A legacy of cultural game-changing.
He's equally famous for boosting the league’s profile and popularity to its greatest heights, building on the work of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving and other stars who came before him. Established athletes as their own “brands” while becoming an endorsement icon for everything from sneakers to Chevrolets to beverages to underwear, allegedly rivaling Muhammad Ali in global recognition.
Michael won six NBA championship rings — going 6-0 in the Finals in a pair of “'three-peats” with the Chicago Bulls from 1991-93 and again from 1996-98. Jordan’s teams never needed seven games to win any of those Finals, and his Bulls got pushed to Game 7 only three times (going 2-1) in 24 best-of-seven series. (In 13 best-of-five series, Jordan’s team was 2-0 in decisive Game 5.)
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Feb. 17, 1963, Jordan was raised in North Carolina. He initially was cut from his Laney High School team, but never quit and kept preserving. He would go on to win the 1982 NCAA men’s championship for his UNC Tar Heels as a freshman by hitting a now famous baseline jumper.
Drafted No. 3 in the 1984 draft, falling into the Bulls’ laps after Houston took center Hakeem Olajuwon and Portland grabbed center Sam Bowie. Averaged 28.2 ppg, appeared in all 82 games – something he would do nine times in 15 seasons – and beat out Olajuwon as 1985 Rookie of the Year.
A broken foot sidelined him after three games in 1985-86. But Jordan pushed Bulls management to let him return in March. In Game 2 of Chicago’s first-round series against Boston, Jordan shot 22 of 41 and scored 63 points in a double-overtime loss. “It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan,” Larry Bird said in the postgame locker room.
Jordan’s Bulls had a 1-4 record in playoff series and 5-15 mark in playoff games when they faced rival Cleveland in the first round in 1989. Only three seconds remained in Game 5 of the best-of-five series, Chicago trailing 100-99, when Jordan caught an inbounds pass and rose up over a chasing Craig Ehlo to hit “The Shot” that gave the Bulls some big-time postseason mojo.
Chicago’s last step to championship contention came when it beat the Detroit Pistons, who had knocked out the Bulls each spring in 1988, 1989 and 1990. In the Eastern Conference Finals of 1991, Jordan & Co. swept out the defending champs — the outcome made memorable by several Pistons stars refusing to shake the Bulls’ hands.
Jordan won his first NBA title at the end of his seventh season, then won two more in a row to join only the Boston Celtics with three consecutive championships. (The Los Angeles Lakers later joined this elite club after achieving their 'three-peat' in 2002). Each produced iconic moments for the Bulls’ star. There was his switched-hands layup against the Lakers in ’91, his shrug after sinking six 3-pointers in a half against Portland in ’92, and his sheer scoring prowess vs. Phoenix in ’93. Jordan total 246 points, one of only three scorers to average 40 points or more in a six-game championship series (or the first six games of a series). The other two? Rick Barry, 245 in 1967 and Elgin Baylor, 243 in 1962.
On Oct. 6, 1993, Jordan retired for the first time (out of a total of three). Reasons cited at the time included stress from carrying the Bulls’, the NBA’s championship, marketing expectations and the death of his father, who was murdered in July on the side of the road in North Carolina.
After a hiatus of more than 17 months, during which Jordan chased a personal dream of playing professional baseball (Class AA Birmingham Barons), he returned to the NBA in March 1995. He announced his return in a simple fax statement, “I’m back.” Then in his fifth game, Jordan scored 55 points against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Jordan led the Bulls to another set of championships in 1996, 1997 and 1998, beating Seattle and Utah (twice) in the Finals. Only Jordan and Scottie Pippen played on both 'three-peat' teams, with completely different casts around them.
The 1995-96 team, with rebounder/defender Dennis Rodman, set a new NBA record for best W-L mark at 72-10. Then the Bulls went 15-3 in the postseason, two of the defeats coming after taking a 3-0 lead on Seattle in the Finals. When the Bulls did close it out, they won Game 6 by 12 points.
Chicago’s fifth and sixth Finals had their signature Jordan moments. There was the “flu game” in 1997 when, obviously sick, he scored 38 points in Game 5 to give the Bulls control of the series. And one year later, with coach Phil Jackson dubbing it “the last dance” season due to the possibility the dynasty might be winding down, Jordan’s steal from Karl Malone and clinching bucket against Bryon Russell got etched into his legacy.
Jordan retired again before the post-lockout 1999 season, but he still wasn’t quite done. On Sept. 25, 2001, Jordan came down to the Washington front office to sign a playing contract with the Wizards. In two seasons, the legendary shooting guard averaged 21.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.5 steals. In 2002-03, as he turned 40, Jordan played all 82 games and averaged 37.0 minutes.