The time Wennington blocked Jordan's shot...
The stories of Michael Jordan on the practice floor are legendary, so it’s only fitting that Bill Wennington has one of his own.
Practice for the Bulls was just underway at the Berto Center in Deerfield during the team’s second three-peat. Jordan beat his man in a drill, and he immediately drove to the hoop. Enter Wennington, a well-traveled seven-footer, who rotated over from the weak side and sent the shot attempt from the game’s greatest player in the opposite direction.
For the rest of that practice, Wennington said, no matter if they were in a five-man scrimmage or it was two-on-two or three-on-three, every time he shot the ball, he made a point to get past his defender, find Wennington, and shoot over him. And Jordan did plenty of talking along the way.
(Jonathan Daniel/NBAE/Getty Images)
“That’s what he did to challenge himself, and to challenge me as well,” Wennington recalled from his Lake Forest home. “He wanted to make sure I was going to compete and not back down.”
Wennington didn’t and he ultimately earned Jordan’s respect and trust. He wasn’t alone, as Jordan often did the same with the Bulls’ other role players—Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler, Jason Caffey and Dickey Simpkins just to name a few from the group that helped Chicago to its last three world championships.
The concept for Jordan was a simple one.
“He wanted to be the best player on the best team,” said Wennington. “In order to do that, he understood that he had to have 11 other guys working hard all the time.”
Wennington’s first interaction with Jordan came roughly 15 years earlier in 1981, when the two played together in the McDonald’s All American Game (photo at the bottom of this page) in Wichita, Kansas.
“I remember rebounding and turning around with the ball, and Michael would be at halfcourt already,” said Wennington, who would go on to attend St. John's University. “Not that he was just sitting there waiting, but he was that quick even at that age to be there.”
In the game against the country’s best high school players, Jordan connected on a pair of free throws with 11 seconds left to give his East team a one-point victory. He scored a then-record 30 points, but co-MVP honors went to Adrian Branch and Aubrey Sherrod. Apparently, it wasn’t Michael’s time yet.
Wennington is quick to point out his St. John’s squad, which also featured Brooklyn’s Chris Mullin, bested Jordan’s North Carolina team in the 1982-83 season. When he joined the Bulls a decade later, following the team’s third world championship, he was eager to share the court with Jordan. But that would have to wait, as days after his signing, Jordan announced his first retirement and was off to play baseball.
When he returned in 1995, Wennington said, it was well worth the wait. While Jordan would make an occasional appearance at the team’s practice facility in Deerfield, as the end of the 1994-95 campaign approached, his visits became more frequent. The players sensed something was up and it was clear Jordan was taking his workouts a little more seriously than just a casual drop in, but no one was talking about it. They didn’t want to jinx it, said Wennington.
Even though he was still the best player on the floor, “He was a tad bit rusty in a few areas—getting down the floor, his passing, and reading things on the court—because he hadn’t been playing,” said Wennington.
The best-kept secret in the NBA soon was out, with Jordan’s famous “I’m back” declaration on March 18, 1995.
Ten days later, in his fifth game out of retirement, he stepped on to one of the NBA’s biggest stages, Madison Square Garden. Jordan made his intentions clear when he met the New York media—it wasn’t about individual accolades; he was there to win another title.
By the end of the first quarter, Jordan had recorded a quick 20 points. He added another 15 in the second frame and entered the intermission having shot 14-of-19 from the field.
Jordan’s final bucket, a jumper to put the Bulls up two with less than thirty seconds remaining in the game, gave him 55 points on the evening. New York tied it up on two John Starks’ free throws, and it was Chicago with the final possession. Jordan had the ball, and everyone in the arena expected him to take the shot. As he drove through the lane, Patrick Ewing came over to challenge him, and Jordan simply dropped the ball into Ewing’s man, Wennington. Wennington’s dunk and only score for the night was all the Bulls needed to hang on for a 113-111 victory.
“Even though he had 55 points, it still came down to winning for him,” said Wennington. “He was OK not winning it himself; whoever was open was going to get the ball. That’s the type of player he was, and that was what is so unique and special about Michael. All he wanted to do was win. He could score 30 points or more every night, but he understood what it took to win. To win consistently, it had to be a team effort.”
Jordan’s comeback that season fell short of the ultimate goal with the Orlando Magic defeating the Bulls 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Wennington believes that the loss to Orlando “really triggered something within him.” The first day of training camp that fall, Jordan was clearly on a mission, showing up in mid-season form on the first day.
“You could tell he had something in mind that he wanted to accomplish and that he was going to pull everyone else along with him,” Wennington said. “He was ready to prove to the world that even though he wasn’t quite ready the year before, he was back then.”
Jordan and the Bulls were back on top soon enough with their fourth championship following a 4-2 NBA Finals win over the Seattle Sonics in 1996. Chicago won 72 games that season, an NBA record, and suffered only 10 losses. They were defeated only once in the postseason prior to the Finals.
“That year in itself was unbelievable,” recalled Wennington. “Jason Caffey was a rookie, and just before All-Star break, we were cleaning up after practice when he came over. ‘Billy, man, this is unbelievable and it’s more than I ever dreamed of. Is it always like this?’ I had been in the league about eight years by then and just laughed. I said, ‘Jason, it’s never like this. Enjoy every minute of it because it just doesn’t happen.’ We’d walk on the floor and we could see other teams just watching us warm up. In over half the games, we knew that we were going to win because we could see that they were afraid.”
Wennington had the chance to see Jordan with somewhat regularity a few years ago when Jordan’s sons, Jeff and Marcus, attended Loyola Academy at the same time as Wennington’s son, Robbie.
“We’d laugh, and talk about how much easier life was with the kids playing instead of us,” he said. “Michael was a guy who respected guys he played with, as long as they worked. He expected you to do your job and he’d get frustrated if you took plays off or had mental lapses. Once he does respect you, you’re his friend for life. He always makes time for old teammates when he sees them.”
While the effects Jordan had on Wennington’s career were profound, perhaps none were bigger than a marketing opportunity that came Wennington’s way in the late 1990s.
Wennington was filming a commercial for McDonald’s double cheeseburgers, talking with everyone involved and having a lot of fun with it. Word about his personality made its way to upper management, and before long, the Beef Wennington was born.
That begs the question: Without Michael, would there have even been a Beef Wennington, that delicious single patty topped with cheese, onions, barbecue sauce and a slice of Canadian bacon?
“Yes,” Wennington said with a smile, “But it wouldn’t have been marketed by McDonald’s… it would have been on the grill at Wennington’s humble abode.”