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.
50. “The Last Waltz,” in 1997-98
It made sense that noted boomer and classic rock devotee Phil Jackson would name his team’s projected final run to the championship “The Last Waltz,” after the classic movie celebrating the last performance of the original members of The Band. The only problem with the analogy was the fact that Scottie Pippen’s soft tissue injury in his left foot had not healed since Pippen played through it in the 1997 playoffs, and Toni Kukoc was suffering through a debilitating case of plantar fasciitis. Capped-out, the Bulls’ only offseason acquisitions of note were Scott Burrell, Joe Kleine, and rookie Keith Booth. Dennis Rodman was 36 and growing more distracted by the minute. This dance was going to be painful.
Jordan was also working through a right wrist injury that threw his shooting off and contributed to his worst field goal percentage in any full season as a Bull. You know what also contributed to that mark? Opponents throwing triple-teams at MJ while the Bulls attempted to turn scorers out of Bill Wennington, an out of shape but game Kukoc, and aging Ron Harper.
Jordan kept the team afloat, though, thanks to the team’s triple post offense (which created threats out of the constant MJ harassment) and Rodman’s brilliant play. Kukoc also turned in a sterling turn once he overcame his arch issues, and the same went with Wennington and Luc Longley. By the time Pippen returned after missing 35 games the Bulls had the best record in the conference.
A gutty, nasty start to his final championship season. Probably an appropriate one, though.
-- Kelly Dwyer
49. Jordan wears a #12 jersey when his is stolen
It was bad enough to have to spend Valentine’s Day 1990 on the road, going up against a newish expansion team in the Orlando Magic full of hungry vets and clueless youngsters, but things went from bad to weird in the locker room before Chicago’s battle with the Magic. Somebody stole Jordan’s jersey in the hours before the game, and after no suitable replacement was found (seriously, John Ligmanowski … you just brought one jersey on the road?) MJ was forced to suit up with a decoy number 12 uniform usually slated for 10-day contract signees to wear in a pinch.
Jordan finished the evening scoring 49 points in the loss, a 135-129 defeat that was in some ways a precursor to his flailing few days of wearing number 45 in a 1995 playoff series against Orlando. Kirk Hinrich would later go on to wear the number 12 for Chicago to some acclaim, and to date the stolen jersey has yet to show up on eBay.
-- Kelly Dwyer
48. The All-Star triple-double in 1997
In a game best remembered for Glen Rice’s 20 third-quarter points and the halftime ceremony recognizing the 50 greatest players in NBA history, Michael Jordan notched the first and to this date only triple-double in All-Star Game history with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists.
He also wore Scottie Pippen’s trademark “Pip” armband on his left elbow, which probably aided MJ in the all-around touch. Here are some highlights:
-- Kelly Dwyer
47. The two-hand pin on Ron Mercer
The play begins with a bummer of a reminder of Jordan's advancing age and declining athleticism, as he's blocked/stripped/unmade by Chicago forward Ron Artest; it ends with an exhilarating reminder that an aging, declining Michael Jordan is still plenty good enough to make you part of his highlight reel, Ron Mercer. The mistake-erasing hustle, even with the embers fading, seems perfectly in step with the competitiveness of a man who, as the FreeDarko collective reminded us in ‘The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History,’ "so badly wanted to supplant Dave Corzine as [the Bulls'] best Pac-Man player that he bought a machine for his house" and who, as Chris Ballard noted in ‘The Art of a Beautiful Game,’ "so loathed losing that when he once dropped three consecutive games of pool to then-assistant Roy Williams while at North Carolina, Jordan refused to talk to him the next day."
It's odd; while loads of other players have been more accomplished, specialized and celebrated swat artists, to some extent, this -- the sheer swagger of going up at the perfect time, putting two hands on the ball and pinning it to the glass; a stylish chasedown pre-dating LeBron's elevation of the act to an art form -- is still what I think about when I think about blocked shots. Then again, maybe that's fitting. After all, Jordan did finish his career with 893 blocks and is the only guard among the top 100 players in blocks in NBA history (though I suppose you can make an argument for swingmen like Terry Tyler and Julius Erving). I mean, those nine first All-Defensive team nods didn't just come out of nowhere, you know.
-- Dan Devine
46. “The Shot II,” against Cleveland in the 1993 playoffs
Longtime NBA veteran Gerald Wilkins – the once and forever “Dougie,” so nicknamed because of his love for Doug E. Fresh – was the first of many hoped-for Jordan stoppers. Signed by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1992 exclusively to bring his New York-styled sense of Jordan-clogging to a Cavs team that had been taken down by the Bulls in the 1988, 1989 and 1992 playoffs, Wilkins’ sturdy frame and athleticism were both trumped as a potential stopping point for a Cavaliers team hoping to finally get past the two-time defending champions.
Up 3-0 in the second round in 1993, it seemed obvious by Game 4 that the pairing wasn’t exactly going to Cleveland’s plan. And with the score tied at 101 late in that contest, Cleveland somehow decided that leaving Wilkins to defend Jordan without the help of a double team was a good idea.
It wasn’t a good idea.
-- Kelly Dwyer
45. His awful clothes
Michael Jordan is a famous person with connections and all the money a person could ever need. So why does he make more terrible fashion choices than anyone else on the planet?
The problems are legion: a leather sportcoat, a yellow pinstriped jacket that goes down two his thighs and has apparently never been tailored, whatever this thing is, what seems to be an aqua four-button moleskin (or velvet?) sportcoat with two breast pockets (not to mention improper buttoning), oversized ripped jeans, oversized acid-washed ripped jeans, an untucked button-up shirt that goes down to his thighs (plus more awful jeans, although these seem to fit better), a love of hoop earrings, and a mustache most commonly associated with a genocidal dictator and one of film’s earliest geniuses.
There is no explanation for any of this, because Jordan is the only person who still dresses this way. We can only marvel at his astonishingly poor taste, and feel a small sense of superiority over someone who has accomplished more than any of us ever will.
-- Eric Freeman
Our esteemed associates at Puck Daddy touched on this when they feted Wayne Gretzky two years back, and it seems only fair to celebrate His Airness' participation in NBC's short-lived but much-loved (well, in some circles) attempt to turn Jordan, Gretzky and Bo Jackson into marketable superheroes/special agents who used their respective sports skills and remarkable gadgets to battle the forces of evil, such corrupt businessmen promoting environmentally irresponsible mining, greedy pirates and a mad scientist named “Clockwork Delaronge.” (Obviously.)
Jordan's most notable accessory? Rocket-powered high tops, provided by a weapons master/den mother literally named “Mom,” accessories that enabled him to fly ... that is, when he wasn't encouraging children to study science and math.
Weirdly, what I remember most about this is that, even as a kid, it seemed weird to me that Jordan would be part of an ensemble whose members were assumed to be on equal footing. Obviously, given the statures of Gretzky and Jackson and their levels of superstardom within their respective spheres, you couldn't have cast "ProStars" as, like, "Michael Jordan and His Amazing Friends." But even within the context of a team-up with the greatest player in the history of hockey and a two-sport goliath whose cultural footprint in the early 1990s was virtually unparalleled, it was hard to imagine Jordan accepting an arrangement in which he was anything other than the unquestioned leader. That's probably why the show only lasted 13 episodes -- the unbelievability of it.
-- Dan Devine
43. The formation of Jordan Brand
Nike wouldn’t be the massive company it is today without Michael Jordan — at the same time, Jordan wouldn’t be who he is without Nike. The two entities — Jordan is more than a person at this point — are married to each other. So it made sense when, in 1997, they announced a long-term partnership under the new Jordan Brand, a new company under the Nike umbrella that would cater to multiple sports.
In the years since, Jordan Brand has added endorsers including Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter, and Deion Sanders. The brand has become a bona fide player in the market, as well as the standard by which all other athletes measure their endorsement potential and success.
When Nike wooed LeBron James in 2003, they sold him on the idea that they could make him the next Michael Jordan. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine anyone matching that level of market penetration and popularity. Jordan was first, and he’ll stay on top as long as sports fans remember his name.
-- Eric Freeman
42. His final game at the Garden in 2003
While Jordan's two-year stint with the Washington Wizards, on the whole, represented something of an ungraceful dismount from the soaring heights of his NBA career, it did at least offer one last opportunity for him to reduce the Knicks to bit-parters in a Broadway production in which he was the unquestioned star.
Just three weeks after his 40th birthday, Jordan entered Madison Square Garden to take on the Knicks team. Little about the circumstances surrounding this March 9 matchup resembled the good ol' days -- MJ wore Wizards blue and white rather than the familiar red and black, his Wizards carried a 30-32 record and scant hopes of a playoff berth rather than the kind of dominant marks the Bulls always brought, and a Don Chaney-helmed 28-34 Knicks team led by Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston scarcely resembled the proud, tough Pat Riley-led teams with which Jordan's did battle in the '90s. But amid all those changes, one thing held fast: Michael Jordan could own the Knicks.
The repertoire wasn't the same -- the lightning-quick moves and soaring slams had almost entirely been replaced by geometrically precise footwork and an array of fadeaway midrange jumpers -- but the destructive properties sure felt familiar. Thirty-nine points on 13 for 22 shooting and 13 for 15 from the line -- not a single 3-pointer taken, all the work coming out of the post and in the midrange game -- in 43 minutes of play.
Unlike the good ol' days, though, Jordan's big outing wasn't enough; the rest of the Wizards shot a combined 20 for 52 (38.5 percent) from the floor, and the combination of Houston, Sprewell and reserve guard Shandon Anderson gave the Knicks enough offensive punch to get past Washington, 97-96. Still, throughout the game and in its aftermath, all anyone could talk about was the 40-year-old legend shining brightest on the sport's biggest stage one last time. As if there could be any other way for one of MSG's greatest villains to end his athletic relationship with his home away from home.
-- Dan Devine
41. 55 points against the Washington Bullets in the 1997 playoffs
Chicago earned a 2-1 record over the then-Washington Bullets during the 1996-97 season, but this was a three-game swing that could have gone either way. Even though Washington hadn’t made the playoffs in over a decade and Chicago was in the midst of 69-win season, the Bullets only lost to Chicago by a combined five points over those two defeats, and took an eight-point win in Washington late in the season. And despite Chicago’s 69-win mark, the team was working through injuries – Dennis Rodman was playing with a strained MCL, an injury that would have a player sitting in this era, and Bill Wennington was shelved due to plantar fasciitis and wasn’t on the playoff roster.
The Bulls took Game 1 of the first round series with ease, but by Game 2 the young Bullets (featuring Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, the Most Improved Player in Gheorge Muresan, and Rod Strickland along with Bulls-killer Tracy Murray) were ready to make a series of it.
And Jordan was ready to make an afternoon of it, and mincemeat of the team’s defense. Watch the highlights:
MJ put up 55 points on 22 of 35 shots from the floor, with seven boards, two assists, two turnovers and two steals. It was his highest playoff point total of his three-year post-retirement run with the Bulls, as well.
Jordan claimed he apologized to Tex Winter after the game for abandoning the triangle offense, to which Tex Winter’s internal monologue, we’re guessing, replied, “Why do you think you had all that space to work with in the first place, huh?”
-- Kelly Dwyer
40. Jordan returns early in the 1985-86 as the Bulls front office bites its nails
The famous “love of the game”-clause in Michael Jordan’s rookie contract, one that allowed him to pick up a ball whenever he pleased in pickup games or North Carolina summertime duels, was unique but also barely enforceable even if Jordan declined to agree to the clause. What is enforceable is a team’s decision to let a player suit up for action, whether they deem him unfit because of a talent issue (certainly not the case with Michael), or after a frightening injury.
Or, to hear Michael Jordan tell it, enforced because the team wants to lose games on purpose in order to make the NBA’s second ever draft lottery in 1986. In the era when lottery chances that weren’t weighted by record, and every participant had an equal chance at the top pick.
MJ broke his left foot just two and a half games into his second season with Chicago, a significant but potentially devastating fracture that was luckily caught in the early days of teams shifting obvious x-rays over to early CAT scan and stress fracture-diagnosing equipment. What at first was thought to be a two-month injury last much longer, and with the Bulls out of the playoff bracket and new GM Jerry Krause and owner Jerry Reinsdorf in their first year running the team, Jordan faced an uphill battle trying to convince his front office to let him return.
Given 10 percent odds by team doctors that Jordan could re-injure the foot significantly by returning early, Jordan pressed on and eventually won over the Bulls staff, but Jordan was allowed to play only under the condition that Michael be limited to seven minutes per quarter.
In some cases, exactly seven minutes per quarter – with longtime Bulls PR director Tim Hallam off the side of the Bulls’ bench with a team-issued stopwatch.
Coach Stan Albeck’s mettle was especially tested late in one game against Indiana. With the Bulls clinging to the final spot in the playoffs, as he was forced to sit Jordan with (co-incidentally) 28 seconds to go once he had hit his 28 seconds. Luckily John Paxson hit a shot to win that game, Jordan’s minutes allotment was lifted two games later, he was awarded his starting job back, and Chicago went on to eke into the playoffs with a terrible 30-52 record.
-- Kelly Dwyer
39. Michael Jordan vs. Jerry Krause
Michael Jordan was needlessly cruel to Bulls personnel chief Jerry Krause, who took over as Chicago el jefe one year into Jordan’s Chicago career. There’s no way around it: Krause should be criticized for his hastening and haggling that went into a breakup of the Chicago Bulls, moves and public hints that grew more and more contentious with each championship offseason starting in 1996, and Krause’s mistakes both during the championship era and after Jordan’s second retirement are many. Still, Krause did nothing to deserve the personal belittling and tasteless jokes Jordan sent his boss’ way throughout his career.
Jokes and jabs that were more or less signed off on by coaches Doug Collins (who once yelled “what are you doing on the floor?” at Krause during a Bulls practice) and Phil Jackson, who did absolutely nothing to get in the way of Jordan’s needless treatment of the architect of the Jordan-supporting dynasty that made it possible for MJ to lead Chicago to six NBA championships.
Jerry Krause’s obsessions were the same as Jordan’s. He wanted to win more than anything else, and he wanted to be thought of as the architect behind that winning movement. He adored teams that shared the ball and played stellar defense, and his preference for all-around players that defied position was in many ways well ahead of his 1985 to 2003 stint with Chicago.
Jordan, who routinely sits on or near his Charlotte Bobcats’ bench (in a display that would abhor Michael Jordan the player) was considered one of the worst GMs in the NBA during his stints in Washington and before handing the reins over to GM Rich Cho in Charlotte. In his time as an executive, he has done little to come close to Krause’s sterling accomplishments in his time crafting the six-time winners from Chicago.
-- Kelly Dwyer
38. “Cut,” but not really, from varsity in high school
It’s a fairy tale gone awry, a sound motivating factor for those both inside the process and out, but one that may have cost a good basketball mind his sanity as Michael Jordan advanced his legend.
In 1978, Laney High School basketball coach Clifton Herring chose to leave Michael Jordan, already full of promise, on the junior varsity squad as a sophomore. Herring instead chose a 6-7 banger named Leroy Smith to make varsity ahead of Jordan. Michael, who stood just 5-10, has for years recounted how he went home and cried after being told he wasn’t good enough to make varsity. When, in reality, Herring just wanted to allow Jordan the minutes and seasoning a dominant turn on the JV club would provide, smartly biding his time with basketball orthodoxy before letting Jordan take over during his junior and senior years.
Which is exactly what happened, as Michael made his way through Laney and into North Carolina and eventually the NBA. A career that ended with a trip to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. In that induction, Jordan made a point to bring up the “cut” in his acceptance speech. A speech made with Herring in attendance.
As profiled by Thomas Lake of Sports Illustrated in 2012; Herring has struggled with alcohol abuse and mental illness in the years since. Jordan’s televised remarks in 2009 certainly did not help his state of well-being; even if Herring had the best intentions in 1978 in attempting to help Michael Jordan be the best basketball player he could be.
-- Kelly Dwyer
37. ‘The Jordan Rules’ is published
It’s an absolute must-read, a book that stands to this day as a page-turner even in an era of quick Twitter hits and endless anonymous sources detailing the ins and outs of the NBA.
Then-Chicago Tribune Bulls beat writer Sam Smith’s ‘The Jordan Rules’ was a revelation when it was released following Jordan’s first championship season in 1991. Smith didn’t intend for the book to be taken as a Kitty Kelley-styled takedown, but to a sporting public that was largely unfamiliar with Jordan’s obsessive and at times downright nasty nature away from the cameras, this was the first peek behind the curtain. In some ways, knowing what we do about Jordan in 2013, parts of the book can come off as tame to those hoping for some damning dirt, but it is an essential read for those who haven’t picked it up. Buy the thing. You’ll finish it in a day and a half.
My favorite story about ‘The Jordan Rules’ doesn’t actually come from ‘The Jordan Rules,’ but rather Phil Jackson’s 1995 memoir ‘Sacred Hoops.’ Jackson recalls being brought to Jerry Krause’s office, only to find the steaming Bulls general manager storming around after he’d “found” and literally highlighted 183 “lies” in Smith’s 384-page book.
That’s some power, and some influence, Sam Smith.