Part V: Healthy Jordan puts on a show -- all season long
During the 1986-87 campaign, Jordan scored 3,041 points, the most ever by a guard, and became the first player ever with more than 100 blocks and steals. (NBAE/Getty Images)
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As everyone sat back and the Boston Celtics won that inevitable championship in 1986, Jordan's first round performance became in some minds something of an aberration. Yeah, he was fresh and they had tired legs. Yeah, the Bulls were swept, so what was the big deal? Though you didn't hear anyone on the Celtics saying they wanted to guard him again.
Jordan took it seriously, very seriously, in 1986-87, from the first day. His sophomore season had been a lost year in his view, and Jordan was intent on making up the time. He averaged a point a minute with heavy play in the preseason, and then came to the supposed big stage, Madison Square Garden, for the season opener Nov. 1.
Jordan's winning dunk in 1987 was a tribute to Julius Erving, who had won the inaugural ABA slam dunk contest with a running dunk from around the free throw line. MJ jazzed it up a bit with a double pump.
(Jerry Wachter/NBAE/Getty Images)
There's always much commotion made of basketball in Madison Square Garden, but that was a half century before when it was the premier arena with the biggest games. The National Invitational Tournament in New York in March was bigger than the NCAA tournament in March played in smaller venues around the country. But the Knicks, other than a brief revival in the early 1970s with two championships, had consistently been a miserable, losing franchise, and the Garden stunk. Literally. There always seemed to be a smell of a past circus hanging there, an unappreciative, angry fan base and one of the oldest, least appealing arenas in the NBA. Still, it was New York, and the massive media there insisted it was special. They always did have one good idea going there by darkening the stands so the lighted court stands out. It emphasized the spotlight aspect, which always appealed to Jordan's competitiveness.
So Jordan opened the season with a statement for the NBA: I'm here to stay!
Jordan scored 50 points, along with three blocks and four steals, making 20-of-22 free throws against the baffled Knicks, as the Bulls with new coach Doug Collins opened with a 108-103 win. Late in the game, the Knicks had come from behind to take a 90-85 lead. Jordan walked by Collins after the timeout huddle and said, "Don't worry coach. I'm not going to let you lose your first game." Jordan scored 21 points in the fourth quarter and clinched the game with a driving layup with 22 seconds left against a triple team.
They went to Cleveland on the way home and Jordan scored 41 points and added eight rebounds and four blocks.
There hadn't been anything like this since Wilt.
Plus, Jordan was doing it in spectacular, theatric fashion with double pump, hanging, 360-degree layups and flying slam dunks. Bulls assistant Tex Winter, who had helped develop the famous triangle offense and had been a student of the game for 40 years, admitted Jordan's play was making him reevaluate his concepts about the game because he'd never seen anything like this. And Tex had coached against Wilt while coaching Kansas State and beat Wilt's Kansas team in 1958 for the conference title.
Winter, who was the first hire of General Manager Jerry Krause and became a muse for coach Phil Jackson, was sort of the grumpy old man of the group and was the one who would frequently challenge Jordan to pass more and play a more equal opportunity game, which was the theory behind his triple post offense.
Jordan, of course, would say he'd be glad to and did at North Carolina, but he'd have to get better teammates. Winter would say if he'd pass they'd get better. It was a constant debate.
"There's no 'I' in the word team," Winter would say to Jordan.
"There is in the word win," Jordan would respond.
He delighted in the last shot and the last word.
In Game 6 with Atlanta Jordan's 360-degree layup with 15 seconds left won it.
The defending champion Celtics came into Chicago Nov. 14 in Game No. 8 and Jordan had 48, just to show it was no fluke. Boston, of course, won.
Look, this was the opening day lineup that season along with Jordan: Earl Cureton, Charles Oakley, Granville Waiters and Steve Colter.
Carrying a team is one thing. But reviving it from the grave daily was what Jordan had to do.
The following home game was the Knicks and Jordan scored 40 points, including the team's last 18 and the game winner at the buzzer.
This was getting ridiculous.
I remember Hubie Brown after that game exclaiming, "Eighteen points at crunch time with two guys on him!"
The Bulls, coming off that 30-win season with Jordan missing 64 games and most of many others, were 7-3 getting ready to head to the Western Conference for the infamous fall—or is it fail?—circus trip.
The Bulls opened in Denver with a loss as Jordan scored 37 points and had nine rebounds, but in a poor shooting performance as he was 13-of-31.
Next stop: L.A. and the Magic show. But it was Jordan who had the tricks.
That game, Nov. 28, began a nine game run of games of at least 40 points with 41 points and 10 rebounds against the Lakers. Jordan had 45 against the Jazz, 43 against the Suns and 43 against the Spurs in three games in four nights. The Bulls were just 1-6 on the trip, but Jordan was keeping them competitive, an overtime win in Seattle and two point losses in Phoenix and Denver.
Jordan's run of 40-plus games ended back home Dec. 13 on the second of a home and home with the Bucks. Jordan had one of the poorest games of his career, 11 points on three of 17 shooting as the Bucks won easily and the Bulls fell to 10-11. John Paxson led the team with 16 points, the first game of the season Jordan was not the team's leading scorer. Jordan would be the team's leading scorer in 61 of the first 62 games.
And this wasn't the 20-under .500 Bulls of previous years. Hardly contenders, the Bulls were solidly in the race for one of the last three playoff spots.
There would be no slumps that season.
After the Bucks blowout loss, the Bulls beat the Nets and Pacers and Jordan scored 41 in each game.
The NBA understood what was going on from the previous playoffs and scheduled the Bulls for the Christmas Day game in New York. This time Jordan had just 30 points and the Bulls lost by one. Then it was back home as Jordan also began to practice what would become a famous playing-with-fever demonstration.
Jordan had a touch of the flu and a temperature above 100. He said it helped him concentrate. Years later, in the 1997 Finals, Jordan would lead the Bulls to victory in Game 5 and a 3-2 lead in the series with 38 points playing with a virus. With the Bulls trailing 85-84 with 47 seconds left, Jordan made a game-tying free throw and then grabbed the rebound after missing the second foul shot. With 25 seconds remaining, he made the winning shot, a three-pointer, to give the Bulls the lead for good in their stunning 90-88 victory.
Jordan finished with 38 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter, in 44 minutes. He also had seven rebounds, five assists and three steals.
To pay tribute to that Finals performance, Nike this November is releasing Air Jordan 12 "Flu Game," a retro black and red shoe to commemorate another highlight of Jordan's career. Yes, it's the career that keeps on giving and giving-memories and marketing opportunities.
The Bulls headed into Detroit just after New Years, and it remained personal for Jordan. The Pistons weren't the famed Bad Boys yet, though they had some very bad guys. Namely Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn. They still were the offensive minded team a few years removed from the highest scoring game in league history with the Denver Nuggets. Jordan scored 47 in a 124-119 win in the Stadium, where the Bulls were showing the first signs of making their run under Jordan as they were headed to a 29-12 home record. Dominating at home is the first sign of development of a young team headed toward greatness.
General Manager Krause had made some early missteps, especially in his relationship with Jordan. There was the injury, though management probably was reasonable in not to wanting to take the risk on Jordan's career. Though you could question how they went about it. But there also were the personnel moves that struck Jordan as malicious, like taking on All Star game alleged conspirator Gervin and dumping good guy Higgins.
But Krause did have a philosophy of defense first and a ball movement offense, which would be crucial in the long run in the championship years, and a mantra at the beginning of addition by subtraction.
Krause had begun to discard the guys who weren't fitting with his philosophy or with Jordan. Gone for 1986-87 were Woolridge, Dailey, Gervin, Sidney Green and Kyle Macy. Soon to follow were Gene Banks, Steve Colter and Earl Cureton.
And the scoring binge continued...