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By Sam Smith | 3.18.2015 | 8:23 a.m. CT
It was one of those times when you remember where you were when you heard.
Michael Jordan was returning to the NBA and the Chicago Bulls. It was 20 years ago, March 18, a Saturday then when Jordan through his agent, David Falk, issued the most famous two-word press release in sports history.
“I’m back!” it read.
The Bulls Wednesday in an appropriate symmetry play the Indiana Pacers, against whom a day later Jordan began his comeback that would lead to three more consecutive NBA championships for the Bulls and would assure Jordan’s informal place as the greatest player in NBA history.
So the chase was on to get to Indianapolis, where Jordan would play his first NBA game since the Bulls third straight championship in 1993, the shocking murder of his father and then the stunning news in October at Comiskey Park as the White Sox prepared to open the playoffs that Jordan was retiring—he said for good—from the NBA.
And then here he was, 21 months after his last NBA game, following some 10 days of mounting anticipation that even included President Bill Clinton during a press conference saying without encouragement, “The economy has produced 6.1 million jobs since I became president and if Michael Jordan comes back to the Bulls, it will be 6,100,001 jobs."
Yes, this was being watched.
It was the biggest sports story of the year. And nothing happened.
It was the second biggest sports story in the last 21 months.
Given it was Michael, and he always surprised, even the Bulls weren’t sure.
It would not be until just before Jordan’s return in Indianapolis he finally told the Bulls he was ready even after he’d been practicing with the team for a week or so. No one was ready for this.
The Bulls were certain in 1993 that Jordan’s career was over. Jordan said so. Told them and told them, and told reporters when his retirement ceremony came up with the jersey going up and the statue being unveiled and the Bulls buying a new shooting guard, the most expensive on the market, Ron Harper, for the most the money franchise ever spent for a free agent. The Bulls had a wonderful and surprising 1993-94 season without Jordan, winning 55 games, a season Phil Jackson said was as satisfying as any. The system did work. There would be the infamous Hue Hollins foul call against Scottie Pippen than enabled the Knicks to survive and eventually beat the Bulls in the seventh game in the conference semifinals.
But the Bulls were certain Jordan wasn’t coming back. He’d said. And they never would have done what they did if they even had an inkling. They’d even tried to trade Pippen after the 1993-94 season. Jordan had gone to fulfill a childhood dream of his father’s as much as his own to play baseball with the Chicago White Sox AA affiliate, to compete but to get away from the pressure and the noise, the demands and having to be Michael Jordan.
He wasn’t great, not Jordanesque, as it were. But better than the critics suggested. And with a stint in fall league when Jordan batted a respectable .252 playing against the likes of kids like Derek Jeter, the White Sox were beginning to wonder. One more baseball season and they believed he could play in the major leagues, at least as a September call up. Jordan really wanted that, famously to silence his doubters and critics, and to achieve the goal. He knew he could and he would despite what they all said.
But baseball was in disarray like never before.
The 1994 World Series had been cancelled and spring training was starting with replacement players. Jordan couldn’t wait to get back to baseball after that fall session. But there was nowhere to go. Each side now wanted to use him for propaganda, and he hated that more than anything. He’d always said he would never be, as he put it, “a show pony.” It’s why even when he purchased the Charlotte franchise he wouldn’t do appearances. He was selling excellence; not Michael Jordan.
Bulls managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf advised Jordan he could not be a replacement player. He could stay with the minor leaguers, but then he’d have to stay out of the major league spring training facilities and be at the back field minor league. He didn’t want to do that.
So he went home to think.
And he began thinking about basketball again.
He’d stayed involved, occasionally coming to a Bulls practice to work out, regularly checking in with Phil Jackson and B.J. Armstrong, the latter one of the few Bulls now left from the first three titles.
Falk told Reinsdorf that Jordan was thinking about a return; Reinsdorf told Jackson. Jackson asked Jordan.
Jordan said he was, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to play in the regular season. It had become a mess as the pressure to carry the team had overwhelmed Pippen with Horace Grant gone to Orlando as a free agent. Pippen had lobbied the Bulls for Harper after the trade for Shawn Kemp fell through, and the Bulls acquiesced as a peace offering to Pippen. But Harper could not grasp the Bulls system and ended up deep on the bench behind Pete Myers. The Bulls had been around .500 all season and were 29-30 when Jordan began showing up at practice in March after the Bulls returned from a long road trip.
Jordan asked Jackson about playing just in the playoffs. Jordan still was considering baseball. Jackson said no, that Jordan had to play some games to prepare for the playoffs because there were so many new players. Jordan suggested 15 games. Jackson countered 20.
It would eventually be 17.
Bulls practices at the Berto Center became the center of the sports world.
What NCAA tournament? Bracketology was the speculation about which game Jordan would choose. There was a sequence of home games, then in Washington March 14, back home March 15 and March 17 for Atlanta and Milwaukee. Now the Bulls were pretty sure Jordan was playing, but they didn’t know when. Las Vegas was putting out odds and taking bets. The stock market was reacting upward to possible good news. Nike’s valuation increased by $200 in the first days after the Jordan return rumors started. McDonald’s value gained $1 billion. International media were storming Chicago with two and three-page reports in the top publications of the era.
No one had carried a sport and a league like Jordan. In his last appearance, in the 1993 Finals, the NBA’s premier event drew larger TV ratings than the baseball’s World Series, America’s pastime, for the first time. The next NBA Finals saw ratings drop 30 percent to historic lows.
Word circulated that Falk tried to make a deal with NBC or sponsors to get Jordan more money since ratings obviously would soar. The Bulls were still paying Jordan his then annual $4 million salary even in baseball. They were not permitted to change it and he finished up that season earning his $4 million baseball salary. He’d play one more season to finish up his eight-year deal as Jordan always said he would honor anything he signed. He then played two seasons for a combined $63 million, still the most ever paid to an NBA player.
Then came the greatest press release in history.
It was Saturday and it would be a noon game Sunday, already scheduled on national NBC-TV. It wasn’t until that Saturday morning Jordan notified Jackson he would play Sunday.
The Bulls announced Jordan was added to the roster.
Jordan would wear his baseball number, No. 45, which his brother had worn. He obviously would return to No. 23 during the playoff series with Orlando after he was mocked in a loss that he didn’t look like ‘ol No. 23.
Media pandemonium broke out. Eventually, Pacers media staff would need security guards to shield them from the overzealous reporters and photographers. The Pacers without notice and in old Market Square Arena promised credentials for pretty much everyone. They issued almost 400, more than for any playoff game they’d ever had. But they couldn’t guarantee court space. Staff was fielding threats.
Jordan wouldn’t travel with the team, flying in that day on the jet of one of his sponsors with buddy and NBC broadcaster Ahmad Rashad. Nike and Wheaties, Jordan sponsors, filled the arena with “I’m back” t-shirts for fans. And their logos, of course. Michael was money for everyone.
The Pacers would take a big lead, ahead by 18 points in the first half before Jordan made his first basket on a jumper against Reggie Miller. The Bulls would send the game into overtime. But the Pacers would endure and win. Jordan shot just seven of 28 for 19 points with six rebounds, six assists and three steals, his shooting an issue much of that return portion until a summer of workouts on the movie set of Space Jam.
There were all sorts of rumors and speculation at the time, that he was demanding new deals for Pippen and Armstrong, that he had a clause he didn’t have to practice. Nothing of the sort, said Jordan. He was back for the love of the game.
But this could tarnish his legacy, right? You can’t expect to win every time, Jordan said after that loss to the Pacers. But he was comfortable he was ready for the challenge.
He was back. And very little had changed. He still was the greatest. No matter how many or how few words were needed.