Michael Jordan turns 50 on Sunday. In celebration, we’ve decided to delve into 50 remarkable and hopefully indelible moments from MJ’s storied career.
22. His first retirement
Michael Jordan’s 1993 retirement isn’t one of the great “what if” stories of all time – I repeat, as Jordan often did, “isn’t.”
Jordan, who had been fatigued beyond compare by three straight championships, the 1992 Olympics, incessant off the court questions about his outrageous gambling debts, and the tragic murder of his father in July of 1993, badly needed a break by the time the 1993-94 training camp was set to start up. Wearied at the prospect of yet another nine month trip to another potential championship, Jordan stepped aside.
And if he didn’t step aside in 1993, it would have happened in 1994. If the Beatles hadn’t broken up in 1970, then they certainly would have done it in 1971. Enough was enough, and it was time for a break.
-- Kelly Dwyer
21. His adventure in baseball.
A few months after his first retirement from the NBA, Jordan signed a minor-league contract with the Chicago White Sox despite the fact that he had not played organized baseball since his teens. By the standards of professional ball, Jordan was not very good. In 497 plate appearances for the Double-A Birmingham Barons, he hit .202 with three home runs, 51 walks, and 114 strikeouts. He also played for the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .252 against some of the top prospects in baseball.
These are not the numbers of a Major League-quality player, let alone a 31-year-old with physical strength well beyond his competition. However, Jordan’s stats are pretty incredible when you consider that he had not played organized baseball in more than a decade. Many first-round draft picks don’t perform as well as Jordan did in his short stint in baseball, and he also had to contend with the disadvantage of having one of the largest strike zones imaginable due to his height.
In other words, it’s very possible that Jordan could have been a Major League Baseball player if he’d started playing professionally a few years before he did (and kept at it). In many ways, his ability not to embarrass himself as a baseball player is one of the best arguments for his athletic transcendence. He picked up a notoriously difficult sport after years away from it, after never having played at a high level, and hit above the Mendoza line at a fairly high level of competition.
-- Eric Freeman
20. His first game at Madison Square Garden.
Jordan had gotten off to a strong start as a rookie, averaging 23.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting through his first six NBA games, showing an ability to get both get to and convert from the foul line (38 of 47 on freebies through six games) and helping Chicago to four wins over teams that had made the playoffs the previous season. But the 21-year-old had something special in store for his first visit to Madison Square Garden as a pro.
Jordan torched the New York Knicks by making 15 of his 22 shots, looking 100 percent comfortable breaking down seasoned veterans off the dribble, getting wherever he wanted to on the court and keeping the Knicks defense off-guard all night by mixing up drives to the rim and midrange pull-ups; he also grabbed eight rebounds and dished five assists in a 121-106 spanking of the home team. Not only did Jordan outduel star Knicks scorer Bernard King in the vaunted veteran's own house, but he also punctuated the performance with a high-flying rock-the-cradle dunk on a fast break that put Chicago up by 23 (natch) late in the third quarter and announced his arrival with authority.
MJ would have bigger scoring nights in his first year -- heck, his 33 points wasn't even a career high, thanks to the 37 he'd hung on the Milwaukee Bucks in just his third pro contest just 11 days prior. And putting up big numbers on the '84-'85 Knicks team -- who entered the game 1-5, finished the season 24-58 and was still a season away from its franchise savior coming north from Georgetown -- wasn't exactly like breaking into Fort Knox. But the precedent the performance set and the message it sent -- that whenever Michael Jordan came to the World's Most Famous Arena, he intended to make it his house -- was unmistakable, and established a model for the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and every visiting superstar who followed. (Much to the chagrin of Knicks fans.)
-- Dan Devine
19. Owning a team
NBA players make tens of millions (sometimes hundreds of millions) of dollars over their careers, which is a lot of money. However, compared to the owners of teams — titans of industry, finance, inheritance, etc. — that’s a rather middling sum. Owners buy their teams for nine figures and have plenty left over. The franchise is far from their primary investment.
In 2010, MJ bought 80 percent of the Charlotte Bobcats for $175 million, which put the team near the bottom of the league’s franchise valuations. Nevertheless, it was a huge moment in the history of the NBA, a point at which an athlete joined the ranks of employers largely on the strength of what he was able to accomplish prior to his retirement. (He still earns roughly $80 million per year, of course.) As with many of his business ventures, Jordan set a bar for other players to aspire to. It’s possible that one or two active players — likely LeBron James, if anyone — will attempt the same.
Unfortunately, Jordan’s experience as a player has not made him a conciliatory partner in labor talks. In the 2011 lockout, Jordan was among a group of especially hardline owners determined to extract as many concessions from the NBPA as possible. Never mind that, in 1998 famously told Wizards owner Abe Pollin — later his business partner — that he should sell his team if he was unable to turn a profit. The takeaway was that Jordan was only out for his own interests and felt little kinship to those who were in the same situation he’d been in 13 years earlier.
That focus on his own preservation has regrettably become much more apparent since Jordan’s second retirement, perhaps because his on-court excellence isn’t there to distract us. He’s part of the establishment now, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
-- Eric Freeman
18. The famous shrug, against Portland in the 1992 Finals
Yet another perceived slight gone boffo once mixed with audacity, legendary talent, the amplification of national TV cameras the presence of Marv Albert, the greatest basketball play by play man of all time.
Clyde Drexler was unquestionably the NBA’s second best shooting guard at the time of the 1992 Finals. Nobody would dare suggest Clyde was a better player than Jordan, but in the days leading up to that year’s Finals the one edge various newspaper reports (remember those “head to head” layouts?) tended to give Drexler was his supposed superiority over Jordan when it came to long range shooting. As was the case with basketball cards back then, many outlets went with raw totals – and Jordan with 206 career makes from long range (and just 27 on the year) seemed a lesser long range bomber than Drexler. Drexler shot a worse percentage than Jordan from long range in 1991-92, but made 114 threes on the season, part of his 275 career makes.
Jordan doesn’t like being second in anything. The famed author David Halberstam claimed that Jordan “was not bothered by all the media people who said that Drexler was a better-three point shooter than he was,” and while on the outside that was likely what Jordan told anyone who asked, you don’t suddenly start taking 10 three-pointers in a game (twice as many as you’d attempted in any game all year) if you aren’t trying to prove a point.
Jordan hit six of those bombs, and scored 36 points in the first half of Game 1, an NBA Finals record. After his final first half attempt, he famously looked over to NBC’s broadcast duo of Albert and Magic Johnson, and gave a little look:
The Bulls went on to win in six games. Drexler shot 3-20 from long range in the series.
-- Kelly Dwyer
17. Playing for the Wizards
In late September 2001, Jordan announced that he would return to the NBA as a member of the Wizards, giving up his minority ownership share and returning to the league after a three-season break. In his two seasons with Washington, Jordan performed well, averaging over 35 minutes per game and 20 ppg combined. Perhaps most impressively, he managed to appear in all 82 games in 2002-03 despite playing at 39 years old.
Yet, by the standards of Jordan, he was disappointing, failing to guide his team to the playoffs in both seasons in a down-on-its-luck East. Plus, as Les Carpenter argues in a Yahoo! Sports column this week, MJ doomed his legacy in DC by putting his needs ahead of those of the franchise.
-- Eric Freeman
16. A tear-inducing loss to the Detroit Pistons in 1990
On June 3, 1990, the Chicago Bulls played a hotly-anticipated Game 7 against the defending champion Detroit Pistons, a team that had knocked Chicago out of the playoffs in 1988 and 1989. The Bulls were in their first year under new coach Phil Jackson, both Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant were rounding into form as potential All-Stars, and the Bulls seemed prime to give the champs a fight on Detroit’s home court as the two attempted to make their way to the Finals.
Detroit won in a rout, by the score of 93-74. John Paxson played through a sprained ankle, and Scottie Pippen (just days removed from attending his father’s funeral) suffered a crippling migraine headache that limited his vision and contributed to his 1-10 shooting. Grant was no better, missing 14 of 17 shots from the field. Jordan was brilliant, scoring 31 points with eight rebounds and nine assists, but it hardly mattered in the blowout win. Two weeks later, the Pistons would take their second consecutive championship.
The late David Halberstam recalls the postgame fallout in his ‘Playing for Keeps’, available here:
“After the game, Jordan was almost inconsolable. As he went through the parking lot on his way to the bus, [Pistons GM] Jack McCloskey spotted him. McCloskey was standing near the entrance and he excused himself from his wife and said that he had to go over to help that remarkable young man. “Mr. McCloskey,” Jordan asked, “are we ever going to get past the Pistons? Are we ever going to win?”
“Michael,” McCloskey answered, “your time is coming, and it’s coming very soon.”
“Jordan got on the bus and sat in the back, alone with his father, in the depths of his own dark world. It was probably the lowest moment of his career. That day, he wept on the back of the bus.”
A year later, with much support from his team and Jackson fully in charge, this happened:
-- Kelly Dwyer
As someone who has watched each of the 100 regular and postseason games from the Chicago Bulls’ 1995-96 campaign several times, games that the Bulls won 87 of, I can firmly say without reflex or hesitation that the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were better than the team’s record indicates.
Some of the losses were just too close to dismiss. They included two defeats against a 64-win Seattle club working without Ron Harper, who had done brilliant work in the other four games of the series against the SuperSonics and Gary Payton. There were one-point home losses to both Charlotte and Indiana, the latter coming with starters playing limited minutes in the final game of the season, both coming off of chippies that barely missed in the final seconds. There was the road contest against Phoenix on the second night of a back to back after the team had lost a comeback attempt in the thin air of Denver the night before, either game could have gone either way in the final minutes. The loss against Miami on the night of the trade deadline, when Chicago didn’t know who was suiting up, and that loss against the expansion Toronto Raptors – the friggin’ Raptors – that should have gone the other way.
Eighty-seven wins in 100 tries doesn’t do this season justice. Chicago’s roster will forever on paper look to be inferior when up against teams with higher star power and that vaunted “low post center,” but Chicago went up against three of the four-best centers in the NBA in 1996 during the playoffs – Alonzo Mourning, Patrick Ewing, and Shaquille O’Neal – and worked up a 11-1 record even with the team’s fabled hole in the middle. The hole in the middle (when in actuality was the sturdy and criminally underrated defensive center Luc Longley) was surrounded by arms and length from the outside, and I genuinely can’t fathom how the Kareems or Wilts or Parish/McHales would have been able to handle the all-around attack of interchangeable defensive parts in Harper, Scottie Pippen, Jordan, and Dennis Rodman.
The team boasted an attack on offense that barely seemed to run any plays as the ball moved and the players cut and the screens were set and the shots went in. The spacing and timing and exquisite beauty of Tex Winter’s triangle offense was never given better treatment than by these mindful, eager, veteran Chicago Bulls. It was a fascinating tutorial on how to lose yourself in the game and in its movement and hope. There’s a reason I’ve never sat down to watch ‘The Godfather,’ and yet I’ve seen Game 1 of the 1996 Eastern conference finals 40 or 50 times.
Narratives about comebacks and titles and revenge and records don’t matter in the mix of it, with the ball whipping around and the angles anticipating angles and welcoming risk. It was truly gorgeous basketball. It’s the reason I do what I do, 17 years later. It was something to soften the heart of even the angriest, cynical 15-year old punk you could find.
That season found me. And I hope, in some deluxe box set with director’s commentary and Blu-Ray capability, it will find its way into the homes of anyone that has a passing interest in basketball. Because both in terms of record and beauty, this season will never be topped.
-- Kelly Dwyer
14. Michael Jordan’s 55-point return to MSG in 1995
Yes, Jordan had already played four games since coming back from his exodus in Birmingham, notching wins against Boston and Atlanta but falling to Indiana and Orlando. But his comeback wasn't really official until the "Double Nickel."
It had been 664 days since his last visit to the Garden; you knew MJ would give the arena, its inhabitants and its audience a gift to show he hadn't forgotten about them. The number was different, as Jordan entered New York wearing the unfamiliar 45, but the damage wasn't -- he had 20 in the first quarter, on defenders ranging from Starks to Derek Harper to Anthony Bonner (that one didn't work out so well), 35 by halftime and 49 at the end of three.
With about 3 1/2 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Jordan -- as he so often did -- drove right at Starks, stopped at the free-throw line, rose, fired and splashed to give him 51 points, a new record for an opponent against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. The previous record-holder? Michael Jordan. (Duh.) Most amazingly, it wasn't an MJ make that won it; rather, the game-winning bucket came when Jordan collapsed the Knicks' defense with a drive and elevated to shoot, but instead rocketed a pass underneath to center Bill Wennington, who stuffed it home with 3.1 seconds remaining to nail down a 113-111 win.
It was a perfectly absurd, ridiculous and amazing ending to a perfectly absurd, ridiculous and amazing Jordan game. Perhaps more than anything, though, it was a stark reminder -- that even after his time away and the ignominious knocking-off-the-rust period that followed, Jordan could still be Michael Freaking Jordan. NBA teams, beware.
-- Dan Devine
13. MJ’s classic late-series performance against the Knicks in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals
Coming off the prior season's seven-game heartbreaker, the Knicks entered the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals series with Jordan's Bulls eager for revenge and redemption, and holding a trump card in the rematch -- home-court advantage, earned by virtue of finishing three games ahead of Chicago during the regular season, ensuring that any all-the-marbles seventh game would take place in Manhattan.
Things were looking up for Riley's crew through the first two games, as they held Jordan to 37.3 percent shooting in a pair of home wins. Jordan's cold stretch continued upon returning to Chicago for Game 3, shooting just 3 for 18 from the field; luckily, every Knick not named Patrick Ewing got similarly frigid, and the combination of a huge game from Scottie Pippen and timely shooting by John Paxson kept the Bulls from a 3-zip deficit.
And then? The eruption. Fifty-four points in 39 minutes, 18 for 30 from the floor, 6 for 9 from beyond the arc, 12 for 14 from the foul line, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block. He scored on everyone the Knicks tried to put in his way, almost as if they weren't even there. The monster was awake; the all-things-to-all-people, unstoppable MJ was back, the series was tied, and the Knicks were in trouble.
What do you do for an encore to dropping 54 in a pivotal playoff game on what that season had risen to the No. 1 defense in the league? Oh, just a 29-point, 14-assist, 10-rebound triple double, the second playoff triple-double of his career -- the first one came against the Knicks, too, because of course it did -- at Madison Square Garden to put New York completely on its heels and set up the knockout punch, a 96-88 win in Chicago that again sent the Knicks home, unable to vanquish the big bad Bulls, and propelled Jordan toward a date with league MVP Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns. That worked out pretty well, too.
-- Dan Devine
12. Battles with Charles Barkley in 1993
Excellence fatigue is real – witness the Great American Ignoring of Tim Duncan throughout his career or the talk of Kevin Durant having a better season than LeBron James during 2012-13. After a while, even the best tires you out.
This is why Charles Barkley was America’s sweetheart in 1992-93. The Phoenix Suns forward was in his prime, working for a new team in new uniforms while playing in a new building in a nouveau American Sun Belt town. Even after years of controversy, the country had just learned what we now know in spades some 20 years later – that Charles Barkley can do or say just about anything, and he’s still going to come off as lovable and endearing. He also happened to put up 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game for the team with the best record in the NBA that year, and win the league’s MVP.
Jordan and Barkley had been fast friends by years at this point, fellow Nike endorsers as well who met in the 1990 and 1991 playoffs when Jordan’s triumphant Bulls downed Barkley’s 76ers both times. By the time the Bulls got to Phoenix for the 1993 Finals, they were weary and beaten after a grueling six-game series with the New York Knicks. A series that, in retrospect, was the best thing that could happen to Chicago.
It was the basketball version of warming up with three bats at the on-deck circle. Free from New York’s physical brand of defensive-minded basketball, the Bulls ran out to a 2-0 lead in the Finals after taking the first two in Arizona. Not only had Chicago stolen home court advantage, they’d doubled-down (something both Jordan and Barkley were and are familiar with) on the chance that Phoenix could steal the home court advantage back with a win in Chicago. In fact, Phoenix took two in Chicago before returning to Phoenix for the deciding Game 6.
In the waning moments of that game, with nobody but Jordan having scored for Chicago in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter, everyone in the building knew that MJ would be option number one for Chicago on his team’s final play. Instead, Jordan had the ball in his hands for fewer than five of the remaining 14.4 seconds left in the contest, all some 70 or so feet from the basket. Watch:
Jordan averaged 41 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per contest. Barkley averaged 27.3 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists. Barkley would never make the Finals again. Jordan wouldn’t play an NBA game for another 21 months.
-- Kelly Dwyer
11. “Is it the shoes?”
It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when sneaker commercials weren’t particularly interested in promoting the athletes involved. That all changed in the late ‘80s, when Nike teamed Jordan with Spike Lee (in character as Mars Blackmon from his debut film “She’s Gotta Have It”) to promote several variations of the now-iconic Air Jordan sneakers. The ads are about the shoes, in a sense, but also wide-ranging, more concerned with the experience and cool factor of Jordan rather than cushioned soles or attractive designs. The shoes weren’t just for basketball — they were a way into the world of Jordan. It’s no surprise that the signature sneakers have become statement pieces even after Jordan’s retirement, because they’ve always been about an image of greatness, not just function.
-- Eric Freeman