Chris Anstey is an Australian basketball legend. While it is crazy to think he didn't play his first game of basketball till he was 17, it didn't take him long to make a name for himself and for his career to catapulte. Competing at the Olympics, playing in the NBA, becoming an NBL Champion and MVP, are only touching the surface of the impressive accolades he's achieved in his career.
Now, during the 2020 lockdown you may have been like us and binged watched the Netflix series 'The Last Dance'. The docu-series was a play-by-play of the 97-98 season of the legendary Chicago Bulls team featuring Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Scotty Pippen, Steve Kerr and their coach at the time Phil Jackson. The series gave you incredible insight to what it would have been like to play in the league at that time.
Well Chris Anstey played his rookie season for the NBA during the Bulls Last Dance, and can tell you what it was like to take the court and go one-on-one with Michael Jordan during his reign.
CHANCE; noun: a possibility of something happening
THE LESSON, courtesy of Dumb and Dumber:
Lloyd Christmas: The least you can do is level with me. What are my chances?
Mary Swanson: Not good.
Lloyd: You mean not good, like one out of a hundred?
Mary: I'd say more like one out of a million.
Lloyd: So, you're telling me there's a chance. Yeah!
It was dubbed the Last Dance for Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. I knew I would only ever get one chance to play against the greatest athlete, and perhaps the greatest sporting team of all time once in my life.
Months earlier, my phone rang off the hook when Jordan announced that this would be his final season. My family and friends had checked the fixture and made plans to travel to Dallas when our Mavericks hosted the Bulls.
I ordered a pile of tickets the next day and was prepared for whoever was able to make it to Texas.
Friends and family arrived in early March, and all but a few tickets got used. My brother and a mate got rid of those in a second. They may have even pocketed a few extra dollars for a beer after the game.
On March 12, 1998, fans lined the streets of Dallas between the Bulls hotel and the arena, hoping to get a glimpse of possibly the greatest team in the history of sports, led by perhaps the greatest athlete ever. The 5-minute drive to Reunion Arena took close to half an hour.
I was nearing the end of my rookie season in the NBA, and I had become used to playing against big names – Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Grant Hill - but Michael Jordan transcended basketball. He was a global icon, and I was about to play against him.
I had not logged a minute when the Bulls beat us easily in Chicago earlier in the season but had been playing well through the end of February and into March.
Over the five games leading in I had played 32 minutes a game. I had averaged 14.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.6 blocks per game against Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning and Kevin Garnett in the best two weeks of my rookie season.
Inside the arena, I made my way to the court 90 minutes before tipoff, just to get used to being on the same court as Jordan. It was surreal. There was an aura about him, and the way people were around him.
He demanded that everyone was performing at their best, even the rebounders. He was larger than life. I looked towards the other end of the floor. That was Michael Jordan. Right there.
An hour later I was a part of the Mavericks team who were introduced to the biggest crowd to ever watch a basketball game in Dallas. 18,255 fans, including my family and friends had packed Reunion Arena to experience Jordan’s last trip to Texas.
I had the best seat in the house to watch the game tip off. I was sitting courtside, not only watching the Chicago Bulls, but in uniform ready to play against them.
Fast forward 90 minutes. I sat in my locker at half time, my head in my hands. I had never been so disappointed to have not played a second in the first half of a basketball game.
Coach Don Nelson had decided we needed the best rim protection available. That came in the form of 7’6” teammate Shawn Bradley. When Shawn came out of the game, we went small and shifted AC Green to centre. He hoped that the Bulls would throw it into the post to try to score, especially with fellow Aussie Luc Longley a late withdrawal.
I had the best seats in the house to the best show in town but had become resigned to the fact that I would never play in a game against Michael Jordan.
So, there I was in our locker room, head in hands, our team trailing 40-48 in a game that we had somehow been able to stay in touch. In some way I hoped that we would get blown out and I would get some junk minutes before Jordan got substituted out. Certainly not my finest thought, but practical.
My thinking went further.
If I did happen to get some time against Jordan, how could I get a photo with him? Social media did not exist in 1998. The NBA was not very accessible in Australia. Not many people would believe I played against Michael Jordan.
I could not walk up to him, put my arm around his shoulder and point the cameras. “Hey Mike, would you mind looking across this way for a photo?”
My solution was to foul him. Hard. Over help on rotation. Make sure it was hard enough for him to react. Surely someone would take a photo of that. Again, not my finest thought.
The second half began. The Bulls did what many observers thought might happen. They jumped us to start the third quarter. Jordan went to work in the block against Hubert Davis, and their role players began finding easy baskets. Bad for us, but perhaps good for me getting some junk minutes.
I had never been so surprised as when Don Nelson walked down the bench and tapped me on the shoulder. “Get in for Strick. You’ve got Rodman. Niggle him on the glass, get your fingers on rebounds and passes, use your length to trap Jordan if he catches it in the post”.
I looked up at the scoreboard as I went to the score bench to check in. 7:53 on the clock, 47-60. I looked back down to the game I was about to check into. Toni Kukoc was on the free throw line. He missed his first free throw. The substitution buzzer sounded, and I subbed in to play against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
Kukoc made his second free throw to put the Bulls up 14. I took the ball out of the net, nervously inbounded it to Hubert Davis and the game became very real.
I did not touch the ball on my first offensive possession, but on my first defensive possession the ball found its way to Jordan just off the block.
I left Rodman. Ok, here we go. Double Michael Jordan. Hands up. Trap slow and wide. The scout was that Jordan attacked the trapper, not his defender most times. This could be interesting.
For some reason, he chose to pass. I had left Rodman wide open under the rim. We deflected the pass, came up with the ball and were off.
Two minutes later we still trailed by 14. Hubert got his feet in the paint on a drive and Kukoc, who was guarding me at the top of the key, turned his head. I cut hard to the rim. Hubert hit me with a perfect pass and I gathered my feet to get on the rim. Scottie Pippen fouled me.
I had never been so nervous walking to the free throw line. It showed. Brick. Brick. My first moment in the metaphorical spotlight, and I shat the bed.
The stats told us later that I clearly was not the only nervous Maverick out there. We were 1/11 from the free throw line when I got back there with 3:16 left in the 3rd. That was the impact of the aura the Chicago Bulls held. Every second felt like it was high pressure.
I was embarrassed by my first trip to the line. I was so distracted I had neglected my free throw routine. Eyes on the rim, two dribbles, deep breath, exhale right before I start my shot. I made my first. I had scored against the Bulls. My second make cut the margin to just 8.
I played rest of third quarter and was beginning to feel as though I was warming into the game. I felt like I belonged. The nerves had gone. Routine and habit were taking over again.
We stuck around and trailed 60-71 at ¾ time. I walked back onto the court to start the final quarter. This was incredible.
Then the Mack Truck hit me. Phil Jackson called back-to-back plays to isolate me on Kukoc. The result was a blow by drive from the top of the key and a spin move in the post. Two lay ups. I got subbed out.
If I was surprised to get into the game before, I was even more surprised when Nelson called down the bench to substitute me back in before I could even get my warm up clothes back on. We were down 15 with 7.20 to go.
So often in sport, games are won and lost before they are played. Players “know” what the result will be. The media tells us that many games are non-events as the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
I have always been naïve in my belief that anything can happen.
If it is possible to score one basket, it must be possible to do it again. If we can stop the Bulls one time, it must be possible to do it again.
Champions are not always the best because they are the most skilled. At the highest level, skills are comparable in most games. Most athletes can perform a skill. Champions drill themselves to be able to replicate that skill time and time again.
Over the next five minutes we trailed by as many as 17. I was still on the court as we pegged it back to 13 with 2:20 remaining. The result was a “foregone conclusion” as the clock ticked to 0:59 and we had only been able to cut the margin to 10.
The Bulls had gone into cruise control against our frantic attack. We were still down 6 with 0:24 remaining as we were forced to foul Steve Kerr. Steve Kerr, the 94% free throw shooter.
AC Green left his block and wandered to the free throw line and very eloquently suggested to Kerr that we would appreciate a miss. Kerr’s first free throw bounced off the rim. He winked and smirked at AC. He would never miss 2 in a row. I was boxing Jordan out as the second free throw bounced out and AC secured the rebound.
It was my job to inbound the ball in the front court after the timeout. Toni Kukoc’s arms and legs flailed in front of me. I got the ball through to Cedric Ceballos, who was able to get by be Scottie Pippen for an uncontested dunk.
Now we were down 4 with 0:16 left as the ball was quickly inbounded to Jordan. Michael Jordan, the greatest of all time.
Swish. Down 5.
Jordan misses the second, I rebound it and pivot to the baseline to call our final full timeout.
Same play, this time for Hubert Davis. I got a bounce pass through Kukoc’s defence and hit Hubert. He attacks Kerr and gets a mid-range jump shot to fall.
Everyone in the arena knows the inbound pass is going to Jordan again. Michael Finley fronts him near the free throw line. I squeeze him to take away anything over the top. We stick with him as he tries to get open. We may have even gotten away with a holding violation. Then the whistle blew.
Five second violation on the Bulls! Scottie Pippen had taken too long to inbound the ball, and now we had possession.
Down 3, with the ball.
I set a back screen for Hubert looking for the weakside corner 3-point shot, then get myself outside the arc, just in case. I watch Cedric Ceballos inbound the ball to AC Green, then sprint for a hand off. Scottie Pippen’s defence is great and AC cannot get it back to Ceballos. Ced pivots and sprints back to receive the handoff, only to be trapped by Pippen and Jud Buechler outside the 3-point line in the corner.
I begin my way to the glass as Ced raises up and releases an off balance 3-point shot over the double team. I had made it to the middle of the key as I watched it go through!
Don Nelson substituted Shawn Bradley in for me to ensure we won the jump ball. Ceballos had made a dunk in the first five seconds of overtime as I got to the score bench to substitute back in for Bradley. From there I watched Michael Finley drain a 3 and Kukoc respond with a 3 of his own.
The substitution siren blew. I looked across the court I was about to step back on to and see Michael Jordan. We were up 2 against the Chicago Bulls and I had just been substituted in to close out the game. Crazy.
Less than a minute later I am sprinting down the court to get to get to the baseline to flatten out the defence for Ceballos, who is on a fast break after a steal. Scottie Pippen over helped and left me open at 15 feet.
Ced leaves his feet and passes the ball straight to me.
Instinct. Naivety. Habit. Recklessness. I am not sure. I raised straight into my jump shot and knocked it down. Up 4.
Dennis Rodman and I had been niggling each other all night. Well, I had been niggling, he had been rebounding and being physical. He was so tough to guard for somebody who did not even look for his own shot. He never stopped moving, screening, working for rebounding position a pass before he knew a shot was coming.
Steve Kerr missed a rare open 3 and I came from the side to secure a contested defensive rebound. One of my first for the game, but perfectly timed. I felt Rodman, right there, hands on waist, jabbing.
I raised my elbows to protect the ball. I pivoted. Hard. I knew where his head was. I wanted him to know I knew.
I swung my elbow, and stopped, right at his ear.
We were up 5 with just 1:28 to go, and I was talking trash to Dennis Rodman. He encouraged me to take a proper swing. He wanted to suck me into an unsportsmanlike foul. I laughed. Smiled right in his face. How stupid do you think I am?
The Bulls had cut our lead to 4 with 1:08 to go when I got my foul on Jordan. It is funny what you think in those moments. I had seen all the highlights, all the ads. In that moment, they were my scout.
I knew he was not going to pass. I came over to help and got him as hard as I could without looking like I meant to as he attacked the rim. He missed one of his free throws. Good foul, I told myself.
As the clocked ticked to 0:53, I got myself open on a slip to the basket. Finley found me with a look away pass. Get it to the rim. Fast. Rodman and Pippen are coming to help. I dunked it. Hung on the rim for a second. Up 5. Wow.
Scottie Pippen missed a 3 at the other end. I grabbed the miss. Surreal.
When the final siren sounded seconds later, the scoreboard read Mavericks 104 Bulls 97.
We had just beaten the Chicago Bulls. I had just played in a game of basketball that Michael Jordan had played in. And won.
We finished the 1997-98 season 20-62. The Bulls would finish their regular season 62-20 and go on to win their 6th NBA Championship. But we were good that night, and we celebrated the moment. The win meant far more to us than the loss meant to the Bulls, and that was ok.
If you asked how many times I would win a game of basketball that Michael Jordan played in, I would give you the type of answer that Mary Swanston gave Lloyd Christmas.
But as long as the "1" exists in “1 in a million”, what is to say that it can’t be the first time? Or the next time? What if we allow ourselves to be naïve enough to believe that there is always a chance?
Upon winning his Olympic medal, Australian speed skating icon Steven Bradbury famously said “I don't think I'll take the medal as the minute and a half of the race I actually won. I'll take it as the last decade of the hard slog I put in.”
Nobody handed me a medal that night and I did not get my photo with Michael Jordan. I got something better.
I got a life lesson and lifetime memory, shared with family and friends. I got the type of moment that come at the times we least expect if we are willing to do the work.
It was years of hard work that put me on a basketball court with Michael Jordan. I still do not care how unlikely or unimaginable winning that day seemed to anyone. I remain naïve enough to believe anything is possible.
Chris Anstey: What are my chances of beating Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls?
Basketball World: Not good.
Chris: You mean not good, like one out of a hundred?
Basketball World: I'd say more like one out of a million.
Chris: So you're telling me there's a chance. Yeah!