John Paxson has always been most comfortable on the periphery, sliding along the outer edges until he finds the right spot. It was that way when he was growing up in Kettering, Ohio, smaller and three years younger than his brother Jim. It was that way in elementary school and junior high, where, because his birthday fell just before the enrollment deadline, he was always one of the youngest in his grade. And it has been that way with the Chicago Bulls, where the key to any player's survival is to find a way to complement the wondrous Michael Jordan.
Paxson's way has been to stalk the perimeter, to set up near the three-point line and wait for the ball to find him, certain that when it does, he will know exactly what to do. He proved that again in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday evening by burying a three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left, thus providing the decisive point in the Bulls' 99-98 victory that sealed Chicago's third straight championship. "Pax is a heartbreaker," says Jordan. "He's had a way of breaking other teams' hearts by hitting that jumper in the clutch ever since he's been here. When I saw him with the ball and a good look at the basket, I knew it was going in."
Making the game-winner was a fitting reward for Paxson, 32, because this season he has had to search harder than ever before to find that comfortable spot. He had lost his job as Jordan's backcourt partner to the younger B.J. Armstrong at the start of the season, in part because he was recovering from off-season knee surgery. And after undergoing a second operation on the same knee in February, Paxson, the ultimate role player, had found that his role had shrunk even more. "It was tough to adjust to coming off the bench," Paxson said following Game 6. "I'm too old and too slow to provide instant offense. There were a lot of frustrations, but now all the hard times seem like ancient history."
Playoff heroics are nothing new to Paxson, who two years ago hit five clutch jumpers in the fourth quarter of the clinching win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. "He never hit shots that clutch in our driveway games," said brother Jim, a former star with the Portland Trail Blazers, who was in Phoenix on Sunday. "I always blocked them." But John is the tagalong little brother no more.
While Jim waited amid the chaos of the Bull locker room after Game 6, someone asked him how proud he was of his brother. Just then John walked in, and the brothers saw each other and hugged tightly, slapping each other hard on the back. Jim never answered the question. He didn't have to.