The Last Dance: Paxson on game-winning shot in 1993, ‘It was pretty special’

June 21, 1993, sports front page of Dayton Daily News.
June 21, 1993, sports front page of Dayton Daily News.

Biggest shot of Alter grad’s career featured in Episode 6 of ESPN documentary

Three weeks after the biggest basket of his career, Alter High School graduate John Paxson told the Dayton Daily News, "I think I'll have a smile on my face all summer. I'm going to enjoy it. Who knows how long this will last?"

EARLIER: Paxson in spotlight in Episode 5

The answer is a lifetime. People still talk about Paxson’s shot in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals, and it was featured Sunday in Episode 6 of “The Last Dance,” the 10-part ESPN documentary on the Chicago Bulls airing on ESPN.

The Bulls trailed the Phoenix Suns 98-96 and had scored only nine points in the fourth quarter — all by Michael Jordan — when Paxson hit a 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds to play.

Of course, everyone expected Jordan to get the last shot on that play.

“They’re going to put the ball in Michael Jordan’s hands,” NBC analyst Mike Fratello said as the play began.

Jordan did bring the ball up the court but passed to Scottie Pippen, who drove into the paint and passed to Horace Grant, who found a wide-open Paxson behind the 3-point line in Phoenix. Paxson scored eight points on 3-of-4 shooting in 22 minutes in the game.

» RELATED: Dayton-area pair featured in The Last Dance

“The ball was not supposed to come to me,” Paxson said on the documentary, “but as a player, you’re always ready. For me personally, it was pretty special.”

The shot gave the Bulls a 99-98 victory as they completed a three-peat, winning the third of six championships. It was the last championship for Paxson, who retired a year later after the last of 11 seasons.

Later that summer, Paxson returned to Kettering to visit his family and talked to Bucky Albers, of the Dayton Daily News. Here’s that story:

July 13, 1993, Dayton Daily News.
July 13, 1993, Dayton Daily News.

A SHOT FOR THE GLORY

PAXSON BASKING IN BULLS' HERO ROLE

July 13, 1993

Three weeks have passed since John Paxson made the biggest basket of his life.

It has been 23 days since Paxson caught a pass from Horace Grant and buried a 23-foot shot that gave the Chicago Bulls their third straight National Basketball Association championship.

Since then, U.S. warplanes have attacked Iraq, the Mississippi River has gone berserk, and a heat wave has cooked the eastern half of the country.

Nevertheless, the sight of John Paxson brings to mind one thing - The Shot.

Paxson, the former Alter High School and University of Notre Dame star, is spending the week with family in Dayton, and he will have to explain the shot a hundred times before he returns to his home in Chicago.

"I think I'll have a smile on my face all summer," he said Monday. "I'm going to enjoy it. Who knows how long this will last?"

The reaction to his game-winning shot has been beyond Paxson's expectations.

"In Chicago, when I've gone places, people come up and tell me who they were with and where they were watching the game," he said. "That's special for me. I have a feeling that people will be saying that to me for a long time. That means a lot to me - that I was able to do that."

The Reebok Shoe company is planning to put out a T-shirt featuring Paxson's shot.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I was going to be on a T-shirt," Paxson said. "To think that some little guy in Chicago may pop into a sporting goods store and pick out a shirt that has my face on it, that just boggles my mind."

Paxson is still amazed that he was in a position, with 3.9 seconds remaining in the June 20 game with the Phoenix Suns, to be the hero. It was a euphoric finish to what had been a personally frustrating season - a season in which he battled a painful knee injury and lost his starting job.

"For it to end on that shot is still unbelievable to me," Paxson said. "It really is. I can't explain it or describe it. I still can't believe I was given the opportunity."

Paxson isn't even certain why he was in the game.

"Who knows why I was on the court?" he said. "I don't know. He (Coach Phil Jackson) had taken me out with six minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Realistically, you think the starter is going to finish the game."

In the previous game, which went three overtimes, Paxson had played only five of 63 minutes.

"Phil has a lot of confidence in me," Paxson said. "He's the guy who gave me the chance to start three years ago. I've come through in enough clutch situations. I've made a few shots over the years to win games for us, so I know he feels comfortable with me on the floor. Maybe that had something to do with it."

Even though he was on the court, Paxson said there was no plan for him to touch the ball when the Bulls set up for their last shot.

"It was designed to go away from my side of the floor," he said. "And when (Charles) Barkley dove at the pass to (Scottie) Pippen, everything fell into place. There I was behind the line, wide open.

"Michael (Jordan) was going to give it to Scottie, he was going to kick it back and he (Jordan) was going to try to get to the basket down the right side. I was 23 feet from the basket on the left side, so I didn't expect to get it, but I was ready in case it came my way. You're always ready to get it."

Paxson isn't certain why teammate Horace Grant, who had the ball near the basket, threw it to him.

"(Danny) Ainge was running toward him," Paxson pointed out. "He may have sensed that Ainge was going to foul him. But he did see me open. That was a great reaction."

Paxson gives himself credit for one thing that gave him the opportunity to make such a key contribution: perseverance.

"It's all about persevering and just sticking your nose in there every day and doing the best you can," he said. "You never know what can happen to you. Ten years ago, when I came into the league, I never thought I'd be on a team that won three championships and that I would play the part that I have."

He used the NBA career of his older brother, Jim, who never played on a championship team, to put his good fortune in perspective.

"Jim had all-star seasons," Paxson said. "He has 11-12,000 points in his career. I'll never touch that. I've averaged in double figures only twice in my (10-year) career. But it's being in the right place at the right time and going to work every day and playing as hard as you can. The persevering and staying with it gave me the opportunity. Had I given up on myself or had I quit at any point, then that opportunity wouldn't have been there for me."

Paxson has been a favorite of Chicago fans, but some were beginning to doubt that he belonged on the floor as the 1992-93 season progressed. He heard people on talk shows saying that he was washed up.

"I kind of doubted myself . . . many times," he said. "When you compete, you want to compete as well as you can. I shot horribly this season. I shot 45 percent from the field and the last three years I've been one of the top shooting guards in the league. I've been over 52 percent three years in a row. One year I was 55, 10th best in the league, the only guard in the top 10.

"I didn't get a whole lot of attempts, but I could feel my legs weren't right. And I need my legs to shoot. So I was starting to wonder about myself - often."

The shot in Phoenix erased all of that anxiety.

Now Paxson is looking toward what he knows might be his last year in pro basketball. He is going into the final year of the three-year, guaranteed contract he signed in 1991 after making 32 field goals in a five-game championship series with the Los Angeles Lakers.

"My goal is to make it through this year because I have this year on my deal," Paxson said. "If I feel like I can play more and someone wants to take that chance, I might play another year. But I'm preparing myself that this is my last year. That's how I'm going into it."

Although he lost his starting job to B.J. Armstrong, the 32-year-old Paxson expects the Bulls to keep him for another year.

"Having been there eight years, I don't think they would (cut me)," Paxson said. "Professional sports does not have a lot of loyalty, but I do feel some with this group. I'm almost positive they wouldn't do that."

He says he admires Armstrong and gets along fine with him.

"He's really a terrific spot-up shooter," Paxson said. "He's a great player and he's a real good kid. People have tried to create this controversy between he and I. There's nothing to it because I understand where I'm at in my career, and I know where he's at, too. I'm just easing out. I don't have a whole lot of time left."

Paxson said his left knee still is real sore, but he is not planning to have any more surgery. He hopes it will improve with rest.

"Right now I don't want to fool with it," he said. "Underneath my kneecap I don't have any cartilage left. The procedure they tried to do in February was drill a hole in the knee cap. In theory, the bone marrow is supposed to fill in and provide the cushion cartilage would. But you come back and play in six weeks and you're out pounding again. It just doesn't work."

In the weeks ahead Paxson plans to relax. He wants to take his family to the swimming pool near their home north of Chicago. He wants to play a lot of golf. He says he has played more golf in the last two weeks than he was able to play all last summer because of his July knee surgery.

Then he'll be back at training camp Oct. 7.

"It'll be here before I know it," he said.