Michael Jordan is the greatest player the league has ever seen and it’s not close. Kobe Bryant is probably the closest thing to Air Jordan that we have ever seen and yet, he is nowhere near matching his Airness’ ability on and off the basketball court. MJ was undefeated in his six Finals appearances and also captured six NBA Finals MVP trophies as well as five League MVP awards.
When Michael was not busy playing basketball, he played the role of ambassador of the game with his trademark smile and carefully scripted interviews. In addition, he made us buy his shoes. All of them.
One could argue that Michael Jordan is not only the greatest basketball player of all time, but possibly the greatest and most successful athlete in modern sports history.
Consequently, if there was ever an athlete that had earned the right to excuse himself from a big game, it was him. And yet, when the opportunity presented itself, the GOAT (greatest of all time) said thanks, but no thanks.
On June 11th, 1997, basketball fans around the world witnessed one of the greatest NBA Finals performances ever: The Flu Game.
As the game was about to start, the former North Carolina star looked different than what basketball fans had become accustomed to: he looked human. As odd as that sounds, Jordan has always carried an aura of invincibility around him.
A few years ago, Gilbert Arenas hit a couple of game winning shots during the regular season and proclaimed that he played with tons of swagger; well in Michael’s case, it never needed to be said. The man was supremely confident and always looked like the best and most important player in the building.
However, on this night in Utah, Michael was ill. With the series tied 2-2, Game 5 was at that moment in time the biggest game of the Finals, and the winning team would be in the drivers seat for the NBA championship.
As the game started, the Jazz were in complete control from the outset: playing with tons of energy, being physical at the basket, getting loose balls and forcing turnovers. The Bulls on the other hand seemed rattled to start the game.
With their leader visibly playing at less than maximum strength, it’s as if they had forgotten how to play basketball. With 2:18 left in the first quarter, Chicago was down 21-9 and looked in danger of getting blown out early.
But then the Bulls made a huge adjustment that would serve them well for the remainder of this pivotal playoff game: they started feeding the ball to the post. Brian Williams took Greg Ostertag to school on a few occasions on the low block where he scored and also got himself to the free throw line. By the end of the first quarter, Utah was up 29-16.
The offensive strategy did not look like much heading into the second quarter, as the Jazz took a 36-20 lead but it actually laid the groundwork for the Bulls to come back into the game.
Once Williams went to the bench, Phil Jackson opted to feed Scottie Pippen in the post, given his height and strength advantage over Jeff Hornacek. The end result was that the small forward scored on a few trips but more importantly when Utah sent a second defender at Pippen, he made them pay by finding the open man.
After feeding Pip a few times, the Bulls turned their attention to Jordan on the low block who just punished whichever defender was guarding him. Whether it was Bryon Russell, Shandon Anderson or Chris Morris, Michael was less than impressed. Indeed, he looked like the Dave Chappelle version of Prince as he scored 17 points in the second quarter on his way to 21 points at the half.
Jordan’s scoring gave Chicago the much-needed boost they required. With their leader once again looking like the best player in the league, it seemed as if the Bulls collective confidence rose and thus so did their energy and level of execution on both sides of the ball.
The rest Michael got at the end of the first quarter helped him regain focus as well as his breath in order for him to take over in the second.
The interesting thing about the Jazz’s defense was their insistence on forcing Jordan to go left, where their help would be waiting to challenge him. And yet, all that game planning was for naught, as Jordan repeatedly went left and still found ways to score.
After chipping away at the huge Utah lead, Chicago found itself down 53-49 at the half.
As the third quarter started, the Bulls’ superstar seemed exhausted. Instead of being involved in the offense, he just casually coasted to spots on the floor while his teammates looked to take advantage of some mismatches instead of running the triangle offense. The strategy allowed Jordan to rest on offense, although he was often seen bent over pulling on his shorts, a sure sign of fatigue.
Nonetheless, the Bulls offense was still crisp as they kept going to their post players for interior baskets. Pippen and Longley got a few post up opportunities but then the Bulls became a little jump shot happy and started settling for long jumpers with MJ being one of the culprits. Prior to heading to the bench for a rest, Michael missed three out of four shots.
Chicago’s defense still did a great job of smothering the Jazz offense by pushing Malone further away from where he wished to catch the ball in the low post. The misses allowed the Bulls to get a few transition opportunities as well as post ups.
At the end of the third quarter, Utah leads 72-67.
At this point in the game, Michael could not tarnish the legacy he had already built; however he could certainly enhance it. As the fourth quarter was about to start, an emotionless and seemingly physically drained Michael Jordan entered the game and probably gave Kanye West (who must have been a about 21 at the time) the early motivation to write All of the Lights:
“Turn up the lights in here baby
Extra bright, I want y’all to see this
Turn up the lights in here, baby
You know what I need
Want you to see everything
Want you to see all of the lights […]
I hold my head
But don’t take my word for it, instead have a look at what MJ did in the fourth quarter:
11:05 Jordan catches the ball on the right side of the court; takes Morris off the dribble baseline and with Carr closing out on him, he settles for a fade away. All net. Utah leads 74-69.
10:02 Kukoc catches the ball on the right side of the court and waits for the offense to develop. Michael is on the opposite side of the court and takes a screen from Brian Williams and catches the ball in the pinch post where he immediately elevates after being bumped by Antoine Carr for a fade away jumper. Cash. Jazz lead 77-71.
9:35 Stockton fires a 3-point shot from the baseline and misses. MJ cleans up the boards and throws a long pass to Kukoc he catches the ball at the 3-point line and puts it up and converts. Jazz lead 77-74.
9:01 Pippen pushes the ball after a miss and passes the ball to Michael who is camped out on the left wing at the 3-point line. Pippen’s defender goes to Michael so he passes the ball back to Pippen who immediately passes it back to Jordan who fakes the pass and fires away from deep. Money. Score: 77-77.
2:46 Trailing by three points, Jordan catches the ball on the left wing and sizes up Bryon Russell and then drives right and shoots a one-legged shot fading to his right that easily goes in. Jazz lead 84-83.
0:46 Michael catches the ball on the left side of the court and runs a pick and roll with Luc Longley. Sensing daylight at the top of the key, he stops and goes up for a jumper and is fouled by Stockton who rushed to help Russell. He makes the first free throw to tie the game but misses the second one and rebounds his own miss, which leads to…
0:25 Jordan takes the ball at the top of the key and calls for Pippen (who has been quite effective in the post throughout the game) to post up Hornacek. Pippen slowly backs him down and as Russell (Jordan’s defender) comes in for the double, Pip throws it back out to the star guard who nails a killer 3-point shot to silence the building. Bulls lead 88-85.
After a few free throws, the Bulls are victorious by score of 90-88 with Marv Albert (part of the NBC crew doing the game) saying: “A courageous classic performance by the flu-ridden Michael Jordan”.
The GOAT cut out the heart of John Stockton and Karl Malone, took a bite out of it and then stomped all over it in Salt Lake City. Michael Jordan scored 15 points in the fourth quarter on his way to 38 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and one block on 13-for-27 field goal shooting.
In addition, Michael played tricks on the Jazz defense in the fourth quarter, going to his right every time he touched the ball, and thus completely taking Utah out of what they were looking to do as far as their defensive game plan was.
Although this game in itself is not a story, it may actually be one of the best Jordan “stories” ever told. When things outside of his control tried to force him into submission and give his opponents an advantage; he never blinked. He was still at the top of the basketball world at age 34 and refused to give up his spot as the best basketball player in the world but also as its most competitive one.
Rudy Tomjanovich once uttered a phrase that has been made famous over the years: “Never underestimate the heart of a champion”. He was right on so many levels and yet it fails to properly capture MJ’s greatness. Instead, let’s go with…
People eventually learned to never underestimate the heart and will of Michael Jordan.