Part III: Year One—Jordan’s Rookie Season, page 2
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I recall Kevin Loughery that first season talking about practice and how whatever team he’d put Jordan would win. Years later, there was the famous practice under Doug Collins when Collins changed the score to put Jordan’s team behind and the opponents got a quick basket and won and Jordan stormed out of practice and said he was done talking to Collins. Yes, as James Jordan would laugh, the man has a competition problem.
Game 1, for the record, was in the old Chicago Stadium, Oct. 26, 1984, and Jordan scored 16 points on five-of-16 shooting. The Bulls won 109-93 as Orlando Woolridge scored 28 and Quentin Dailey had 25. Jordan was the story, but Chicago, having endured too much Bulls misery since 1966, wasn’t convinced.
It wasn’t close to a sellout with 13,913, and in three of the Bulls’ next five home games, they failed to draw 10,000. The two games they did draw were in that stretch against Boston and Philadelphia. Fans still were coming to see the other guys.
But the other guys were seeing something in Jordan.
“Never seen anyone like him,” Larry Bird would say long before that 63-point playoff game in 1986 when Bird uttered the famous “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
Bird was league MVP at the time and said: “At this stage, he’s doing more than I ever did.”
The Bulls lost Jordan’s Game 2 in Milwaukee, and there was symbolism in that one as well. Remember Kobe Bryant hurling up those series of air balls in Utah in the 1997 playoffs? Many said it would break him to fail like that as a rookie. But Bryant was only doing what Jordan did, showing that you can fail because you tried.
There’s this quote Jordan is famous for which summarizes the situation: “I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
So there it is Game 2 of his pro career, the Bucks leading 108-106 and Jordan shooting for the tie. Air ball! Game over.
Two nights later, the Bucks played the Bulls in Chicago. Jordan scored 37 points on 13-of-24 shooting with five assists and six steals. He scored 20 of the Bulls’ last 26 points.
Yes, it was on.
The Bulls, 27-55 the previous season, opened with six of eight on the road and went 6-2. In the team’s ninth game, Jordan scored 45 points against the San Antonio Spurs, along with grabbing 10 rebounds. The Bulls cooled off after that hot start when they went out west. Yes, that darn circus back then, too. They fell to 8-9 heading into Los Angeles. Jordan wowed L.A., home of stars, with the tying and go-ahead baskets in the last minute to beat the Clippers, and then a one-point win over the Lakers, though Dailey was the star with 28, and then back home for the first Chicago game-winner, a 20-footer with five seconds left to beat the Knicks. You know how it goes. Millions will say they were there, but paid attendance was just over 8,000. Jordan was in the NBA and headed to the All-Star game and loving it.
He ate at McDonalds pretty much when he wanted and caught up on TV soap operas—a college favorite—without class getting in the way. He wasn’t the fashion model Jordan we came to know, but a college kid enjoying his dream. He mostly dressed casually in sweat outfits back then and was happy for a post-practice game of cards or pool.
I remember chatting with Jordan early that season and asking him casually how it was going.
“The best time of my life,” he said.
One of my favorite games was when Portland came in midway through the season in January. The Trail Blazers already were getting condemned for the Sam Bowie pick and they were on the defensive. It carried over to courtside, as the traveling writers in the smaller cities can become fans, especially with the Rip City enthusiasm when Portland won in 1977. I remember the traveling beat writers, who generally get their basketball talk from the team’s coach and general manager, defending the Bowie selection and seeing Jordan as a lesser Clyde Drexler.
Actually, Jordan was way more gracious than the rest of us and said he thought Portland made the right selection, saying they had an excess of big guards and small forwards and it made sense not to pick another.
I remember in Doug Collins’ first season when Jordan was on the scoring binge of his career. The Bulls lost a late season game in Portland when Jordan had 46. Portland GM Bucky Buckwalter said Drexler was a better player, saying Drexler makes teammates better and Jordan doesn’t. Collins was every bit the competitor Jordan was, though without the same talent, and he shot back: “I would like to ask Bucky if he would trade Jordan for Drexler.” Collins added that based on his thinking, Buckwalter could have brain damage.
You had to love Doug.
Jordan’s toughest times that season, at least in games, were against the 76ers and Dr. J, whom he would soon eclipse as the game’s great showman. In November, Jordan had 16 points in a loss to the 76ers, and in December, a season-low 14 in another loss.
Dailey, whom Jordan had replaced as shooting guard and the team’s leading scorer, took some public shots at Jordan by complaining how Jordan got special treatment, that even when he made a mistake, the coaches would applaud and blame someone else. Of course, Dailey had plenty of his own issues and his sour grapes were pretty much ignored.
Though the lowlight of that season was the All-Star game, something Jordan had looked forward to and late in college actually having talked about his professional goal of being an All-Star once in his career. Some of his buddies agreed. After all, he wasn’t averaging even 20 points in his college career. How would he do in the NBA?
Jordan really wanted to just fit in given all the publicity that had been coming his way. He didn’t want to attract attention, but Nike didn’t help. Nike wanted some advertising and asked Jordan to wear some logo stuff to the slam dunk contest. Jordan appeared, to some, boasting about endorsements they couldn’t get despite being bigger stars in the league. Plus, Jordan’s intent on trying not to monopolize the media looked like aloofness to some.
The story that came out afterward, following Jordan’s two-for-nine shooting and seven points, was All-Stars on both sides led by Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson conspired to embarrass Jordan into a bad game by denying him the ball and allowing friends of theirs like George Gervin to make him look bad on defense. Jordan just said he was nervous for the game, and the supposed principals have long denied any such effort.
But there were numerous media reports of a freezeout with commentary that Jordan was spoiled and selfish.
Whether it actually happened or not, the publicity drove a deep wedge between Jordan and the then close friends of Johnson and Thomas. Jordan would later play a major role in helping deny Thomas a place on the 1992 Dream Team, and for much of the 80s, Johnson’s summer game was the players’ highlight of the offseason. Jordan would never attend and diminished its importance.
Eventually, Jordan would reconcile with Johnson, who expressed serious mea culpa. When Johnson was diagnosed with the HIV virus, one of the first he called to tell was Jordan. Jordan’s relationship with Thomas grew more bitter as the Bulls and Pistons warred through the late 80s, though the irony was that Thomas’ attempts at détente were during All-Star games when he did all he could to make Jordan look good with passes and plays for him. Thomas, as the coach of the 2003 team when he was with the Pacers as coach, even persuaded Vince Carter to give up his starting spot in the game that year so Jordan could start in his final All-Star game as he then was with the Washington Wizards.
But Jordan would never forget.
It so happened that the Bulls’ first game after the All-Star break was back in Chicago against the Pistons. You can guess what happened. The Bulls won in overtime as Jordan scored a season-high 49 points and had 15 rebounds and four steals. Take that! We’d see that act again.
Thomas had just 19 points and claimed to be bothered by a bruised thigh. Before the game, Jordan was saying to friends, he “won’t forget what happened to me” at the All-Star game. It was no coincidence he scored a then career high. And Jordan did it with style, scoring 12 of the Bulls’ 16 overtime points. Earlier in the game, he got a three-point play when he blew past Thomas and switched hands from right to left at the basket and scored, banking the ball in and was fouled. It would be the less remembered cousin of his famous switch hands layup in the 1991 Finals.
The Bulls would win 11 more games than the previous season and make the playoffs, but it still was losing to Jordan. Frankly, it was amazing they won as many as they did with a starting lineup of Steve Johnson, Woolridge, Caldwell Jones, Ennis Whatley and Jordan. And that was when the East was perhaps at its zenith with Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee all winning at least 58 games and Detroit beginning its run.
In March, Dailey failed a drug test and was suspended. Jerry Reinsdorf’s purchase of the team was finalized. He fired GM Rod Thorn and replaced him with Jerry Krause, whom Reinsdorf had gotten to know through baseball scouting. Krause had scouted for the Bulls and then been personnel director in the mid-1970s, and fired after an attempt to hire DePaul’s Ray Meyer to coach the team went bad and Krause was blamed.
The Bulls still weren’t drawing that well at home, under 10,000 in March and April against losing teams. They did win a playoff game as Jordan had 35 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and four steals in a 109-107 win in Chicago over Milwaukee. Jordan shot 16 free throws in that game and 20 in Game 4 in what already was becoming an issue around the NBA. Some veterans were complaining of a rookie getting so many foul calls, though it was proving impossible to stay in front of Jordan on defense. His shooting range was limited, as he was just nine-of-52 on threes, and his game was to attack the basket with a ferocity and explosion that hasn’t been seen before or since.
“The scouting report said play me for the drive, that I couldn't go left," Jordan said that season. "They didn't know about my first step or the moves or the jump. I knew I was taking everybody by surprise, including myself."
The Bucks closed the Bulls out in four games and Loughery was fired shortly thereafter and replaced by Stan Albeck.
Jordan had been selected an All-Star starter as a rookie and was Rookie of the Year over Olajuwon. He led the Bulls in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals and he set a franchise record for points.
Yes, that was just the beginning.