When it comes to trash talk, no one in the history of the NBA can ever hope to match the pure, viciously effective flak that Michael Jordan would regularly unleash on opponents.
Except for one glorious moment on Sunday, June 1, 1997 — Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals — when the usually soft-speaking Scottie Pippen delivered a six-word burn that changed not only the outcome of the game, but the entire series:
“The Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sunday.”
That brilliant line, of course, was hand-delivered to 1997 NBA MVP Karl Malone — aka “The Mailman.” He was at the foul line with two shots and the score tied 82-82; he had the opportunity to steal Game 1 in Chicago with 9.2 seconds remaining in regulation. That he was in said position after Jordan had bricked a go-ahead shot made the scenario that much better for Jazz fans.
That is, until Pippen derailed the whole thing in a single sentence. Malone missed both shots, and Jordan hit a buzzer-beater to steal an 84-82 win in Chicago.
Per ESPN, which put together a fascinating oral history on the sequence, Pippen “just whispered in his ear, ‘The Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays.'”
Malone went through his pre-shot ritual without issue, but appeared clunky when the ball left his hands. Pippen stepped in front of him again after the shot missed, causing Malone to say, “Yeah, yeah” and retreat back to halfcourt, hands on hips, to compose himself. The second shot missed as well.
Said Sam Smith, reporter at the Chicago Tribune and author of the bestseller “The Jordan Rules”: “If there is a ranking of such things, and I have no doubt that probably somebody has created such a list — then this line would definitely have to be on there. The perfect thing about it was the cleverness: It’s Sunday, it’s The Mailman. It just fit. It was like a great lede to a news story: the perfect tone at the perfect time, which you just don’t hit very often.
“Everyone in the press room was fighting over that line. ‘I’m going to use it in my story. No, I’m using it in my column.’ Especially because it was Pippen. Scottie wasn’t exactly the lighthearted kind of guy. He was not somebody who was quick with a quip, really ever. … This was something Jordan would have said. It would have been the ideal Jordan one-off trash-talk line, so much so that we always wondered if Jordan had fed it to him. Nobody ever copped to that.”
That said, Pippen told ESPN he didn’t know he had affected Malone until he missed both shots. And he said he wished the line had never got out, because it was an inside joke between the two (Pippen and Malone may have felt like kindred spirits, as both were from the rural South. Pippen’s brother was a mailman as well.).
Regardless, the Bulls capitalized on the momentum for a comfortable 97-85 win in Game 2. The Jazz tied the series with wins in Games 3 and 4, but Chicago — spurred by Jordan’s famous “Flu Game” in Game 5 — ended up winning the next two games for the second championship of their second three-peat.
And it all started with an off-hand remark by Pippen.
“To this day,” Pippen told ESPN, “I think that’s the greatest line in basketball.”