Part XIII: Jordan's announcement... "I'm back"
Just a few weeks after Michael Jordan's baseball career ended in the spring of 1995, his basketball life was revived as the returned to the NBA on March 19.
Michael Jordan was back in time to help the Bulls advance in the 1995 postseason, but they would not get past Shaq and the Orlando Magic, falling 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
(Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)
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Pp>Reports of the Bulls' demise without Michael Jordan for the 1993-94 season were greatly exaggerated.
The Bulls had a terrific season, one verging on being one of the most remarkable ever. They lost arguably the game's best player ever, and were maybe a foul call away from going to the NBA Finals. That was the famous Hue Hollins foul call on Scottie Pippen after Hubert Davis had shot the ball. Davis got two free throws, which proved the winning margin in enabling the Knicks to win Game 5 of the 1994 conference semifinals and have a seventh game back home they would win. The Knicks then went on to lose in seven games in the Finals to a Houston team that many regard as one of the weakest champions ever.
It started badly, though, in 1993-94 for the Bulls with Jordan at courtside for the home opener and the Bulls being humiliated by the Miami Heat 95-71. The consensus was the Bulls were headed back to the 35-win seasons of old.
Pippen wasn't exactly embracing the season, terminally upset with his contract, and he delayed ankle surgery until September, a tactic he would employ again a few years later. He was slowed and in and out of the lineup as the season started 4-7. His buddy, Horace Grant, also was in a contract dispute with the team with his free agency coming up and now intent on leaving. Toni Kukoc had finally come to the team and the turnover began with the additions of Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington and Luc Longley.
But after that shaky start, the Bulls came together led by Pippen, Grant and B.J. Armstrong, who all made the All-Star team. Pippen did well, at least initially, with the spotlight and the pressure of being the star without Jordan, and eventually was selected 1994 All-Star game MVP while the Bulls were winning 10 straight.
They hit the All-Star break an amazing 34-13, though failed in an attempt to get Jeff Hornacek from the 76ers. The Bulls did, after all, still need a shooting guard. Pippen was lobbying for Ron Harper, a close friend whom the Bulls would sign after the season. There also was talk about going for Derek Harper, whom the Knicks signed after Doc Rivers was injured. The Bulls felt Hornacek could make the difference in getting to the Finals, with Pete Myers then playing Jordan's position.
Management was convinced Jordan wasn't returning. It's why they signed shooting guard Harper to the huge free agent contract after the season. Though it also was a concession to Pippen, as Phil Jackson pushed hard in saying Harper's presence would ease the pressure on Pippen. It was ironic that after Jordan was rejected so many times with personnel recommendations, the Bulls immediately accommodated Pippen. At least, initially, it was a disaster.
Just before the 1994 All-Star break, with the team in Phoenix, where Jerry Reinsdorf spends winters, Reinsdorf met with Jackson to ask if Jackson would agree to a contract extension to help rebuild the team without Jordan. But Jackson didn't want any part of a rebuilding and wasn't interested, much like it was after Jordan was leaving again in 1998. Reinsdorf, a big fan of Jackson's, wanted Jackson to rebuild the team and not Tim Floyd. But Jackson wasn't interested and Jerry Krause would get his guy in 1998.
Jordan was just seven-of-28 for 19 points as the Bulls lost in overtime in Indianapolis his first game back. But the fun was beginning.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)
The Bulls put together still another 10-game winning streak later that season, finishing 55-27 without Jordan, sweeping the Cavs in the first round (yes, again), and then feeling they had the season stolen from them in New York.
Though perhaps much more famous was Pippen's refusal to throw the ball inbounds in Game 3 with the Bulls trailing 2-0. He wanted that last shot with 1.8 seconds left, and Jackson benched Pippen and had Myers make the pass, a perfect one for Kukoc, who hit the game-winner at the buzzer.
Jordan, meanwhile, was relaxed and enjoying baseball, the bus rides, the camaraderie with the young kids, the endless practices. He took batting practice every morning just after sunrise and worked as hard as anyone. He followed the Bulls as closely as he could and shook his head about some of the antics, especially Pippen's. He said maybe now some of them understood the pressure of having to be there and do it every game and carry the load. The Bulls would try to trade Pippen after the 1993-94 season to the Seattle SuperSonics for Shawn Kemp. But Seattle backed out at the last minute when word got out and angry fans, influenced by the famous 1.8-second walkout, flooded the team with calls because they didn't want Pippen with all his baggage and attitude issues.
The Southern League had its best season ever with almost every team setting attendance records because of Jordan's presence. Birmingham drew the second most fans of any team in Double A minor league history. Only Memphis, which played in a Triple A park, drew more several times.
Jordan had headed back to Arizona for fall league as the Bulls began the 1994-95 season, which didn't go as well. Grant had left for the Orlando Magic and Harper was a bust and benched.
The Bulls were staggering along around .500 into February with Jordan planning to head for spring training. The White Sox were thinking of Jordan going to Triple A Nashville, while Jordan was thinking major leagues.
But the strike that had cancelled the end of the 1994 baseball season still wasn't settled and the owners were talking about using replacement players. Jordan stopped by to see Jackson before heading for spring training and Jackson raised the question of playing. If there was a strike, Jordan at his age could not afford to stay out, Jackson warned. Would he return to basketball? Maybe 25 games and the playoffs? Jordan said that would be too many. He told Jackson 20 sounded better, but he was going to spring training.
Not for long.
The major league players weren't back and the players' union made up a rule—called the Jordan Rule—that if a minor leaguer played in a game in which admission was charged he'd be considered a strike breaker. The owners were pushing the White Sox to get Jordan to play exhibition games to retain some fan interest without the major leaguers.
"I was being drafted into the middle," Jordan said. "So I thought the best way in a predicament like that was to walk away."
On March 3, 1995, Michael Jordan left baseball...