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Part XV: Bulls hold off Jazz for fifth title

The 1997 NBA Finals would begin a two-year contest for the Bulls and Utah Jazz and it would be the poetic bookends for Michael Jordan. That season's MVP, Karl Malone, would also be shown up.
Michael Jordan Hall of Fame
Michael Jordan
Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals was a remarkable performance by Jordan, and that would have been if he were not ill. Jordan spent time during the game wobbling on the bench in timeouts and with an ice pack on his head. Still, he played 44 minutes. Jordan scored 38 points and had seven rebounds, the same number as Rodman, and five assists, as many as the Jazz’ John Stockton. (Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

The 1996-97 season was the one during which Michael Jordan was preparing to play for the New York Knicks.

Wait, what?

Jordan’s eight-year contract with the Bulls finally had expired—and long been outdated—at the end of the 1995-96 season. Jordan was coming off perhaps the best overall season in the history of the game with MVPs in everything. Yes, he was in pretty good bargaining position. Especially because Jordan had never demanded another renegotiation and everyone agreed he was way underpaid. League rules prevented any equity interest or bonus under salary cap provisions, so Jordan waited patiently and didn’t want an extension. He wasn’t always a good gambler, but this time he had wagered correctly. His value never had been higher.

There had been some talk when he was out of basketball that he’d return only for a big payday which, of course, was nonsense. He returned for the game. But now it was time to be paid.

There was a league moratorium on signings following the 1995-96 season and nothing was done, though the parties had talked. It had dragged on for a while, and I had been hearing wild rumors Jordan would jump to the Knicks as a free agent. The Knicks didn’t have the salary cap room to pay the mega millions. But they were part owned then by Sheraton, and there were a whole bunch of winks and such. It was against league salary cap rules for anyone to get equity outside their contract. But the Knicks, as the story went at the time, were assured the league office would not stand in the way of improving the New York franchise, especially with the addition of Jordan.

That—not Jordan being thrown out of the league for gambling in 1993—really was the great conspiracy story. How big would Michael Jordan be playing in New York City at the home of the league office to fully revive the league’s pet franchise? After all, Chicago had gotten its championships. And what everyone missed in suggesting Jordan was banned for gambling was that the league’s principal priority long has been making as much money as possible. After all, like the players always say when traded or things go badly for them in negotiations, it’s a business. It might have been great business to have Michael Jordan in New York City.

I know everyone around the league denies that now. But that was the story then and I was told Jordan and David Falk believed it. Plus, they didn’t believe the Bulls could get away with suing the league and the Knicks. I wrote a story for the Chicago Tribune, and it was denied all around, though Jordan would later admit in interviews he was prepared to go to New York.

Michael Jordan The Jazz were facing the misfortune of being great in the wrong decade, the Michael Jordan decade.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

Jordan was playing in a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe while Jerry Reinsdorf and Falk were talking about a two-year, $45 million deal. Falk asked for two years at $55 million. Jordan, on a three-party call while on the course, agreed it was close enough and they should make the deal as he had a shot to hit. Reinsdorf wasn’t sure about two years. So Falk suggested one year at $30 million and a deal was made. It still was a great deal for the Bulls, though they ended up paying Jordan about $33 million the following season, his last in Chicago, about $8 million more than Falk originally had sought.

There was one issue that came out of it that became a point of dispute. Jordan claimed Reinsdorf said he’d live to regret the offer. It apparently was said more in jest given the phenomenal amount of money in the spirit of negotiations that took place around a nine-iron approach shot. Jordan and Reinsdorf smoothed it over the following year in the negotiations for the 1997-98 contract, though late that season a New Yorker article was published stating Jordan was upset about the comments. It turned out the interview was done before Reinsdorf and Jordan met and the story published months later. It wasn’t significant in the big picture, though it was interesting that the story was written by Henry Louis Gates Jr. He’s the Harvard professor and friend of President Barack Obama who recently engaged with the Cambridge police officer and had the so-called beer summit at the White House. Gates had been referred to as “the Michael Jordan of American intellectual endeavors.”

Yes, by this time Jordan was becoming virtually synonymous with greatness and individual brilliance.

Pat Riley’s Miami Heat was the only Eastern Conference team for the 1996-97 season that even was a pretender to disrupt the Bulls. The Bulls had become dominant beyond what any team in the history of the league had been. There could be a debate on which team was the best ever and which team had the best talent. But there could no longer be a debate about the most dominant team in NBA history. The biggest margin of victory ever was the 1971-72 Lakers at 12.3 per game. The Bulls margin in 1995-96 was 12.2 per game and the Bulls followed that with 10.8 per game in 1996-97.

The Bulls would go on to win 69 games after winning 72, thus having the best season winning percentage and tied with the Lakers for second best. And the Bulls would lose their last two games of the season to fail to win at least 70 in consecutive seasons.

The Bulls in 1995-96 had the best season’s record ever. Their two-season mark through 1996-97 would be the best ever. Their three-season mark through 1997-98 would be the best three-season record ever. These were hardly flukes.

So Miami believed it would challenge? The Heat would win 61 games. The Bulls breezed through the first three games of the season by an average winning margin by 20 per game and then went to Miami.

Michael was always about messages. Jordan scored 50 points against the Heat and off the Bulls went to a team record 12-0 start.

The Bulls headed out on their circus trip and went 6-1, but lost in Utah. Yes, a series would be developing, though Jordan also made it clear he’d be a problem. He scored 44 points in the loss to the Jazz and then 40 in a win over the Clippers. Jordan added 40 as the trip closed in Milwaukee and the Bulls returned home to beat the Clippers for a 17-1 start, a game better than the previous season’s start. This was becoming truly amazing, and it seemed Jordan was just getting better with age. Not more athletic. But more unguardable.

Just out of habit, Jordan dropped 45 points on the Cavs right after Christmas, and then 51 points in a win over the Knicks before All-Star break. Yes, look what you guys missed out on.

It was a good dress rehearsal for the All-Star weekend in Cleveland, perhaps the most significant All-Star weekend ever. That’s because the NBA celebrated its 50th anniversary by naming the 50 greatest players of all-time and having just about all of them there. Scottie Pippen joined Jordan on the list of the 50 greatest, so that was quite a special audience for the All-Star game.

So it was left to the most special player among them to do something special. Jordan, of course, didn’t disappoint by leading the East to the win with the only triple-double in All-Star game history...