This is the first of two stories on former Washington State and NBA basketball player Craig Ehlo.
It’s become an annual tradition for reporters around the country to seek out Craig Ehlo, inquiring about one of the most replayed highlights in NBA history.
“Going on 31 years now, I’d say that shot gets celebrated every year at about this time,” said Ehlo, the former 14-year NBA guard and 1980s star Washington State Cougar who was nicknamed “Mr. Everything” for his versatility. “People always ask me, ‘What would you do differently?’”
Ehlo defended — and was on the wrong side of — “The Shot,” famously sunk by Chicago’s Michael Jordan to eliminate Ehlo’s Cleveland Cavaliers in a winner-take-all Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first round on May 7, 1989.
This spring, the frequency of interview requests is on another level. The moment was highlighted prominently in the third episode of ESPN’s new documentary series, “The Last Dance” — an account of Jordan’s Bulls and the team’s falling-out after the 1997-98 season, which has reached several million viewers worldwide.
The final two parts will air Sunday.
“I knew they were going through Michael’s history, but I had no idea Game 5 would be such a big part of that episode,” said Ehlo, who’d rushed to his home in Spokane County from his TV-less property at Hayden Lake on April 26 to catch a show he’d gotten hooked on for its fully fleshed-out look at Jordan’s career with the Bulls, featuring dozens of free-speaking — and sometimes explicit — interviews.
The play is burned into most basketball fans’ minds, but to rehash it:
Ehlo had just scored his 24th point with a driving layup to give favored Cleveland a 100-99 edge with about three seconds to play. In an ensuing timeout, Cavs coach Lenny Wilkens drew up a defensive scheme in which Larry Nance would attempt to cut Jordan off up top, while the long, 6-foot-7 Ehlo waited underneath. Yet Jordan managed to shake Nance on the right wing, took the inbounds pass and scurried swiftly to the key.
“I wasn’t in a great defensive stance. I ran out to get him on the wing, and he was already dribbling toward the free-throw line, so I didn’t have time to close out,” Ehlo said.
Ehlo’s outstretched left arm wasn’t quite close enough to perhaps alter the NBA’s future landscape. Jordan rose and floated for a moment, then released a straightaway midrange jumper that some argue was the franchise’s launching point. As Jordan continued on with his well-recollected fist pumps, a frustrated Ehlo collapsed, and pounded the floor at the Richfield Coliseum.
“I was kinda running alongside him, then he stops and goes straight up,” Ehlo recalled. “So, I did get my hand up to contest it. But as we all know, that’s why they call him Air Jordan, because he stays in the air so long. As soon as I went by, my hand got by him, and he had a pretty good look.”
In “The Last Dance,” the play is outlined mostly by Jordan and Ron Harper, who starred in Cleveland as Ehlo’s backcourt mate before winning three championships with Jordan and the Bulls. The way the two remember it has sparked some controversy.
Jordan said Ehlo’s assignment was “a mistake.” And Harper said he was upset when Wilkens elected to go with Ehlo, instead of him. Harper’s brief narrative is as follows: “We’re up by one, and I said, ‘Coach, I got MJ.’ Coach tells me, ‘I’m going to put Ehlo on MJ.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, OK, whatever, (expletive) this (expletive).”
A confounded Ehlo perked up, and may have given the television a shout.
“I don’t remember him saying that, and I’ve seen some of my teammates — and coach Wilkens — (quoted in articles) saying they don’t remember that either,” Ehlo said. “During the timeout, we were just catching our breath. I didn’t hear him say it then, and I didn’t hear him say it to coach Wilkens.
“But it didn’t really matter who was on him. We just did the best we could.”
In fact, Wilkens and former Cavs point guard Mark Price, among others, recently have gone on record to dispute Harper’s claim. In a Sirius XM NBA Radio show, Wilkens called Ehlo a “helluva defender” and held firm he’d “make that same decision today.”
As Ehlo recalls, the hapless task of guarding Jordan almost always was his. Before Harper evolved into a standout defender in Chicago, he was sort of “a poor man’s Michael Jordan.”
“Guarding him every day made me better,” Ehlo said of Harper, who was traded to the Clippers in late 1989, after which Ehlo’s minutes increased substantially. “I was his sub, but a lot of the time, we played together. Like a lot of us, he wanted to emulate Michael, ‘Be like Mike,’ and he had the ability to. So, it was a no-brainer for coach to say, ‘OK, you’re gonna guard the toughest guy out there so Harp can rest a little on defense.’ Those four years in Cleveland with him, it was kinda set in stone: I’d come in, he’d go to the next guy, and I’d guard Michael.”
Through a laugh, Ehlo suggested Harper and Jordan “manufactured” the story, offering the possibility that their friendship formed during three years in Chicago had influenced Jordan to tab Harper as the better defensive option.
Ehlo, a Lubbock, Texas, native who attended Odessa College before signing with coach George Raveling’s Cougars in 1981, was known particularly for his defense, but had scoring spurts too, including 20-plus-point performances against Harper’s Clippers, and a few against Chicago. The third-round pick was lengthy but sturdy, and athletic. He had the quickness to intercept passes, and the bulk to body up opponents.
Decades after “The Shot,” Jordan had agreed to some extent, telling Ehlo’s son, Austin, “Your dad played great defense” during a Flight School Camp in California.
Although Ehlo’s gotten past that pain of being on the losing end of such a widely circulated moment, he can’t help but wonder what might have been if the Cavs had pushed past that Bulls roadblock.
“We were the up-and-coming teams — we’d created quite a nice rivalry,” said Ehlo, whose Cleveland teams were star-studded, boasting memorable names like Price, Brad Daugherty, Harper and Nance. Ehlo's Cavs went 15-23 over seven regular seasons against Jordan’s Bulls, including 6-0 in 1988-89. “I honestly think, because both our franchises were coming up, that if he would’ve missed that shot, with our nucleus, we could’ve won a championship, or multiple championships.
“But he didn’t miss. He became such a big hurdle to get over. We weren’t the only team, though, so that kinda helps.”
Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 627-3209.