Jordan’s First Retirement, 20 Years Ago, Hit NBA Hardest

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It was 20 years ago today, Michael Jordan said he wouldn’t play…

Hmm, nothing very lyrical about that. More like Sgt. Peppers Broken Hearts Club Band.

As anniversaries go, this one may have lost some oomph after two decades because, sooner rather than later, it lost its exclusivity. Jordan, the consensus pick as the greatest NBA player of all time, eventually would make that same statement again, and then again. But when he dropped the news on the sports world and the American culture on Oct. 6, 1993, that he was retiring from the Chicago Bulls at age 30, no more pebble-grained worlds to conquer, as far as any of us knew, he meant it.

That was it. One and done.

“I didn’t understand it,” Hakeem Olajuwon said a few days ago, looking back across time. Olajuwon, the Houston Rockets’ Hall of Fame center, and Jordan were born 27 days apart. They famously entered the NBA in the same 1984 draft. When Jordan stepped away, it was Olajuwon’s Rockets that stepped up to win consecutive championships. As the 1993-94 season approached, the two stars were in their primes, nine seasons into their treks to Springfield, Mass.

“It was more of a drastic decision,” Olajuwon said, “where I couldn’t imagine that he was comfortable to walk away for life. So I was surprised.”

Jason Kidd was a 20-year-old sophomore at Cal, one more college basketball season away from being drafted into the suddenly Michael Jordan-less league.

“As a guy you looked up to and wanted to be like, here he retires,” said Kidd, also Hall-bound and now the Brooklyn Nets’ rookie head coach. “Now you’re saying ‘The best has left the game,’ and you’ll never get to guard him or play with him. That was disappointing.”

Jordan’s decision to quit the NBA after capturing three consecutive championships with the Bulls from 1991 to 1993, earning three MVP awards and three Finals MVP trophies and winning seven scoring titles was harder to absorb and believe than it was, upon reflection, to understand. He had lived life, for most of his pro career anyway, at a fever pitch, with nonstop basketball commitments, the pressures and obligations of being the game’s most dominant player, the Olympics and other offseason endeavors, and the time and commercial demands generated by his unprecedented rise as a marketing icon and corporate pitchman.

Added to that, in barely a month after the Bulls’ ’93 title, was the loss of his father James Jordan, murdered in a roadside robbery. Then there was the ongoing speculation about Jordan’s golf and casino-style gambling habits, and his alleged association with unsavory characters who might have dragged down not just the player’s integrity but the league’s.

The reasons made some sense later. But when word of what was coming leaked out the night before through some phone calls and during a Chicago White Sox telecast, shock and denial held the floor. The scene the next morning at the Berto Center, the Bulls’ practice facility, was awash in tears, as described by writer Rick Weinberg for ESPN.com in a retro piece some years later:

Sadness and gloom filled the room as a city, a nation, and a league mourns. The impact on the NBA, television, attendance, competition, revenue, merchandise sales (other than MJ’s jersey, of course) is staggering. The man who generates billions for others is now going to cost them millions. There is no aspect of the league that Jordan’s presence doesn’t touch.

As the world watches in disbelief, Jordan calmly explains his reasoning, without any sadness in his voice, without any tears. He actually smiles. He actually proves his decision is one of relief, despite retiring at the height of his power.

“I’ve reached the pinnacle,” he tells the world. “I always said to the people that have known me that when I lose that sense of motivation and that sense that I can prove something, it’s time for me to leave.”

Bill Wennington, now a Bulls TV analyst, had played the previous two seasons in Italy before signing as a free agent with Chicago on Sept. 29, just eight days before Jordan’s announcement. He was crestfallen. Scottie Pippen, Jordan’s sidekick, heard the news during the baseball broadcast. “It ripped my heart out,” he later said.

David Falk, Jordan’s agent, knew before most, taking a call at home before the retirement wheels were set in motion. “

“Your initial reaction is to try to give him six reasons why that might not be a good decision,” Falk said last week. “But I held myself back and thought about it for about 30 seconds, and said to him, ‘Y’know, the American dream is to work really hard at something, become the best at doing it, make a lot of money and then you can do whatever you want. You’ve worked harder than anyone else, probably, in the league. You’ve become probably the best player in the history of the game. You’ve made a significant amount of money. And if there’s something else that floats your boat, I think it’s great.’

“And he said, ‘I want to play baseball.’ “

The gambling? The suspicions that Jordan’s “retirement” was in fact a covert suspension, mandated by NBA commissioner David Stern to duck further scrutiny? Those theories have persisted for 20 years, too, though Wennington and Stacey King, another former Jordan teammate, didn’t even give them wink-wink life in conversations this weekend. And Falk was more adamant still.

“Absurd. Stop. Oliver Stone,” he said of the conspiracy theories. “Not a scintilla of truth to those rumors.”

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, an assistant with the Nets in 1993, said: “When Michael explained his reasons, when you get a guy who’s accomplished what he had to that point, you listen to what he says and you take it at face value: The guy had earned the right to do what he wanted. He wanted a different challenge and he went to baseball.

“I have a lot of respect for people who strive for unbelievably difficult types of goals. What could be more difficult than going from one professional sport to trying to play another one, from scratch?”

So Jordan was gone, and while many will say now they “knew” he’d be back, no one officially could claim there would be second and third retirements. If most people saw him again on a national sports stage, presumably it would be at an MLB ballpark.

While he got busy riding the customized bus he bought for the Class AA Birmingham Barons in the White Sox farm system, the Bulls and the NBA had to move on.

There were, after all, championships to be won, freed from Jordan’s and Chicgao’s three-year stranglehold. A generation of NBA stars already was being described as victims of sorts, suffering the bad fortune of being born about the same time as Jordan (Feb. 17, 1963) and therefore being blocked from scoring crowns, rings and ultimate success. Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Dominique Wilkins, Gary Payton, Chris Mullin, Reggie Miller and others were in that boat, as were their teams, from Portland, Phoenix and  Utah to Atlanta, Seattle, and always the New York Knicks.

And then there were the Houston Rockets, who for two years pounced on the opportunity.

Olajuwon was the game’s best big man, the league’s MVP in 1994 and arguably one of the top four or five centers in NBA history. Compared to so many of the Clydesdales of the NBA trying to keep up, Olajuwon ran like Bolt, had the footwork of Astaire and flashed feints and trickery like Ali. He had a wily coach, in Rudy Tomjanovich, who built his system around Olajuwon’s command of double-teams inside.

The Rockets’ supporting cast in that first championship season was an ideal mix of role players – Otis Thorpe, Kenny Smith, Vernon Maxwell, Robert Horry, Sam Cassell – who caulked in around Olajuwon. For the repeat run, Houston added Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, a reasonable Jordan facsimile for much of their careers, at least in skills and sheer Xs & Os. The Rockets beat the Knicks in a grueling seven-game series in 1994 and swept Orlando, Olajuwon schooling young Shaquille O’Neal, in 1995.

“I didn’t see that [Jordan] was in my way,” said Olajuwon, who is back with Houston in a player development role and also presides over the DR34M “lifestyle brand,” an apparel business. “Every season that we played, I always believed we could win the championship. I always loved to play Chicago to see how we measured up against the champion. To me, they weren’t in our way. It was just matchups, and we matched up very well with them. We loved to play them.”

The Bulls did not sink in Jordan’s absence as many expected. Opening the season just four weeks after Jordan’s announcement, they finished 55-27, winning just two fewer games than the season before, as Pippen stepped out of his buddy’s shadow to achieve stardom of his own. Phil Jackson still was coaching, and if not for Hue Hollins‘ notorious “Hubert Davis” call in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Chicago might have edged even closer to reaching The Finals in their first year without His Airness.

“In camp, Steve Kerr and I were like, ‘Wow, this is going to be a very different year.’ It ended up being a great year. At the beginning, nobody really knew. But Scottie stepped up and played well, and everyone kind of fit in.”

The league missed some of the visibility that its greatest player had delivered. But NBA cumulative attendance continued to climb, from 17.7 million in 1992-93 to 17.9 million and 18.5 million the next two seasons. In 1995-96, with Jordan back in full and the Bulls gone “rock star” with a 72-10 record, average attendance jumped again, from 16,727 to 17, 252.

TV ratings were another story. The 1993 Finals between Chicago and Phoenix, with Jordan vs. Barkley, had averaged a 17.9 rating. That dipped to 12.4 in 1994 and 13.9 in 1995. When Jordan and the Bulls got back to winning Larry O’Brien trophies, the average ratings were 16.7, 16.8 and a record 18.7 in 1998 that still stands. The 1999 Finals, after Jordan’s next exit? Just 11.3.

“Michael was certainly missed,” Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said. “Coming out of the Magic and Bird era, you had everybody else and then you had Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Man, when you came into Chicago to play them, it was special. People came from all over the world for the chance to come to the Stadium and see the Bulls play.”

Jordan, of course, returned from his baseball adventure and, in hindsight, first retirement with a simple public statement: “I’m back.” He made it on March 18, 1995 – 528 days after his departure, three days longer than Derrick Rose‘s layoff from ACL tear to Saturday’s preseason opener.

He crammed in 17 games over the final five weeks, famously scored 55 points in New York in his fifth game back and averaged 26.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 41.1 percent shooting. In 10 playoff games, including a six-game loss to the Magic in the East semifinals, Jordan’s stats were 31.5, 6.5, 4.5 and 48.4 percent.

Could he and the Bulls have done better with a little more time? Olajuwon, proud as he is, rightfully scoffs at the idea of an asterisk on either or both of the Rockets’ titles. He even gets defensive on Orlando’s behalf, let alone his own team’s. He remembers Chicago struggling in its games in Houston during those years and says he would have loved to face Jordan in The Finals.

Wennington and King, however, point out that while Jordan was capable, that Bulls team had been turned upside-down. Pippen took a step back and the ball and the shots suddenly were claimed by someone who had been around. Jordan missed some old teammates and had to adapt to new ones, including Toni Kukoc. As King saw it, Houston never got to – but also never had to – face Jordan in the championship round.

“You put Michael Jordan in an NBA Finals, he’s not losing,” King said flatly.

Most who recall it give the Rockets proper credit, Jordan or no Jordan. “That’s why you have sports bars and arguments,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But Rudy did a phenomenal job with that club. It doesn’t diminish what they did at all.”

Said Denver coach Brian Shaw, a player on that 1995 Magic club: “Had Michael not left, it very well could have been eight in a row for the Bulls. That’s hard to say but I wouldn’t bet against that guy.”

Jordan, after all, had only unretired a couple months earlier.

“He still was a little rusty,” Shaw said. “He was using his baseball muscles.”

59 Comments

  1. heatguard#3 says:

    a very gooooood article steve.. meaningful. even mj is the goat. we will never what would happen if the the dream and mike match up in the finals. :)

  2. D-Wade's FAN says:

    Bill Russell is by far the only NBA player with 11 championship rings. I think Russell was able to dominate the game because of the fact that he was probably the only tall player during his time. Michael Jordan on the other hand was the greatest player to ever played the game and you know it too. Why?! because Michael competed against some of the greatest players during his time such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone & John Stockton, Isaiah Thomas & Pistons (the bad boys), Dominique Wilkins, and other dominant players. Also, believe it or not, Lebron, D-Wade, Melo, D-Rose, Kobe, and some of the great players in the NBA today exist because of Mike. Mike influenced these guys and will continue to influence more in the next decade.

  3. Richard says:

    Still the Bulls won 54 games and were it not for one of the worst calls in NBA history (thank you, Hugh Hollins) they would have advanced to the eastern conference finals, against the pacers. That would have been a matchup to see. 1993-94 was probably Phil Jacksons best coaching job.

  4. maverick says:

    MICHAEL JEFFREY JORDAN IS THE GREATEST NBA PLAYER OF ALL TIME ..I DONT THINK LEBRON JAMES COMES INCH CLOSER TO HIM .MICHAEL IS A GENIUS ,HIS BASKETBALL I.Q IS TO THE HIGHEST NO QUESTION WITH HIS TALENT ,SKILLS AND LEADERSHIP AND HIS WILL TO WIN .. MICHAEL # 23 FROM NORTH CAROLINA IS THE TRUE KING OF BASKETBALL AND THATS A STATEMENT.:)

  5. nickelbazz says:

    its just simple a simple arithmetic..If u put JORDAN in an NBA finals u know the result..he’s not losing!! the G.O.A.T

  6. Ronald says:

    NOT the consensus “Greatest Player of All Time”. Of his era? Yes. Others have just as valid a claim to the GOAT title as he did.

    Some of us were glad he retired and wanted him to stay retired.

    • Abbey says:

      Enough said about MJ. Has everyone forgotten about Bill Russell he was the best to ever play in the NBA. Bill Russell won 11 championships in 13 yrs, yes this is before the Jordan era. So lets stop talking about 7 championships and dont forget Robert Horry has more rings than Jordan. So all you Jordan fans lets talk about these facts.

  7. Romeo Aguirre says:

    MJ the greatest player ever I’m a kobe fan and kobe will always be second to mj lebron is nowhere near these 2 so please lebron fans don’t even compare

    • will says:

      LeBron is betta than both of them and not n his prime yet haters

    • Witness says:

      Plllleaaase. LBJ is better than KB ever was is or will be LOL

    • Kome the Black dumba says:

      I think when they all retired. Lebron will be compared most to Magic Johnson. That’s how I see it. And Kome? Maybe in the line of Harold Miner.

    • King Bron says:

      I am a Jordan and Lebron fan… And I admit we can’t really compare Bron to MJ… Bron has his own way of winning… Very different style of play. The only closest person to be compared to MJ is Kobe that’s why in an interview with Jordan, on a 1 on 1 game in his prime today, he will win but there’s only 1 guy he is not sure of, that’s Kobe becuase he stole his moves.

  8. Kajoeba says:

    I still regret he retired at that time.
    You do not leave the game when you’re at the peak of your abilities, your knowledge of the game.
    I was 16 years old and I cried my heart out when I heard the news.
    And he’s career should ‘ve ended with The Final Dance, not with the Wizards.
    2 major mistakes in his career.
    Nevertheless, those who saw Michael Jordan play, they know why he is to be remembered as the greatest player of all time for years to come.
    Don’t worry, Lebron, Kobe, you’ll have your legacy as one of the greatest, but never the greatest.

  9. The Far-East Side says:

    The reason he retired the first time is to help the Toon Squad VS the Nerdlucks on Moron Mountain in 1993. I thought everybody knew that =D

    Naah i’m kidding. Michael Jordan = G.O.A.T

    Thanks for the memories and for being part of one of the best era in basketball IMHO.

  10. terence says:

    G.O.A.T.

  11. chchrriissttoopphheerrkk says:

    I wondered if jordan teamed up with bill russel

  12. JONES says:

    STOP BRINGINGUP KOBEE!!! JEZUS

  13. Bulls of the 90's fan says:

    For the Bulls VS. Rockets – we’ll never know who will emerge as champs as it didn’t happen. But 1 good thing about the Bulls is that no matter who the opponent was – they somehow manage to find weakness and run/dictate their own brand of game. Examples? Magic with Shaq and Penny, Sonics with Kemp, Payton and Schrempf, Knicks with Ewing, Starks, Mason, Pacers with Miller, Smiths, Mullin, Portland with Drexler and the gang, Pistons with the bad boys, Suns with Barkley, and Jazz with Stockton and Malone. These are championship caliber teams with great systems, but they manage to grind it out and win. I know Rockets of the mid 90’s are a different beast (and so are the Spurs with Duncan and Robinson), but I won’t be betting against the heart and collective will of the Bulls.

    • Kome the Black dumba says:

      Exactly, one of the thing that Bulls encountered really good teams at that time. All of them are championship calibeur teams and Bulls denied all their chances.

      • King Bron says:

        True that! Bulls have the experience already and they always find a way to win… With Jordan’s clutch or someone else will do it for them to win.

  14. Kris says:

    he didnt get an MVP 3 consecutive times from 91 to 93 as the article seems to claim…barkley won it in 93,but he had accumulated 3 up to that point,winning one in 88

  15. Jordan was the face of the entire sport back then. People who didn’t even like/watch basketball knew his face and what he did. Imagine when Tiger Woods retires from golf. A recognizable face goes a long way!

  16. Fred Wilkes says:

    I liked how we just totally leave out why he really retired but I love the NBA to talk about that so I’m going to leave that alone. People love the myth that is Micheal Jordan more than the NBA. Oh he could have won 8 in a row ,9 in a row haha no he wouldn’t have won that many if he would have played he would have more than likely succumb to injury like Scottie did . Playing what 8 years of 90 games plus with no rest . The league and Jordan benefited greatly from his suspension I mean retirement.

    • Kome the Black dumba says:

      Oh you are those kind of consipracy people. I understand we all got our own point of view but Mike was never injury prone like Pippen. Pip got migraine and all physical injury(bad back).

  17. kams says:

    jordan past his prime when he joined the wizards,he’s 40 back then and he only plays for one reason,for the love of the game.

    • you are all ... says:

      He wanted to play on in 1999 and I believe would have won 1 or 2 more championships with the Bulls. Management did not want to pay the big contracts and Phil Jackson was not invited to Krause’s wedding and all sorts of other BS going on.

  18. Don’t Campari no one to mike he is the greatest ever he won a championship with the flu

    • Mud says:

      You still think it was the flu?

      • Witness says:

        UUUUUUUUUUUUUHHHHHHHHHHHHH it was food poisoning. Well documented enough by now I would think. Sure the symptons might have been “flu-like”, but it was food poisoning that caused those symptons.

  19. who? says:

    at lease pippen brought bulls in playoff that year by himself compared to the jordan led wizards who badly missed the playoff.

    • Saaka says:

      Lol. Yeah, you do realise Michael was 38-40 years old when he was playing for the Wizards right?

    • Kome the Black dumba says:

      And then to mention they have kukoc and almost the same players in their later championship years as well. And Knicks knock the hell of out them without mike.

      Mike got Tyronne lue, Popeye Jones, White and bunch of scrubs. Only worth mention was Hamilton.

      +He was almost 40 at that time.

  20. you are all ... says:

    I was a kid and sad when this happened. I stopped watching the NBA and even not as much in the later 3 -peat.

    I remember the first 3-peat the most, overcoming the pistons and de-crowning Magic Johnson. Also it would have be great if he never came back again although you knew he still wanted to play but PJ was going and the team was falling apart.

  21. Jd says:

    Mj the best ever! Not only he won chips but he was the reason other hofmers didnt get theirs( reggie ewing barkley stockton malone ) lets not compare to lebron untill lebron retires, as it for now kobes carrer is the closest to be as sucessfull as mj.

  22. Dutch NBA fan says:

    Jordan could have won 9 in a row… but the fact that he didn’t had the will to continue to win, was the one fluke in his game..
    He didn’t had the will to win his entire career.. He needed those two years off to get that motivation back..
    So Olajuwon won fair and square, because he still had that desire in ’94 and ’95 and in that aspect of his game he was better then jordan at the time.. I think that should be a factor in the discussion about who is the G.O.A.T after lebron retires.. If he manages somehow to win 4 in a row, because he maintains that will to win, he is better in that aspect of the game, than Jordan ever was.. :The will to win after you won three in a row

    (excuse my grammar, English is not my first language )

    • Schemer21 says:

      I see what you’re saying but i thik you’re missing something completely…
      You have to understand the relationship he had with his father. His father was his hero. It’s well documented. And both michael’s first love and his father’s was baseball. His first retirement was nothing to do with losing the will to win, it was a reaction to his fathers murder. He was still greiving and I believe that in his mind playing baseball was a way of keeping a link with his father. Baseball helped him cope with it.
      Also, if Lebron wins 4 in a row and you’re going to factor it into a discussion as to who is the GOAT then you also have to factor the ‘decsion’. Jordan stuck with the Bulls and allowed the organisation to build around him. Sure you can say he had Scottie, and believe me, Scottie is one of my favourite players ever, but Jordan pushed him to achieve, pushed all his teammates to achieve. He made everyone around him better. The ‘decision’ will always put a taint on Lebrons championships, great and all as Lebron is.

      • Witness says:

        The decision will not always put a taint on Lebrons rings LOL Thats just crazy talk.

      • Kome the Black dumba says:

        No doubt Decision will always be a bad mark in Lebron’s career. Same with Pippen not going back to the game when last shot wasn’t call for him. But in the end when they retired, people will always remember their glory moment rather than this.

  23. dl says:

    G.O.A.T

  24. Chalice says:

    Micheal is the G.O.A.T but because he left, there is a chance for someone new to take his throne. If anyone dominates the NBA again and wins 4 in a row with 4 finals MVP’s, according to jordon’s own logic about rings, then there will be a legitimate argument for his person to be better than Micheal. (I know russel has the most rings but you get the idea). It’s so early for Lebron but he does have a chance if he keeps winning and maybe there will be a new player to make both look sub-par in the future. Jordon should have gone for as many rings as he could because you can’t be the best if you don’t play.

    • goopsplash says:

      Like michael jordan said, you need to have the will to win. but he didn’t at the time. He thought he didn’t have anything else to acheive and nothing else to show the world so he kinda lost the will to win, so he left… so sad :( he could have won a lot more.

    • kriss says:

      Lebron has a chance to win 4 in a row and 4 finals MVP:p I doubt he will do it. but its possible,

  25. sanjay says:

    Jordan missed it! He would have won 9 out of 9 period. And I had no doubt in my mind whatsoever! Those middle lapse were in his prime and 1999 jordan was also good enough to get one more with pippen and rodman still in mood! It was such a tragedy!

    this would be niggling for those jordan fans for long time to come. Magic had also reached 9 finals by the age of 31!( Are you kidding me?). Though hiv truncated his career his team was past his prime and was not good enough to challenge the new chicago anymore! Thus 1990’s would have been all jordans era had he not taken break and dismantling of chicago team had not happened!

    He had chance to match bill russel come to think of it! But in the modern era 9 out of 9 would have been ridiculous as though 6 is not already!

    We all know no body could beat jordan in the finals. In fact no body took bulls team to game 7!

    It would have been 9 out of 9( I kid you not!) had he found pippen a bit early- he would have sent bad boy pistons packing as well!(jordan in his 20’s was super athletic than the ‘jordan’ second coming for 3 peat. The jump and movement was much better)

    despite all that jordan can still walk on the earth as the greatest ever and also now has franchise and will soon join the billionaires club! He would earn more if he strikes a better deal with NIKE, who have been minting money under his name but giving him chump change( he should have found a better manager. And thats all I got to say about that).

    That chicago bulls team gave immense pleasure to those fans but it all evens out – Since those days chicago has not been to finals even once! It has been 13 years and counting!

    It would have been 9 out of 9 at least people.. phew!!!!

    • Witness says:

      Yes you didn’t research before you made the comment but the Pacers took the Bulls to 7 games.

      • King Bron says:

        He is not talking about the eastern finals lol.

      • Jordan says:

        But they didn’t play the Pacers in the finals. He said “We all know no body could beat jordan in the finals. In fact no body took bulls team to game 7!”

  26. Pekal21 says:

    Michael was, is and will be the best player of the world

  27. Michael Jordan ( http://www.hostnumber.com/michael-jordan-career-stats.html ) and the Bulls may have won eight straight titles, but Hakeem was a beast in 94 and 95. It would have been a dream matchup, alas never meant to be. We will never know …

    • Kome the Black dumba says:

      Hakeem(Akeem) no doubt was wonderful in those years but remember when Michael back in full force no one stopped them and they won 3 straight again.
      Nonetheless, Hakeem was great and seeing him toying MVP Admiral was beautiful. I thought Robinson wasn’t the same after he got exposed by Hakeem in the playoffs.

    • LBJKIN6JAMES says:

      People forget that MJ could have finished his career with 8 rings … that’s why he is the GOAT

    • His Airness says:

      This story is not factual. There is only one reason he quit. It is because of the connection he had with his father in baseball. His father died and that was his way of grieving.

      The reasons MJ’s cited for leaving such as being at the top of the game and accomplishing everything was really just an excuse he made. I wish he hadn’t made those excuses and just said family came first and he missed his father. It was a very noble thing that a man who perhaps wanted to be the best more than anyone else in the NBA, left it behind, out of love for his family.

      I also quit a job I valued when my uncle got cancer, so I know how he felt.