Former Washington State player Craig Ehlo, 53, talks about being the defender on a famous Michael Jordan basket in the 1989 NBA playoffs and undergoing treatment for addiction to pills.
Eras apart, there is a renewal of the rivalry between the franchises of Jordan and James.
A bridge between them is named Craig Ehlo.
More than a quarter-century ago, Ehlo took on the challenge of trying to stop Michael Jordan in one of Jordan’s many iconic NBA moments. More recently, while working clinics for Nike, former Washington State player Ehlo befriended LeBron James.
In a second-round Eastern Conference playoff series between the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers that continues with Game 2 on Wednesday, Ehlo is rooting for James’ team — his former team — while acknowledging Jordan remains the king of Uniform No. 23.
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Cue the video. Replay the Shot (“On Ehlo — good!”). He is ready.
“The first four or five years after it happened, it was, like, enough, let’s move on,” the 53-year-old Ehlo said. “I got tired of seeing it and people saying it. But after awhile, I realized it was the situation every athlete wants to be in, my signature moment.
“I just decided, OK, let me just ride this pony.”
Ehlo was on the phone from Hilton Head, S.C., where he recently accompanied his wife, Jani, on a business trip. That is a story in itself, with a much better ending than what Ehlo lived through May 7, 1989.
First, a review:
Joel Craig Ehlo came from a farming family in Lubbock, Texas, and played for coach George Raveling at WSU. Drafted in the third round by the Houston Rockets in 1983, he played sparingly until drifting to Cleveland three years later.
At 6-feet-6, with floppy blond hair, long arms and an athletic stride and leap, Ehlo became known as a stout defender, a three-point shooter, a good chemistry cog. He matured as a reliable substitute with the rising Cavaliers of Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper and Larry Nance, coached by Sonics legend Lenny Wilkens.
In the 1988 playoffs, the Cavs met Jordan and the Bulls in the first round, losing a decisive fifth game in Chicago with Jordan, already the wonder of the basketball world, scoring 39 points to ice his first postseason series victory.
A first-round rematch occurred a year later, with Cleveland claiming home-court advantage by virtue of a 57-victory season, including a divisional 6-0 sweep of the Bulls. They split the first four playoff games.
The series finale was close, tense, something of a showcase for Ehlo.
“The last two minutes were the best of my career in a playoff game,” he said.
Until the last three seconds.
On the way to leading his team with 24 points, despite having rolled his ankle, Ehlo made a couple of late three-point shots and a layup for a 100-99 lead.
Price gave Ehlo a hero’s hug.
“The problem was that we left three seconds,” Ehlo said.
Out of a timeout, he matched up with the man everyone knew would get the ball near the foul line. He decided to make a statement.
“Mr. Jordan, I can’t let you score,” he said in his Texas twang to the younger man.
“I thought I might get into his head a little,” Ehlo said.
Jordan smiled, wickedly, leading Ehlo to retrospectively concede, “Maybe I should have just called him Michael.”
Wilkens left Brad Sellers, the player inbounding, unguarded, allowing Nance to briefly harass Jordan as he came out high to receive the ball.
Ehlo, staying back, drifted left, and that, he said, proved fatal when Jordan broke free off the dribble.
“Instead of being in my defensive slide, I was running to catch up and challenge,” he said. “I went up from the side, my hand in his face. He hung for a split second as I flew by.”
Jordan scored from about 15 feet, giving him 44 points, and assumed the famous and celebratory punch-the-air pose.
Ehlo’s momentum carried him to the sideline, where he slumped in defeat, a study in contrasts that would become a commercial staple, the epitome of a one-sided rivalry in which the Cavaliers would lose in the playoffs to Jordan’s Bulls five times in seven years.
Ehlo played in all but the last series. He departed to Atlanta for three seasons before finishing a 14-season career with the Sonics in 1996-97; he averaged 3.5 points for Seattle, 5.1 points below his career average.
Nagging back pain had been temporarily salved by two minor procedures. In 2010, major surgery virtually immobilized Ehlo for six months, with Hydrocodone prescribed for the pain.
Three years later, while he was working as an assistant coach for Eastern Washington, he was deeply addicted, swallowing as many as 15 pills a day.
Ehlo’s name hit the news in the summer of 2013. The details were strange. There was a family dispute, an arrest in connection with reckless burning (of clothes) in his garage and domestic violence.
Ehlo — a father of three — was discovered being comforted or restrained by a son, Austin. There was a day in jail and a court order to stay away from his family.
The tempest was all about the addiction, he said, and the effects of a self-imposed 48-hour withdrawal period.
He went to a rehab facility in Massachusetts, where, like everywhere else, he was recognized as Jordan’s endgame victim in 1989. For Ehlo, the scars had nothing to do with basketball beyond the toll it took on his body.
“I was embarrassed to be arrested,” he said. “But it brought my addiction to the front, got me into treatment and that allowed me to rebuild the relationship with my wife.”
Ehlo resigned his coaching job to undergo treatment.
Just as well, he said. He had enjoyed earlier years when he was broadcasting games for Gonzaga in Spokane, where he lives, working Nike camps around the country and, best of all, James’ camps in Akron, Ohio.
The first time they met, James told him, “I loved your teams.” And, yes, he was one disappointed little King when Jordan rose and scored over Ehlo’s outstretched left arm.
In one subsequent visit, Ehlo had to be honest with James.
He told him, “Until you get six or seven rings, Michael will always be the better player.”
James told him, “I’ll just have to prove you wrong.”
Before James left for Miami in 2010, he did put Cleveland on the playoff board against Chicago, beating Derrick Rose’s Bulls in a first-round series 4-1. Ehlo cheered, as he will again this month, even if he has to endure more highlights of The Shot.
He took this year off to focus on addiction counseling and family repair, and he said he hopes to resume broadcasting college games next season.
In that environment, players not yet born when it happened will recognize him as the vanquished defender on Jordan’s stage. They will ask if that was really him in a crumpled sideline heap.
Yes, he will say, with significant pride.
“The greatest player made a great play,” Ehlo said. “But what do we tell our kids — do your best? I did my best.”
He also surmounted something much worse.
Outside the lines, in real life, the struggle for Ehlo continues and victory comes daily.