The Real Glory

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Sports  |  House: Booksie Classic


Michael Jordan's return to play for the Chicago Bulls

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Michael Jordan

Submitted: December 02, 2019

Reads: 61

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Submitted: December 02, 2019

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In March 1995, the American sporting world needed a hero. Major League Baseball was in the middle of a strike, the National Hockey League was having a lockout and the O.J. Simpson murder trial was in full swing. The astonishment and outrage of Nancy Kerrigan being attacked the year before had barely subsided and people were craving some good news. It came with arguably the most effective press release in the history of sports: "I'm back." With those two infamous words, Michael Jordan, one of the most celebrated athletes in the world, announced to the sports universe was returning to play basketball.


After a 12-month sabbatical playing Minor League Baseball, Jordan was coming back to play for the Chicago Bulls. It had previously shocked everyone when he abruptly retired from basketball after such magnificent success earlier in the decade. In 1991, he won his first NBA championship with the Bulls and followed that achievement with titles in 1992 and 1993, securing a "three-peat." Along the way, he was a league star, entertaining crowds with his skill, athleticism and prolific scoring. He was no longer simply Michael – he had earned the nicknames "Air Jordan" and "His Airness."


Aside from his leaping ability, he had also gained a reputation for being one of the best defensive players in basketball. This complete talent saw him awarded a host of individual accolades and accomplishments, including being voted the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player three times before he decided to quit the sport at the age of 30. In announcing his retirement, he cited a loss of desire to play the game and also stated later that the murder of his father three months earlier had also shaped his decision. In his autobiography For the Love of the Game, Jordan wrote that he'd been preparing for retirement as early as 1992.


Jordan's unexpected retirement announcement reverberated throughout the NBA and made the front pages of newspapers around the world. Four months later, in February 1994, he surprised the sports world again by signing a Minor League Baseball contract with the Chicago White Sox. Jordan said this decision was made in honour of his late father, who had always envisioned his son as a Major League Baseball player. He played the 1994 season with the Birmingham Barons, a minor league affiliate of the White Sox, finishing with a batting average of .202, including three home runs.

 

Michael Jordan's time in baseball was almost perfect in so far as having the right amount of aplomb combined with just enough indifference. There wasn't any spectacular success, although he also appeared for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League, batting .252 against some of the top prospects in the sport. In the meantime, the Chicago Bulls lost in the second round of the NBA playoffs in 1994, and by the following season they were merely a shadow of the championship team of just two years earlier. By mid-March in 1995, they were 31-31 and struggling to ensure a spot in the playoffs.


It was at this time that help was on the horizon. For the previous two weeks, Jordan had been practising at the Berto Center, which was the Chicago Bulls' training facility at the time. On March 18, NBA agent David Falk and his associate Curtis Polk, received an unexpected call from Jordan asking them to fly to Chicago and meet at his home. Such arrangements were not unusual because Falk and Polk were his two most trusted business advisors. Having already spoken to the Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, Jordan wanted their input on a major decision he was leaning toward: returning to the NBA.


A reason why Jordan wanted to quit baseball was the ongoing Major League Baseball strike. He wanted to avoid potentially becoming a replacement player and being blacklisted by the Major League Baseball Players Association. His initial idea was to return in the postseason, but Jackson countered with the suggestion of playing 20 games. Jordan then envisioned 10 to 15 games as it became clearer he was more eager to make his comeback during the regular season. So he called the final huddle with Falk and Polk, who both arrived in Chicago with no idea what their client had in mind.


For several hours, the three discussed the pros and cons of returning to professional basketball. The player agents had concerns that after such a stellar career, he could fall below expectations, but ultimately Jordan stayed the course and told them he wanted to make a comeback. "It wasn't really something I anticipated," said Polk. "If it wasn't for the baseball strike, I'm not sure he would've come back at that time, or ever. He was really enjoying himself … and he was working really hard to get his baseball game to the level of where his basketball game had been."


There were discussions about the fact that Jordan had developed different muscles for baseball and how that physical conditioning wasn't necessarily compatible with a quick transition onto the basketball court. Jordan recognised this but still decided he wanted to return sooner rather than later. He felt that he could step back in and help the team which was battling to make the playoffs. The decision was made, and that same day David Falk made four attempts to write a press release officially announcing Jordan's return. He tried to express in words his client's change of heart and how he'd missed the sport.


After reading the drafts, Jordan wasn't comfortable with what Falk had written and took matters into his own hands. He sat down at the table and after thinking about it for a couple of minutes, wrote those two infamous words: "I'm back." "It was classic Michael Jordan," Falk said. "It was elegant in simplicity; it communicated how he felt; it said it all. Sometimes you don't have to be prosaic to be elegant in your expression. His two words expressed it all." Jordan felt there was no need for an explanation or justification, and the final press release was faxed to media outlets. Sometimes, as they say, less is more.


The two words on that piece of paper were all that was needed to turn an otherwise mundane Saturday into a day to rejoice. It was an era before the internet, but if Twitter had existed at the time, the site may well have crashed. News of Jordan's return spread through the sporting world like wildfire all the same. The Chicago Bulls matched the simplistic nature of the press release, with coach Phil Jackson issuing the following statement: "Today, Michael Jordan was activated as a Chicago Bull." The very next day, Jordan was named in the Bulls team to face the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis.


The match caught the public imagination on an almost unprecedented level. The Pacers public relations department went into immediate overdrive, having to process nearly 350 media requests in less than a day. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune newspaper, Phil Jackson summed up his feelings about having his star player back. "I hoped for it," he said. "I never thought it would be an actuality. After having him on the floor, I think I'll be able to describe it. Or maybe I won't be able to describe it. But once we see him out there in that red uniform playing for the Chicago Bulls, that will be the emotional moment."


Jackson was correct, and the game on March 18, 1995 had the highest television rating of a regular season NBA game since 1975. The Pacers fans, who had routinely booed Jordan during the starting player announcements, rose to give him a standing ovation as he took to the court. And just a month after his 32nd birthday, it was like he had never been away. He scored 19 points, along with six assists, six rebounds and three steals. In the packed postgame press conference, Jordan showed that he wasn't in awe of the spectacle he had created; just disappointed that he couldn't help the team more in their 103-96 loss.


Despite the defeat and the Bulls barely winning half their games for the season, the odds of them winning the title plunged from 40-1 to 5-1 with Jordan back. In his fourth game back, he was back to his usual tricks, making the winning jump shot against Atlanta. In the next game, he hung 55 points on the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Boosted by Jordan's comeback, the Bulls went 13-4 through the rest of the regular season to make the playoffs and advanced to the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Orlando Magic.


While his famous number 23 had been retired prior to his comeback, he was allowed to wear it under Chicago Bulls and NBA rules. But after talking about it with David Falk, he chose instead the number 45, as he had while playing baseball. During Game 1 of the semi-finals, Orlando's Nick Anderson stripped Jordan from behind, leading to the game-winning basket for the Magic. He later commented that Jordan "didn't look like the old Michael Jordan" and that "No. 45 doesn't explode like No. 23 used to." The bear had been poked and Jordan responded like the true champion he had always been.


Before the next game, Jordan decided to immediately resume wearing his former number, 23. It cost the Bulls $25,000 for failing to report the impromptu number change to the NBA and Jordan was fined a further $5,000 for opting to wear white sneakers while the rest of his team wore black. But on the court, he scored 38 points in a Chicago victory. Although Jordan averaged 31 points per game in the series, Orlando won in six games. The playoff defeat only fuelled his motivation for the following season. It was clear that, although being active in another sport kept his mind away from basketball, he had truly missed the game.


Jordan trained aggressively for the following season and strengthened by the addition of rebound specialist Dennis Rodman, the Bulls finished the regular season with 72 wins. At the time, this was a NBA record and on the back of this domination, Chicago won the championship by defeating Seattle in the finals. Jordan's comeback had been a glorious success – he'd led the league in scoring and was named Finals MVP for a record fourth time. He reacted very emotionally after the title was won on Father's Day. In memory of his own father, he sat holding the game ball and crying on the locker room floor.


The NBA championship was the first step in the historic second "three-peat" achieved by the Chicago Bulls from 1995-98. Jordan inevitably played a leading role in this success, collecting more MVP and All-Star awards along the way. His retirement in 1999 was then followed by another comeback, this time for the Washington Wizards where he played his final two seasons of professional basketball. In recognition that 2002-03 would be Jordan's swansong, tributes flowed from throughout the NBA. Perhaps the most touching of them was a four-minute standing ovation before his final game at the United Center in Chicago.


When Michael Jordan announced his retirement in 1993, he was asked at the press conference if it was because of the pressure from the media and his response wasn't really surprising. "I would never let you put your foot up my back and push me out the door," he replied. In starting his baseball journey, there were doubters in the media room and they were there again after his first game back against the Pacers. But Jordan didn't have anything to prove. "There was no pressure to leave, there was no pressure to come back," his agent David Falk explained. "He did it because it was what was in his heart."


© Copyright 2019 Dave Tomlinson. All rights reserved.

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