What if Michael Jordan came back in ’98?
Go back 15 years to when SLAM 1 was placed on newsstands around the United States. Like today, ’94 was a changing scene in the basketball landscape with the legends of an era making room for another wave of superstars. Bird, Magic, Worthy, Isiah and McHale passed the ball to Spree, CWebb, Kemp, Payton, Shaq and Penny—the first class of the “SLAM Era,” as we like to say. In a category to himself was Money, aka Michael, aka Air. He retired at 30 while at the very top of the basketball universe. Jordan had a place in the Hall on lock even then. He was accomplished as the old school retirees, but still in his prime. The rest is etched in history, as Jordan led the NBA into the new millennium, paving the way for the next layer in the NBA’s continual evolution. And while Jordan was not a part of the first class of the SLAM Era, he certainly was the most important. In memory of Michael, we present “Unfinished Business,” Russ Bengtson’s SLAM 50 cover story, which ran in April 2001, months before MJ announced his comeback with the Wizards.—Ryne Nelson
by Russ Bengtson
I had this dream.
I dreamt Money retired. Again. He became a poor-negotiating, non-trading NBA executive for a team on which he never played. When he talked about his team’s lack of heart, he got dissed by his own players—players he used to eat alive on the regular. Hemmed in by a cap for the first time in his career, the unstoppable finally got stopped by opposing owners who just didn’t want to deal. Things got so rough, Money didn’t even to go to most of his team’s games.
Can you imagine that?
“We’d still be the defending champions. I was really looking forward to continuing to play. If Phil and Scottie Pippen would have been there, I’d still be playing. That’s how we could have kept the streak going. Maybe we wouldn’t be as successful during the course of the year, but when the time came and things were on the line, we’d have been fine the last two years. Sure, I would have loved to keep playing.”—Michael Jordan, Chicago Sun-Times, December, 2000
Can you imagine that?
June 18, ’98. Grant Park. Sun sparkling off of six championship trophies, people filling every available space, the end is here. In the front row, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, faces shielded by championship caps, eyes hidden behind $200 shades. Way in the back, out of sight, Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf, uncomfortable in suits, sweat stains forming in the summer heat. Pippen speaks, then Jackson, then Jordan. The Last Dance has come to a close. Era over, don’t forget to catch the repeats on ESPN Classic.
But wait—Reinsdorf approaches the podium, Krause desperately clinging to his leg like Van Gundy on Zo. Reinsdorf grabs the mic, as the off-duty Jerry Springer security guards try to pry Krause off his $1,000 slacks. “Hold up, everyone,” Reinsdorf bellows. “This ain’t over.” The crowd stops in place. “Forget what you heard, forget what Sam Smith wrote, we’re comin’ back next year to win another one.”
Stunned silence. “Starting today,” Reinsdorf continues, “Phil Jackson is the GM and coach. Crumbs—I mean Krause—is out.” Cheers. In the background, Krause redoubles his efforts to free himself, straining to bust through the guards (and his suit). “Scottie’s coming back. MJ’s coming back. Even Dennis, if he wants to.” Rodman, busy filming an MTV special in the third row, looks up at mention of his name. Nods. Pandemonium.
August 3, ’98. The hell with Space Jam, this is North Carolina. No need for a custom-built gym here. It’s 10:30 a.m., and Mike’s already four hours into his daily workout. Five hundred jumpers. An hour of defensive footwork. Five hundred baseline fallaways. The best player in the game getting better. Break for an hour, then run pick-up. Jerry Stackhouse, Antawn Jamison, Grant Hill, Vince Carter, Ed Cota, Kenny Smith—a crew of All-Americans—but Mike runs it. Runs the point, the two and the three. Drops dimes, threes and dunks. On the opposite side of the rock he faces up with Vince, locks him up. Yeah, Vinsanity gets the occasional first step, but he knows better than to talk. Not in His house. After the game, a half-hour break before hitting the weights.
Every day, lacing up his new J’s, MJ sees the quote he’s posted on the locker room wall for inspiration: “The Best There Ever Was, The Best There Ever Will Be.” And every day, he fumes. “What’s that supposed to mean? ‘Was?’ Am I through or something? We’ll see about that.” Motivation gained, he heads out for another eight-hour session.
October 20, ’98. Ten days before the start of the season, and the L is locked. David Stern and Pat Ewing and Billy Hunter are having vision problems—they can’t see eye-to-eye. Kenny Anderson’s thinking about opening a used-car lot. Billy and Dave step to the stage; each addresses the crowd of players and owners, emphasizing the space that exists between them. Forget Halloween, this season might not start until Easter.
A figure rises—the gleaming dome, glittering earring, perfect eight-button suit. Money talks. “Look, it’s simple. Get the season started on time, I play. Stall this thing any longer, I’m gone.” He sits back down. At the podium, D. Stern and Billy Hunter huddle up. Five minutes pass. Ten. Twenty. Finally, D. steps back to the mic. “We’re happy to announce that the ’98-99 NBA season will start on schedule…”
November 20, ’98. Practice. It’s 11:30 a.m. in the Berto Center, and Phil Jackson is furious. Dennis Rodman has just rolled up on his Harley, over an hour late for the third straight time. Through a half-dozen games he’s averaging 13 boards per, but has only taken three shots. Total. And one was at a cameraman. Phil calls Dennis into the office. Ten minutes later he brings in MJ. “Look, Dennis is out. Dickey [Simpkins] has got his spot, at least until we can track down Bison Dele or whatever the heck his name is now. Make him understand what we need.”
MJ nods, walks out.
Jackson stays in the office for a few more minutes, straightening some things out, grabbing a clipboard—and getting a restraining order against Krause, who he suspects has been making those late-night phone calls. He heads back out to the practice court, just in time to see Jordan swat a Simpkins layup attempt into the folding chairs that line the sideline. MJ gets right up in Dickey’s face, talking all kinds of mess. Simpkins walks over, grabs the ball and throws it back at Jordan. “Check!” he yells. Jackson smiles.
January 10, ’99. Bulls at Knicks. Some days it just ain’t there. Sometimes paper is prophecy. Like Spike’s fake tabloid in He Got Game, Money is counterfeit. Like Mars “predicted,” Money goes 1-of-10 from the floor, ends up with 11. The Bulls get wiped out, 96-71.
Afterwards, jubilation. Spike is yelling, Camby and Sprewell are waving towels, Larry Johnson is flashing the “L.” Patrick Ewing is predicting a championship. Even Puff puts down the celly for a minute to hug Peter Boyle. Meanwhile, MJ just looks around, glaring, taking it all in. Remembering.
February 14, ’99. All-Star weekend, Philadelphia. A day after Kobe and Vince push the Dunk Contest to a record six dunk-offs (Vince finally ices it with a between-the-legs-and-back reverse two-hander), the game gets rolling. AI and Mike start in the backcourt for the East—cru thik, all love. Money’s content to set people up in the first half, piling up 11 assists, and watching with a smirk as Iverson breaks Kobe off with the double-cross hesitation J. Jordan stacks up six quiet points by the break, Kobe leads all scorers with 24. East up, 65-63. Then, as Mike gets Ahmaded at half-court: motivation.
The voice comes from the cheap seats. “Mike! Mike!!! You ain’t nothin’! Kobe’s the man now!” Halfway through an answer, M’s eyes go cold. He breaks it off, heads back to the locker room.
Third quarter starts. AI finds M for the three. Wet. Tight on Kobe on the other end, he strips him to start the break, and gets it back from Pip for the throwdown. Fallaways, deep threes, facials. Final score, 145-122, East. Money finishes with 48 and the MVP, going 15-18 from the floor in the second half. Kobe? He ends up with 26.
Way up high, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant smiles with satisfaction. “Kid’s gotta learn somehow.”
March 26, ’99. Bulls at Hawks. 62,000 people showed up to see MJ’s “last” run through Atlanta last time—this time, the same 62,000 people show up to get their money back. Or is that their Money?
Thing is, MJ starts flat. Knicks-day-game-after-a-long-night-at-the-Gold-Club flat. Except for Dickey Simpkins, who grabs 15 first-half boards and crushes a ferocious dunk on Dikembe Mutombo, no one is doing anything. The ATLiens lead by 20 at the half. Then, in the third quarter, rookie mistake. Roshown McLeod, fired up, reps Duke. Steve Smith and Mookie check for MJ, hoping he didn’t hear—too late. The fire is up. The Hawks lead by 24, but the game is as good as over.
MJ drops 20 in the third, including a nasty dunk over McLeod. Bulls tie it up after three, lead by 15 after five minutes of the fourth. Mike sits down, job done. On the other end of the court. McLeod sits between Smith and Mookie, who loudly attempt to further his education. Lesson learned.
April 21, ’99. Bulls vs. Orlando. Last game of the regular run. The Bulls are 59-22 going in, a game ahead of the Knicks. MJ is averaging 29, seven and six. Pip—finally paid in full—averaging a near-Oscar: 18, nine and nine. Simpkins is putting up 15 and 10. Heading for that Scott Williams money.
O-town starts hot, Penny drops 20 in the first half, and Darrell Armstrong doubled up on the coffee. Magic lead at the break.
In the third, things get tight. Pip’s dogging Penny, so the Magic turn to Dominique Wilkins for the fourth. Left on the bench most of the season, the 38-year-old Nique is revived by the matchup with MJ. They trade buckets the whole way down the stretch, one impossible move after another. Bringing the ’80s back. Finally, down one with the clock winding down, MJ gets the ball in the corner. Jab step—pull back, fallaway. Buzzer, net. 101-99, Chicago.
June 2, ’99. Bulls at Knicks. Conference Finals, Game Six. Whose house? Mike’s house. Money pulls the old Jordans out the closet again (the II’s this time—second coming), knowing that this is the last trip to the Mecca. This year.
No extra motivation necessary, but just in case, Pip’s got “1/10/99” written across the back of his sleds. MJ doesn’t need to read that. He hits his first three shots. Sprewell switches onto him, then Camby. None of it matters. MJ has 25 at the break, 55 when it’s all over. Gives Spike’s beloved Knicks another double nickel. Series over: game, set, match.
June 20, ’99. Bulls vs. Spurs. NBA Finals, Game Six. After five games, the Bulls sit on a 3-2 lead going back to Chi. Dickey Simpkins has eaten Tim Duncan alive, averaging 16 points and 18 boards through the series. And after playing 36 holes of golf in the morning, MJ heads out and drops 44 in Game Five.
Game Six, MJ gives pounds. No words, just brief contact. This is business. The stories can be written now; this isn’t going back to Texas. Pippen starts things off early, with a dunk over David Robinson, then a steal that leads to a pull-up three on the break. George Gervin, seated on the sideline, covers his eyes with his hands. 5-0, Ice.
But hold up. It stays close, ’cause D-Rob is having his way with Luc Longley.
Duncan’s got a double-double, but so does Simpkins. Pip’s not shooting well, but he’s got Sean Elliott locked up. With under a minute left, MJ’s got 32; Bulls up two. Spurs ball. The pass goes in to Duncan, who’s blanketed by Simpkins. He kicks it out to Steve Kerr—the only Bull to bail—who knocks down the open three. Spurs by one, under 24 on the game clock.
Pip brings it up, looking for Mike. 13 seconds. Pip stops at the three-point line, dumps it in to Simpkins, who’s got position on Duncan. Simpkins fakes, but TD doesn’t bite. Looking up, he sees Jordan curling off a Longley screen at the free-throw line. He kicks it back out. Four seconds. Jordan stops. Three. Fakes. Two. Pops. One.
June 22, 2000. Grant Park. Sun sparkling off of eight championship trophies (the Bulls whacked the rudderless Lakers in Y2J), people filling every available space, the end is here. In the front row, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, faces shielded by championship caps, eyes hidden behind $200 shades. Next to them, Jerry Reinsdorf. Pippen speaks, then Jackson, then Jordan. The Last Dance has come to a close. Era over, don’t forget to catch the repeats on ESPN Classic.
But wait—Reinsdorf approaches the podium. He grabs the mic. “Hold up, everyone,” Reinsdorf bellows. “This ain’t over yet.” The crowd stops in place.
Stunned silence. “Starting today,” Reinsdorf continues, “Michael Jordan will be the team president.” Cheers. “Scottie’s coming back. Phil’s still here. And we’ve got the money to make a run at T-Mac or TD or EJ. Or two. We’re not done quite yet.” Pandemonium.