SALT LAKE CITY — Like millions of others around the world, a 10-year-old boy was glued to the television screen for Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals live on NBC.
Steph Curry can’t recall exactly where he was or who specifically he was with, but what he witnessed on June 14, 1998, remains unforgettable.
“It’s crazy,” Curry described, shaking his head.
The moment is forever etched in basketball history. With less than 10 seconds remaining, Utah's Bryon Russell found himself matched up against Michael Jordan alone at the top of the key with the title on the line.
Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan sinks the championship winning basket as Utah Jazz Bryon Russell watches in the final seconds of Game 6 of the NBA finals in Salt Lake City, Utah, on June 14. | Mike Blake, Reuters
Jordan drove right, then pulled back after a slight nudge — or push, depending on who you ask — for a 17-foot jumper that propelled the Bulls to their sixth NBA championship, spoiling Utah’s dreams for the second straight season.
That storybook ending to Jordan’s Bulls career would simply become known as “The Last Shot” as he left his form in the air briefly for good measure at the Delta Center — now Vivint Arena.
“What’s funny is that Bryon Russell was actually one of my favorite players growing up for no specific reason,” said Curry, now a two-time champion and MVP for the Golden State Warriors.
“So I was kind of hurt,” he added. “I loved Jordan, but Bryon Russell was one of my guys and I was hurt that it had to be him. He definitely pushed off, though.”
Even now, two decades later, being on the receiving end of that shot is how most fans perceive Russell, outside of Utah.
Many don’t realize that the 6-foot-7 wing was a key member of those great Jazz teams that reached the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998. They don’t know that the second-round draft pick grinded his way into a 13-year NBA career and saw his No. 32 get retired by his alma mater, Long Beach State, in 2010.
At 47, Russell feels like the Jazz should follow suit and lift his No. 3 jersey to the rafters of Vivint Arena, next to his former teammates John Stockton and Karl Malone.
John Stockton laughs with Bryon Russell as the 1997 Utah Jazz team members gather for a reunion in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
“Those are my two favorites. They should retire my number next to theirs,” Russell said. “The amount of work I did as a Jazz player, we made some history together and I was a key part of that history. So I figure if they retire Jeff Hornacek’s number, they should retire mine.”
Jersey retirements in the Jazz organization are considered on a case-by-case basis, but team records, Hall of Fame enshrinements, All-Star appearances, and overall impact on the market are all taken into account.
Late owner Larry H. Miller handpicked Stockton and Malone plus Adrian Dantley, Pete Maravich, Jeff Hornacek, Darrell Griffith and Mark Eaton to get their numbers lifted into the rafters. Since Miller's passing in 2009, legendary coach Jerry Sloan and broadcaster “Hot” Rod Hundley are the last ones to see their names go up next to the other Jazz retirees — along with Miller himself in 2010.
“B. Russ means a lot to the organization,” said Jazz president Steve Starks. “His contributions were significant for many years at a time when the franchise was at its very best. We love that he’s still connected to the organization.”
Russell lives on the outskirts of Los Angeles with his wife and three kids while running a private business in the area. He hasn’t made a formal request to see his jersey elevated, but feels he is deserving.
For his Jazz career, Russell averaged 9.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 628 games with zero All-Star appearances. He wore No. 34 for his first three seasons before switching to No. 3 in 1996-97.
Russell is planning to possibly return to Salt Lake City soon to cheer on the current Jazz team for Game 3 or 4 of its Western Conference semifinal series against the Houston Rockets. He describes his Utah experience as “wonderful” and said the fans “treated me like royalty.” Russell is pulling for first-year guard Donovan Mitchell to get Rookie of the Year and loves the excitement around the new squad.
“I think my legacy in Utah speaks for itself,” Russell said. “I think if I ever showed up at a game, I probably would get a loud ovation. That’s how loved I was in Utah. So people liked me, I was well-respected; I didn’t cause no problems and when you don’t cause no problems they love you.”
Still, with that being said, “Bryon” still gets confused as “Byron” so often that it’s become normal.
“Man, I had that through my whole life because you look at it, it’s B-R but people think it’s B-Y and they would say ‘Byron, how are you doing?’ ” Russell said, laughing. “So I got to the point to where I stopped correcting people because it was said so much and I said ‘Hey, just start calling me B. Russ.’ It’s B. Russ.”
Malone and Stockton still keep in touch with their former teammate.
Stockton’s son, David, is a member of the Jazz playoff team and Malone’s son, K.J., just agreed to an undrafted free agent deal with the NFL's Houston Texans. Malone respects Russell as an amazing teammate but didn’t have much of an opinion on whether his jersey should be retired.
“Whenever that process happens, it’s going to happen,” Malone said. “But you can pick 1,000 people who can probably get hung up in the rafters but when (their) time comes it will happen.”
Jazz forward Bryon Russell slams in a bucket during win over the Mavericks. | Gary McKellar, Deseret News
Stockton has always respected Russell’s confidence and ability to snatch minutes on those veteran-filled Jazz teams of the 1990s out of little-known Long Beach State.
“He came in as a rookie when we didn’t have room,” Stockton said of Russell. “So, he went and just worked his way on and became one of our key players for like 10 years or something like that.
“Just a tremendous athlete and competitor and he would play hard every night and guard the tough guys every night,” Stockton added. “Just a great teammate.”
But even with all that, Russell’s name will always be associated with Jordan. A headline on his Wikipedia page even has a special section titled “Russell and Michael Jordan” with a brief description of their history.
During Jordan’s classic 2009 Hall of Fame speech, he mentioned Russell on the podium for trash talking with him during his first retirement in 1994. Ironically, Stockton and Sloan were also enshrined with Jordan in that same Class of 2009.
"I was in Chicago in 1994 and at this time I had no thoughts of coming back and playing the game of basketball," Jordan told the room of nearly 3,000. "Bryon Russell came over to me and said, 'Why'd you quit? You know I could guard you.’ When I did come back in 1995 and we played Utah in '96, I'm at the center circle and Bryon Russell is standing next to me. I said, 'You remember the (remarks) you made in 1994 about, 'I think I can guard you, I can shut you down, I would love to play against you? Well, you're about to get your chance.'"
Jordan declined to comment for this story, but Russell said he was flattered to be cited on the night of one of MJ's biggest achievements.
After obsessing over Jordan’s moves for many years during competition, Russell brought the best out of one of the game’s greats. He has no regrets.
“That’s how you know you’re in somebody’s pocket or you’re on somebody’s mind because he mentioned me in his Hall of Fame speech,” Russell said, laughing. “We were joined at the hip. You can’t see Mike without saying something about Bryon or you can’t see Bryon without saying something about Mike. They don’t remember that shot against Craig Ehlo or none of that, they just remember him and Bryon Russell going at it.
“He still is the best to me, but I didn’t want him to know that.”