At the conclusion of every NBA season, the league awards the Larry O’Brien trophy to the team that was victorious in the NBA Finals. And as the champagne gets sprayed onto players and families start to make their way onto the podium, David Stern presents the Finals MVP award to the player that played best on the winning team. Normally, this translates into the best player on the title team winning the award, but every now and then we get it wrong and award the Bill Russell trophy to the wrong player.
Consider this fictional scenario: it’s the spring 1997 and the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz are tied at two games apiece in the NBA Finals. Going into Game 5 in Utah, Michael Jordan is clearly under the weather but finds the required energy and strength to give us one of the best performances ever in what will be known around the world as simply the Flu Game.
Because Jordan exerted most of his energy in Game 5, he is unable to suit up in Game 6 for the Bulls. As a result, Chicago starts Scottie Pippen at shooting guard and Toni Kukoc at small forward. Pippen plays one of the most masterful games of his illustrious career, scoring 27 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, dishing out seven assists and getting four steals. In addition, his help defense on Karl Malone forces the Mailman to shoot 10-for-32 from the field as the Bulls win the title at home by five points.
The Bulls start celebrating, the fans are euphoric and Jerry Krause is already entertaining interviews and telling people that organizations and not players win championships.
Michael Jordan is not at the United Center, he instead remained home to rest in the event of a potential Game 7 but catches the trophy presentation on television.
David Stern presents the Larry O’Brien trophy to Jerry Reinsdorf and then makes this next statement:
“I would like to congratulate the Utah Jazz for a great Finals performance. Chicago outlasted Utah in a tough six-game series and tonight one star played shooting guard, point guard, power forward and even a little bit of center to help the Chicago Bulls clinch the title. The NBA Finals MVP goes to Scottie Pippen”.
The scenario seems ludicrous right? By the way, had this happened, I’m convinced Jordan would have played until 2003 with the Bulls just to win a few more Finals MVP trophies.
Pippen’s performance in Game 6 would have been nothing short of spectacular, but awarding him the Bill Russell trophy would have made little sense. He would have carried the team to a title for one game while Jordan would have done most of the heavy lifting during the whole regular season, playoffs and five of the six Finals games. Logic would dictate that he be awarded the trophy and most would agree.
And yet, a similar situation manifested itself in the 1980 NBA Finals and the voters got it wrong. Indeed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was arguably the most dominant player during he 1979-80 NBA season, boasting averages of 24.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 3.4 blocks per game on 60.4 percent field goal shooting during the regular season and averages of 31.9 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 3.9 blocks per game on 57.2 percent field goal shooting during the playoffs. There is no other way to say this: Kareem was the man.
In the 1980 NBA Finals, Abdul-Jabbar was a force to be reckoned with during the series despite badly spraining his ankle in Game 5. As bad as the injury was, the superstar center finished the game and carried the Lakers to a victory and a 3-2 series lead against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Unfortunately for Los Angeles, the six-time league MVP would be unable to play in Game 6 and would not even make the trip to Philadelphia. And with their main scoring option missing, the Lakers improvised and started Magic Johnson at center and he went on to have the game of his life (as a rookie no less): 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. Needles to say, the young point guard did it all.
Brent Musberger of CBS said at the time:
“He has played center, forward, and guard in this game. He’ll pack the uniforms afterward.”
As a result, Magic Johnson was crowned the NBA Finals MVP.
Magic’s play was definitely worthy of the award given his performance in the deciding game, but should Abdul-Jabbar’s huge contributions during the 1980 playoffs and the Finals have been completely disregarded in favor of the rookie’s play? Highly doubtful.
Numbers do not always tell the whole story but in the case of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, they paint a picture of dominance during the 1980 championship series. The player formerly known as Lew Alcindor averaged an impressive 33.4 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 4.6 blocks per game on 54.9 percent field goal shooting in the Finals.
To put those figures in perspective, they should be in the pantheon of great big man performances in the title round with the 1995 Finals performance of Hakeem Olajuwon as well as the 2000 Finals of Shaquille O’Neal. Have a look below:
Despite Kareem’s terrific output, he was forced to watch Magic accept his award at the conclusion of Game 6. To be fair, Johnson had a monster series in his own right, averaging 21. Points, 11.2 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 2.7 steals per game on 57.3 percent field goal shooting; but Abdul-Jabbar made everything happen for the Los Angeles Lakers on both offense and defense. He was the team’s main scoring option as well as its defensive anchor and thus made the game easier for his teammates in a way that very few in the history of the league have ever done.
Ultimately though, the one thing that mattered to both players was winning.
The rookie guard must have been ecstatic to lead his team to a Game 6 victory over the 76ers for the title, while the Lakers star center was probably proud to see his teammates win the championship despite his absence; however, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will always have a Finals MVP trophy missing from his trophy case.
But we all know…