showed up at Golden State.
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Once the Bulls got past Indiana, the ensuing NBA finals against Utah, included Bryon Russell, the heads-up guard-forward swingman who was famously defending Jordan on his game-winning shot.
The details: Game 6, Delta Center, Jazz winning by one at the time, 5.2 seconds remaining ⎯ in Salt Lake City.
Russell was the “big man” on some of San Bernardino High’s best teams from the 1980s. Off to Long Beach State before the Jazz took him in the second round in 1993.
This guy played in all of this area’s local gyms ⎯ San Gorgonio, Cajon, spots in Rialto and Fontana ⎯ and took part in the Cardinals’ 1989 CIF championship, the one coached by Scott Kay. Took on Redlands a few times, especially at the San Bernardino Kiwanis Tournament.
Doug Howard, Carlos Dew and 6-foot-8 Ray Owes were a few other players off that unbeaten Cardinals’ team that knocked off Glendora for the title.
For the record, it was Glendora’s Tracy Murray that copped that year’s Div. 4-A Player of the Year honors. Got to believe that Russell had to be second in that year’s voting.
The Cardinals, who had an opening round bye that year, beat Arroyo in double OT, Torrance by 12 and Riverside Poly (Miller, long gone) by 10 in leading up to the championship game against Glendora, a 72-69 outcome.
Throw one more NBA championship finals in Russell’s folder ⎯ 2004. Lakers’ roster. Phil Jackson, coach. Lost to Detroit in five. One of his Lakers’ teammates, former Jazz great Karl Malone, was on the floor at the time Jordan hit the 1998 game-winner over Russell.
Last we heard, Russell was living in Woodland Hills.
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There was lots of talk about a shot at NBA Title No. 7, if only ownership and management had managed to pull it off with all the contract squabbles, particularly with Scottie Pippen.
Had Jordan’s retirement, Dennis Rodman’s release, Pippen’s sign-and-trade to Houston and Phil Jackson’s departure all managed to be avoided, think of this little local nugget:
In pursuit of that seventh NBA title in 1998-99, Chicago’s top draft choice in 1998 was none other than Corey Benjamin, the Oregon State star. Benjamin happened to be a Fontana High product, a school then playing in the Citrus Belt League.
Benjamin, not to mention various teammates like brothers Jamal and Dwight Slaughter plus Brent Tuttle ⎯ which knocked off powerhouse Long Beach Poly for the 1994-95 CIF championship ⎯ played San Gorgonio a few times over those years.
Mike Southworth was Fohi’s coach.
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Benjamin is also known for an incident, having mentioned to Bulls’ teammate Randy Brown that he could beat Michael Jordan in a one-on-one game. Jordan had just retired, but he showed up at a Bulls practice to accept the challenge, handily beating Benjamin.
(That showdown can be viewed online at youtube.com/watch?v=GPfCGcG7H8Y.)
No telling how the 6-foot-6 Benjamin would’ve slotted into the Bulls’ lineup with a full roster of those championship players ⎯ Jackson coaching ⎯ and might’ve improved in an otherwise underachieving career.
(Underachieving, huh? Anyone that makes an NBA roster is hardly an underachiever, but the way Benjamin played around these parts during his prep days, one might’ve thought he was the next MJ!)
Jackson, it’s recognized, had some skills along the coaching fronts. According to “Last Dance,” MJ had some skills in lighting the fire under teammates.
Footnote: If all those top Bulls’ figures had returned, there’s some reason to believe maybe they wouldn’t have drafted Benjamin. Who knows? There was some word circulating that the ex-Fohi star was picked to replace MJ in Chicago’s lineup.
He didn’t start much once he got there, though.
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Let me insert this: Kobe Bryant had some solid mentions in those 10 hours. Still can’t believe that Kobe’s gone.
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Gerry Wright, the unflappable 6-foot-8 sky-jamming, power forward at San G -- a 1984 grad -- certainly belongs in this mix. His college campuses were USC and Iowa, eventually landing in Atlanta (though drafted originally by Detroit’s Bad Boys lineup) as a backup to Dominique Wilkins.
You think he had a few sessions with Reggie Miller or Bryon Russell or even MJ himself?
Wright has turned Barstow Junior College’s men’s basketball program around completely upon his arrival in 2013.
More to come, perhaps, on the player once-known as “Sir Jamalot.”
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The GOAT? Put it this way: In no particular order, there’s Kareem, Bill (not Bryon) Russell, Magic, LeBron and Michael all belong in the same sentence. All just one man’s opinion ⎯ mine! Makes for a good starting lineup, though.
Final thought: Chicago was so, so, sooooooo lucky to have Michael Jordan.