INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- For seven seasons, Michael Jordan has heard the critics say he is too selfish, too point-hungry, too dominant in talent and style to play for a championship team.
They said he never would learn to share the limelight with his less-gifted teammates in the fashion of Magic Johnson, who led the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles. Minus a title, Jordan was forced to grin and bear it.
But Jordan had the final word at The Forum last night, becoming the ultimate team player as the Bulls clinched their first title with a 108-101 victory over the Lakers.
In crunch time, John Paxson, not Jordan, made one clutch shot after another. Jordan felt the defensive pressure and consistently found his backcourt mate for open jumpers.
With the game tied at 93 and five minutes left, Paxson scored 10 of his team's next 12 points to start the celebration back in Chicago.
After losing the opener at home on a three-point shot by Lakers forward Sam Perkins, the Bulls won four straight, including the last three on the road.
Jordan, who was a unanimous choice as the series Most Valuable Player, scored 30 points and had 10 assists, but this was anything but a one-man show.
Scottie Pippen, almost as athletic as Air Jordan, completed a splendid final series with a game-high 32 points and 13 rebounds, plus seven assists. And Paxson was almost perfect from the field after a poor opening night. He made nine of 12 field-goal tries in the clincher to finish with 20 points.
They all needed to play big because the Lakers, and captain and floor leader Johnson, in particular, refused to give up.
Rookies Elden Campbell and Tony Smith, who saw scant service during the season, stepped up to play their finest games under intense pressure and keep the Lakers in contention for 43 minutes until Paxson caught fire.
But this was Jordan's finest hour, as the torch of the game's best player officially passed from Johnson to Jordan, who, at last, silenced the critics.
"No one can take this feeling away from me," said a tearful Jordan, overwhelmed by the moment. "This has been a seven-year struggle. We started from scratch with losing records the first two years, but then we kept going up level after level.
"I never gave up hope that we'd win a championship. If I get another title, that will be great, but I'm really going to enjoy this one now.
"I couldn't care less if I were the MVP. We've finally erased the stigma that we're a one-man team. I've got fine players surrounding me now. All season long we've done it as a team, and this was the grand climax."
It took coach Phil Jackson a number of private talks with Jordan before the start of the season to convince him that the team could win if he was willing to share the limelight.
Other coaches had tried the same approach, but Jackson succeeded. It led to a franchise-record 61 victories and a 15-2 run through the playoffs. The only two losses were on last-minute three-point shots, by the Philadelphia 76ers' Hersey Hawkins and the Lakers' Perkins in Game 1 of the finals.
Few expected the Lakers to get this far, but they upset the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals before injuries began to take their toll.
Playing without starters James Worthy (sprained ankle) and Byron Scott (bruised shoulder), they fought the Bulls gallantly last night.
"We went out and played as hard as we could," said Johnson. "Elden Campbell and Tony Smith both played great. I told them just to go out and have fun.
"We gave 125 percent, but they made every big shot, especially Paxson. We just couldn't overcome the loss of James Worthy. When you play a great team like the Bulls, you need everybody to overcome that hurdle."
Fatigued mentally and physically by the extra workload, Johnson hinted Tuesday at possibly retiring after this season. But he played with his familiar fire and flair the full 48 minutes in keeping the Lakers in contention.
Johnson recorded a triple-double with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 20 assists, shredding the usually airtight Bulls defense with pinpoint passes to teammates.
It was all the more wondrous considering Magic was playing with an unfamiliar supporting cast that included the lightly played Campbell and Smith. His blind pass to Campbell led to a dunk and a 93-90 Lakers lead with 6 minutes, 35 seconds remaining.
But Pippen began a 9-0 Bulls tear with a tying three-point shot and then turned the offense over to Paxson, who hit consecutive jump shots and followed with a breakaway layup.
The Lakers made a final bid when Perkins' three-point play closed the gap to 103-101 with 73 seconds left. But they would not score again. Paxson hit another jumper, and Jordan and Pippen each hit a pair of free throws to put it away.
"The great thing about winning is that we did it as a team," said Paxson. "For three or four years, we expected Michael to win games for us down the stretch. That was unfair. That's why this is so satisfying."
Jackson, who had tasted the champagne when he was playing for the New York Knicks in the early 1970s, kept his emotions under control while his players danced all around him, the vintage pouring down their faces.
"As you know, I'm not much of a celebrator," said Jackson, who uses psychology and wit to motivate his players. "But when I walked into our locker room, the jubilation was unbearable. You feel exhilaration as a coach, but there is a great sense of satisfaction in coaching a championship team."
The youthful Bulls are on top of the basketball world, prepared to fly back to Chicago on the wings of Sir Jordan, where the victory party is just beginning.
Game 1: Lakers 93, Bulls 91
Game 2: Bulls 107, Lakers 86
Game 3: Bulls 104, Lakers 96, OT
Game 4: Bulls 97, Lakers 82
Game 5: Bulls 108, Lakers 101