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.”