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Steve Aschburner

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan is helped off the court by Scottie Pippen after his 3-pointer sealed Game 5 for the Bulls in 1997.
Andy Hayt/NBAE/Getty Images

Jordan's sick performance in '97 elevated his reputation

Posted Jun 11 2012 11:24AM

Mary Mallon, a.k.a. "Typhoid Mary," achieved infamy as the archetype carrier of disease, based on 53 reported cases of typhoid fever, including three deaths, that apparently were traced directly back to her role as cook in and around the New York area for several years starting in 1900.

Yet there was Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls superstar, gamely playing on through serious flu-like symptoms in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals on June 11, 1997 -- and by night's end, rendering most of the 19,911 people in Utah's Delta Center sick to their stomachs too.

But did Jordan get saddled with the label of "Nauseous Mikey" or "Green-around-the-Gills MJ?" No, he merely solidified, maybe even clinched, his title as "G.O.A.T." Greatest Of All Time.

Fifteen years ago today, I was in the building for what then and now has become known as "The Flu Game." It's probably more accurate to simply refer to it, maybe, as "The Sick Game," since opinions vary on what actually was ailing Jordan. Teammate Ron Harper attributed it to a nasty case of food poisoning from bad pizza. Others blamed a foul room-service order at the Bulls' hotel. Coach Phil Jackson believed that, whatever was ailing him, the headaches were made worse by the extra altitude of the hotel's Park City location. Jordan at one point wondered if someone intentionally tainted one of his meals in a desperate attempt to do what Karl Malone, John Stockton and the rest of the Utah Jazz couldn't do.

Then there was the Public Health Advocacy Institute, which got very cranky last month over a recent Gatorade commercial built off that game. It "openly promotes engaging in vigorous physical activity while suffering from a very high fever, in Jordan's case 103 degrees," the PHAI complained to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. So "The Sick Game" seems a better shorthand, if we have to label it at all.

Because Jordan's performance was, indeed, quite sick.

What I recall from my vantage point in the auxiliary media seating -- at the top of the Delta Center's lower bowl -- was that Jordan appeared loose, jangly, weak. His whole demeanor seemed a little fuzzy around the edges, his cuts not sharp and, even from that distance, a vacant sort of expression on his face. Only in close-ups, though, and mostly in replays could I see how glazed over his eyes were and how profusely he was sweating. Think Patrick Ewing. In a steam bath. After a 5K run. About to audition for "Dancing With The Stars" -- that's how badly it was pouring off Jordan.

Jordan had waken up that way in the middle of the previous night, soaked, shivering, aching. The Bulls' medical team figured he was a no-show for the last of Utah's three Finals home games, especially when he skipped the team's morning shootaround. When Jordan finally did show up at the arena, he went off to a dark room and lay there, eyes closed, imagining the ordeal to come.

Look, plenty of grandiose words -- "courageous," "heroic," miraculous" -- got tossed around that night and attached to the events in the decade-and-a-half since. They might be over the top. But there's no doubting the discomfort Jordan was in, the fact that he would have been better off staying in bed and the pressure on him to produce with the Finals tied at 2-2, the Jazz having won Games 3 and 4.

"That was probably the most difficult thing I've ever done," Jordan said afterward. "I almost played myself into passing out just to win a basketball game. If we had lost, I would have been devastated."

If never happened. Jordan labored up and down the court through the early minutes, playing as if under water as the Bulls fell behind 29-16 after the first quarter. But he perked up in the second quarter, scoring 17 points in that period. He then retreated to his room off the locker room at halftime, swathed in cold towels, re-hydrating and resting.

The third quarter was a struggle again, until whatever nasties were running through Jordan's veins got shoved aside by adrenaline and his manic competitiveness. He sparked a run of 10 points for the Bulls, pulling them out of a 77-69 hole and scoring 33 of Chicago's first 79 points.

"Every dead ball you could see it on his face, how drained he was," said John Paxson, former Jordan teammate working his first season as the Bulls' broadcast analyst, eventually becoming the club's chief basketball exec. "Then when the play would start, he'd summon something from within."

It was 84-83 Utah when Jordan got fouled with 46.5 seconds left. He made his first free throw to tie, missed the second but claimed the rebound. With a fresh shot clock, the not-fresh Jordan got the Bulls into their offense, feeding Scottie Pippen in the post. Bryon Russell, Jordan's man, instinctively rushed over to help teammate Jeff Hornacek against the taller, dangerous Pippen, at which point the NBA's ultimate sidekick passed back to Jordan.

Stockton rotated over but too late, and too little, and Jordan's 3-pointer swished through to make it 88-85. The teams traded baskets over the final 25 seconds but when Hornacek's shot at the buzzer bounced off, Jordan slumped into teammates' arms, getting helped off the court by Pippen.

All told, Jordan finished with 38 points on 13-for-27 shooting (including 2 of 5 on 3-pointers), seven rebounds, five assists and three steals.

"Michael was physically spent," Jackson told in an interview on the Gatorade-spot shoot. "I think emotionally, I think he was really good. But he was really fatigued after that game. It was like everybody just kind of went over and gave him a tap, but it wasn't like that jubilance. It wasn't that kind of celebration."

The Bulls won the fifth of their sixth championships two days later back in Chicago. The following June in the 1998 Finals, Jordan's late shot in Game 6 on the Jazz's court won another title and became his iconic final triumph as a Bulls player. But to Jackson and so many others, it was "The Sick Game" that elevated him beyond all others.

And since we don't have a "One-Arm-Tied-Behind-His-Back-Game" or a "Leaping-Through-a-Ring-of-Fire-and-Over-a-Shark-Tank-Game" or especially an "MJ-Forced-to-Play-with-his-2011-12-Charlotte-Bobcats-Game" to up the ante, this one will have to do.

"I didn't want to give up," Jordan said. "No matter how sick I was, no matter how tired I was, no matter how low on energy I was. I felt an obligation to my teammates and the city of Chicago to go out and give that extra effort."

He gave what amounted to a medical-meets-basketball marvel for those cheering on one side and a sick, queasy feeling that endures for a lot of Jazz fans 15 years later.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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